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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A LIFE IN SERVICE


I would say the 1870's were a very hard time for the women of Fort Abraham Lincoln. First there was the Saturday of June 25, 1876, when over two hundred and twenty of their husbands were left dead and mutilated on the windswept hills overlooking the Little Big Horn River. They called that Custer's Last Stand, but it killed several of the Custers. But the horror of that day would have been simple to deal with compared with the later problem. That happened in 1878 when the fort's women gathered to bury one their fellows, a wife and resident of "Suds' Row".  And on that day those poor women saw something which they had never expected to see where they saw it. And they must have been very confused. Very confused. When someone dies you wear black. But what do you wear when you find testicles on a dead mare?

Picture America as she was approaching her centennial year. She was a nation of about 45 million people. And even though they had no internet, no ipods, no eletricity, no running water, no antibotics and no gummy bears, they were not that much different from the 300 million who reside in America today. On May 5th, 1875 pitchers for the Washington baseball team surrendered twenty runs to their opponent. This was the fifth time they had achieved that mirserable distinction, in just the last five games. They could have been the direct ancestors of today's Washington Senators. But, perhaps in response to those and similar debacles, that same year Boston first baseman Charles Waite introduced the first baseball glove. The vast majority of machismo players, who caught bare handed, mocked Waite as a member of the 'kid-glove aristocracy', much as owners of the N.F.L. have resisted the idea that repeated blows to the head might be reducing the long term intellect of professional football players.

In 1875 the moralizing "Our Boys" opened on Broadway.  It followed the adventures of an Englisman and his butler and their pair of disapointing sons. A century and a quarter later the sitcom "Two and a Half Men" mined this same comedic vein, but better. And like a latter day "Lost", Jules Vernes' 1875 novel, "The Survivors of the Chancellor" told an episodic science fiction adventure story of a British passanger ship, lost at sea. The most popular song of the day consisted of the repeated lyrics, "Carve dat possum, carve dat possum, children. Carve dat possum, carve him to de heart." Ala "Who Let the Dogs Out", this 19th century chart topper was offically entitled,  "Carve dat Possum". 

Oh, the future was coming. Just the year before, in far off Germany, Dr. Ernst von Brucke had suggested that all living organisms obeyed the laws of thermodymamics. He was wrong, course, since very few humans, other than politicians, behave like big clouds of hot gas. But Doctor von Brucke did invent the field of psychodynamics, which, while a medical dead end in itself, was to have a great impact on his student, Sigmund Freud.

But Freud's discovery of the subconcious mind and repressed psychosomatic phobias and dreams about locks and keys and mik maids and bows and arrows was still a decade in the future in 1875 - which was shame because a little Freud sure would have helped those poor ladies at Fort Abraham Lincoln in 1878. Or maybe not.  

The fort was on the west bank of the Missouri River, across from Bismark, North Dakota, where the Northern Pacific Railroad tracks and the telegraph lines ended because the "Panic of 1874" had bankrupted the company. The army post was at the very edge of the famous "Frontier West", and home to about 650 men and some 300 women attached to the U.S. Seventh Cavalry regiment. Robert Marlin tried to describe what kind of desperate people who would sign up for a year's service in such a place. “Immigrants, especially those from Ireland and German, filled the ranks. Others came from England, France and Italy. While most of the American recruits did not read or write, the immigrants who did not speak English compounded this problem…."

A trooper started off at the pay of $13 per month. Should he be such a glutton for punishment as to re-enlist, this was raised to $15. The trooper was now a “50-cent-a-day professional” soldier.  And it was a very long day, starting "...at 5:30 a.m.,” wrote Marlin, “with the dreaded call of Reveille, and ended at 10:00 p.m. with the bugle sounding Taps.”

The average recruit in the Seventh was in his mid-twenties, and stood about five feet eight inches tall. He suffered from bad teeth, a bad back, and about 10% had suffered from some form of healed head trauma, making him eligable to play in the NFL. Twenty-two percent of the privates had been in the service for less than a year.  And few of them would re-enlist. Lord knows, the diet did not help.

Each soldier received each day 12 ounces of pork or bacon, 22 ounces of flour or bread and less than an once of ground coffee. Every ten men were to receive per month; 15 lbs of beans or peas, 10 lbs of rice or hominy, 30 lbs of potatoes, 1 quart of molasses, 15 lbs of sugar, 3 lbs 12 ounces of salt, 4 ounces of pepper and 1 gallon of Vinegar. This was not a diet, it was a ration, and had as much flavor variation as "Spam, spam, spam and spam".

As the army needed soldiers, it also needed laundresses. They were as much in service of their country as the soldiers they served. And the reasons a young man might join the cavalry were similar to the reasons a young woman might become a laundress; a roof over her head, food in her belly and a new start in life.  And even tho it needed them, the army was not likely to encourage the women to stay a single day longer than necesessary.

Linda Grant De Pauw lays out the vulnerbility of such women in “Battle Cries and Lullibies; “…a laundress wrote to Major L.H. Marshall at Fort Boise, Idaho describing how she had been arrested, charged as a murderess, and confined in a guardhouse for hitting her husband with a tin cup that he claimed (afterward) was an axe…(she was) sentenced to be drummed off that post at fixed bayonets …she and her three children had to live in a cold house, without the food ration they depended upon."

But the scramble to hold onto the fragil level of security a blue uniform provided only partly explains the woman known to history only as "Mrs. Nash". Shortly after the Seventh Cavalry regiment was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1866, she took up residence along “Suds Row” as the laundresses’ quarters were commonly called. She always wore a veil or a shawl, and it was assumed this was because of scaring from smallpox or one of the many other skin diseases common at the time. Besides earning a small income as a washer woman, Mrs. Nash showed talent as a seamstress and tailored officer's uniforms for extra money. She was a noted baker and her pies were much sought after. After she built a reputation as a dependable mid-wife “few births occurred (on the post) without her expert help”.

But there is no record Mrs. Nash ever served as a prostitute. This was something not uncommon for the laundresses who needed the extra income but who could neither bake nor sew, and who showed more talent for the other half of the midwife equation. And as a practical matter prostitution by laundresses was not activily discouraged by the officers. This was the frontier and the only other option for amorous release by a trooper was with either his fellow troopers or the horses. Homophobic troopers tended to shoot first, and just say no afterward. And although the horses never complained, they were kind of important to survival on the plains and animal husbandry was discouraged. So prostitution by the laundresses was tolerated as long as the woman did not become really good at it or "notorious".

In short Mrs. Nash was a valuable member of the unit, and the rumor was that she had amassed a tidy little nest egg, too. In 1868 she married a Quartermasters Clerk named Clifton. But a few days later he deserted with her money and was never seen again.
Still it was natural that Mrs. Nash would be encouraged to follow the regiment when it moved to Fort Abraham Lincoln, in Dakota Territory, in 1872. 
 
That was the year she married Sergeant James Nash, the “striker”, or personal servant, to Captain Tom Custer, younger brother of the regimental commander George Armstrong Custer. Although James and Mrs. Nash were seen to argue a great deal, still they seemed happy enough for a year or so.  During that year Libbie Custer, wife of the General noted “…a company ball...(was) organized...Officers and ladies attended....Mrs. Nash wore a pink Tarleton (which she sewed herself) and false curls, and she had “constant partners”.

Then, unexpectedly, Sergeant Nash stole his wife’s savings and deserted her and the service. Libbie wrote that Tom Custer was very “put out” by this desertion. Persumably so was Mrs. Nash. But she did not remain so for long. In 1873, the lady, now called “Old Mrs. Nash”, married Corporal John Noonan. She kept a bright and tidy home for John, planting and maintaining flowers in front of their modest quarters. And she restored her nest egg. And for five years they were a contended and happy couple, the center of the social circle of Suds Row east of the Fort Lincoln parade grounds, and they were both a significant part of the post’s social life.

Then, in the fall of 1878, while Corporal Noonan was out on patrol, Mrs. Nash fell ill. As her conditioned quickly worsened she called for a priest, and after seeing him she told the ladies caring for her that she wanted to be buried as she was, without the usual washing and re-dressing. The ladies reluctantly agreed. Who would dare to argue with a dying woman, to her face. But after “Mrs. Nash" died on November 4th the women decided they could not show her such disrespect.

Two of her closest friends began to strip her, in preperation to washing and re-dress her body. And that was when they made a most unexpected discovery. Underneath the veil and the dress and the petticoats Mrs. Nash was a man. The Bismarck Tribune went so far as to headline a story, “Mrs. Nash has b---s as big as a bull!”

Dispite the story being gramatically incorrect (Mrs. Nash no longer had any testicles at all, ownership having been returned to the manufacturer) and since the story was clearly based on hearsay and unqualified medical opinion, the eastern papers picked the story up, and you know how that goes. Every yahoo with access to a printing press felt obligated to pontificate. The less they knew of the facts the more opinions they had. Public morality is, it seems to me, an excuse for being ignorant, loudly. And in this case the volume was a thunderclap in a drought.

When poor Corporal Noonan returned from patrol all his protestations of innocence and ignorance fell upon deaf ears. Quickly his grief, and the ridicule and the questions, asked and unasked, became too much to bear and two days after returning from patrol to find his wife”dead, John Noonan deserted his post and on November 30, 1878, shot himself to death with his rifle.

John Noonan now lies buried now in the National Cemetery adjacent to the Little Big Horn Battlefield, his tombstone identical to all the others who died in the service of their country on the Western Frontier.  And rightly so.

But there is no headstone (no grave) for Mrs. Nash. There is no memorial of her years of service to the unit, of the babies she delivered, of the hardships she endured. And there is no recognition today that without a "liberal" media to encourage her, at least one human being found it preferable to live in constant fear of being revealed, in exchanged for the privilage of living as God made her, internally and externally, perfectly and imperfectly. She was proof that with all our technology and insights and smothered under blankets of public morality, we are today just as screwed up as our ancestors  were.
 
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