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.
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”.
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.
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