Picture America as she was approaching her centennial year - a nation of about 45 million people. And even though they had no Internet, no electricity, no antibiotics and no gummy bears, these people were no different from the 310 million who reside in America today.
In 1875 the moralizing "Our Boys" opened on Broadway. It followed the adventures of an Englishman and his butler and their pair of disappointing sons. A century and a quarter later the sitcom "Two and a Half Men" mined this same comedic vein..
And like a latter day series "Lost", Jules Vernes' 1875 novel, "The Survivors of the Chancellor" told an episodic science fiction adventure story of a British passenger ship, lost at sea. And ala "Who Let the Dogs Out", the most popular song of the day consisted of the repeated lyrics, "Carve dat possum, carve dat possum, children." It's title was "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 thermodynamics. He was wrong, course, since very few humans, other than politicians, behave like big clouds of hot gas. But Doctor von Brucke had a student who would make sense out of Burke's thinking - that student was Sigmund Freud.
The fort was on the west bank of the Missouri River, across from Bismark, North Dakota. In that town the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the telegraph lines ended, making the army post the very edge of the frontier. The Army post was 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 would sign up for a year's service in such a place. “Immigrants, especially those from Ireland and German, filled the ranks," he wrote. "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 even before they enlisted. 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 encourage them.
Each day every soldier received 12 ounces of pork or bacon, 22 ounces of flour or bread and less than an once of ground coffee. Every month they received a pound of beans or peas, a pound of rice or hominy, 3 pounds of potatoes, a cup of molasses, 1/2 cup of salt, 1 ounce of pepper and a little vinegar. This was not a diet, it was a ration, and had as little more flavor variation than "Spam,".
As the army needed soldiers, it also needed laundresses. They were as much in the service of their country as the soldiers they served. And in a culture without a social safety net, 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, and food in her belly. But even tho it needed them, the army did not encourage these women to stay a single day longer than necessary for the army.
Linda Grant De Pauw lays out the vulnerability of such women in “Battle Cries and Lullabys". She described, “…a laundress wrote to Major L.H. Marshall at Fort Boise, Idaho, describing how she had been arrested, charged as an attempted murderess, and confined in a guardhouse for hitting her husband with a tin cup that he claimed was an ax…(she was) sentenced to be drummed off that post at fixed bayonets …she and her three children then had to live in a cold house, without the food ration they depended upon."
But the scramble to hold onto the fragile level of security which 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, Mrs. Nash 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”.
That was also 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 (dancing) partners”.
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