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Life in a fort

November 17, 2013
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

A frontier soldier might spend up to half of any given year on campaign against the Indians, which meant he spent the rest of his time on post. Every soldier was glad to reach a refuge after weeks or months in the field, but few regarded a fort as a pleasant place to come home to. The site of a fort had to meet certain requirements: there had to be enough water to sustain a regiment, sufficient grass for animals, timber for building s and fuel, and level terrain for barracks, officer's quarters, storehouses, stables, wagon sheds, and a parade ground. Strategic necessity rather than comfort was the prime consideration in the placement of the garrisons. Their function was to guard transportation routes, primarily wagon trails and the new railroads being built, and to keep watch over the always volatile Indians. By their very nature, Army posts lay far from civilization, often deep in the land of "hostiles" as the Army referred to unfriendly Indians. Danger was never far away. Indians raided for horses or livestock, ambushed soldiers dispatched off post for short details such as cutting wood or bringing in water. Any soldier who went out alone might be taking his life in his hands.

Amenities of a typical fort were minimal. Officer's occupied private quarters, usually a small house each, while enlisted men were crammed into barracks, too small, poorly constructed, badly ventilated, overcrowded, cold in winter, hot in summer, poor light and heat. Privies were outside, and bathhouses were non-existent. Regulations stated each man should take a bath at least once a week. The paradox was that the regulations said the men were to bathe frequently, the doctors said it should be done, the men wanted to do it, quartermasters said it was important, yet there were no bathrooms.

Southwestern posts were also afflicted with centipedes, scorpions, tarantulas and snakes. The early forts on the northern plains were, if anything, worse. Many were infected with mice, rats, and insects. Fine dust blew through the cracks in summer and snow sifted through in winter. At Fort Randall the cottonwood log buildings were so full of rats and vermin the men slept outdoors.

As time went on, conditions in the forts improved. The one thing that never changed was the routine of Army life.



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