If you’re visiting our site, then you already know one thing with certainty: the 19th century was a dangerous time period during which to live, especially if you held ambitions to mind gold or settle out in the far west. The plains were still inhabited by many Native Americans, either on reservations or off (not all indigenous peoples abided by the terms of the “arrangements that had placed them on these lands).
Soldiers in the late 19th century were known to have resorted to some less-than-kosher measures to increase the luxuries they experienced in between travel or military engagement. One story goes something like this: One man sells his skills as a bodyguard or escort during time off in town, pawns his equipment on a man, beats the man into submission after accusing him of theft, and then returns to service with more money on top of all the equipment he left with.
One Chicago journalist explained that low pay resulted in a certain type of soldiers: “Human driftwood — men who have committed crime elsewhere and are hiding in the service under assumed names; men who cannot brook the liberties and familiarities of society and take refuge in military discipline; men who are disappointed, disheartened and ambitionless and find the lazy life of a soldier a relief.”
Perhaps many soldiers and their superiors resorted to these interesting tactics to increase their lot in life because the United States had yet to provide “entitlements” to its citizens. Today, there are plenty of law firms like https://www.itswhatwedo.com/ who provide legal services to compensate victims of negligence, and there are social programs to provide help to those who need it (i.e. disability benefits, insurance, etc.).
Custer’s wife actually detailed one particular instance of soldiers going above their calling rather than below: the 7th Cavalry was present when a number of telegraph wires were taken down by a storm, preventing communication.
Libbie Custer said, “The telegraph lines were frequently down, and except for the courage of the sergeants, we should have been completely isolated from the outside world. With four mules and the covered body of a government wagon on bobs, they went over a trackless waste of snow for 250 miles. Occasionally, there were huts that had once been stage stations, where they could stop, but deadly perilous for them to leave the telegraph line, no matter what drifts they were compelled to plunge.”
Most soldiers held little ambition to climb the ranks, which meant that any surplus money they stored would either go back home — or be spent on drinking. Others found smaller tasks to augment pay. One man, for example, was known to act as a personal tailor to Custer.
Many others would marry working women (yes, they existed even back then). Women whose husbands were killed out west would need to find new ones to survive — and the U.S. Army was full of single men who were perfectly willing to take the job. Two incomes made survival much easier for both parties.