Category Archives: Weapons

How Did United States Soldiers Survive In The 19th Century?

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 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.

Were Illnesses That Wiped Out Native American Populations Considered Pandemic?

Most people understand that much of the genocide perpetuated by Caucasian settlers in the New World was unintentional — it occurred because of illnesses and disease that they brought over on their ships. Native Americans had no resistance to these illnesses. Even simple influenza — the deadliest virus in the history of the world — wiped out entire Native American tribes alongside diseases like cholera, measles, scarlet fever and even the bubonic plague that wiped out a third of the world’s population in the Middle Ages.

Most of the illnesses that wiped out the Native Americans might be considered technically pandemic. The flu, for example, spread across the globe each year much as it does today. We typically call it an epidemic whenever and wherever it occurs, but the reality is that the virus is much better categorized as a pandemic. It was the same in the centuries when Native Americans and white settlers collided.

Other cases are less obvious and difficult to track. We don’t always have access to accurate information for outbreaks that occurred centuries ago.

For those diseases that were not already considered pandemic, there were epidemics in Native American communities. This outbreaks occurred not only because Native Americans had no antibodies or natural immunities to the illnesses, but also because they treated illness very differently than the people who brought the diseases to them.

That is to say that Native Americans believed a member of society could only become seriously ill when the spirits chose not to protect him. That meant that Native Americans often applied charms meant to mitigate the damage done by illnesses. 

Even these beliefs were challenged when Native Americans figured out the real problem: Caucasian settlers. When they finally understood how these diseases were transmitted, they avoided contact wherever and whenever they possibly could. This was made more difficult because settlers also understood the powerful weapon they had at their disposal — and so they used it to push Native Americans off the land they wanted.

A prime example of the use of biological warfare was the Siege of Fort Pitt in 1763. When the Native Americans mounted a failed attack on the fort, they were pushed back. Those who lived in the fort pretended to make peace with the tribe that had attacked them — when in actuality they had gifted the Native Americans items that contained the smallpox virus. This action was hardly an isolated incident.

These epidemics decimated population numbers. Before smallpox and cocoliztli, there were an estimated 22 million Native Americans living in Mexico. That was in the year 1520. By 1550, the population had fallen to about 3 million.

What Diseases Were A Threat To The United States Military In 1877?

The modern era has graced us with some of the most miraculous medical advancements for which we could hope. So much so that the most dangerous enemy in any engagement is, well, the actual enemy on the battlefield. It wasn’t always like this. In the 1870s, for example, one of the most dangerous enemies was disease. In fact, twice as many soldiers were killed by disease as by enemy combatants. Wow! 

Here are a few of the most dangerous diseases battlefield surgeons had to contend with:

Victory Disease. This might not be familiar to you because it’s not an actual disease. But it kills just like one. When a powerful force begins to believe itself invulnerable, victory disease takes root. Such is the case for General George Armstrong Custer, who led his men to slaughter because of his belief that they could not be defeated.

Malaria. This is still a major killer around the world even though we have the vaccine in hand. Those who come down with the infectious disease will likely succumb to a combination of fever, fatigue, vomiting, and splitting headaches. End-stage symptoms include a yellow complexion, seizure, coma, and potentially death. Mosquitoes transport the disease and it can recur after several months if left untreated.

Yellow Fever. Another virus transmitted through those dastardly mosquitoes. After nearly a week, those infected will start to develop fever, aches and pains, and chills. More serious end-stage symptoms include organ failure, shock, hemorrhage, and death. 

Gangrene. This occurs due to other conditions including diabetes, smoking, trauma, alcoholism, and frostbite. On the battlefield, trauma is the number one predictor. Gangrene is the death of tissue, which is why symptoms include changing skin color. One might experience numbness, intense pain, broken skin, chills, etc. May present with sepsis.  

Dysentery. This is common on the battlefield due to the lack of quality water. Dysentery is an intestinal infection that leads to diarrhea and dehydration. Many who suffer from dysentery will die without medical treatment.

Tuberculosis. This disease most often attacks the lungs and is highly infectious because it is spread through particles in the air. Caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis, it results in weight loss, coughing, loss of appetite, fever, night sweats, and intense fatigue.

Smallpox. Caused by viruses, this disease was globally eradicated by 1980. About a third of those who contracted the disease would eventually die. It is noteworthy because of the many fluid-filled bumps or dimples that covered the body. Those who survived would likely incur heavy scarring. Other symptoms include fever and vomiting. Some survivors also went blind.

Were Gatling Guns Ever Used Against The Native Americans?

Anyone who has ever watched The Last Samurai from start to finish will know how unimaginably cool a gatling gun can be when used against a larger force (or a smaller one). But if you haven’t seen the movie, we’ll ruin the ending for you: Tom Cruise’s idiot character decides to stand with a small group of samurai warriors in defense of the “old way.” Those defending the old way have swords and armor, and those trying to wipe it out have muskets and uniforms. And gatling guns.

Against all odds, the last remaining samurai warriors break through the enemy lines to charge toward the commanders on horseback, only to be completely mowed down and slaughtered when the new wave employs gatling guns toward the rear.

Considering the timeline of the movie, it made us ask a single simple question: were gatling guns ever used against Native Americans and to what effect? To put it into perspective, gatling guns were first patented in 1862. The Battle of the Little Bighorn took place in 1876. That’s plenty of time to implement even more genocidal tendencies than our armies had implemented before.

So did we?

The most important thing is that we had the option. More specifically — Custer had the option just before he went to his grave. He proposed that the guns would reduce mobility too much to make his force effective in battle. Whoops! Other military commanders agreed that gatling guns simply weren’t worth dragging into a mobile fight. They were heavy and unwieldy, and Native Americans often retreated to rough or mountainous terrain — which meant gatling guns could not follow.

But they were used during some battles. For example, they were effective in taking down the Cheyenne in Oklahoma during conflicts in 1875. They were also used in the Red River War in Texas and the Nez Perce War, both of which occurred in the mid-to-late 1870s. Other uses occurred during the Sioux Wars and the Bannock War.

The guns seemed to be used to limited effect, but little information is available to support any claims.

More likely, it seems that the gatling guns probably prevented the Native Americans from launching any effective countermeasures. That’s because almost all US Army garrisons had support from the guns. Even if the Native Americans outnumbered American soldiers 10 to 1, the guns could probably provide enough fire support from a fortified location to defend against any attack. The offensive capabilities of the guns where they were most likely to be used were probably limited, however.

Were Weapons A Deciding Factor During The Great Sioux War?

Most people have a nationalistic sense of pride, especially those living in Missouri, and that’s why history has taught us that Europeans who swept into North America wiped out the Native Americans with superior technology and greater firepower. Unfortunately, you can’t exaggerate reality. Native Americans were mostly wiped out by disease inadvertently transferred from European settlers, and that easily paved the way for most of the expansion that occurred during the early centuries of colonization–so much more so than technology could.

In later centuries, the Native American tribes became more fragmented as a result of the widespread death that had already ravaged their way of life. This affected the path to expansion during events like the Black Hills Expedition led by Custer.

When the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 was broken by the U.S. government, the resulting conflict called the Great Sioux War lasted only a short while from 1876 to 1877, although skirmishes lasted for years afterward. It may have lasted longer or cost the American settlers and army a lot more, but the fragmentation within the Sioux Nation resulted in different factions–some who fought, and others who openly embraced peace.

Although the Sioux who chose to fight believed in their cause and knew the lay of the land, they held no advantage in numbers. At this point in time, the difference in weaponry might not be what most people would expect. While most records suggest that the Native Americans were still using traditional bow and arrow during most engagements, we also know that a plethora of firearms was in use as well. Arms used by the Sioux in some battles–such as the famed Battle of Little Bighorn–may have even been superior to those used by the U.S. military.

The soldiers of the U.S. army were equipped with .45 caliber, single-action revolvers. For long range, they used the 1873 Springfield Model rifle–widely believed to grant them superior range over their Sioux adversaries.

This may have been true some of the time, but perhaps not always. The Battle of Little Bighorn took place only a year before the Great Sioux War broke out, and archaeological excavations during the 1980s managed to rip 2,361 cartridges from the dirt. These came from 45 different kinds of firearms, confirming the idea that the Native Americans were using them too. It also proves that members of the U.S. army often carried their own weapons.

Survivors of the battle claimed that the Native Americans who slaughtered the rest of the 7th Cavalry that day were armed with repeating rifles, Winchesters in particular. This provided the Native Americans with a tremendous advantage in firepower, while superior numbers and the utter stupidity of Custer certainly helped win them the day.

During most battles of the Great Sioux War, though, it seems likely that weaponry was probably on par to that used by the U.S. military. We can’t hope to hold accounts during the period in high regard, so it’s impossible to be 100 percent accurate.

It seems that the Great Sioux War was lost to the U.S. army because it seemed a cause not worth fighting anymore, as the American expansion then seemed inexorable. The wave was coming to swallow their way of life, and no one could hope to stop it. This was the reason why memorable figures of the time period such as Sioux Chief Spotted Tail chose to help white men pursue peace rather than war. Weapons used during the war probably had little to do with the outcome.