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Historical Background

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Soldier and Brave
Historical Background

Like the Indian Bureau, the Army emerged as a major influence in Indian relations. Indeed, the Indian problem had been a dominant factor in bringing about the creation of the Regular Army in 1789 and provided its main occupation for a century. Its mission was to guard travel routes and settlements, keep watch on peaceful tribes, and wage war on those regarded as hostile. It was inglorious duty. Long periods of boredom, isolation, and stagnation were varied only by occasional campaigns, characterized by fatigue, exposure, frustration, and an occasional indecisive skirmish. The stirring battles of motion pictures and television were rare. Undermanned, underpaid, widely unappreciated when not actively assailed by the press and public figures, the Army found little reward on the frontier.

Native Americans on horseback
The Indians did not at first foresee the ultimate consequences of the web of trails that began to thread through their homeland. Curiosity and petty harassment usually characterized Indian reaction during early trail days. "Intercepted Wagon Train," Charles M. Russell. (Amon Carter Museum of Art)

Much of the frustration sprang from the absence of a clearly drawn line between peaceful and hostile Indians. Seldom could an entire tribe or band be validly branded hostile. More often the leaders professed peace while the young men raided. When these conditions led to war, it had to be conducted against people who were not all enemies in the conventional military sense. The impossibility of separating hostile from peaceful and combatant from noncombatant repeatedly exposed the Army to charges—sometimes groundless, sometimes not—of warring on peaceful Indians and killing women and children.

This ambiguity in the Army's task led to another: the impossibility of separating the powers and responsibilities of the Army from those of the Indian Bureau. Almost every campaign involved a controversy between the two arms of Government over which Indians were hostile and which were not. Furthermore, most officers regarded Indian Bureau mismanagement as a prime cause of outbreaks, and they bitterly resented a system that forced them to punish while denying them all power to prevent.

Indian elusiveness and guerilla tactics often prevented the use of advanced Army weapons. Artillerymen with Gatling guns at Fort Abraham Lincoln, N. Dak. (National Park Service)

captured soldier
Soldier life during the indian wars was often hard and unrewarding, but it was far preferable to the anguish of capture. "Missing," Frederic Remington. (Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art)

Besides its role in Indian relations, the Army contributed substantially to the opening of the West. Soldiers conducted eexplorationsthat enriched geographical and scientific knowledge of frontier lands. Soldiers protected emigrants, settlers, miners, and ranchers. Soldiers built forts that gave rise to towns and cities and that afforded markets for local goods and services. Soldiers built roads and telegraph lines. Soldiers surveyed railroad routes, guarded construction crews, and provided a major source of business once the rails had been laid.

But it is the Army's conflict with the Indian that history chiefly remembers. For half a century the Army fought the woodland tribes of the East. By the middle 19th century it had moved West and evolved techniques and organization suited to the new environment and the strange tribes of plain, mountain, and desert.

sutler store
Commerce and trade followed the Army. Sutlers' stores satisfied material needs of troops, civilians, and sometimes Indians. The stores also enriched social life at lonely outposts. Theodore R. Davis' sketch of the sutler's store at Fort Dodge, Kansas, from Harper's Weekly (May 25, 1867). (Library of Congress)

African American soldiers
Black troops, often ex-slaves serving under white officers in special regiments formed after the Civil War, distinguished themselves during the Indian wars. Pictured here in 1883 at Fort Snelling, Minn., is Company I, 25th Infantry. (National Archives)

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Last Updated: 19-Aug-2005