Dragoon Soldier: Daily Life


A Soldier's Life on the Frontier

A soldier's life in garrison was a round of inspection reviews, guard duty and, at smaller posts, shoeing horses, cutting wood, cleaning campgrounds and repairing chimneys. The soldiers at Fort Scott spent a large part of their time constructing the buildings that composed the fort. Felling trees, hauling logs, working at the sawmill (when it was operational), and herding the horses and cattle were interspersed with planting and harvesting the gardens that made the government issue rations palatable. Each soldier took his turn as company cook, good or bad; and it was a rare soldier who did not spend at least some time in the guardhouse for infraction of the rules.

A uniformed bugler plays his horn on the parade grounds at Fort Scott
A uniformed bugler plays his horn on the parade grounds at Fort Scott


Bugle Calls

The dragoon soldier's day was strictly regimented. Bugle calls signaled the activity that a soldier was engaged in. The following calls represent a typical day of calls at Fort Scott.

  • Reveille or the wake up call sounded at daybreak.

  • Assembly or roll call sounded a few minutes later.

  • For mounted troops, stable call came immediately after reveille, forty minutes before noon and again immediately after retreat at sunset. The men cleaned the stables and fed and watered the horses. Infantry jokingly referred to the dragoons as "nursemaids."

  • Sick call also came before breakfast at 7:10, and any who were ailing were sent to the post surgeon for examination and treatment, if needed.

  • Mess call for breakfast sounded at 7:30 am. Lunch was at noon and evening mess was scheduled at the company level and was governed by the completion of routine work or fatigue duties.

  • Fatigue call was sounded after breakfast, and the men were detailed from each company for such jobs as working on a construction site, cutting timber, hauling wood, working at the sawmill, cleaning the post, loading and unloading supplies, building a road, tending the post gardens, and numerous other duties.

  • Those assigned guard duty, which was done on a rotating basis, were not assigned to work details. The changing of the guard, or guard mounting, was held mid morning and accompanied by another bugle call. Guards were on duty for twenty-four hours and were usually divided into three reliefs. Each relief stood guard for two hours and was off for four hours on a rotating basis.

  • Drill instruction, which occured only one or two days a week was called at 10:00 am and occasionally after lunch at 1:00, after which the soldiers returned to fatigue duties.

  • The daily retreat ceremony (lowering of the flag) occurred at sunset, was preceded by the fourth roll call of the day, and could include an evening
    dress parade.

  • In the 1840s, the last bugle call of the day was tattoo, which required all soldiers to be at their quarters unless they were on special leave or guard duty. The fifth and final roll call was conducted immediately after the sounding of tattoo before the soldiers entered their quarters for the night.

A group of soldiers gather to play cards at a table
A group of soldiers gather to play cards at a table


Off-duty Life on the Frontier

There was little to relieve the tedium of life a frontier post in the 1840s and 1850s. When a man obtained a few days leave, he usually sought the nearest town of any size for relaxation. Normally, time passed very slowly when the men were not on duty. A dreary picture of the lack of constructive amusements and entertainment is painted in one report from Fort Laramie in 1858:

The same holds good as to the other duties of the soldier. Drill is also another effort to keep the falx in the plane of certain directions and to produce pantographic results with bodies, limbs, and muskets or other weapons. Police duty is a daily funeral procession around the garrison with twig brushes instead of cypress boughs for the mourners.

And so with the individual action of the soldier, when left to himself, after the various processes above have been duly gone through with. Little temptation does he seem to feel to do ought but vegetate in his bunk, with some occasional spasmodic effort at foot-ball or other game--possibly to -hunt or fish a little; when, perhaps, there is additional inducement in the shape of a cask in the bushes somewhere near his garrison, whereby, he spreads to any other bad physical and mental influences those derived from the depression attendant upon alcoholic 25 stimulants most villainously adulterated.

Richard H. Coolidge
Statistical Report on the Sickness and Mortality in the Army

The Reading Life

Almost every regiment had its library, consisting of a few books and magazines. These were available to the men, but officers and their families also took advantage of the reading materials. Lowe spoke of his major, who suggested his company be assessed to purchase "Harper's Classical and Family Libraries." The libraries came with a pair of bookcases, with hinges closing the edges on one side. The cases could be locked at the edges when being moved, and the books were uniform. The major, who proposed the library donated $25, and the money the men volunteered was withheld from their pay. Usually, a man from the company or regiment was in charge of checking out the books. When the library was kept in the Adjutant's Office, this usually was the orderly sergeant.

Mail Service

Mail in the 1850s arrived by an expressman every two weeks. Exiled from all contacts with home, friends and the world outside, the mail carrier was awaited with much anxiety. Many soldiers, who were illiterate themselves or had illiterate families at home, received-letters only rarely.

Soldiers having tug of war on the 4th of July
Soldiers play tug-of-war on the parade grounds at Fort Scott


Holidays on the Frontier

At Christmas, the men in a company pooled some of their pay to send away for delicacies otherwise unavailable, even at the Sutler's Store. Meyers contributed to a dinner that included "hams, tongues, sardines, pickles, preserves, lemons, etc., not forgetting a few dozen bottles of American champagne, which had been carefully packed with sawdust into barrels both for safety and concealment." His company sent to St. Paul for stone china (ironstone) dishes, and the mess room was decorated for the celebration. Candles around the walls provided additional light. In 1851, at Fort Arbuckle, the officers had an abundance of game--bear, buffalo, tongue, prairie hen or grouse, venison, wild turkey, duck, goose, quail, and pigeon--for their Christmas dinner; and the men usually shared some of this game, at least at the holidays. There were few presents for the majority of the men, who seldom had relatives or friends to remember them. A package from home for a regular was a rarity. To compensate, the men pushed aside the tables after the meal, and with the assistance of the post's musicians danced. Laundresses and wives of the noncommissioned officers and the other men provided partners for the ball.

Efforts were made by the men and their officers to relieve the monotony of their daily lives. Holidays were special occasions and much was made of them; but there were fewer to celebrate in the early Nineteenth Century. Thanksgiving Day and Memorial Day did not exist; Columbus Day was not a national holiday. The birthday of Washington might be noted but no more than in passing, perhaps with a short speech from the commanding officer at the post. The Fourth of July, however, was always a day of relaxation of rules. The firing of the cannon signaled the auspicious day; there generally was an oration from the Commanding Officer, and many a guardhouse was filled the next morning with those whose celebration had gotten out of hand.

Soldiers stand around a grave as an officer gives remarks
Soldiers stand around a grave as an officer gives remarks

Chaplain's Responsibilities

The War Department did not employ Chaplains at military posts until 1838, and even then it was only at some posts. There was no Chaplain at Fort Scott until 1850. Chaplains received $40 a month and were provided quarters, rations and fuel. They also were expected to teach the children at the post. Prior to this, responsible noncommissioned officers or even privates were selected to conduct the schools. The latter was considered a rather thankless task; although, the teacher was entitled to extra rations of whiskey. Few of the schoolmasters thus selected were able to teach their pupils more than basic reading, writing and arithmetic. The children of officers continued their education in the East, but the formal education of soldiers' children ended early.

Death on the March

Chaplains seldom were around, however, when death overcame soldiers on the march. When a dragoon died, he was wrapped in his blankets and carried on the shoulders of his friends to the grave. The entourage was preceded by an escort and followed by the dismounted squadrons. The horse of the deceased dragoon was led along with the saddle empty and the weapons hanging down. The squadrons formed three sides of a square about the grave, a few appropriate remarks or prayers were given, the men mounted, the salute was fired, and the men rode off, leaving a few to fill the lonely grave on the prairie. Rocks were piled over the spot to deter wolves, and markers had only a brief lifetime.

Throughout the 1840s, the dragoons were out on marches during the summer. Their return at the end of the season was welcomed by the garrison, and the familiar routine of harvesting the gardens, cutting wood, and hauling water commenced. When winter closed in, the men refurbished their equipment and completed the interior work on quarters and buildings.

Information for this page was taken from the Historic Furnishing Plan for The Dragoon Barracks by Sally Johnson Ketcham.



Last updated: May 23, 2022

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