Officers' Quarters-Historical Background

Volunteer Mike McCartney playing officer

During its first eleven years, Fort Scott had 50 officers assigned to it on paper at one time or another. Eight of them apparently did not actually appear at the post, their special details keeping them at regimental headquarters or other locations. An example was Lt. Henry Lee Scott, the nephew of the man after whom the fort was named. During the 12 months he appeared on the post returns, Lieutenant Scott was an aide-de-camp to his uncle. Over the years the officer strength at the post varied greatly, ranging from a low of one to a high of eleven. They came from all parts of the east.

In the pre-Civil War Army, a considerable number of officers came from the Southern states. Many students of the Army have concluded that these Southern gentlemen, with their aristocratic air and landed origins, both based on the institution of slavery, played an extra-large role within the Army in establishing aristocratic-like manners and setting the general tone of military institutions. This may well have been the case, but it is also possible that the extent of their influence upon the officer corps has assumed more emphasis than is due. In the case of Fort Scott, over 50 percent of the officers were Northerners and another 15 percent were from the border states. What effect this ratio had on the general environment of Fort Scott society cannot be determined--other than at any given time there were probably very few slaves to found at the post.

From the North or the South, there was no lack of courage or military ability among the Fort Scott officers. Five of them were killed and 18 others received brevet promotions in the Mexican War. When the Civil War rent the nation, five left the Army to serve the Confederate States, One of them reaching the dizzying heights of lieutenant general in the CSA. Of those who served with the Union Army, six became brigadier generals and one a Major general in the Volunteers, not including the brevet promotions to these grades. Only one received a Medal of Honor and only one was killed during the Civil War. It must be recorded too that one of the 42 was cashiered from the Army. Of the whole group, three were accidentally killed and one drowned while still on active duty. As for regular army grades, two of Fort Scott's officers eventually became the inspector general and one the surgeon general.

While it is true that the Army was small in the l840s and anyone who kept his musket clean had a world of opportunity for advancement when the Civil War consumed manpower on a hitherto unknown scale, the record of these few is still a good one. It would not be correct to say that Fort Scott's officers were a cut above the complement of other posts; what is more to the point is that the frontier army of the 1840s, as represented at Fort Scott, was a competent, fighting force, even though the American Army had not yet come into the full flower of professionalism. It is not surprising that Colonel Croghan reported in 1844, "the discipline of the post is good…in truth I have visited no garrison which in this respect has impressed me so favorably."

In contrast to enlisted men who faced daily monotony, officers could count on a variety of opportunities that would take them away from the post to renew contacts with the outside world. Among such departures were court-martial duty at other posts, recruiting duty in Eastern cities, purchasing trips for supplies and horses, and, most pleasant of all, leave. But it was a way of life that was soon to depart from Fort Scott.

Officer's Wife engaged in literary pursuits
Officer's Wife spending some leisure time in front of her quarters.

A typical Frontier Army wife came from the upper-middle class. She adapted to the harsh, often hostile environment and the frequent separations and moves. She brought her civilizing influence to bear on isolated posts and to the men stationed there.

Despite having to endure low pay and near constant indebtedness, being ranked out of quarters on little or no notice and lack of fresh food and accustomed comforts, the Frontier Army wife is aptly described as "a kind of tough, weather proof, India-rubber woman. Serene and unruffled in all situations."

The hardships were a fact of life in the West, but preferred to the alternative. "It is infinitely worse to be left behind, a prey to all the horrors of imagining what may happen to one you love. You eat your heart out with anxiety, and to endure such suspense is simply the hardest of all trials that come to a soldier's wife."

And so, these valiant women came to the frontier and found that their lives were filled with the extended family of an Army post. Life on an Army post was filled with diversions. Entertaining both new arrivals and visitors and neighbors was a constant activity when the troops were in garrison. Also popular while the men were home were fishing, dancing, picnicking, and shooting. On days that the soldiers were gone the officers' wives spent their time with less strenuous pursuits. Activities such as sewing bees, riding, teas, and card parties were the rule of the day.

Since the officers' wives were upper-middle class the majority of them were educated, why then were they almost "invisible" as a group? One answer may lie in the education itself. They had been educated as gentlewomen in the prevailing school of thought that began in the early decades of settlement in America. Known as the "cult of true womanhood," teaching demanded that a woman be pious, submissive, uncomplaining, supportive, and educated in the genteel and domestic arts. She should not compete with men in any way. As the moral guardian of her home, she should shield the family from the undesirable elements of a materialistic society.

In the 1820s and 1830s, essays, novels, school texts, sermons, and ladies' periodicals, such as Godey's Lady's Book, stressed the importance of a woman's "sphere" of influence. In the 1800s women were thought to be physically weaker and possibly mentally inferior to men, but they were morally superior and thus equal to men within their separate, domestic, sphere. Women were to remain behind the scenes, with only the results of their work showing, not the process. To use a trite phrase, women were to "be seen and not heard."

In the 1840s, the images of the frail and delicate lady and the sedentary life of confinement that produced her, went out of fashion. Women were encouraged to "go forth into the fields and woods" for walks of at least two miles a day, and to be more conscious of their health and diet, thus enabling them to perform their moral duties and responsibilities more effectively.

In the mid-1840s, Godey's Lady's Book began to publish articles featuring heroic women of the American Revolution. One of the authors wrote, "the women of that era were equal to the crisis, for they contributed active assistance, by the labor of their hands; by the sacrifice of their luxuries; [and] by the surrender of what had been deemed necessaries."

Despite changes in expectations, the officer's wife seemed to embrace the 1830s school of thought; she followed her husband to the frontier out of a sense of love, duty, and the desire to provide her family with a comfortable home no matter where it was of how crude the surroundings. In this case, if an officer's wife wanted to live up to the ideals of true womanhood, she had to go with her husband to achieve them.

The self-sufficiency required in frontier society lent itself to the newer school of thought. Though probably not overly concerned about which school was popular at the time; it appears the wives were able to move easily between both. They were, it would seem, products of their natural and social environments.

The text on this page was taken from the publication The Girl I Left Behind Me (used by permission),which was produced by staff at the Frontier Army Museum in Fort Leavenworth, Sabers and Soapsuds: Dragoon Women on the Frontier by Dana Prater (used by permission), and an article written by park staff at Fort Scott.

Hand Fan
Next Page

Last updated: July 25, 2016

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

PO Box 918
Fort Scott, KS 66701


620 223-0310

Contact Us