The popular image of army outposts on the western frontier during the nineteenth century revolves around soldiers galloping out to fight Indians and to rescue wagon trains. But the military also played a less flamboyant role in settling the West. Forts usually enjoyed certain advantages such as musical instruments, books, and other things which could bring pleasure to the garrison; therefore, the Army became an important force in bringing the cultural and leisure pursuits of the East to the frontier.
In fact, while frontier troops spent most of their time at routine duties, free moments gave the soldier an opportunity to relax. The isolation of many posts meant that diversions depended upon individual ingenuity to assure that an assignment was not, "long and tiresome." According to Frances Roe, an army wife in the 1870s, this did not have to be the case. Of course, she admitted that there were a, "few who yawn and complain of the monotony of frontier life" but according to Roe these were "the stay-at-homes who sit by their own fires day after day and let cobwebs gather in brain and lungs." She contended that they were the same "ones who have time to discover so many faults in others and become our garrison gossips!" The active, athletic Roe prescribed that if people took, "brisk rides on spirited horses in this wonderful air, and learn to shoot all sorts of guns . . . they would soon discover that a frontier post could furnish plenty of excitement."
At Fort Scott in the 1840s, much talk is made of the isolation of the post and the monotony of army life. Yet enlisted men, laundresses, officers and their wives still found time for amusements. Hunting, fishing, and horseback riding were popular sports especially among the officers. Reading was pursued by those on the post who were literate. Boxing and other sports were popular among the enlisted men. Dancing was also engaged in by the enlisted, and those who were musically inclined provided entertainment and often joined the post band or were appointed the buglers or drummers of the post.
Ultimately, the bands constituted a vital facet of both military and social life at the places where they were stationed. They helped pass idle hours for those in uniform as well as members of local civilian communities. In this regard, bands assisted in strengthening good will between the military and civilian sectors. Moreover, these band members functioned as moral builders in addition to providing needed services upon official duty occasions. Their influence on the development of American musical history and appreciation, however, cannot be documented fully. Their importance to the military was evident, however, since regiments were known to raise funds by subscription from the rank and file to buy instruments and musical arrangements. Commanders spent money on special uniforms.
Occasionally, a unit even went so far as to review new arrivals from Europe as they landed on the East Coast. Supposedly, emigrants with an ability to play an instrument well, would be whisked westward by an anxious recruiter. While this practice may have been unique, the quality of the bands was often good. In fact, Walt Whitman found one of these groups in North Dakota and pronounced them the best band he had ever heard. He was so taken by their abilities that he wrote a poem about the experience.
The following pages describe the recreational pursuits of soldiers in the frontier army during the 19th century. Not all the information presented is directly related to Fort Scott but is typical of the activities that the men and women of the fort would have enjoyed.
Much of the information on these pages is taken from a booklet entitled "Soldiers at Play: Recreation and Pastimes of the Frontier Army."