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The Heavy Hand of Frontier Discipline By Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum

December 28, 2012
Northern-Sun Print
One Sergeant in the frontier Army was asked to comment on the standards of discipline. The sergeant declared that “as long as you behaved yourself and performed your duty as a soldier you got along all right”. True, as far as it went. Unfortunately that was not usually the case. The truth was that very few enlisted men served out their time without being accused of some sort of infraction. Since legal punishment for ANY breach of conduct, no matter how small, required a court-martial; the number of military trials was staggering. One year during the Indian wars, 2,056 trials were held in the Department of Platte. Interestingly enough, it was manned by only 3,008 soldiers. (The Department of Platte was a military administrative district established by the Army in 1866 with boundaries encompassing Iowa, Nebraska, Dakota Territory, Utah Territory and a small portion of Idaho.) The punishment was generally harsh and arbitrary, depending on the character or mood of the individual officer. This determined how apt he was to hand out harsh punishment without explanation. For a minor infraction, such as sleeping through roll call, a soldier might be fined a month’s pay or spend up to a month in the guardhouse, or both. General George Custer incarcerated such offenders in a special prison of his own design. It was a 15 foot deep hole in the ground covered with boards. A soldier, who was found guilty of drunkenness or insubordination, might have to march all day while carrying a 30 or 40 pound log. He might even be strung up by his wrists or thumbs. A deserter could be compelled to wear a 25 pound ball and chain around his ankle for months. Pretty harsh, but yet a man subjected to such disciplinary measures might count himself lucky, for Army regulations at that time recommended the death penalty for at least 12 crimes, including striking an officer, and sleeping on guard duty. Heavy penalties and the lack of legal recourse were largely responsible for a desertion rate of approximately one third of all of the soldiers recruited during the Indian wars. When the government conducted a survey of some of the captured deserters, most of them said they had fled “tyrannical superiors.”


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