Second Lieutenant Jospehus Wilcox was about as unhappy as a newly minted officer in the United States Army could be. Freshly graduated from West Point, he had made the long trip by railroad and steamboat to the cavalry depot at St. Louis, expecting to be able to immediately begin carrying out his first assignment: to lead several sections of new men from the depot out to Camp Robinson in Nebraska. There, he and those fresh recruits would be become part of the 3rd U.S.Cavalry Regiment, helping watch over the 13,000 or so Lakota and Cheyenne who resided at the nearby Red Cloud agency.
But instead of being able to set out immediately, he had been informed that the depot commandant was not quite ready to release the men into his custody. This seemed to contradict his orders, as well as what he had been told to expect. Highly respected officers back at the Military Academy had assured him that the new recruits would simply be held at the depot until he arrived--that almost all training would take “on the job” out at the post, so the men could be molded into the kind of soldiers that officers like Second Lieutenant Wilcox wanted them to be. Instead...it turned out that the depot was experimenting with providing the “fresh meat” with some serious training under the direction of officers and non-coms who had only recently been on active service in the field against the hostiles. Evidently, there was actually a plan afoot to move the depot to St. Louis’ Jefferson barracks soon, and at that time the commandant expected the policy of training new recruits to become official and standardized...and apparently this plan had the backing of Army administrators.
Nonetheless, Wilcox had protested quite vehemently that he had been instructed to proceed immediately to Camp Robinson with these men. He was then told--in no uncertain terms--that unless he wished to have his posting to 3rd Cav abruptly changed, he had best learn to accept things and just shut the hell up and make good use of the extra time.
Upon reflection, he decided he had no issue with that...if the commandant was not going to let him proceed with his assignment, Wilcox concluded it would be a good opportunity to start seeing what the new troopers were like, and to begin establishing his authority over them. The men however, proved to be yet another disappointment to him.
They were a mixed and unremarkable bag. Half of the sixteen men (four sections of four each) were dutchmen or swedes who could barely speak any english. A few of the others were Irishmen, who looked suspiciously like potential troublemakers. The remainder seemed to be big city slum dwellers (and some, possibly fugitives from the law)...they were a rough lot, mostly scrawny, unimpressive physical specimens.
The group was under the direction and instruction of a First Sergeant who was attached to the cavalry depot...and to Wilcox’s surprise, in the short amount of time he had this scruffy crew under his tutelage, the sergeant had made some real progress. He had got the men accustomed to the basics of horsemanship (many of them had never been on horses before arriving at the depot), and handling their gear and weapons. They knew how the accouterments were supposed to be worn, they had the rudimentary basics of military courtesy, and they had tentatively dipped their collective toes into the arcane waters of dismounted drill. The sergeant had even begun giving them a modest introduction to convoluted ballet on horseback that was mounted drill.
But this sergeant...oh my...he really did not inspire confidence in young Wilcox’s mind. He looked to be nearly 50, his gear and uniform was a mix of old and new bits and pieces...he was a dutchman himself, explaining things in his his native tongue to the immigrant recruits instead of forcing them to speak only english...and he wore an eyepatch!
Finally, Wilcox could stand it no longer. He requested a meeting with the commandant to express his concerns. And the commandant, having had a good morning and feeling well rested and satisfied with the returns recorded by his quartermaster sergeant, was in a sufficiently generous mood as to be willing to address the issues that the Lieutenant had on his mind.
When the Lieutenant reported to the commandant's office at the appointed time, the senior officer bade the young man take a seat in his office and actually smiled slightly.
“What can I do for you, Lieutenant?”
“Sir I...must confess I am confused. Since I have arrived here..a number of things have puzzled me...though, I...I think I now understand the desirability of giving the men some preparation before sending them to posts deep in the interior...but..."
The Commandant chuckled a little bit. “It’s a different army out here isn’t it? Once you cross that big muddy river, it’s a whole different way of doing things from what you were taught..and what you saw at posts back east. Let me tell you this, Lieutenant, it’s just going to get more and more different, the further into the wilds that you get.”
Wilcox frowned. “But sir...I think I can..sort of understand that..but so many rules and regulations, and...orders...they seem to be largely circumvented or put aside... “
It was the Commandant’s turn to frown. “Oh? Such as?”
“Well,” the lieutenant continued, “Take First Sergeant Bogart for example...does he own the regulation uniform? On training details I’ve observed, he wears the old pattern short cavalry jacket, and the old forage cap...old style leathers and belt buckle..his pistol is an obsolete pattern...doesn't he own one of the new pattern blouses and the current set of accouterments?”
The commandant shrugged. “I am confident he does...you don’t suppose that he wants to get them worn and filthy, do you? I imagine he’s saving them for parade purposes. And as for his old kit and firearms...habit probably. This is First Sergeant Bogart’s final year of his enlistment..and he has been at this a while, let me tell you. He was...well, he was leading men in combat against the natives probably before you were born...”
"But sir..he wears an eye patch...he seems to be missing an eye, that is absolutely against reg...”
“Yes, Yes of course," the commandant interrupted. “Bogart lost that eye in the War. I am told he does own an artificial glass one for special occasions...and I assume when he signed up for service in the army some 11 years ago, he popped it in for the exam and the doctor didn’t notice...was probably either drunk or didn’t care. And even when officers at subsequent duty posts found out the truth, he was such an exemplary and experienced horse soldier it simply became customary to overlook it. I believe, however, that if he was ever on parade or under inspection conducted by an officer who might have protested, he simply put in his glass eyeball and avoided close eye contact.”
“You said he’s in the last year of his enlistment...but enlistments are for five years..and you said he is in his eleventh year?”
“Ah yes..you see Wilcox, he has in fact gone through two full enlistments since the War...but we wanted him for another year to work here with training recruits at the depot, so we made an arrangement with him....”
“Sir? How did...um...officially?”
The Commandant waved his hand dismissively. “No of course not officially. We just altered his records, giving him an enlistment date for a year after he first actually entered the US cavalry...it’s all taken care of.” The commandant smiled and folded his arms on his chest as if he thought this was all an eminently reasonable and appropriate solution.
But Wilcox was not quite done yet. “Sir? The Sergeant allows the men to do fatigue... and sometimes even drill...in their shirtsleeves. And he made the men turn in their Smith & Wesson revolvers and draw Colts. Furthermore, he's teaching them techniques with their weapons that I am sure aren’t in any manuals...”
The commandant looked at the junior officer as if he was just a tad feeble-minded.
“Good,” he said simply.
“You’ll see when the men are actually in the territories on work details and on campaign and patrolling...they are going to look more like border ruffians than picture book soldiers. They will fight in their shirtsleeves and some of them will die in their shirtsleeves. Get used to it. As for the guns...we checked, and the companies of 3rd Cavalry at Camp Robinson carry the new model of Colt’s revolver...and perhaps you were not aware that the round that is used with the Colt is very different from the ammunition for the Smith & Wesson models. It will simplify the supply situation at the post.”
Lieutenant Wilcox sighed. He rather liked the Smith & Wesson No. 3 pistol, as it automatically ejected the empty casings when you opened it to reload...but he could see the sense of making sure that the enlisted men had the same weapons as the other fellows in their companies.
The commandant apparently could read his mind. “It’s quite all right Lieutenant...if you prefer the Smith & Wesson for you own sidearm, please feel free to continue usage of it...you have to purchase your own ammunition anyway. Simply be sure you are taking a goodly supply with you.”
“Yessir. I will be sure to do so.”
“Oh and as far as what else First Sergeant Bogart is teaching them...the things that aren’t in manuals...be very glad that he is covering that ground with the men. There are a great many things that books do not tell you. Nor do things always work the way the manuals say they should. You would do well to avail yourself of some of Sergeant Bogart’s wisdom yourself before reporting at Camp Robinson. Fortunately, you will have some extended opportunity to do so....”
“Sir?” The Lieutenant looked confused once more.
“Ah well, I have decided to have the Sergeant accompany you and the new men to your posting, just so....”
“So that he could help me to understand some things?”
The Commandant nodded. “Precisely Mr. Wilcox.”
The Young man looked thoughtful. “You say that First Sergeant Bogart was wounded in the war...may I ask if you know which battle that happened at?”
“Ah, I believe it was near Vicksburg in ’63. As I understand the story, his company was preparing to move out and one of our shells exploded among them, killing some of his companions and wounding him.”
“Umm...sir? One of...our shells, you say? Do I take you to mean that...”
“Oh yes...of course, Mr. Bogart was a Captain commanding a company of Confederate cavalry...one of the Texas regiments, I believe...in Ross’s brigade, most likely. And before the war he spent a good number of years as an officer of Texas rangers fighting the Comanche.”
The commandant paused and fixed the young man with an unwavering gaze, looking him straight in the eye. “Do you have any problem with that, Lieutenant?”
“No, sir!” came the crisp reply. “I shall look forward to...conversing with First Sergeant Bogart.”
The commandant was starting to feel a little bit better about this shavetail. He might turn out to be fine, after all.
“Lieutenant, it is nearly time for Noon mess...you will be so kind as to accompany me.”
“Yes, SIR. Thank you, sir.”