Five Years A Dragoon: ’49 to ’54 and other Adventures on the Great Plains. Percival G. Lowe (1905) reprinted 1965 University of Oklahoma Press Norman
[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]
One of the great dramas of the late 19th century was the rapid American transition from self-absorbed isolationism to globe-trotting bravado in the last decade of the 19th century. Part of the story is the buildup of muscle and self-confidence which the American public and American military acquired during the development of the West. The vast scale of the American continent, its settlement and policing, was to absorb the energies of America through most of the 19th century. After somber hints to Napoleon Bonaparte from Thomas Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was to add 282,000 square miles to the United States, almost 22% of its ultimate continental extent. Settlement of the Missouri drainage west of the Mississippi was initially quite slow. With the discovery of gold in California in 1849 however, the wagon trails from Saint Louis, Missouri were striking off in greater and greater numbers each year. Five Years a Dragoon may seem a strange subject for a chicagoboyz book review but it describes the American military experience for an ordinary soldier during a period when European nations could ignore American activities except for the border clashes in Maine and Oregon (settled effectively, if not amicably, by treaty with Great Britain). Percival Lowe was an enlisted man and writes in a lucid clear style reminiscent of US Grant’s autobiography. Without a military reputation to enhance, his accounts of the period from 1849 onward in the region from Kansas west to the Rocky Mountains are notable in many ways.
Lowe joined the pre-Civil War US Army as a dragoon (a soldier trained to fight from both horse and the ground), armed as they were at the time with smooth-bore musketoons and percussion-cap pistols. After a relatively brief period of training in Fort Carlisle in Pennsylvania, he was assigned late in the season to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on the Missouri River. There he was part of Leavenworth’s early years and involved in the siting and subsequent construction of Fort Riley, Kansas further west in 1853, home of the US Cavalry, (now a significant divisional headquarters and 100,000-acre training area). Rising quickly to the rank of first sergeant with the First Regiment of the US Dragoons, Lowe was to develop the skills of leadership and frontier campaigning which were to keep him alive for subsequent decades and set him at the pinnacle of responsibility for logistical supply during the Civil War period. From a sociological standpoint, the army privates of the late 1840s were often on the lam for one reason or another but many were well-educated nonetheless. Often their origins were international, with troopers from England and Ireland well-represented. Leavenworth was established in 1827 and soon after the first contacts across the Santa Fe Trail were creating an international trade network with the settlements in the Mexican Territories that were already 220 years old.
Annual summer expeditions were followed by winter encampment in the forts, and the winter foraging of the critical horse herds. The challenges of food and forage supply during early days in Kansas were substantial. The expanding farms near to the forts began to supply foodstuffs and livestock but the Free/Slave state controversies made Kansas very dangerous for civilians in the 1850s. Ambushes were common and Lowe himself was to repeatedly confront several characters on the Plains that he had variously dismissed, threatened, wounded, and shot at, during the course of many expeditions and battles. Desertion from the ranks in search of gold or criminal opportunity was relatively common and Lowe makes particular mention of how the trade in information about the reputations of specific individuals was a matter of critical concern. Informal allies would often work together for many years. And a few carefully chosen words could determine whether a miscreant was hanged or given the benefit of the doubt.
Lowe was an attending soldier during the weeks of negotiation and bartering which preceded the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851). Each summer, depending on the incidents of the time, the dragoons were in the field, policing the large emigrant trails – heading west to Oregon and Santa Fe. In subsequent years, as a civilian, he was to oversee high speed treks with ox and mule trains to Salt Lake City and Fort Union (northeast NM) during tense relations with the Mormons and unsettled Civil War raiding from Texas. He provided logistical backup for expeditions against the Cheyenne, and during the mid-late 1860s and early 1870s, undertook the supply of the US Army as it adapted to the rapid westward progression of the railways across the Great Plains and to the edge of the Rocky Mountains. Lowe’s accounts of trips between Fort Riley and the newly built Denver, Colorado sound very much like forays into southern Afghanistan. Native tribes competed with Confederate raiders, generic outlaws, and French-Canadian Metis or Mexican freighters for water, grass, employment, and booty. Constant vigilance was necessary.
And yet Lowe also offers a taste of the rhythm of daily life on the Plains — of humans, animals and gear in an unending routine of early mornings and early evenings, of constant exertion in all weather conditions. Occasional flights of real prose poetry describe the weather and scenery of the open Plains in an era before settlement and railroads, when buffalo herds were so immense that they could disrupt travel for days. In a time when the tribes of the era were still being armed and mounted for the first time, there was real competition over whether Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne, Pawnee, or Apache would rule the region west of Fort Riley. Like the legionaries of old, the dragoons of Fort Riley would corral each evening with a view to protecting themselves from arrows and spears of surprise raiders from any of a half-dozen tribes.
For those with a bit of familiarity with the basic history and geography of the West, Lowe offers an amazing account of his life, filled with considerable danger, exertion and quick-witted action, and offering eye-witness accounts of events which were to affect the native, civilian and military occupants of the Great Plains for generations. How many other sergeants could offer personal anecdotes of sweating with, serving under, and saving the butts of Confederate General JEB Stuart, legendary mountain man Jim Bridger, Crazy Horse’s dad (Man-Afraid-of-His-Horses) and sixty other men who were to go on eventually to become general officers for both sides of the Civil War conflict? Young lieutenants on the Great Plains in the early 1850s learning the ropes with First Sergeant Lowe were brigadier-generals leading thousands at Gettysburg ten years later.
In the passage of almost fifty years’ association with Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley, Kansas, Percival Lowe experienced starving soldiers, catastrophic epidemics, buffalo stampedes, drought, alkali springs, flash floods, blizzards, and record-breaking logistical treks to New Mexico and Utah. He participated in annual summer campaigns against recalcitrant tribes and sought to avoid sudden death in the bloody Free/Slave Kansas wars of the 1850s. In one episode, he rode single-handed into a huge Sioux village in search of four mules, over-nighted in the tipi of a nonplussed chief, and drove the mules home to his post the next day, 120 miles riding in forty-eight hours. Lowe offers insight into the attitudes of leadership and personal character which were critical for this environment.
Five Years came to my attention when it was cited in Robert Kaplan’s Imperial Grunts (2005) as a model of the military life now being appropriated by US Army and Special Forces in places like Afghanistan, the Philippines and the Horn of Africa. The same frontier-post “Indian Country” mentality preoccupies those soldiers …. a life filled with provision of health and veterinary care to the locals, the construction of infrastructure, safeguarding convoys, small group sporadic warfare, endless negotiation with tribes under social stress, and a personal style of life dominated by physical fitness, courage, fortitude, diverse skills, and deep familiarity with the instant use of weapons. Unexpected death and disease were a constant companion for Lowe. His book, written in 1905, is nonetheless heartfelt in its remembrances of comrades and acquaintances — many cut down in droves, on both sides of the conflict, in the deadly battles of the Civil War. Some drowned in front of him or were fatally injured in nameless streams or coulees scattered across the thousands of empty square miles on the Great Plains. Substantial footnotes in the book supplement Lowe’s straightforward account with the biographies of the people he met, served under and worked with.
Lowe wasn’t content to serve indefinitely in the army. At the end of his five year commitment to the dragoons, he became a civilian employee of the Army and turned his military savvy, leadership, and logistical skills toward supporting Army campaigns across the plains. Now Lowe became responsible for the care and feeding of hundreds of mules, oxen, and horses, the manning and training of their teamsters and wagonmasters, and provision of good food and good horseshoes to a mass of men and animals moving across very hostile environments. In the clever and tightly organized wagon trains of ammunition, equipment, and rations, we see the forebear of the modern hard-nosed logistical experts now embedded with the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the 1850s, split-second decisions could lose a military campaign by starving it or leaving it without medicine or ammunition, hundreds of miles from its billet.
Few episodes however are as hair-raising as Lowe’s description of the 1855 cholera epidemic which swept camp during the first permanent construction at Fort Riley and cast him in the role of civilian commander. In an era before the “germ” theory was well understood, the horrific nature of such disease, wiping out officers, soldiers, construction workers and families in random fashion (often within hours of first symptoms), created immediate social collapse – literal insanity. Acting as civilian manager and leader while maintaining security, sanitation, and order in such a hellish situation, Lowe establishes himself to the reader as an extraordinary person but also sets a standard of what Americans simply expected of life at the time. He recalls these events grimly but with complete modesty.
Apart from being a fascinating, if arcane, read of a lesser-known era of American history, overshadowed by the events of the Civil War, Five Years a Dragoon explains why the US was so inward looking. The vast scale of interior United States development and the rapid, often violent pace at which it was able to take place set a tone for the personalities of the time. Westward expansion raced through the Plains to the mineral-rich mountains and the rich farmlands of California and the Oregon. Then immigrants filled in the central Plains itself as the railways rapidly provided markets for cattle and wheat.
This tremendous expansion of agriculture, mining, railways, and logistics in policing the Great Plains during conflict (Mormons, Indians, free/slave, Civil War) were the training ground for several generations of American civil and military administrators. In retrospect, the process seems amazingly haphazard. Very junior and inexperienced people were making big decisions about fortifications, strategy and relations with natives and settlers. It is in this ad hoc environment that Robert Kaplan sees the lessons for the 21st century American policing of much of the world’s hinterlands. And it was the scale and pace of Western development that set the stage for a generation of missionaries, engineers, military officers, and administrators who expanded across the globe after the Spanish-American War.
This book isn’t for everyone. That fact was brought home to me when I learned I was the first person to loan the book out of the University of Calgary library since it was purchased forty years ago! Nonetheless, Lowe’s account is a fascinating story of the West in the mid-1800s that had me repeatedly turning to Google and my AAA maps, tracking down obscure personalities, and the forts and geographical features of the era. For an understated insight into a certain kind of American at a certain point of history in conditions of staggering challenge and danger, Five Years A Dragoon is hard to beat.