Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, July 2, 2011

General Crook / Frontier Soldier

The first subject that comes to mind when you think of a U.S. Army soldier on the old western frontier are the Indian Wars including the Fetterman Massacre and the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There were also numerous books written about Quanah Parker and his Comanche Wars throughout Texas in the late 1860's and early 1870's.

A Western Frontier General

The Indian Wars are what thousands of books have been written about, both nonfiction historical accounts and dime novels. Fighting Indians is also what we remember most about the famous frontier generals of the period.

The picture below is of the General George Crook House located in the Miller Park neighborhood of North Omaha Nebraska. It's on the U.S. Register of Historic Places and it would make a good addition to your trip planner. The Crook House was used as the headquarters for the Department of the Platte during the general's tenure and also for later commanders. The Crook House was visited by both Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes. The house was eventually  taken over by the Douglas County Historical Society and was refurbished in the 1980's. It's open for both tours and special events. Their website is listed at the bottom of this post.

The Expeditions of General George Crook

General George Crook was involved in many events on the western U.S. frontier, being part of the Sioux Indian Wars of the mid 1870's as well as Comanche campaigns among others.

He was also involved in matters not strictly military in nature and with nothing to do with fighting Indians. This was a part of frontier military duty that I think really hasn't been heavily publicized.

During the very early Civil War reconstruction period, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act which really was an extension of an Act passed in 1807.

The Posse Comitatus Act put a limit the military's potential involvement in civilian affairs. In other words, it's intent was to keep the army from being a domestic police force.

This was actually one of the founding principles of our government. Being passed in 1867, the act went into effect right at the time of massive westward expansion. Towns were springing up almost every day and when the transcontinental railroad was completed, the emigration westward reached new heights. To be sure, the U.S. Army had it's hands full trying to protect settlers and at the same time attempting to relocate Indians on reservations.

General George Crook
There were many times that soldiers became involved in nonmilitary matters. A unique example was the time they chased after train robbers.

The Army Goes After Train Robbers

A Union Pacific train was robbed at Big Springs Nebraska on September 18, 1877. The train robbers netted personal items from the passengers and about $60,000 in gold coins. This certainly was one of the great robberies of the time. The robbers split up into two groups and headed south. The Union Pacific offered a $10,000 reward mostly due to the amount of gold coins stolen.

Civilian posse's headed out after the robbers which of course was normal. What was different in this case was that General George Crook, pictured right, ordered troops dispatched from both Fort Robinson and Fort McPherson to join the pursuit. Eleven soldiers joined Sheriff George W. Bardsley of Hayes City Kansas and a short time later confronted two of the bandits near Buffalo Station Kansas. A shootout ensued and both outlaws were killed.

If it sounded like a good outcome, it really wasn't. There was a legal battle over the reward money and a few years later Bardsley collected $2,250 and the eleven soldiers had to split a total of $1,002. The prevailing story is that Sheriff Bardsley claimed all the credit. While General Crook was known to have a liberal interpretation of Posse Comitatus, most of the time that the army found itself involved in civilian affairs they drew loud criticism.

The army's dilemma was that the relatively new settlements in the west often times had inadequate law enforcement but at the same time the army had to act in some capacity when high profile trouble erupted and a $60,000 train robbery qualified as high profile. Regardless of the controversy generated, General Crook was known to have ordered his soldiers into civilian matters more than once. You can just imagine the political infighting that ensued trying to interpret the Posse Comitatus Act. Today we have much clearer lines of jurisdiction but in the wild west of the late 1800's this line was blurred at best.

The Pullman Strike

General Nelson Miles
Another high profile civilian disturbance that drew in the military was the 1894 Pullman Strike in Chicago. While Chicago isn't really the western frontier, the story is revealing as to how military intervention can turn political.

The period of the late 1800's saw it's share of labor unrest. Immigrants has arrived by the thousands searching for work. Regarding work unions, The Knights of Labor reached it's zenith in the 1880's and had it's greatest victory with the Union Pacific Railroad strike.

The primary goal of the Knights was the eight hour workday. Miners as a group called many strikes involving both pay and working conditions. In the second decade of the 20th century one of the most bloodiest labor uprisings took place in Ludlow Colorado when coal miners struck.

Several economic downturns  from the 1870's onward aggravated the labor situation and in this case it involved the Pullman strike. The Pullman Palace Car Company lowered worker's pay 25% while leaving corporate manager's pay the same. Union activists and avowed socialists always appeared, tempers flared and violence was inevitable. George Pullman stuck to his guns. He wasn't going to bargain and he wasn't going to talk with the strikers.

General Nelson Miles, pictured above left, another big figure from the Indian Wars both on the plains and in Arizona (Geronimo surrendered to Miles) and a Civil War veteran, was sent in with 12,000 troops augmented by U.S. Marshals on orders of President Grover Cleveland to end the strike. The use of force against civilians by the military was a very controversial topic at the time. During the confrontation several strikers were killed in the  and that in itself led to further violence. A tremendous amount of property damage occurred. During the strike Eugene Debs, the socialist organizer, was arrested and tried for inciting violence and destroying private railroad property. After two trials and being represented by Clarence Darrow he was found guilty of a lesser charge and served six months in jail.

When the Pullman Strike was over the army took a great deal of criticism. The criticism was that Nelson Miles was getting too close with George Pullman and kept his troops in Chicago longer than necessary. In situations like these the army is wide open for accusations of taking sides. Regardless, Nelson Miles had a very successful military career. The town of Miles City Montana was named in the General's honor. Pullman himself was criticized for his "company town" philosophy whereas workers were dependent on his company for their homes, groceries, everything. They lived in homes within Pullman's own town outside Chicago.

 Many historians have pointed out the irony of having rank and file troops used to subdue the nations labor force. If anything, the typical non commissioned soldier had much more in common with the work unions than he did with the industrial tycoons of the day. Many U.S. Army troops were themselves immigrants.

As a memorial to the 1894 Pullman strikers, a rose and herb garden was planted in Chicago in the 1980's to commemorate the strike. It's location is 11111 S. Forestville Ave.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images from public domain)

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