9-11: The Cavalry Is Back!





John Barnhill is an independent historian living in Oklahoma and a writer for the History News Service.

Bring on the Indians; the cavalry is back. A couple of months ago we were all sitting around waiting for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to reinvent the military for a peacetime environment. Guess what: September 11 and homeland defense have put the troops back in the saddle. Since we stopped demobilizing after wars fifty years back, we've kept our troops mostly out of sight, let them do their day-to-day work in our backyard but with a privacy fence between them and us. Now they're everywhere we go, doing the things that in other times would have qualified as garrison duty. Not to stretch the parallel too far, but the new homeland defense does hark back to those simple days when the West was wild and defense was either a do-it-yourself job or a hooray for the cavalry just topping the hill. Garrisoning the war on terror should be just about as exciting as sitting at Fort Supply or any one of the other posts that protected the citizens during the Indian Wars.

In 1877 a scouting party of six soldiers and three Navajo scouts commanded by Lt. Henry Wright, rode through the dismal countryside near Deming, New Mexico, looking for Indians. They found them, then found themselves surrounded by 40 to 50 Chiricahua Apaches. They fought hard and prevailed and one of them, Corporal Clifton Greaves earned the Congressional Medal of Honor (as did 22 other Buffalo Soldiers between 1866 and 1912). This action is analogous to the current raids on Afghanistan, especially now that the troops are learning that the Taliban forces are more rugged fighters than expected.

11The battle was the exception for the soldiers, not the norm. Now, as it was in the nineteenth century, the mundane defines military life. Military service against the Indians was mostly misery and drudgery. Patrols could last up to half a year and cover 1,000 miles. And troopers built and rebuilt forts, strung telegraph wire, escorted settlers, railroaders, and cattle, and built and patrolled national parks. They drilled, pulled guard duty, and kept up their horses, barracks, weapons and equipment. Nowadays soldiers watch us as we venture back into the air, check our borders, stand guard over our water, power, and other facilities.

One thing's different. We don't kick the GIs around much anymore. For the frontier soldier, when in town, if there was a town they could reach, they could expect a less than open-armed welcome. Westerners, many of whom were former Confederates, disliked soldiers for their uniform, and Buffalo Soldiers for both the color of their uniform and the color of their skin. And the towns that sprang up around the frontier posts were not cultural hotbeds, featuring rather saloons, gambling parlors, houses of prostitution. These towns also attracted the West's most unsavory characters. Consistently, in conflicts between soldiers and locals, sheriffs and juries came down on the side of the locals.

Soldiering was hard duty for white and black, and the rewards of a five-year enlistment weren't all that great. For a seven-day workweek with holidays on the Fourth of July and Christmas, a private got $16 a month, reduced to $13 in 1871. The army also provided food, clothing, and a place to live. There was no Internet, no overseas option, no G.I. Bill, no way to match the luxurious life given today's soldier. Still, it was a living, and a profession a man - or woman - could take pride in.

Oddly, the cavalry analogy rings true today, what with a commander in chief who is leading the troops over the hill. Or is he the lone ranger and those behind him a posse?


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