FORT UNION
Historic Resource Study
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CHAPTER EIGHT:
LIFE AT THE THIRD FORT UNION (continued)

     One might conclude from the sparse accounts of enlisted men which have survived that grumbling was a major leisure-time activity of frontier soldiers. Undoubtedly, complaints (real and imagined) were common subjects of conversation. How soldiers relaxed when not on duty varied considerably, but Don Rickey derived general conclusions from his interviews with veterans active during the era of the last three decades of Fort Union history, and the records of Fort Union contribute additional details. Rickey concluded that, for the enlisted personnel, "the principal barracks relaxation was visiting and talking among themselves," which would have included the ubiquitous complaining. [101]

     A popular pastime for many soldiers was playing cards in the barracks, at the post trader's store, or at saloons and other places off the military reservation. Some card games involved betting and others simply provided entertainment and an atmosphere for affable conversation. Popular games without stakes included euchre, cribbage, casino, and pinochle. Whist was enjoyed by a few enlisted men, but it was a game more common among officers and their wives. The favorite gambling card games were stud and draw poker, three-card monte, and black jack. Although all forms of gambling were prohibited among soldiers, Rickey noted that some soldiers regularly "squandered all their pay in gambling." In addition to cards, dice were sometimes used for betting. Horse racing was popular among soldiers and frequently involved wagers. Despite the ban on all gambling, Rickey found that "the average low-stake barrack room games, however, were usually not rigidly policed." [102]

     A rare mention of gambling at Fort Union appeared in the post records for 1886, when Post Commander Henry R. Mizner issued an order declaring that all types of gambling were prohibited "among the enlisted men." [103] It may be assumed that the order was a response to information that there was widespread gambling among the troops. The order was probably ineffectual. Aubrey Lippincott, who spent part of his youth at Fort Union as the son of the post surgeon, 1887-1891, recalled many years later that "there was always gambling." [104]

horseback riding
Horseback riding was a popular pastime at Fort Union, especially for officers and their families. Here an unidentified couple, officer and woman, are on the bluffs west of the post, which is barely visible in the background. Photo Collection, Fort Union National Monument, courtesy B. William Henry.

     The soldiers also engaged in many other types of recreational activities. Rickey noted the growing importance of athletic contests after the Civil War, including "foot racing, jumping, weight-throwing, horseshoe pitching, and field sports." Baseball became one of the most popular sports in the 1870s and 1880s. [105] Other sports included boxing, horse racing (a race track was built at Fort Union in the late 1870s), lawn tennis, [106] billiards (billiard tables for officers and enlisted men were available at the post trader's store at Fort Union soon after the Civil War), bowling (Adolph Griesinger built a bowling alley in connection with his restaurant in 1868), [107] hunting, and fishing. Hunting was popular throughout the history of the post. Second Lieutenant Duncan recalled of his time at Fort Union, "I spent much of my time on horseback, hunting and riding over the country, not a fence impeded progress in any direction." [108] There was at least one sleigh at Fort Union in the winter of 1873-1874, apparently used by officers and their families for pleasure trips. [109]

     A soldier-correspondent at Fort Union in the late 1880s wrote in an area newspaper that entertainment at the post included good trout fishing, duck hunting, band concerts, theater, and visits to Loma Parda, Tiptonville, and the hot springs near Las Vegas. [110] In the 1880s bicycling became a popular pastime for a few people at the post. Additional forms of recreation included dominoes, chess, checkers, practical jokes, story telling, and humorous tales. Some of the officers and their families played croquet. [111] Other diversions included singing, musical instruments (banjo, guitar, violin, and harmonica), variety shows, minstrel shows, and dances.

Philip Herrier C. E. Borden
Musician Philip Herrier, Third Cavalry band at Fort Union, about 1807. Photo Collection, Fort Union National Monument, courtesy of Grace Winterton. Private C. E. Borden, Tenth infantry bands man at Fort Union, about 1887. J. R. Riddle photo, courtesy Kansas State Historical Society.

     Almost everyone who wrote about life at Fort Union, including enlisted men and officers' wives, testified to the popularity of dances. In February 1873 Sergeant Eddie Matthews, Eighth Cavalry, noted that there had been four "grand balls" at the post during the winter. Three of those had been hosted by three companies of his regiment, respectively, and the other was sponsored by the Good Templars, in which Matthews was an active leader. [112] In November 1873 the Good Templars sponsored a dance the night before Thanksgiving. Matthews reported the details to his family.

     "Had our Hall decorated very nicely with Flags and pictures. At 8:30 nearly all the Officers and Ladies of the Post came in and opened the Ball for us, they danced one Quaddrill and one Waltz, thanked us for the pleasure and departed. Soon as they made their exit, dancing commenced in earnest and was kept up until 12. Lunch in abundance consisting of Bread, Biscuits, butter, Ham, tea, Coffee, Cake, Lemonade, Candy and Cigars to wind up with was then served. One hour was very pleasantly spent in that kind of pastime and then dancing resumed and kept up until 6 A.M. . . . Thirteen ladies (nearly all married) and about three times that many men composed the party. And I must say it was the most pleasant little party I have seen since leaving home." [113]

Twenty-Third infantry band
Twenty-Third infantry band at Fort Union, 1883, courtesy Fort Sam Houston Museum, Department of the Army.

     The Good Templars sponsored another dance on New Year's Eve, December 31, 1873. Matthews attested, "We had a real delightful time." He again provided details:

     "Danced from 8 to 12 M and then got on the outside of a good substantial supper. At 1 A.M. resumed hostilities and kept it up until 5 A.M. I don't think there was one in the Hall that night but what enjoyed him or herself, and I guess they all felt like me: "tired but satisfied". I was quite an important individual in the affair, was one of the Committee on Invitations, Music, and the only Floor Manager we had, besides served as Head Waiter at Supper, and in fact made myself generally useful." [114]

     Music for dances was usually provided by the post band. The presence of an army band at any post was a source of entertainment for enlisted men as well as officers and their families. After the Civil War Fort Union was fortunate to have a regimental band assigned to the garrison much of the time. The bands played regularly at the post, provided music for dances and special occasions (such as weddings, welcome and farewell parties, birthday parties, and holiday festivities), and frequently gave concerts in outlying communities. In 1870 the Eighth Cavalry band from Fort Union performed for the July 4 celebration in Las Vegas. A few weeks later ten additional bandsmen and a new band leader joined the regimental band at Fort Union. Private Matthews exclaimed, "We have much better music now." [115] A few years later the Ninth Cavalry band, at that time stationed at Fort Union, presented a Fourth of July concert in Santa Fe in 1876, the centennial of American independence. A permanent bandstand was erected at the post in 1876 (there may have been temporary bandstands earlier), and weekly concerts (held inside when the weather was intemperate) were popular with enlisted men, officers and their families, and civilians. After the railroad was available for transportation, the bandsmen were invited to play for dances and other diversions in communities as far away as Denver to the north and Albuquerque to the south. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway acquired the resort hotel at the hot springs near Las Vegas in the early 1880s, and the band was repeatedly invited to perform there for tourists and health-seekers. The musicians provided a popular form of entertainment on and off the post. [116]

quarters
Interior of quarters of Musician Joe Nevins and his wife at Fort Union, about 1887. Keeshan Collection, Fort Union National Monument.

     The resourcefulness of enlisted men in providing their own entertainment at the post blossomed forth in various types of dramatic presentations, ranging from comedy to serious drama. In 1870 Private Matthews, Eighth Cavalry, noted that some members of his and another company of the regiment had presented "a Variety Theatre performance here a few nights ago." He observed they had "done very well, they took in about one hundred dollars." The participants planned "to have a performance once a week," but Matthews, who did not want to spend his austere pay for entertainment, declared, "Don't think I shall go soon again." He went one more time, however, and concluded not to go again because "the performance is very poor." [117] The officers usually encouraged play acting and occasionally joined in the act. Sometimes the actors organized a dramatic club and sometimes a group of volunteers would present a program without a formal association. Now and then a traveling show would perform at the post. The plays, regardless the sponsors and the talents of the players, were usually enjoyed by residents at the post. Once in awhile, during the latter years of Fort Union, enlisted men gave performances in nearby communities, especially Las Vegas.

     In 1883 the Fort Union Dramatic Club, assisted by the Twenty-Third Infantry band stationed at the post, presented a two-night variety show in Las Vegas to raise funds for the post school. Tickets were 75 cents for reserved seats and 50 cents for general admission. After each show the band played for a dance. In 1885 the Club gave a performance of a melodrama titled "Ben Bolt" to a standing-room-only audience. Another group of enlisted men organized the Fort Union Comedy Company (later Fort Union Minstrel Troupe) which also performed in Las Vegas as well as at the post. [118] The Fort Union Minstrel Troupe was active and popular in 1888, giving performances at the post library on Monday evenings. [119]

     In the 1880s, and perhaps earlier, several clubs were organized for entertainment and edification of the members, providing recreation for themselves that the army failed to offer. The recreation provided by those organizations was a more desirable alternative to the dissipation provided by saloons, gambling dens, and brothels nearby. The most popular groups, supported by many of the troops, were the social clubs, such as the Young Men's Social Club, the Crystal Social Club, and the Excelsior Social Club. The social clubs were founded primarily to sponsor hops (dances) on a regular basis at the post. Some clubs arranged for monthly hops and, at times, the dances occurred semimonthly or even weekly on Saturday nights. Most soldiers participated in these hops because the dances were an enjoyable diversion from the monotony of routine post life. [120]

     In 1884 a Mr. Cory (first name unknown) offered dancing instructions for soldiers willing to pay to learn the popular steps. Apparently Cory had obtained the services of women to serve as partners for the lessons, and some of the soldiers were willing to pay for the instruction because of the opportunity to meet a female. Because of the shortage of women at the post, citizens from surrounding communities (such as Watrous, Wagon Mound, and Las Vegas) were sometimes invited at attend. Because there were always more men than women, it was common practice at the hops for some of the men to assume the identity of "ladies" (usually by tying a handkerchief around their arm) for the evening and serve as dancing partners for other men. [121] The dearth of unattached females was a chronic complaint. Most soldiers would have agreed with one of their number who bemoaned "there are few single women in the Post." [122] The hops were apparently the most popular form of entertainment at the post for enlisted men, perhaps because they usually included young women from the area, and they were also enjoyed by officers and their wives.

     There were also organizations that appealed to the interests of smaller groups of enlisted men. The debating club, which apparently invited anyone interested to listen to its disputations, argued about current events and social issues as well as humorous questions. One topic was "resolved, it is better for a man to have a good mule than a wife." One soldier reported in 1885, probably in jest, that the club was debating whether macaroni grew on bushes or trees. [123] There were literary societies (one organized in 1887 was known as Kramer's Literary Association, named to honor Captain Adam Kramer, Sixth Cavalry, [124] designed to encourage reading and discussion, usually of materials contained in the post library. Literary societies also raised funds to purchase books, magazines, and newspapers. There were music clubs organized to play and sing popular music, [125] and there may have been sports clubs to encourage racing, wrestling, boxing, and baseball. Fort Union had a baseball team that competed against teams from other communities, including Las Vegas, Wagon Mound, Mora, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. Although officers and enlisted men usually did not fraternize in sporting events, some officers did join the enlisted men to play baseball. [126]

Fort Union Baseball Club
Fort Union Baseball Club, taken at Las Vegas about 1888. Larsen Collection, Fort Union National Monument.

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