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Posted on Aug 24, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Uniforms, Arms, and Equipment. The U. S. Army on the Western Frontier – Book Review

By Jerry D. Morelock

cover.jpgBook Review – Uniforms, Arms, and Equipment. The U. S. Army on the Western Frontier, 1880-1892 (2 vols.) by Douglas C. McChristian, University of Oklahoma Press (oupress.com), 2007. 624 pages. 441 color and black & white illus. $95 per set.

Doug McChristian’s magnificent new two-volume history of the uniforms, arms and equipment of America’s army in the West is another brilliant example of how comfortably the mantle of the late Don Rickey as our foremost authority on that subject fits McChristian’s shoulders. This two-volume follow up to his outstanding 1995 book, The U. S. Army in the West, 1870-1880: Uniforms, Arms and Equipment, expands McChristian’s detailed coverage of the subject from where that book left off.

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At over 600 pages in two well-organized, beautifully-produced, over-sized  volumes, the latter era of the frontier army (1880-92) is exceptionally well covered. Eight full color images and 433 black & white photographs provide historians, collectors and just about anyone interested in the frontier army with a wealth of highly-detailed and valuable information. McChristian’s narrative is superb, and goes well beyond merely describing in depth the uniforms, arms and accoutrements of the troops. He sets the stage for his coverage of the era and propels his narrative by explaining the problems that faced military and civilian decision-makers who were desperately trying to come to grips with a “frontier constabulary” force that would soon be forced to emerge on the world stage as the guardians of America’s global interests. McChristian’s book describes an army on the eve of the War with Spain, the conflict that made the United States a world power.

Volume 1, Headgear, Clothing and Footwear, details the problems faced by Washington decision-makers in attempting to properly cloth America’s frontier forces. These were not limited to trying to develop soldier gear that could withstand the extremes of weather and conditions found throughout the West. Miniscule post-Civil War budgets for military appropriations presented a severe restriction. Tellingly, McChristian reports that U. S. Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs announced only in 1880 that “the stock of old clothing left over at the close of the [Civil] war, has at length disappeared.” Frontier soldiers – for too long forced to endure the blizzards of Dakota or the furnace-like heat of the Southwest wearing totally inadequate 20-year old clothing — could only breath a sigh of relief at that long-awaited announcement. Boards of officers – including men with extended frontier service, like Nelson Miles and Ranald MacKenzie – were convened to recommend uniform changes, and their advice led to improved uniforms and gear more suitable to service in the West.

Volume 2, Weapons and Accoutrements, demonstrates that properly arming the Frontier soldier was as troublesome as clothing him. False starts, ill-conceived tools (the ridiculous “Trowel Bayonet” is an especially egregious example) and a Washington mind-set that was prejudiced against repeating rifles meant that soldiers in the West fought throughout the era armed, essentially, with the Colt revolver and “trapdoor” Springfield (single-shot, breech loading) rifle adopted in 1873. Although the Springfield rifle and carbine went through slightly altered versions from 1873 through 1888 (McChristian details all of them), the first repeating (bolt action, magazine) rifle put into general service, the Krag-Jorgensen, was not adopted until 1892 (earlier magazine rifles, such as the Model 1878 Hotchkiss, did see limited frontier service). McChristian tells the complete story of the army’s struggle to develop firearms appropriate to the vast distances and harsh conditions in which frontier warfare was fought.

Divided into 15 chapters and 5 appendices, McChristian’s book is an outstanding reference for collectors and museum curators, as well as being a fascinating account for anyone interested in the history of America’s frontier army. Our recommendation: Buy this new 2-volume set and McChristian’s earlier The U. S. Army in the West, 1870-1880. They represent the “must have” references on America’s frontier army and deserve a place in any military history enthusiast’s library. And while your at it, pick up a copy of McChristian’s outstanding book, Fort Bowie, Arizona: Combat Post of the Southwest, 1858-1894 (see our review in the September 2007 ACG Bookshelf).

About the Author

Douglas C. McChristian is a retired research historian for the National Park Service in the Santa Fe regional office, and a former National Park Service field historian at Fort Davis and Fort Laramie national historic sites and at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. A resident of Tucson, AZ, he is the author of Fort Bowie, Arizona: Combat Post of the Southwest, 1858-1894, and The U.S. Army in the West, 1870-1880: Uniforms, Weapons and Equipment.

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