Skip to main content

I would say the 1870's were a very hard time for the women of Fort Abraham Lincoln. First there was the Saturday of June 25, 1876, when over two hundred and twenty of their husbands and lovers were left dead and mutilated on the windswept hills overlooking the Little Big Horn River. They called that Custer's Last Stand, and it killed several members of the Custer family. But the horror of that day was simple to deal with compared with the trauma that followed in 1878, when the fort's women gathered to bury one their own, a resident of "Suds' Row".  And on that day those poor women saw something they had never expected to see where they found it.

Picture America as she was approaching her centennial year - a nation of about 45 million people. And even though they had no Internet,  no electricity,  no antibiotics and no gummy bears, these people were no   different from the 310 million who reside in America today.
*
In 1875 the moralizing "Our Boys" opened on Broadway.  It followed the adventures of an Englishman and his butler and their pair of disappointing sons. A century and a quarter later the sitcom "Two and a Half Men" mined this same comedic vein.. And like a latter day series "Lost",  Jules Vernes' 1875 novel, "The Survivors of the Chancellor" told an episodic science fiction adventure story of a British passenger ship, lost at sea. And ala "Who Let the Dogs Out", the most popular song of the day consisted of the repeated lyrics, "Carve dat possum, carve dat possum, children."  It's title was "Carve dat possum"  
*
Oh, the future was coming. Just the year before, in far off Germany, Dr. Ernst von Brucke had suggested that all living organisms obeyed the laws of thermodynamics. He was wrong, course, since very few humans, other than politicians, behave like big clouds of hot gas. But Doctor von Brucke had a student who would make sense out of  Burke's thinking - that student was Sigmund Freud.
*
But Freud's discovery of the subconscious mind and repressed psychosomatic phobias and dreams about locks and keys and milk maids and bows and arrows was still a decade in the future in 1878 - which was a shame because a little Freud sure would have helped those poor ladies at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Or maybe not.
*
The fort was on the west bank of the Missouri River, across from Bismark, North Dakota. In that  town the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the telegraph lines ended,  making the army post the very edge of the frontier. The Army post was home to about 650 men and some 300 women attached to the U.S. Seventh Cavalry regiment. Robert Marlin tried to describe what kind of desperate people would sign up for a year's service in such a place. “Immigrants, especially those from Ireland and German, filled the ranks. Others came from England, France and Italy. While most of the American recruits did not read or write, the immigrants who did not speak English compounded this problem…."
*
A trooper started off at the pay of $13 per month. Should he be such a glutton for punishment as to re-enlist, this was raised to $15. The trooper was now a “50-cent-a-day professional” soldier.  And it was a very long day, starting "...at 5:30 a.m.,” wrote Marlin, “with the dreaded call of Reveille, and ended at 10:00 p.m. with the bugle sounding Taps.”
*
The average recruit in the Seventh was in his mid-twenties, and stood about five feet eight inches tall. He suffered from bad teeth, a bad back, and about 10% had suffered from some form of healed head trauma even before they enlisted.  Twenty-two percent of the privates had been in the service for less than a year.  And few of them would re-enlist. Lord knows, the diet did not encourage them.
*
Each day every soldier received 12 ounces of pork or bacon, 22 ounces of flour or bread and less than an once of ground coffee. Every ten men were to receive per month; 15 lbs of beans or peas, 10 lbs of rice or hominy, 30 lbs of potatoes, 1 quart of molasses, 15 lbs of sugar, 3 lbs 12 ounces of salt, 4 ounces of pepper and 1 gallon of Vinegar. This was not a diet, it was a ration, and had as much flavor variation as "Spam, spam, spam and spam".
*
As the army needed soldiers, it also needed laundresses. They were as much in  the service of their country as the soldiers they served. And in a culture without a social safety net, the reasons a young man might join the cavalry were similar to the reasons a young woman might become a laundress; a roof over her head, and food in her belly. But even tho it needed them, the army did not encourage these women to stay a single day longer than necessary.
*
Linda Grant De Pauw lays out the vulnerability of such women in “Battle Cries and Lullabys; “…a laundress wrote to Major L.H. Marshall at Fort Boise, Idaho, describing how she had been arrested, charged as an attempted  murderess, and confined in a guardhouse for hitting her husband with a tin cup that he claimed was an axe…(she was) sentenced to be drummed off that post at fixed bayonets …she and her three children then had to live in a cold house, without the food ration they depended upon."
*
But the scramble to hold onto the fragile level of security which a blue uniform provided only partly explains the woman known to history only as "Mrs. Nash". Shortly after the Seventh Cavalry regiment was formed in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1866, she took up residence along “Suds Row” as the laundresses’ quarters were commonly called. She always wore a veil or a shawl, and it was assumed this was because of scaring from smallpox or one of the many other skin diseases common at the time. Besides earning a small income as a washer woman, Mrs. Nash showed talent as a seamstress and tailored officer's uniforms for extra money. She was a noted baker and her pies were much sought after. After she built a reputation as a dependable mid-wife “few births occurred (on the post) without her expert help”.
*
But there is no record Mrs. Nash ever served as a prostitute. This was something not uncommon for those laundresses who could neither bake nor sew, and who showed more talent for the other half of the midwife equation. And as a practical matter, prostitution by laundresses was not actively discouraged by the officers. This was the frontier and the only other option for amorous release by a trooper was with either his fellow troopers or the horses. Homophobic troopers tended to shoot first, and just say no afterward. And although the horses never complained, they were kind of important to survival on the plains and so that form of animal husbandry was discouraged. Thus prostitution by the laundresses was tolerated as long as the woman did not become really good at it or "notorious".
*
Quickly Mrs. Nash was a valuable member of the unit, and had even amassed a tidy little nest egg. In 1868 she married a Quartermasters Clerk named Clifton. But a few days later he deserted with her money and was never seen again. Still it was natural that Mrs. Nash would be encouraged to follow the regiment when it moved to Fort Abraham Lincoln, in Dakota Territory, in 1872.
*
That was the year she married Sergeant James Nash, the “striker”, or personal servant, to Captain Tom Custer, younger brother of the regimental commander George Armstrong Custer. Although James and Mrs. Nash were seen to argue a great deal, still they seemed happy enough for a year or so.  During that year Libbie Custer, wife of the General noted “…a company ball...(was) organized...Officers and ladies attended....Mrs. Nash wore a pink Tarleton (which she sewed herself) and false curls, and she had “constant partners”.
*
Then, unexpectedly, Sergeant Nash stole his wife’s savings and deserted her and the service. Libbie wrote that Tom Custer was very “put out” by this desertion. Presumably, so was Mrs. Nash.  But she did not remain so for long. In 1873, the lady, now called “Old Mrs. Nash”, married Corporal John Noonan. She kept a bright and tidy home for John, planting and maintaining flowers in front of their modest quarters. And she restored her nest egg. And for five years they were a contended and happy couple, the center of the social circle of Suds Row east of the Fort Lincoln parade grounds, and they were both a significant part of the post’s social life.
*
Then, in the fall of 1878, while Corporal Noonan was out on patrol, Mrs. Nash fell ill. As her condition  quickly worsened she called for a priest, and after seeing him she told the ladies caring for her that she wanted to be buried as she was, without the usual washing and re-dressing. The ladies reluctantly agreed. Who would dare to argue with a dying woman. But after “Mrs. Nash" died on November 4th,  the women decided they could not show her such disrespect.
*
Two of her closest friends began to strip her, in preparation to washing and re-dressing her body. And that was when they made a most unexpected discovery. Underneath the veil and the dress and the petticoats Mrs. Nash was a man. The Bismarck Tribune was blunter:  “Mrs. Nash Has Balls As Big As a Bull!”
*
Although the story was based on hearsay and unqualified medical opinion, the eastern papers picked it up, and soon every yahoo with access to a printing press felt obligated to pontificate. The less they knew of the facts the more opinions they had. Public morality, it seems to me, is an excuse for being ignorant, loudly. And in this case the volume was a thunderclap in a drought.
*
When poor Corporal Noonan returned from patrol all his protestations of ignorance fell upon deaf ears. Quickly his grief, and the ridicule, stated and unstated, became too much to bear. Two two days after returning from patrol to find his" wife” dead, John Noonan deserted his post and on November 30, 1878, shot himself to death with his rifle -  not an easy thing to do.
*
John Noonan now lies buried now in the National Cemetery adjacent to the Little Big Horn Battlefield, his tombstone identical to all the others who died in the service of their country on the Western Frontier.  And rightly so.
*
But there is no headstone (and no public grave) for Mrs. Nash. There is no memorial of her years of service to the unit, of the babies she delivered, of the hardships she endured. And there is no recognition today that without a "liberal" media to encourage her, at least one human being found it preferable to live in constant fear of being revealed, in exchanged for the chance of living as God made her, internally and externally, perfectly and imperfectly. She was living proof that with all our technology and insights and smothered under blankets of public morality, we are today just as screwed up as our ancestors were, not more and not less. And always will be. God bless us, every one.
- 30 -

Originally posted to KAMuston on Sun Mar 17, 2013 at 06:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by TransAction and Sex, Body, and Gender.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site