Above a Common Soldier: Dragoon Life 1849-1854

Charles Frank Clarke sailed from England in 1847. He came from an upper middle class family in Suffolk County and had studied to be a member of the bar. Mr. Clarke had hoped to become a successful merchant in Wisconsin, but his dreams didn’t pan out and he joined the 1st Dragoons. Several of his letters appear in a book entitled “Above a Common Soldier”, published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1997. Here are some portions of letters that concern the Dragoons.

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Jefferson Barracks, Mo. 25 December 1849 “Being very low spirited and not knowing what I could better turn to I enlisted in the 1st Dragoons to serve five years. My pay amounts to Eight dollars per month, which together with my rations and clothing is quite sufficient. I am now on duty as a Clerk in the Office of the Head Quarters of the Regiment at this place & am tolerably comfortable & hope soon to be promoted to something or other. My duty at present is very light.”

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14 March 1850 Jefferson Bks, Mo. “In the beginning of January I was promoted Sergeant Major of the regiment, the former one having died after coming here. I am now at the head of the Enlisted Men in the best disciplined Regiment in the U.S. Service. My pay is 17 dollars per Month. My rations are commuted at 20 cts (10d. Engl. money) per diem & the clothing alled by Government is quite sufficient.

A discharge caanot be bought according to Regulations of the US Army it can only be obtained through the Adjutant General (Maj. Gen’l R. Jones) at Washington. except in cases of Disability or the party enlisted being a Minor &c.

Although I am well aware of the injurious effect resulting from a young man’s following the Army, from the bad company &c he is constantly thrown among, I do not wish to be discharged holding my present situation unless I could better myself. It would, however, be a great gratification to me if I could obtain a Commission in the U.S. Army or a Nomination to the Military Academy at West Point. I think this could be easily obtained for me with some interest employed at Washington or through the American Ambassador in London, my rank being now next to a commissioned officer.

We are at Present stationed at Jefferson Barracks & shall in all probability remain here sometime. The Field Staff & Band are the only parts of the Regiment here. The remainder are scattered over California, Oregon, New Mexico & the Western frontier. The Colonel (Gen;l Mason) & Adjutant of the Regiment will testify as to my Character & acquirements should they be called upon.

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Jefferson Barracks, Mo. 11th April 1850 Since I last wrote to you I have thought seriously on my situationand have come to the conclusion that the Army is not a suitable place for me. As an Enlisted Man is exposed to so many temptations &c that it is almost impossible for him to escape being in some measure contaminated.

I am already disgusted at the wickedness & excesses I have witnessed during the short time I have been in he Army and am anxious to quit it.

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Jefferson Barracks, Missouri 22 June 1850 All ten Companies of our Regiment (1st Dragoons) are separately enaged on the frontier in war with the Indians and not one within 500 miles of the other. Our means of communication with them is so uncertain that our Regimental Returns &c to the War Department are several Years in arrears & no chance of completion. Come of the Companies have not been in quarters since the commencement of the Mexican War in /46. This is rather different to soldiering in England. My only duty is attending at the office and making out papers &c. I never drill except when with the Regiment which will never happen with ours. I am only responsible to the Colonel & Adjutant of the Regiment from whom I alone receive an order.

I send you a special order altering our uniforms, it may be a curiosity to some as a sample to Brother Jonathans experiment. I may add that the change is very strongly disapproved by the Officers who undergo the real hardships of the American Service & those on the Northern & the Western Frontier. The officers of all the Mounted Corps are petitioning against it.

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Jefferson Barracks, Mo. 18 July 1850 I have for some months been aquainted with a young lady named Mary McGowan & being frequently together we became attached to each other, but before we took final any steps in the matter we, both of us, thought it right to consult you & Mother on it & obtain your consents & indeed Mary refuses to have any more to do with me unless you give it.

Mary is an Irish girl, her father (a respectable farmer) resided in the North of Ireland, near Sligo I believe, & on his death she came out with a married sister to this country with whom she resides in St. Louis. She is a good religious honest girl. I do not say that she has the accomplishments of many ladies of England, but she has a good plain Education & is able & willing to work which is a great deal better out West here. My Board & washing costs me $10 per month & is of he very worst kind, having to beg it as a favor. If I were Married it would not cost me more han $3 or $4 in addition to the ration my wife is entitled to & my fuel & Quarters are furnished by the Government.

The Cholera has broke out among the Troops. 4 or 5 die daily but as yet only the new arrivals are attacked, the old hands never were in better health.

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Jefferson Barracks, Mo. 21 August 1850; I am very sorry to say that General mason died of Cholera on the 25th of last month after but a few hours illness. Lieut Stanton (the Adjutant) is also absent on sick furlough, he will probably be away from 12 to 15 months. This is very unfortunate for me, as it will bring an entire new set of officers to Head Quarters, the new Colonel (Fauntleroy) is now Lieut. Col of the 2d Drags. & is in the Western part of Texas.

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Jefferson Barracks, Mo February 14, 1851;The Colonel of my Regiment has arrived. I do not rememeber if I told you before he was promoted from another Regiment. In 1836 Col. Fauntleroy was appointed from civil life Major in a new Regiment of Dragoons then being raised and was in succession promoted Lieut. Col. in the same Regiment and afterwards Colonel in ours without ever having fired a shot or even been in an enemy’s country, much to the annyance of many older & I regret to say better qualified officers. On his arrival here the Adjutant being absent sick and himself wholly unacquanted with the Regimental affairs the whole burden of the business of the office fell upon me. I managed however to please the old fellow so that he gave me the appointment of Quarter Master’s Sergeant of the Regiment which, although a grade lower than my former situation, is a far more profitable one. It is my duty to purchase all forage, stationary, wagons, horses &c required by the Regiment, procure Quarters and on March to attend to the baggage train &c; its duties are not so confining and more agreeable.

A few days ago we received orders moving to Fort leavenworth, a post about 100 miles up the Missouri River, but as the Colonel is absent, that order was suspended until gis Return which will be in about 2 weeks.

I must now, however, direct your attention to matters which more closely concern my own personal happiness, on the 28th of December lasy I was married with the consent and approbation of the Colonel, and I have not from that time to the present had the least reason to regret my choice, my wife is a clever, affectionate, & I believe a truly pios Girl–possessed of every qualification to make an excellant wife & me extremely happy, her character & behaviour whilst single was above criticism & it is my whole study to make her comfortable, happy & contented with her new station in life.

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Fort Massachusetts, New Mexico Seotember 29, 1852
I now avail myself of the first favorable opportunity that has presented it self since I received your letter of sending you a reply. We had then just received orders to go to New Mexico & in a few days (May 12th) started with a large train & 300 troops. Mary & Charley went with me travelling very confortably in a carriage with two mules of our own. We were so fortunate as to escape without sickness on our journey out, which I attribute in a great measure to our sleeping in the carriage. About 200 miles from Ft. Leavenworth we were with bison, antelope, elk &s., in large herds. At one place the bison were so plentiful that for miles around the ground was black with them; it was thought that in one herd there were 100,00. The country through which we travelled was in general rolling sandy plains with timber only on the creeks, although in some places the bottoms were very rich. On the 30th June we arrived at Fort Union, a Military Post 100 miles from Santa Fe & 750 from Fort Leavenworth, here we laid three weeks when a report arriving of an Indian outbreak on the Arkansas Rier we started back again a distance of 400 miles to a place called St Vrain’s Fort, but we had not the good fortune to meet with the Indians, on our Return to Fort Union Myself and 8 other men were order to this place; from Fort Union we went across the Taos Mountains to Taos. Our’s was the only carriage along & in several places the mountains were so rugged & steep that we had to take out the mules & let the carriage down with ropes. From Taos we came on this place which is at the foot of the Sang de Christo Mountains, 80 miles NW of Taos & about the same distance SW of Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River. We have no settlements within 40 miles.

The Fort is built of Logs & is very prettily situated in a valley between two Mountains. Game is ery plentiful in the vicinity. Elk, Black tail dee, Mountain sheep, Bears, Black, Brown & Grisly, panther &c, the bears are so bold that a few days one attacked a man within a hundred miles of he Fort and severely wounded him. Gold is found in the Mountains around but not, as yet, in sufficient quantities to repay the trouble of working the mines.

The appearence of the inhabitants of New Mexico is not at all prepossessing to a stranger, they are a mixture between the Spaniards & Indians & possess all the vices & but few of the virtues of both races. The houses are built of sun dried brick & are anything but neat looking. Agriculture is at a very low ebb and he climate is so dry that in order to secure a certain crop the land has to be irrigated. The only thing in favor of the country is its remarkably healthy climate.

I have now but two years to serve & I hope to save up money sufficient to start me in some business in St. Louis, which I think is destined to be the largest city in the United States; it now numbers 100,000 inhabitants.

The greatest deprivation we have here is books & newspapers, in consequence of the long land carriage but few books are brought here & are printed in the Country. I have not seen a newspaper for over four months, pray send one now & then.

I think it is very uncertain whether we will stay here this winter on account of the scarcity of forage for our horses you had therefore better direct to me with Com.”F”, 1st Dragoons, Fort Union or elsewhere, New Mexico, in order that it may be forwarded to me wherever I may be.

The mails here are too very uncertain of her letters may have been lost; but two years ago the Mail was taken by the Indians & escort, 12 in number, all killed, not however before they killed 50 Indians.

The troops in this Territory are all well armed, we carry a rifle a heavy singlle barrelled dragoon Pistol, one of Colts Revolving Pistols (6 shooters), & a heavy Dragoon Sabre. The weight of a man & kit upon a horse will average 350 pounds. Our forage Ration is very small considering it being but 12 pounds of Hay & 8 pounds of Corn, or 12 pounds of Oats, per diem, barely sufficient to keep a horse alive much more in condition. On a Summer Scout the horses have nothing but Greass.

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Fort Massachusetts New Mexico September 26, 1851

I have now as much business as I can attend to, having the whole management of the Company, being the 1st Non Commissioned officer in it. in case of a move, or any detachments being sent off, i should be certain to go. I have, however, from the last of the month, but one year to stay; but what I shall do with my ime is out is very uncertain as yet. I shall, however, most probably go to St Louis & get into some business on my own account. Out farming turned out to be a terrible failure at this Post. we shall not get the seed we planting owing chiefly to the long winter & dry summer. the garden did not even supply us with vegitables.

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Taos, New Mexico
May 25, 1854

You will be glad to hear that I have obtained a furlough from this time until the expiration of my term of service in the Army (1st Oct.). somethingover 4 months. I hardly hoped to obtain it on account of the troublesome times we have just now with the Indians.

You will doubtless before this have heard of the battle [Cieneguilla] we had with the Indians on the 30th March here. My Company was in it, out of 60 men we had 23 killed on the spot & 22 wounded, the remainder with difficulty escaping. I was at Santa Fe with dispatches. My horse giving out luckily detained me a day, or I should have been in the middle of the fight, the road running over the battle ground, & my chance of escape would have been small, being in the rear of the Indians. hearing of the fight, however, a few miles from the battle ground, I made a large circuit & arrived safe after a few days delay.

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