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Thursday, June 15, 2017

Not an easy life in the 1840s US Army

At the 175th anniversary event at Ft Scott (KS), I met a group of re-enactors who filled in the blanks on some basic questions about a soldier's life in the 1840s.

The base pay for an enlisted man was $7 per month and a sergeant made $10. I didn't realize how low that was until I researched According to the site, agricultural laborers, carpenter, hat makers, printers and others earned around $150 per month, which makes it easy to see why our government had difficulty recruiting enlistees. Because of this, the regular army consisted mostly of foreign-born immigrants.

When the Mexican-American War broke out, Congress approved President Polk's request to generate 50,000 volunteer troops. These men maintained strong ties to their home states. Also, because they were citizen-soldiers, discipline was more relaxed.
Heather, a laundress

The re-enactors I met represented both regular and volunteer units. The infantry units operated the fort while the dragoons patrolled the area. With the original mission of safeguarding the "permanent Indian frontier," they settled disputes and protected the Indians until the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846.

In my conversation with Heather, a "laundress" re-enactor, she explained that each unit had four laundresses to care for the soldier's clothing. The number of soldiers averaged 70-80, and each one paid 50 cents a month for laundry services. The four laundresses divided the wages, each earning around $10 per month.

One of the re-enactors jokingly said, "That's why the 1st Sergeants wanted to court a laundress. If they married, he doubled his income."

Heather explained that when the men wanted clothing mended, they would pay additional money.

Since the laundresses were civilians, they were responsible for most of their own expenses. The army provided them with a tent. We agreed that it was a hard life. I'm sorry I didn't ask her how the women applied for their positions.

The volunteer units could be a rag-tag bunch. Many didn't have uniforms and even when uniforms were available, there was little consistency to style. 

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