The Army Years at Fort Spokane
The Army years at Fort Spokane
Soldiers packed their bags and wrote farewell letters to their families. The call for war had sounded, and the elements of the 16th infantry regiment stationed at Fort Spokane had been activated for deployment. The year was 1898 and the Spanish American War had begun. The 16th regiment fought with great honor. Some are even said to have fought alongside Teddy Roosevelt at the battle of San Juan Hill. But it was also the end of an era: After the war, soldiers would never again be stationed at Fort Spokane.
The last Army fort established in the American West, Fort Spokane was founded in 1880. Where other forts were established to pacify Indians, Fort Spokane was established both to keep the Indians on their newly established reservations and to prevent white settlers from encroaching on reservations lands. After the Civil War, the Army only stationed small units at outposts like Fort Spokane. A few infantry companies with an attached cavalry company, or about a battalion worth of soldiers, would garrison the fort. Over the years the fort would be home to elements of the 2nd, 4th, and eventually the 16th infantry regiments, while cavalry units came from the 1st and 2nd cavalry regiments. The total number of men assigned to the fort was never more than 300.
Despite the lack of combat, soldiers drilled regularly and kept to a strict schedule. Training at Fort Spokane included drills, rifle marksmanship, dress inspections, and maneuvers outside the fort. In addition to these typical soldierly duties, soldiers were also assigned unorthodox jobs, or “billets,” to make up for the lack of non-military support at the remote fort. Billets included cook, baker, treasurer, janitor, and working parties for cutting down trees, gardening, and breaking ice in the winter. Officers had their own unique billets as well, but these were typically administrative jobs rather than manual labor.
Officers and enlisted men lived separate lives. The enlisted lived in shared barracks while officers occupied their own row of individual houses, across the parade grounds from the barracks. Outside of training, the two groups rarely interacted. The exceptions to this were in the salon and on the baseball diamond. Over-indulgence with alcohol was the primary reason for court martials during the fort’s history.
When the soldiers of the 16th Infantry left the fort in 1898, the fort’s mission as an army outpost came to an end. A skeleton crew stayed behind to care for the fort, but left the following year. Soon the fort was transferred to the Department of the Interior, which would re-open it as a boarding school for Indian children in the region.