A Soldier's Life at Fort Spokane

"Company Dismissed"

The officers and soldiers who served at Fort Spokane from its beginning in 1880 to its cessation in 1898 were the product of social contrasts that resembled the differences in the U.S. Army during the 1800's.

Many of the officers came from upper-class, "respectable" families from eastern cities who were successful in business and politics. Many went to school at prestigious military academies. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, many of the officers who still were part of the Army had served in that conflict.

By contrast, most of the enlisted soldiers after the Civil War were either European immigrants or Americans from poor, lower-class families. Most had little formal education. Training was minimal for these men, most were not even taught to fire a weapon properly.

Built in 1880, Fort Spokane was established just three years after the death of General George Armstrong Custer and most of the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn. In the wake of that military disaster, the Army initiated a series of reforms to improve professionalism, particularly at isolated frontier posts throughout the West.

Lieutenant Colonel H.C. Merriam, the first post commander of Fort Spokane, embraced these reforms wholeheartedly. He instituted rigorous and repetitive training, meant at developing a sense of professionalism and purpose. A typical weekday began with reveille (first call) at 6 a.m. followed by morning chow at the mess hall, then various inspections, detail, guard duty, and parades before ending the day near sunset. Cavalry soldiers attended to and cared for their horses and saddles. Details included kitchen patrol, janitorial and quartermaster duties, cutting ice, amongst others.

Enlisted soldiers also used their labor skills prior to enlisting in the army to conduct maintenance of buildings (i.e. plumbing, carpentry, blacksmith). For lower enlisted privates, drill and ceremony were done twice a day. Two primary skills for a soldier to master was firing a rifle correctly and signaling.

Still, soldiering was not 24 hours a day and downtime during the evenings and weekends provided an opportunity for much-needed rest and relaxation. Soldiers could purchase items such as sundries, personal hygiene items, or beer from a concessionaire just off the post or go to the town of Miles a quarter mile away which consisted of a store, a saloon and two brothels.

Prostitution and alcoholism became a problem to units throughout the West and at Fort Spokane, officers began new alternative forms of recreation. Companies formed baseball teams where they played against each other and farming communities throughout the region. A gymnasium was converted out of a barracks to provide a venue for physical training. Enlisted soldiers often resorted to playing cards and smoking cigars in their barracks; officers held balls, dances, and other formal engagements with their wives at Officer’s Row. Soldiers could go to the local photographer to have their portrait taken. In 1892, the post exchange began where cheaper products could be sold to soldiers.

Off-duty hours also provided the chance for lower enlisted privates who were illiterate to learn English and U.S. history. Officers also had evening schools called lyceums where they learned military law, regulations, tactics, and field engineering.

For the soldiers of Fort Spokane who served there from 1880 to 1898, they became an early embodiment for millions of people who come to Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area today to partake in activities for their life’s rest and relaxation.