Desertion at Fort Spokane

"Get Me Outta Here"

Being an enlisted man in the United States Army at frontier posts throughout the West was not a glamorous or respected occupation. Enlisted soldiers were typically recent European immigrants or lower white class Americans; both came from slums and lower class sections of eastern cities. While reforms instituted by General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1877 sought to improve professionalism in the army, some enlisted personnel did not adapt well to military life. Some soldiers became frazzled by the repetitiveness of drill and training, some by sheer boredom. Low pay and slow promotion also degraded morale within the Army. Court martials punished those who violated laws within the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, including Absent Without Leave (AWOL). However, soldiers who couldn’t stand army life anymore fled and tried to seek life anew somewhere else. From the end of the American Civil War to 1891, as many as fourteen percent of the soldiers in the Army deserted. Even after they were caught, tried, punished, and released back to their unit, some fled again.

Fort Spokane fared better but desertion still posed problems for unit commanders. From 1880 to 1898, a total of 167 soldiers deserted from the fort, mostly due to boredom and most left during the spring months. In 1884, Private Andrew Bennett, Golf Company, 2nd Infantry Regiment abandoned his guard post while being drunk. A court-martial found him guilty and sentenced to six months of hard labor at Fort Walla Walla as well as loss of $10 a month from his salary. Private Bennett wrote an appeal to his chain of command testifying “I did not really understand the enormity of the offense, although had I been sober it would never have occurred.” Eventually the division’s commanding general stationed in San Francisco loosened Bennett’s punishment by reducing his sentence to by half to three months’ prison time and loss of pay.

Company I of 4th Infantry was worse. In 1891, the Department of the Army issued an order to experiment recruiting Native Americans as soldiers at four northwest forts, including Fort Spokane. Company I was quickly formed and comprised of seventeen soldiers; twelve from the Spokane tribe and an unknown remainder from the Colville. However, the Native Americans at these forts did not adapt well to military life. Although they were noted for their bravery, they lacked discipline and professionalism. They complained their uniforms were too tight and often paraded with tears and holes in them. They often brought their girlfriends back to the barracks and refused to keep their quarters orderly. They were observed as being drunk most of the time and squandered their salary at the canteen. Many of these soldiers did not report to formations and went AWOL with punishments of loss in pay and confinement. Some also deserted. By 1893 the Army realized the experiment to recruit and discipline Native American soldiers failed and Company I was disbanded.