Calvary Life in Tent & Field
Frances Boyd, 1894 (reprinted 1982) 370 pages
Frances Boyd was an army officer’s wife who had married just after his graduation from West Point. She followed her husband around the west from frontier post to frontier post until he died in 1885.
Her book describes army life, the West, and Native Americans and their subjugation. Along the way her husband was promoted twice and she had three children.
The beginning of the book gives a number of examples of how Mr. Boyd was treated unfairly and of course Mrs. Boyd defends him mightily. Just one example of Orsemus Boyd’s good character is enough, Mr. Boyd “became unpopular for refusing to submit to m any annoyances. The climax was reached when, after having fought with one cadet and come out the victor, he refused…. to fight with another, a man who had criticized the language used in the heat of battle, and was consequently dubbed a coward. This, though exceedingly trying to a person of his sensitive nature, was endured with the same patience as were subsequent trials.” Once those issues are dealt with at the book’s beginning the story broadens and the reader learns a lot about Army life in the 19th Century.
Interestingly Boyd, his father and brother all enlisted in the Union Army in 1861. Orsemus became a hero, was commissioned a lieutenant and given command of a company in which is brother and father served. He was appointed to West Point in 1863.
There was a scandal at West Point and Boyd certainly was treated unfairly and accused wrongly. Evidence is alluded to and then the appendix gives the rest of the story absolving Boyd.
You may want to read this book for insight into 19th Century American West and U.S. Army life. You might want to read it if you are a fan of 19th Century flowery prose, “My husband…had been a soldier for two years in the War of the Rebellion, where he had so signalized himself by bravery that friends united in urging his father to remove the lad from the perilous surroundings of active warfare, and permit him to be educated in the profession for which he had shown such decided talent.” You might also want to read about Frances Boyd’s strong character. She endured many privations as she followed her husband but never complains. She had health problems but just casts them aside. She bore three children. In the end she found beauty in the world of the West. I’d have gone back to New York long before she did.
The reason I heard about this book was because in August the Serene Lakes Property Owners’ Association brought in a speaker. Robert Chandler was a senior historian for Wells Fargo until he retired and he gave an interesting talk. At one point he mentioned a Frances Boyd and her experiences on the stage over the Sierra. I had to find that source and Dr. Chandler was agreeable. A quick search of the internet and an order to a used book store brought me Calvary Life. (You can read about Frances’ trip on the stage from Cisco over the Sierra here)
The Boyds were married and two days later Orsemus embarked for the West and Nevada to join a command guarding the “contemplated Pacific Railroad.” Mrs. Boyd followed some months later by steamship and across the Isthmus of Panama. Imagine the shock to her, having lived in New York City all her life, traveling to California and beginning army life in rude Western posts.
Frances arrived in San Francisco with no prospect of joining her husband quickly since there was “so little hope for any comfortable habitation.” She was not the waiting kind and she set off by stage, “nothing seemed more natural than that I should press on, in spite of the protestations of friends, who said that the Sierra Nevada Mountains were impassable at that season (February), and who predicted all sorts of mishaps. Nothing daunted, I determined at least to try…” She must have been a plucky girl, aged about 20 in 1868, as she headed into the unknown.
Frances joined her husband at Camp Halleck in Nevada where he was part of troops guarding the route of the coming transcontinental railroad.
She followed him from camp to camp around the West for fourteen years. she endured the extreme heat, “numerous supply of vermin,” “windblown grit,” “omnipresent dust,” desolate country, high prices, leaky roofs, tent living in winter, forced economy, interminable winters, disappointment, traveling in fear of Indian attack, and traveling in hardship with a baby. Life must have been miserable going from post to post. She also had adventures, once escaping murderers and she relates a lynching.
It wasn’t all darkness however. Mrs. Boyd also learned cribbage, how to fish, made friends with neighboring ranchers, and learned about Mormons and the Indians, so that “with all its drawbacks, life in the open air then began to have many charms for me.”
She saw beauty. “To mount a horse, such as can be found only in the West, perfect for the purpose, and gallop over prairies, completely losing one’s self in vast and illimitable space, as silent as lonely, is to leave every petty care, and feel the contented frame of mind which can only be produced by such surroundings. In those grand wastes one is truly alone with God. Oh, I love the West…”
During a stay in New York occasioned by the need to regain her health about which she gives no details, she said, “No longing has ever equaled in intensity the one which then took possession of me – be back again in my dear Western home, surrounded by all the lonely grandeur of its lovely scenery.” She was able to reconnect with old friends and family and “rave[d] about the delights of the West until friends thought me nearly craze on the subject….I missed the quiet and freedom from that mad rush which seems an inevitable part of life in the great city…”
Orsemus died in 1885 after a short sickness while part of the campaign to catch Geronimo. An army camp was name Camp Boyd in his honor. Frances lived a long life dying in 1926 after having lived in the east and traveling extensively.
You can read about Frances’ trip on the stage from Cisco over the Sierra here.