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Fort Bowie, Life at the Fort

In three previous posts about Fort Bowie, I have described an incident involving the Indian chief Cochise, the fort cemetery, and some of the fort buildings. In this post, I will tell you a little more about life in the fort. Next week, don’t miss my description of the beautiful ride back to your starting point.

An educational site provided by the Arizona Historical Society provides a wealth of information about life in a military fort. For instance, a camp became a fort when the military determined that the assignment would be something more than a temporary encampment. The buildings I mentioned in last week’s post were fairly standard facilities at most forts.

The school
The school ruins

Every fort had a school. Military regulations required that. Furthermore, regulations required teachers to have appropriate qualifications to teach. Teachers could be civilians or enlisted men. Enlisted men received a whopping 35 cents additional pay per day!

Because officer’s families were also housed at the fort, their children were taught at the fort school. However, illiterate enlisted men comprised the bulk of the student population. Teachers attempted to educate their pupils in spelling and grammar, reading, geography, history, and math. Fort officials suspended school if no qualified teacher was available. Additionally, the school was closed if no children were living at the fort, or no soldiers were interested in learning. According to the signage in front of the school, at least one of those criteria was met on a regular basis.

Officer’s housing

Camp life for officers and their families was at times competitive. Officer’s wives endeavored to turn their simple, barren buildings into comfy homes similar to what they had back east. However, the military system wreaked havoc on the wives’ efforts. Because housing was based on rank, a new officer’s arrival at the fort caused housing assignments to shift.

A woman who had recently turned her house into a home might suddenly find herself starting over in less desirable housing. An officer’s rank determined how many rooms and stoves his house afforded, as well as how much firewood he was entitled to receive.

Five adobe buildings comprised Officer’s Row. Regardless of rank, each home had its own kitchen, sink, and washroom. Sometimes, wives attempted to encourage gardens to grow in Fort Bowie’s dry and rocky soil.

Soldier life

Army records indicate that the average age of the soldiers was 23, and most enlisted for 5 years. Many were Civil War veterans. As I mentioned previously, most were uneducated and illiterate. Interestingly enough, many were not even able to ride a horse or mule! In fact, most soldiers did very little fighting. Their lives were monotonous and the desertion rate was quite high. Historians report desertion rates between 19 and 30%! That statistic isn’t too surprising if one considers that a soldier’s life consisted of drills, manual labor, guard duty, or preparing for inspections. And for that exciting life, they were paid $13 a month. (Officers got a little more, but not much.)

I mentioned in last week’s blog that the food was less-than-stellar. So was the camp’s hygiene… In fact, more soldiers died of disease than from wounds sustained while fighting.

The posh last years of fort life

The Arizona Historical Society describes Fort Bowie as somewhat luxurious in its final years. After the “Indian issues” were mostly resolved, the soldiers enjoyed more amenities. In addition to the 36 buildings, the fort boasted flush toilets, street lamps, tennis courts, and even a steam-powered ice machine!

Next week will be my final post about Fort Bowie. I have some amazing photos (and some video) of the ride back. The route is a little bit technical, but not bad. The views are amazing.

Future blogs will be about my recently-sold barndominium, the purchase of a modest home in Arizona, and an account of my upcoming ride in the Chiricahuas. Stay tuned!

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