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Chapter XXVII

  • President of the New board of Ordnance and Fortification
  • -- usefulness of the board -- troubles with the Sioux Indians in 1890-91 -- success of the plan to employ Indians as soldiers -- marriage to Miss Kilbourne -- the difficulty with Chile in 1892.

even as late as the year 1882, very high military authority in this country advocated with great earnestness the proposition that our old brick and stone forts, with their smooth-bore guns, could make a successful defense against a modern iron-clad fleet! At the same time, and even much later, high naval authority maintained that the United States navy should be relied upon for the defense of our many thousands of miles of sea-coast! In view of such counsel, it does not seem strange that Congress, after the old ships had nearly all rotted away, began to give some attention to a new navy, but thought little or nothing of land defenses. The old brick and stone parapets and the cast-iron guns were still there; none of them had become rotten, though the wooden carriages had gone to decay, and the guns were lying on the ground! Yet, after a long dream of security, the Great National Council announced the decision that something ought probably to be done for sea-coast defense. Provision was made by law for a very high board, with the Secretary of War presiding, to report to Congress what was required—a thing which, if Congress had only known it, the Engineer Bureau of the War Department could have reported just [485] as well in far less time. But at length a very able report was submitted, which inspired the confidence of Congress.

In the meantime there had arisen a condition which can best be expressed as ‘want of confidence’ in the chief of the Ordnance Department of the army on the part of committees of Congress. From this it resulted that no appropriations were made for several years for any new armament, and hence none for fortifications. Thus by a trifle were the wheels of a great government blocked for a long time! Yet that government still survives! Finally, in the year 1888 an act was passed creating a Board of Ordnance and Fortification, of which the commanding general of the army should be president, and appropriating quite a large sum of money to be expended, under the direct supervision of that board, to commence the work of fortification and armament of the sea-coast. After very careful examination and full consideration and discussion, the board adopted the plans prepared by the Bureaus of Engineering and Ordnance, and the work was begun and carried forward substantially the same as if the expenditure of the appropriation had been intrusted to the two bureaus concerned and the Secretary of War.

The board did perform, and still continues to perform, a very important and essential duty, and one which cannot be satisfactorily intrusted to any one man, namely, that of deciding the delicate and difficult questions constantly arising in respect to the practical utility and economy of new inventions having reference to works of defense or of attack. But these questions had no immediate bearing whatever upon the all-important problem of the day—to place the sea-coasts of the United States in a satisfactory state of defense according to the best scientific methods then known to the world. And that problem had already been solved, in all respects save one, namely, how to get out of Congress the necessary money to do the work! [486] Genius will never cease to invent something better. If we wait for the best, the next war will be over long before we shall begin to prepare for it. All great military nations had been engaged for many years in elaborate and costly experiments, to develop the best possible means of attack and defense, and our Engineer and Ordnance departments had not failed to profit thereby to the fullest extent. They were ready, without any such costly experiments, to make our defenses as good as any in the world. Yet that work of so vital importance must be delayed until American genius could also be assured of a chance, at government expense, of developing something better than anybody else in the world had done! An end was finally, in 1888, put to that dangerous delay by the device, so happily invented by somebody in Congress, of a Board of Ordnance and Fortification.

The board has also served, and will doubtless continue to serve, another very important purpose. It brings together, in close consideration and discussion of all details of the system of national defense, representative officers of the engineers, the ordnance, and the artillery, together with a representative civilian who has become, by service in Congress, far better able than any other member to insure that perfect understanding between the board and the committees of Congress which is essential to harmonious action. Above all, it has given to the commanding general an opportunity to become perfectly familiar with all the details of the coast defenses, and to exert a legitimate influence in making preparations for war, which must be of vital importance to him and to the country when he has to bear the great responsibility of command. I used to say that it would not be just to me to deprive me of such opportunities for education, and I doubt not all my successors will share that feeling. Thus, what may prove to be of the greatest benefit to [487] the military service has finally come out of that evil of ‘want of confidence’ in an ordnance chief.

When in command of the Division of the Atlantic, in 1886-7, I made a careful estimate of the aggregate strength of the war garrisons required for the fortifications and armament recommended by the Endicott board, and of the peace garrisons which would be absolutely required for the care of the new works and for the instruction of the militia artillery reserves. It was found that the addition of two regiments to the present artillery strength of the army would provide the requisite force. Hence a measure was formulated and submitted to Congress to convert the present five regiments into seven, with some proportionate reduction in the number of officers, intended to promote efficiency and economy. That measure has appeared to meet with the approval of nearly all concerned, but is still pending in Congress. It is probably the most important military measure now awaiting favorable action. The measure which accompanies it for the reorganization of the infantry, though not of so pressing necessity, is based upon sound military principles, and ;s worthy of prompt and favorable action.

The first introduction of the policy of confining the warlike tribes of Indians upon very restricted reservations necessarily caused great discontent, especially among the young men, who were thus cut off from the sports of the chase and the still greater sport of occasional forays into frontier settlements, which were the only means known in Indian custom by which a young warrior could gain a name and a position of honor in his tribe. Either through too limited appropriations or bad management, or both, the provisions furnished for the support of the Indians, in lieu of those to which they had been accustomed, proved inadequate. This caused the spirit of discontent to increase and to become general [488] among all ages. The natural result was such a threat of war from the great Sioux nation in the winter of 1890-91 as to necessitate the concentration of quite a large army to meet the danger of a general outbreak. In the course of military operations, accidents rather than design on either side occasioned some serious collisions between the troops and the Indians, especially at Wounded Knee, resulting in desperate conflict and in much loss of life. But by very careful management on the part of the commanding general in the field, Major-General Miles, a general conflict was averted, and the Sioux made their submission. They had had no general intention to go to war, if they could avoid it without starvation. After a large sum of money had been expended by the War Department in this way, the deficiencies in food were supplied at about the same cost as would, if made in advance, have removed the cause of war. The Indians gained their point of getting as much food as they needed, and the War Department paid the extra bills, but out of the same public treasury which has so often been bled in that way.

It was quite beyond the power of the War Department to guard against a recurrence of that greatest danger of Indian wars—starvation of the Indians. But long experience and accurate knowledge of Indian character had suggested a method by which the other cause of discontent among the young Indian warriors might be, at least in a great measure, removed. That was by providing a legitimate method by which their irrepressible love of military life and exploits might be largely gratified, and, at the same time, those ambitious young men transferred from the ranks of more or less probable savage enemies to the ranks of friends and practically civilized allies. Fortunately, the strongest trait of the Indian character, namely, fidelity to the war chief, lent itself to this project. Long experience [489] had shown the existence of this Indian trait. In only one solitary instance had the Indian scouts so long employed by the army ever proved unfaithful, though often employed in hostilities against their own tribes. Hence, if the ardent young warriors could be induced to enlist for three years in the army, they would, at least for that time, be converted from enemies into allies, even against such of their own tribes as might refuse to enlist. Of course the army must suffer somewhat, in its effective strength for all purposes, during this experiment; for it is evident that a company or troop of Indians would not be quite as valuable for general service as the same number of white men. Yet the transfer of a few hundred of the best Sioux warriors from the Sioux side to our side would much more than compensate for the loss of the same number of white troops. The result of that experiment seemed to be entirely satisfactory. At all events, there has been no great Indian war, nor any threat of one, since that experiment was begun. It has served to tide over the time during which the young men, who had from earliest childhood listened to stories of the Custer massacre and other great Indian achievements, were undergoing transformation from the life and character of savage warriors to those of civilized husbandmen, under the system of allotments in severalty. When the short warlike part of the life of one generation is past, the danger will no longer exist.

In June, 1891, at Keokuk, Iowa, I married Miss Georgia Kilbourne, daughter of Mrs. George E. Kilbourne of that city. Then a host of old soldiers of the Union army reassembled to greet their comrade.

In 1892 this country seemed on the verge of war with the little republic of Chile. So confident were some officials of the administration that war was inevitable, that I was asked to make an estimate of the military force which would be necessary to occupy and hold a vital [490] point in Chilean territory until the demands of the United States were complied with. It was assumed, of course, that the navy could easily do all the rest. Pending the consideration of this subject, so disagreeable to me, I had a dream which I repeated at the time to a few intimate friends. I saw in the public street a man holding a mangy-looking dog by the neck, and beating him with a great club, while a crowd of people assembled to witness the ‘sport.’ Some one asked the man why he was beating the poor dog. He replied: ‘Oh, just to make him yelp.’ But the dog did not ‘yelp.’ He bore his cruel punishment without a whine. Then he was transformed into a splendid animal, one of the noblest of his species, and the entire crowd of bystanders, with one accord, rushed in and compelled the man to desist from beating him.

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