Frontier Soldier: An Enlisted Man's Journal of the Sioux and Nez Perce Campaigns
Much has been recorded about the history of the U.S. Army in the American West, but precious little of it is told through the voice of a common soldier.
Frontier Soldier: An Enlisted Man's Journal of the Sioux and Nez Perce Campaigns, 1877, newly released by the Montana Historical Society Press, offers unique insight into the daily lives of ordinary men in extraordinary times on the American frontier.
No less an expert on the military in the West than Robert M. Utley, author of Cavalier in Buckskin: George Armstrong Custer and the Western Military Frontier, praises the book for its new perspectives. "Not many enlisted men recorded their adventures in Indian warfare," Utley said. "Still fewer actually kept a journal to lend immediacy to their observations."
The new book is taken directly from the never-before-published journal of Private William F. Zimmer and is edited and annotated by Jerome A. Greene.
"Frontier Soldier [is written] by a literate private who left his story of plains warfare in a chronicle rich in detail," Utley said. "It is the richer for the annotations of Jerome A. Greene, whose understanding of the campaigns in which Zimmer marched is surpassed by few historians."
Zimmer came to Montana in December 1876 with the Second Cavalry as part of a build up of troops in the aftermath of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He took part in the Great Sioux War as well as the final fight with the Nez Perce at the Battle of the Bear's Paw Mountains that resulted in the surrender of Chief Joseph and most of his followers.
The journal sheds new light on the army of the frontier and the military dynamics of the campaign that forced Sitting Bull into Canada and the separate fight with the Nez Perce.
More significantly it tells the story from the ranks—from one who endured the frostbite, the days without rations and water, the confusion of battle, and the hardships that both challenged and brought the troops together.
In his entries on the Nez Perce battle, Zimmer, with the cold resignation of a combat soldier, tells what his unit did when a temporary truce was called so Chief Joseph and the officers could parley.
"This gave us a chance to get our dead and wounded. Quite a number had died during the night from exposure, and one man was found with his throat cut. He was shot through the bowels. It's supposed that he did it [cut his own throat] with his own hands."
Zimmer also gives a unique look at barracks life, recounting fist fights, spirited baseball games, and troops' diet while his comrades chased the Sioux.
In addition, Zimmer had an eye for detail and an appreciation of the natural world. His journal records the beauty of the land through which the troops were passing, as well as the lives of the civilians who were already struggling to make Montana home.
To help readers understand the campaign route of Zimmer and his fellow troops, five maps are included in Frontier Soldier.
The illustrated 184-page is available for $32 in hardcover and $15.95 in paperback, plus shipping if ordered by mail. It will be available at bookstores across the country or can be ordered by calling the Montana Historical Society toll-free at 1-800-243-9900.