“War is sometimes described as long periods of boredom punctuated by short moments of excitement. History is often similar, if rather safer.” — John H. Arnold
Robert Patterson Hughes in his US Army uniform, 1860s.
(WSA Sub Neg 23837)
It appears that Captain Robert Patterson Hughes whole-heartedly agreed with Arnold’s sentiments. Life for a frontier soldier was brutal, and not just during the fights. Hughes was stationed at Fort Laramie during the summer of 1867.
(WSA H63-28, p1)
Camp on the Laramie D.T.
August 13th, 1867
I am all alone tonight and as near homesick or sick of the wilderness as I ever allow myself to get and as [I] have no other means of communicating with civilization and feeling their influence other than by letter will you be so very kind as to permit me to address you as one of my old friends. I trust I may not be doing wrong in this and that you may not think it so.
[I] Have had a very troublesome visit this P.M. from Evens and our Tents were all blown into pie and have been digesting quite a quantity of Sand. The Surgeon Says Sand is very healthy but I take notice that he is quite careful to keep away from it as far and as securely [?] as possible. The Laramie River is a small river flowing in the North Platte near our Camp. [It] Has a disposition to be quite fickled in its depth however , for [it] has taken several sudden notions this Summer and without notifying us of its intention has quietly drowned several people[.]
(WSA H63-28, p2)
The Platte is decidedly a River of Islands[.] I think without exaggeration I have seen one hundred from one point. [It] Has no channel but [is] constantly changing as I have good reason to know for it has been nearly drowning me several times. The Indians have not been able to operate much thus far since Spring for the Snow thawing in the Mountains has kept the Streams so high that they have been unable to cross them without great difficulty. They have succeeded in catching a few coaches on the Overland Mail Route [and] also a few small parties of soldiers. [They] Killed one Lieut [Lieutenant] and ten men near the Republican lately. But the latest was near Fort Phill [sic] Kearney. We learned today by telegraph that one office and some men of our Regiment had been killed but wheather [sic] it is reliable or not I can not say.
They do not seem much afflicted with brotherly love for the whites as the peaceable people of Philada [Philadelphia] would have us think. They are quite unreasonable I think. The whole of this war is owing to the Government desiring a road though this country to Virginia City Montana and the gold mines in that territory and in the Yellow Stone [sic][.] They made treaty and granted the permission but some old Squaw put mischief into their heads and they now think that they will soon have no game if we have permission to go quietly over the public highway.
(WSA H63-28, p3)
Their reasoning is about as good as the Rebels.
Went to war to save Slavery So these people go to War to save game and their country is now being dotted all over with one and two companies of Soldiers who will destroy more game in one year than Emigrants would in ten years. Had they gone to war to secure something to cover their nakedness or for some christian provisions it would have been reasonable but to get to fighting about a herd of Buffalo or flock of Antelope which neither of us can tame or catch is so foolish that I am almost ashamed to be one of the actors in the Scene. But our greatest battles now are with mosquitos + Buffalo Gnats. They come down on us at all hours and they do not use either Modern Tactics of Monoeuver [maneuver] or Logistics but seem to me to move in the old Roman Style by Phalanxes and they make us scratch our heads quite seriously to determine how to flank them. They are quite bold until they see a Smoke and as though they scented the battle from afar they immediately beat a retreat, but apparently in good order. The only trouble is that the war Dept does not reward us for our gallantry in this branch of our duty and we now consider it more of a Task than a military pleasure. But I think it is little as they could do to furnish the tobacco to smoke the blood thirsty warriors out of our faces and hair. What say you?
(WSA H63-28, p4)
We have some peculiarities here. We have beautiful lightning every night, but we suffer for it in heat next day. We have the most beautiful Sunsets I ever saw. The Sun will hide behind one of the Buttes and leave the whole western horizon a blaze of fire. Looking at it this evening I remembered a quotation from some one [sic] When?
“Mine be the eve of Tropic sun
With disk like battle Trophy Red
Dies [sic] the wide wave with ____ light
Then sinks to rest & all is night”
It was very much like either a red target or a red old wood country fire and do not know which was nearest the reality.
We have had a broiling old day and I am now simply dressed in my sleeping — (well if I must say it) Shirt. Feel as though I would be a great deal more comfortable if I could take the marrow out of my bones and allow the air to blow through[.] [I]Have a carpet of Wolf Skins[.] You should see how elegant it looks out in this Sand. What has come of Clyde. Have heard of none of your family since leaving the States, but hope you all are as happy and yourself as full of life as ever. I would be much obliged if you deem this worthy of your notice.
Born in 1839, Captain Hughes had enlisted as a private in the 12 Pennsylvania Volunteers in 1861 and served throughout the Civil War. By the end, he was a captain and thoroughly accustomed to Army life. He went out west as a part of the Frontier Army, serving at several posts, including Fort Laramie, and was aide-de-camp to Gen. Alfred Howe Terry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. (Read the description of the battle he sent to his wife, now housed in the Library of Congress here) In 1898, he was stationed at Manilla during the Philippine Insurrection and retired a Major General in 1903. Hughes died in 1909.
— Carl Hallberg, Reference Archivist
1. Hughes is probably referring to the Wagon Box Fight which occurred on August 2, 1867. Read more about the fight at http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/wagon-box-fight-1867.
2. Hughes came close to remembering the poem. Below are the actual lines, an excerpt from Sir Walter Scott’s poem “Rokeby” (1813) (https://archive.org/details/rokebypoem00sco p276-277)
“And now my race of terror run,
Mine be the eve of tropic sun!
No pale gradations quench his ray,
No twilight dews his wrath allay;
With disk, like battle target red,
He rushes to his burning bed,
Dyes the wide wave with bloody light,
Then sinks to rest — and all is night.”
3. Miss Maggie’s husband. According to a letter that accompanied the donation, it appears Hughes and Clyde Douds served together in Co B 85th Reg Pennsylvania Volunteers during the Civil War. Doud had enlisted into the company and Hughes had been its captain. They seem to have kept in contact until at least 1868.
4. Letter from Capt. Robert Patterson Hughes, Fort Laramie, Dakota Territory to Maggie Douds, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, August 13, 1867, H63-28, Mrs. Earle D. Holmes Collection, Wyoming State Archives.
5. See also the Robert Patterson Hughes Papers, MSS82579, Library of Congress