Monday, January 16, 2017

The Enlisted Soldier

But trained military men like Magee and Noah were the exception. While the known names of expedition participants are heavily skewed towards officers, we know of a few ordinary soldiers whose stories are enlightening. One such soldier was Samuel Barber. A native of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Barber joined the army on June 30, 1801, enlisting for a period of five years. He was assigned to the First Infantry, which over the next few years ranged up and down the Western frontier. He served at Fort Mackinac, in what is now Michigan, until 1805, when his unit was reassigned to the newly acquired Louisiana territory. Near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, his unit constructed Fort Belle Fontaine, the first U.S. Army post west of the Mississippi River.[1] The fort, constructed after Louis and Clark left the spot on their expedition, welcomed them on their return, and Barber likely was there at the time. Indeed, Fort Belle Fontaine was the starting point  for a number of subsequent westward explorations, including that of Zebulon Pike, as well as a meeting place for settlers, trappers, Native Americans, Spaniards, and Frenchmen.[2]  At the time, Gen. Wilkinson was theoretically the commander of the fort from his headquarters several miles away in St. Louis. Life at the outpost – the name of which optimistically, but incorrectly, meant “beautiful spring” – was miserable. Disease was rampant and discipline harsh. In one instance, Captain Benjamin Lockwood, Barber’s commanding officer, summarized the day’s floggings in a letter to his superior with the casual comment, “The men has [sic] been punished this Evening that was ordered except one that received but Forty Lashes before he fainted being a youth and a delicate Constitution…”[3]
Barber, in his teens or early 20s, lived in a crude tent, but likely participated in building the soldiers’ housing along the way, since his pre-army occupation was listed as a sawyer. Although the poor conditions were scarcely bettered by the improved housing, Barber reenlisted on Jan. 30, 1806. Before the year was out, Barber’s unit moved south to modern Louisiana.[4] The move coincided with increasing tensions between the United States and Spain over the western boundary of the territory. The controversy brought the two countries perilously close to war before Gen. Wilkinson’s timely expedient of establishing a neutral zone between the two sides averted the crisis. Barber, arriving at Fort Adams, Mississippi, in May 1806, was acutely aware of the crisis, and the competing boundary claims.[5] He subsequently was on hand for the Burr conspiracy, and his unit moved to New Orleans as a response to it. When the crisis passed and the unit was ordered back to the frontier at Fort Adams, Barber apparently deserted, possibly for the lure of the city but most likely over the horrible conditions.  By 1809, out of his division of 2,000 men, over 800 had died of disease.[6]
Barber fled to West Florida, where he was given permission by the Spanish governor to stay, and at one point was so destitute that he worked for a local inhabitant for wages that included, among other things, clothing. Barber skipped out on his job before the work was done and took the clothing with him, moving on to Bayou Teche, Louisiana, where he continued working as a laborer for wealthier Anglo and Cajun neighbors, and found an interest in raising cattle. [7] Barber likely joined the Gutiérrez-Magee Expedition in the Neutral Ground. He fought through several campaigns and survived the Battle of Medina. He married soon after his return and joined the Louisiana militia’s 16th Regiment during the War of 1812. Texas, however, continued to call to him, and by 1829, Samuel brought his family and a small herd of cattle to the department again, settling in what is now Chambers County, Texas.[8]

[1] Alan Barber, “Barber Family in Louisiana.” (June 15, 1997) (accessed July 31, 2016), 3.
[2] St. Louis County Parks and Recreation, Fort Belle Fontaine Website, (accessed July 31, 2016).
[3] Kate L. Gregg, “Building of the First American Fort West of the Mississippi,” The Missouri Historical Review 30, no 4 (July, 1936): 358.
[4] Barber, 5.
[5] Barber, 6
[6] James Ripley Jacobs, The Beginning of the U.S. Army (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), 342-352.
[7] Barber , 9-10.
[8] Ibid., 13.

1 comment:

  1. The cattle industry of the Teche Country would give Texas cowmen historians pause, a parallel cattle complex culture in deep south Louisiana, first imported from the Caribbean--thence locally adapted and assimilated. Barber must have been a lean and mean specimen. Sawing lumber required fortitude. Cattle, on the other hand, could be far less intense in physical stress and endurance.