The Colonel's Lady on the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson

The Colonel's Lady on the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson

The Colonel's Lady on the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson

The Colonel's Lady on the Western Frontier: The Correspondence of Alice Kirk Grierson


The modern woman who tries to juggle private and public roles with equilibrium will discover a spiritual ancestor in Alice Kirk Grierson. The colonel's lady spent most of her life at army outposts on the nineteenth-century western frontier, where she faced the problems of raising a large family while fulfilling the duties of a commanding officer's wife. Fortunately for history, she left a large and extraordinarily candid correspondence, which has now been edited by Shirley Anne Leckie.

Alice was the wife of Benjamin B. Grierson, a major general in the Civil War who won fame for a raid that contributed to the fall of Vicksburg. Her letters begin in 1866, when her husband reentered the army as colonel of the legendary "buffalo soldiers" of the Tenth Cavalry, and end with her death in 1888. During these years she chronicles the criticism experienced by her husband in commanding one of the army's two black mounted regiments and the frustration when he is repeatedly passed over for promotion, in part because he advocated a more humane Indian policy. All the while her position requires her to assume heavy responsibilities as a hostess. Her letters are just as unflinching in describing the daily hard-ships of raising a family at frontier posts like Forts Riley, Gibson, Sill, Concho, Davis, and Grant, where two of her seven children died young and two suffered from manic-depressive psychosis. They are extraordinary for their insight into nineteenth-century attitudes toward birth control, childbearing, marital roles, race relations, and mental illness.


At the close of the Civil War the reorganized and vastly reduced Army of the United States turned its attention to pacifying the Plains Indians of the trans-Mississippi West. For the next quarter century a succession of Indian wars were fought to protect the miners, farmers, town builders, and proliferating railroad lines invading the hunting grounds of these nomadic tribes and dooming their way of life. By 1891 the Indian wars were for all intents and purposes over and, as Frederick Jackson Turner noted two years later, the frontier era in American history had passed.

A surprising number of army officers' wives recorded their experiences as dependents of the Indian fighters on the western frontier. For the most part these women were of middle-class family background who accepted without question Victorian standards of ladylike behavior. Thus they not only chronicled their trials and tribulations in maintaining the proper standards of domesticity in the masculine world of the army, but also told a story of meeting a series of personal crises which challenged their ability to adapt.

Most of these women were young brides when they entered military life. Their husbands, with the exception of those of Margaret Carrington, Ellen Biddle, Eveline Alexander, and Elizabeth Custer, were junior officers, and this accounts somewhat for the physical hardships they experienced. But other factors mitigated their circumstances considerably: their youth and the relatively small size of their families. For, given the . . .

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