In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama, this nation’s first black president, noted: “No one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we built it together. This nation is great because we worked as a team.” Considering our first black president is a Democrat, I found the comment fascinating. The team was something that happened by force; Civil War force. The country had split because they couldn’t work together. They couldn’t decide where to put the railroad, whether to offer the country free education, what to do with the land out West. And they were completely at odds abo
The Civil War was central to American history. Much had been determined during that time, and the Indian wars period following that relates to who and where we are today. This book takes a scathing look at politics, culture, the environment, as well as military history in this study of one soldier’s orders. We’re going to learn so much about these issues that you might just walk away shaking your head. No other country has a history like this. No other country can claim to be a team after over 750,000 (new figured released in April, 2012) men had to die to keep it together.
The soldier whose orders are followed was Henry Bertrand, German immigrant, my grandfather’s great uncle, and in regular army in the Civil War, not a Wisconsin volunteer. A book from a regular army perspective is already unique. But this book is also unique in its focus as an integrated study of American military and political history starting in 1862.
Bertrand had kept a journal but it disappeared. So this is also not just another Civil War soldier’s diary transcribed, which can be unsatisfying because a soldier in the field cannot see nor does he necessarily know why he moves from one place to another. While some editors will include political information or events to clarify a soldier’s diary, none go as far as we do here, nor were any other found who had been in service as long. Here we extend the idea of the diary because we both follow Henry’s orders and we also learn why those orders were given.
It’s also unique because, according to museum operators and scholars contacted on research, this focus on regular army, a provost guard in the Civil War, is one that has never before been written.
But this is also a book about the attitude, humanity and the mistakes around orders given to this regular army soldier. The things that Henry Bertrand witnessed, including battles, are worthy of note. He often guarded headquarters, and witnessed the faulty rationale behind the events, as well as the unfurling of events themselves. He enlisted five times, and was sent to eighteen different forts and various campsites across the country between 1862 and 1884. After he became a civilian, we follow the issues that would have interested this “old, used-up soldier” as a continuation of issues in which he’d been involved. We follow him and these issues to figure out why his life ended as it did in 1916—at the end of a rope by his own hand.
We look at what he did and where he went to get an idea of what he witnessed, and explore why he went where he did to help us understand how this country became as it is today—still so divided politically and sectionally.
Bertrand was quiet, aloof perhaps, the perfect type to become and remain an infantry guard his entire life. He enlisted on the side of the north in the Eighth U.S. Infantry, regular army, a provost guard unit. Why he enlisted as regular army will be explored in depth, as this reason is little covered in other sources, yet can be seen as a matter of great importance to the rest of the Civil War. He was finally sent into the field to serve with George McClellan in time to help bury the bodies after Antietam, and then served under Ambrose Burnside at Fredericksburg. He was sent to New Orleans to help Nathaniel Banks on his Port Hudson campaign, caught the tail end of Chancellorsville under Joseph Hooker, and served under George Meade at Gettysburg.
Immediately after Gettysburg the 8th U.S. was called to help quell the draft riots at New York City, and he remained there until Ulysses Grant called Burnside up for his march against Richmond. Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor—Bertrand was there for all of Grant’s “Bloody May” in 1864. During the siege of Petersburg he served under Burnside during the crater explosion fiasco that ended Burnside’s military career.
At Lincoln’s re-election in 1864, the Eighth U.S. Infantry was broken apart and sent to various locations to protect the voters. Bertrand spent the remainder of the war following rumors of plots around Maryland and Delaware, and chased subversion in the north caused by the spies working out of Canada.
Following his activities in the Civil War opens up new venues of research. No one book can answer all questions but you’ll find many previously unanswered questions answered here.
Bertrand’s enlistment was up shortly after the war ended. A month later he re-enlisted. He went west and served under General W.S. Hancock in the first major post-Civil War Indian campaign in Kansas in 1867. After Hancock stirred trouble with Sioux and Cheyenne, Bertrand and the 37th Infantry were sent to New Mexico to guard the Navajos at Bosque Redondo until the army and Indian Bureau could figure out what to do with them. This was not an easy task because the army and Indian Bureau never agreed on policy, with one notable exception culminating in the battle of the Little Bighorn.
Henry Bertrand’s second three-year enlistment ended the day before the Navajos’ imprisonment ended at the Bosque, but records showed that Henry stayed to see the Navajos given their homeland back. Then he took a year off before enlisting again and lived in Janesville, Wisconsin with his brother’s family. He had trade experience as a blacksmith but, probably because he could find no work and no spouse, re-enlisted in July 1869. Grant was now president and the army was re-organized, with enlistment terms of five years instead of three. The railroad had joined at Promontory Point, and peace had supposedly descended on the plains.
Between 1869 and 1874, Bertrand served with the Fourth Infantry in Wyoming, Kentucky, and back to Wyoming again, with some time at Little Rock Arsenal. In Kentucky for Reconstruction duty he protected the black vote for Grant, and in Wyoming got involved in annuities problems with various tribes, and helped supply “secret” expeditions into the Black Hills. He learned firsthand that Indians were “good people,” saw how the fight in the West was over water and not land, and recognized how Civil War tactics continued to be used, as the military attacked Indian society rather than just the warriors out on the hunt.
We have only a little of Henry’s actual voice in this book; instead, much of what we learn is what he witnessed, whether or not he realized what he saw at the time.
Throughout Bertrand’s army years he ran into some officers over and over, so we also explore the lives and relationships of officers such as George Custer, Richard Dodge, William McEntyre Dye, Winfield S. Hancock, and John Pope—along with the notables of Crook, Sherman and Sheridan.
This military story spanned twenty-two years using infantry records, post journals and family history, blended with primary documents and secondary historiography. In one primary document of a court martial, Henry acted as witness and we hear him “speak,” affirming that the characterization of him throughout the book is an accurate one.
When his five-year enlistment ended in 1874, Bertrand re-upped immediately, but on the condition that they let him have his one and only leave of absence—to the healthy climate of Denver. He then got involved with Crook at the Rosebud, the battle previous to Little Big Horn, and in Crook’s campaigns to the end of 1876. He helped to build Fort McKinney and take down the temporary Reno post, and his enlistment ended at Fort Fred Steele just before the Fourth Infantry took battle against the Utes that ended their commander’s life.
Bertrand re-enlisted a month later into the Twentieth Infantry and was sent to Ohio to enlist men for campaigns on the southern border of Texas. Eventually he was stationed at Fort Brown himself, involved in international Indian affairs, before being sent back to Kansas.
Finally, on January 24th, 1883, he suffered frostbite of the testicles while on extended guard duty that grew gradually more painful, and, with rheumatism, earned him an honorable discharge in 1884. In no other records does anyone report this kind of medical disability, so we look at these records in detail.
We follow him into an old soldier’s home, and back to Wisconsin to get reacquainted with civilian life until his death in 1916. Along the way we follow all the issues in which he’d been involved, including lack of annuities for the Indians that led to the controversial battle/massacre at Wounded Knee. We’ll learn after Bertrand’s retirement why the black population became Democrat and how a president who seemed very liberal as a Republican could also be racist.
This book on Henry Bertrand’s orders is unique because, in all the journals used or referenced by other historians here, not one soldier after the Civil War enlisted for a second term. William Zimmer enlisted after the Battle of Little Big Horn during a surge of patriotism, and left the service at the end of his five-year enlistment. Don Rickey, Jr. wrote that, “Continuous duty in the West sapped the strongest within ten to fifteen years.” Most found in this research left after their first enlistment.
“Bloody peace” refers to the fact that war was never declared against any Indians. It was considered policy to pacify, placate, and in any way corral them so their land could be obtained and opened up for settlement. After the Civil War, so many discharged soldiers were suddenly freed and many suffered combat fatigue. Rebel soldiers were not allowed to enlist in the frontier army and many still held a grudge. The impetus to move west after the war was a strong one, with the country in a depression, and before real law and order developed. The soldiers took with them the penchant for drinking and gambling too, and the towns in the West built up around this dual economy. The “Wild West” emerges during Bertrand’s experiences.
There is no record of his expectations when he enlisted in 1865—perhaps like John Dunbar in “Dances with Wolves,” he hoped only to see the West. Perhaps with the slaves freed, he found little employment anywhere. He may have felt comfortable as a soldier, and Germans are known for their fondness for the Native American Indian cultures. What we know about his experiences in the west come from the few stories he told his great-nephew, my grandfather, such as this one: “We didn’t try hard to catch them [the Indians]; we could see they were good people.” Was this only because of the writings of Karl May that all Germans read? Here readers will learn various other reasons that Henry may have said this.
My grandfather, Francis Bertrand, told us Henry’s stories as Henry told them to him. How valid are Henry’s oral stories? Oral histories of native peoples historically have been disdained as mythology, filled with inventive imagination. A number of historiographies on Custer’s Last Stand refuse to use Indian viewpoints for this reason, as they are used here. If we had none of Bertrand’s oral reflections, we would have nothing of him except his orders. My grandfather as a boy begged Henry to tell his stories, and Francis continued over the years to tell these stories accurately, without further embellishment. In one tale of piano burning in the South, Francis said Henry must have marched with Sherman through Atlanta. That was wrong. Was this story one his great-uncle had heard? We can’t be sure, but it is still a valid story. Great-uncle Henry also told Francis they were told to torch an Indian village because of smallpox. We only have one record of a village he helped torch, and there is no record of smallpox there. That does not make the story inaccurate.
Because Bertrand said, “we thought the Indians were good people,” readers will see examples of how the military did not try hard to catch the Indians. Sergeant William Bald, 1st Cavalry, noted: “We thought they (Indians) were not getting an even break—and they weren’t.” An equal number may have felt like this one after the Little Big Horn fight: “The 7th Cavalry … just didn’t like Indians—you can take that from me!” Homer Coon, 7th Infantry private, noted that the Nez Perce “were good Indians but our orders were to go after them.” 1st Sergeant George Neihaus wrote about the Apaches that, “I could always make friends with them, when they were treated right.” Varying attitudes demonstrate that no story should ever be told from just one viewpoint.
Henry Bertrand’s Indian adventures include marching to the Rosebud in 1876 with General George Crook, because his obituary noted that he was only miles from where Custer was killed at that time. Fort and post records, however, do not note his detached service, nor was his company involved. But other Fourth Infantry companies were, and as you’ll see, there are other reasons to believe Bertrand was there as well.
The Book’s Themes
Bertrand’s story shows that American history isn’t just a “Civil War” period, an “Indian War” and a “Reconstruction” period, but each affected the others. The eastern theater and western arena were not separate entities and wholly isolated periods of time, but attitudes within each developed during the U.S.’s growing pains.
It is easy to have disdain for the treatment of American Indian cultures, such as reflected in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. And indeed, readers here may feel sadness at all that happened to them. But this book is told from the army viewpoint, and I suspect that anyone, after reading this, would be hard pressed to see how this period could have happened any differently. Other people in other countries have engaged in cultural cleansing. It should be a matter of some pride that we still have visible Indian tribes in our country today. More needs to be done to recognize what’s been taken from them, however. Giving them back the Black Hills would be a good start.
Finding both sides to these issues was a primary goal but it was a daunting task and I may not have succeeded as well as I’d wished. But the effort is an honest one.
Bertrand’s story is presented as analysis of primary documents centering on his experiences, because much of his experiences have not been part of any previous historiography. But this book’s main intent is to illuminate an extremely complicated period of American history, by following one soldier’s orders for more than twenty years wherever he was sent, a period that may have seemed more straightforward than it actually was.
This book also gives a nod to today’s environmental search for answers. Once it was thought, for instance, that the Indian wars out west were fought over land. Instead, the real battle was over water supplies. Water in the West was (and is) a precious commodity, much more than gold or even land. When soldiers marched, they tried to stay along a water source. Indians often led soldiers away from water and then disappeared, knowing better than the soldiers where secret water sources were.  Every instance of an Indian/soldier battle that I found was near a water source.
Even if we feel that history happens for a reason and couldn’t have gone any differently, this book will leave the impression that maybe there were situations that could have been altered. That alone can give us more hope in making decisions for a better future, because this study of America is a study that reflects human nature across time, as true and real as the world in which it was placed. Most of what you’ll be reading here is the humanity, mistakes, politics, mistakes … all part of attitude, not only this country’s, in the divisiveness that went in so many directions, but also how the U.S. interacted with other countries.
The Civil War was a complicated time in our country’s history, which is why it’s so written about. The Indian war period following is often shown as something that happened separately, or apart, from anything else. But by following one’s soldier’s story, where he was sent and why, we’ll see much more clearly how connected these two periods were.
A new way of looking at history and a greater understanding of our humanity during very difficult times—that’s what I hope I’ve accomplished here.
If there’s one book a reader needs to acquaint themselves with the Civil War and Indian wars periods, this is it. So this book is accessible for the beginning history reader, and with a focus on primary documents, has plenty of interesting information for the scholars.
There will be times, while you’re reading, when you’ll wonder where Henry Bertrand is. Please remember that this is the story of what went on around him—simply everything that is shown is in relation to the orders and where he was at that particular time. But I do not make specific assumptions about what he was doing at every given moment.
You will act then, as reader, as though you are witnessing what Henry saw or heard. My hope is that you will gain the understanding, by following one soldier’s orders, of the kinds of activities this soldier was involved with; and with that understanding, a clearer notion of what this period of time was really like.
Where possible, Bertrand’s activities are related. But as a private, his specific movements are only occasionally noted. Just because we may go awhile before we see his name again does not mean that he has disappeared. He is there. There simply isn’t a reason to continually remind you of it. You should begin to feel that you are Henry, and witnessing attitudes of the past as he saw and felt them.
With this introduction to the unique experience you are about to entire, let’s begin with more about Henry and the background of the arena he was about to enter. Enjoy the journey.
 Jeff Madrick, “Can We Trust Government Again?” The Nation, April 9, 2012.
 Jerome A. Greene, ed., Frontier Soldier: An enlisted man’s journal, the Sioux and Nez Pierce Campaigns, 1877 (Helena: Montana Society Historical Press, 1998), 4.
 Don Rickey, Jr., Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), 136-141 and 336. Jeremy Agnew, Life of a Soldier on the Western Frontier (Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing, 2008), 86.
 Francis Bertrand, “Henry Bertrand Oral Stories by Francis Bertrand: Interview with Francis Bertrand excerpts,” interview by Mary Kay Mueller and Trudy Lafrance, family research, (summer 1990).
 Don Rickey, Jr., Forty Miles a Day, 228-234.
 George A. Custer,<i> My Life on the Plains, or Personal Experiences with Indians</i>, Introduction by Edgar I. Stewart (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, sixth printing, 1988), 4. Life of George Bent, written from his letters, George Hyde, editor (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma, 1983 reprint), 112.