“When the sentinel on the rampart announced the arrival of the mail boat today, a happy feeling came over me…so that I found it difficult to restrain my impatience while anxiously waiting for the orderly with the mail.” Penned by a lieutenant serving on recruiting duty at Fort Wood in New York Harbor, these words no doubt echoed the sentiments of many Old Army soldiers. Officers and enlisted men in the 19th century welcomed letters from family and friends. However, mail often included books and periodicals. Together correspondence and published works offered a brief reprieve from onerous army duty. By the end of the 19th century army libraries contained thousands of publications.
Old Army Libraries
From an early date, army regulations provided for reading material for U.S. soldiers. Provisions for army libraries appeared in the 1821 army regulations. Article 41, Paragraph 14, for example, stipulated that proceeds from the post fund could be used for the “ purchase of books, &c. for a library, one section of which, to be adapted to the wants of the enlisted men.” Post funds supplied army libraries with reading material throughout most of the 19th century. Revenue generated from sutler taxes or savings accrued by not using the daily flour ration subsidized the post fund.
Military installations large and small had libraries. The library for Fort Preble, a small artillery garrison located on the Atlantic shore in Maine, was located in a small frame building also occupied by four staff officers. In 1875, the Surgeon General reported that the Fort Duncan, Texas, “post library consists of about one hundred and seventy volumes of miscellaneous books, which are kept in two hospital tents situated on the parade-ground a short distance southeast of the hospital, and used as library and reading-room; the latter is open to the garrison from guard mount until tattoo. Semi-daily and weekly papers are received. There are also two literary societies at the post, composed of members of the two cavalry companies.”
In 1886, the Adjutant General decreed that these items became public property attached to the respective post. However, a year later army headquarters specified that neither newspapers nor periodicals could be purchased with post funds. Rather subscriptions for these publications could be made from an allotment made to each company by the Quartermaster Department. By 1897, the Secretary of War reported a cumulative number of 51,498 volumes of books in libraries at 74 military posts.
…a judicious selection of interesting and instructive books…
Numerous benevolent aide societies and fraternal organizations also contributed reading material to army libraries. Many of those organizations were faith or temperance based and, accordingly, most of their reading material reflected those tenents. These groups included the American Bible Society, National Temperance Society, YMCA, and the U.S. Military Post Library Association (USMPLA). Established in 1861, the aim of the USMPLA was to “establish libraries and reading rooms in all military posts and stations, and it call[ed] upon all benevolent and philanthropic persons to aid it in th[e] free distribution of proper reading material.” By 1876, the USMPLA provided military installations throughout the nation with 4,672 volumes, 80,000 religious papers, 178,000 secular papers, 9,875 magazines, and 7,000 publications of the association. The organization also facilitated the establishment of 13 literary and debating societies and 19 reading clubs.
Newspapers and magazines were also common. Not surprisingly, common periodicals, including Army and Navy Journal, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and Harper’s Weekly, were widely distributed. However, other weekly papers including Puck, Harper’s Franklin Square Library, and the Cincinnati Graphic were also distributed. Puck was a very popular magazine known for its satirical cartoons. In 1882, the weekly ranked second to the Army and Navy Register for distribution to military posts.
So what publications were available at specific posts? Numerous period documents list the publications, and occasionally who checked them out, at individual posts. The following are two examples.
Examples From Old Army Libraries
In October 1866, a post council of administration, convened at Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory, authorized 2nd Lieutenant John R. Eschenburg, 14th Infantry, to purchase 10 books and a one-year subscription to the Sacramento Weekly Union, all for $10.00. Books purchased included The Works of Washington Irving, including the short story titled Wolfert’s Roost, Macaria, or the Altars of Sacrifice a novel by Augusta Jane Evans, and one volume of the three-volume history titled History of the Dominion of the Arabs in Spain translated into English by Mrs. Jonathon Foster.
A council of administration at Fort Fetterman in present Wyoming authorized the purchase of a wider selection of books. They included:
History of Charles XII, King of Sweden
John Lothrop Motley’s History of the Rise of Dutch Republic (ca. 1858)
John Lothrop Motley’s History of the United Netherlands (ca. 1860)
George Bancroft’s History of the United States (ca. 1860)
David Hume’s History of England (ca. 1826)
Antoine Henri de Jomini’s The Art of War (ca. 1862)
“Shakespear’s Complete”, probably one of various editions of William Shakespeare’s poems titled The Complete Works of Shakespeare…
“Byron’s Complete”, probably one of various editions of Lord George Gordon Byron titled The Complete Works of Lord Byron…
“Scott’s Complete Peotical Works”, probably one of various editions titled The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott…
“Burns Complete Poetical Works”, probably one of various editions titled The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Burns…
“Shakespear and His Friends”, probably Shakespeare and His Friends or “The Golden Age” of Merry England by Robert Folkestone Williams (various editions)
“Sir Walter Scotts (complete)”, a set of novels written by Scott
A Diverse and Worldly View?
Interestingly, the Fort Fetterman list includes several books related to Scandinavian history. I wonder if these books reflect the high number of soldiers born in that region? The few books listed in the Bowie and Fetterman libraries suggest that the Old Army attempted to offer a diverse and thoughtful view of world. Whether the rank and file actually read and appreciated these works is a question worthy of further investigation. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment or contact us directly.
Annual Report of the Secretary of War (1882, 1883, 1888, 1897)
Annual Report of the U.S. Military Post Library Association, 1870-1871 (1871)
General Orders and Circulars, Adjutant General’s Office (1886, 1887)
General Regulations for the Army (1821)
Public Libraries in the United States of America, Part I (1876)
Outline Description of the Posts in the Military Division of the Missouri Commanded by Lieutenant General P. H. Sheridan (1876)
Outline Description of U.S. Military Posts and Stations in the Year 1871 (1872)
The Publisher’s Weekly, No. 230, June 10, 1876.
Report on the Hygiene of the United States Army (Billings 1875)
Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Orders and other documents, Fort Fetterman, Dakota Territory and Camp/ Fort Bowie, Arizona Territory
Isaac d’Isay letter to Alida d’Isay (dated Fort Wood, New York Harbor, July 3, 1867); author’s collection