Enlisted Man's Coatee and Overalls
© 2000 Michael Haynes
This painting by Michael Haynes illustrates the dun-colored coatees and navy blue overalls that Lewis purchased in Philadelphia in 1803. They may have served as the unofficial uniform for new recruits such as the "Nine Young Men from Kentucky."1
The life of a soldier in a frontier camp or garrison often consisted of boring routine, and it could be lonely. Diversions consisted of simple games in the off-duty hours, like checkers and backgammon. Cards and dice were forbidden, but the men still used them on penalty of punishment if caught by the officers. The men also gambled. More strenuous activities like prisoner's base and dancing also took up some off-duty time. There was rarely any excitement at frontier fortifications, as there were few Indian conflicts during this period.
Little time was available for socializing and recreation, however. A soldier's day was rigidly structured and repetitive, much of it filled with parades, inspections, and drilling and marching with muskets.
When not busy marching and countermarching the men were kept busy with fatigue duties like policing the camp, cutting timber and splitting wood, building or repairing items, blacksmithing, maple sugaring, bringing water into camp, airing bedding, and digging new "sinks," or latrines. Another duty was sweeping the fort's chimneys, a task carried out by a non-commissioned officer and two privates on the mornings of the first and third Mondays of each month.
More responsible men were given more sensitive duties, like working in the hospital and caring for the sick. "A careful man will be appointed to take care of the Sick and an Orderly man will be allowed to do the Drudgery work of the Hospital," Col. John Francis Hamtramck of the 1st U.S. Infantry ordered in 1801. Other soldiers were detailed to act as servants, "waiters" or "batmen" to officers ("bat" being an archaic word for personal belongings and equipment).
Such responsible men were also assigned to instruct recruits. Col. Hamtramck directed that "the officer Commanding the Company assign a recruit to . . . an old Soldier for a Comrade, who is qualified to instruct him in the duties of a Soldier; teach him to clean himself, arms & accoutrements . . . When he is Smartened up and completed as before directed he will be put on duty."2 A multitude of other duties awaited the hapless private, and idle hands and feet were never knowingly allowed in a military camp. Officers and sergeants were very creative in seeing that their men had little or no free time. Most fatigue duties rewarded the men with an extra gill (1/4 of a pint) of whiskey each day, one of the few comforts these men could anticipate.
In a frontier fort, soldiers ordinarily lived in small, crowded barracks, or when on maneuvers slept five or six men in a tent we would call a pup tent today. In barracks many slept on bunks made of boards with straw on top as cushioning; others were lucky enough to have straw mattress ticks. Each soldier was issued one woolen blanket; most barracks bunks slept two soldiers on each level, so they could share their blankets.
The barracks were heated by open fireplaces, which were also where the men cooked their food. The fires further provided light on dark winter evenings. Most barracks and fort walls were built of logs chinked with mud, with stone fireplaces and log chimneys daubed with mud on the inside.
Cooking was allowed only in the kitchen areas of tent encampments or the fireplaces of rooms in a fort. The cook prepared the food to be consumed by his messmates at specific times of the day. Only two meals, breakfast and dinner (at that time the midday or noontime meal), were cooked. The evening meal consisted of leftovers and was eaten cold.