Hard Facts & Pipe Dreams

“A great amount of money is necessary in order to kill in the proper manner, for each man slain costs about $7,000...  Every year Europe spends more than $1,200,000,000 in shedding her children’s blood; and France spends $400,000 every day."

James Fowler Rusling was quoting Camille Flammarion, whose clinical approach to the study of war must have held a particular appeal for him.  Rusling’s own Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days has some sharply-drawn character sketches of leaders and warriors, victims and angels of mercy whom the author had met during the war, but it is Rusling's inventory of the nuts and bolts of war that makes his contribution special.  It was not good enough for Rusling to repeat the familiar formula that “It takes a man’s weight in lead to kill him in battle.”  He knew just how much lead had been sent hurtling across battlefields in recent wars, and how many deaths had resulted.  He did not say so outright, but he seemed to imply that Russia lost in Crimea because it took Russians 910 shots on average to kill a British or French soldier, while the British could kill one Russian out of every 700 bullets fired, and the French could kill one with only 590.  

Whenever someone raised the criticism that General Grant's “unscientific" tactics cost too many lives in the recent war, it was hard to counter Rusling’s reply:  Grant had lost fewer men while beating Lee, than his predecessors had lost while not beating him.  He was well aware of the heavy price paid by both sides in men and dollars, and could put those losses in perspective.  He pointed out that more soldiers had been killed during the four years of the American Civil War, than had died on all the battlefields of England in the 800 years since the Battle of Hastings.  By his calculation, about five percent of Union enlistees were killed outright or mortally wounded in battle, while about fifteen percent died of disease or other causes.  He understood that it was dangerous to be a soldier, even one who had never seen a battle.

Rusling knew his facts and figures because he saw many sides of war, as a captain and a quartermaster and a lieutenant colonel and Inspector of the Quartermaster Department of the U.S. Army.  But it was probably the better part of a decade he spent after the war as a pension agent in New Jersey, that fueled one of his most stinging diatribes.     

For all this glorious life—such as it was—we paid our soldier boys the munificent sum of forty cents a day, in green backs, worth fifty cents or less to the dollar, most of the war!  Why, we pay our common laborers on the streets a dollar and a half a day in gold, even in 'hard times,' and they don't take the risk of any such little accidents as shot and shell, bayonets and sabers, either.  And they do not work in bad weather, and are sure of full rations and fair quarters every night, too.  Why, what is it that we do not owe 'the Men of 1861' and their widows and orphans? … or are they now all ‘frauds' and 'dead beats' and mere 'pension grabbers,' as our anti-pension, latter-day patriots now allege?  Or, rather, have we not now fallen on evil days unworthy of the Republic; days whose humor will presently pass away, and the nation turn again to honor and gratitude?

Various generals are credited with some formulation of the thought that no one hates war the way a soldier does.  Surely no one was as thoroughly sick of it as soldiers who had fought their countrymen through four years of the deadliest conflict the world had witnessed thus far, and then had to turn their attention to a new enemy, one with whom they had no particular quarrel.  In his memoir The Indian War of 1864, Eugene Ware described a pipe dream one general conceived as an alternative to chasing Indians about the Plains.  Even if impractical, James Fowler Rusling might have appreciated its seemingly common sense approach.

General Mitchell's idea was that such terms of peace ought to be made with them as would put them upon reservations, and make them dependent, but yet would feed them well and clothe them well. General Mitchell's argument was something like this: 'It is a well-known fact that it costs a million dollars a year to keep a cavalry regiment in the field.  It takes in my district, from Omaha to South Pass, three regiments of cavalry; that is to say, three million dollars a year.  This is outside of the loss of productive labor, and loss of men by death and disease.'  Then the General added: 'I would put these Indians on reservations, dress them up in broadcloth, feed them on fried oysters, and furnish them money to play poker with, and all the tobacco and whisky they wanted, and then I will be a million dollars ahead of the game in my little district every year.'

Yes, the idea was paternalistic and condescending and too much like the shabby treatment that actually was in store for the Plains tribes.  But the part about furnishing them money to play poker with, that may have contained just a slight ember of visionary genius.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com