This slim volume (210 pages) is a short detailed history of the military presence on about 100 miles of the Oregon trail. It covers from the 1840s to 1870s, but focuses on the violent 1860s. The book centers on two river crossings, that of Platte Bridge Station and Richards Bridge, but covers a somewhat wider territory, necessarily, than that.
While that might not sound particularly illuminating, this highly detailed volume presents a very interesting account of the situation faced by troops stationed in the undermanned, diminutive posts in the west. During much of this time the troops stationed in these posts, often Civil War era volunteers, and even Galvanized Yankees during the Civil War, lived in a stage or more or less constant guerilla warfare. Leaving the tiny post was dangerous, life in them wasn't much better. Warfare and violent death were constant.
Moreover, as author John D. McDermott points out, the troops not only had to constantly worry about a violent death at the hands of hostile Indians, they also were faced with an extremely hostile environment and a general lack of preparedness. Illness due to privation was a problem, which was particularly severe during the long, virtually nine month artic winters the troops faced in this region.
The book also provides interesting details of the various engagements the military and Indians fought. Most of these were frankly small, but their constant nature, as mentioned above, is often forgotten. The exception in this book is the Battle of Platte Bridge Station, in which a combined Cheyenne and Sioux force in July 1865 attempted to draw the troops stationed at the bridge out of it, and eliminate them.
The book also feature some fascinating odds and ends associated with life in these desperate little posts. Clothing details, the presence of wolves, and the negative effect of some bad troop horsemanship are all mentioned. A fascinating little oddity, for example, was one post having trained horses to stampede back to the post, developing a trait which would be otherwise negative in order to keep the horses from being stolen by Indians.
It cannot be said that this story has not been told before. Other histories have detailed the harsh nature of the frontier soldier's lives. Moreover, this story could have been told of virtually any of the tiny outposts maintained by the Army in the frontier era. McDermott, however, by focusing in his story so narrowly, has done it very well.
McDermott, John D. "Frontier Crossroads; The History of Fort Caspar and the Upper Platte Crossing", Endeavor Books, 1997
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