Army camps and forts were established in Arizona by the military and authorized by the U.S. government. They were built to house troops (or bluecoats as they were called by some) who would help maintain the peace on the frontier by enforcing Indian treaties, by keeping white settlers off of Indian lands and later, by providing protection to settlers when hostilities occurred.
Army posts were called camps when only a few troops were assigned to the particular location, or if it was only a temporary post. Once a greater number of troops were assigned to the location or it became a permanent post, it was then referred to as a fort.
All the forts were similar in that they all had barracks, stables, officers’ quarters, storehouses, hospitals and offices for the fort’s headquarters. Buildings were arranged around a central parade and/or drill grounds. Contrary to popular belief, most forts did not have walls surrounding them; direct attacks on forts were rare. However, all forts were strategically located and established near a source of water. Because soldiers’ families were allowed to live there, some forts also had schools.
Soldiers, themselves, built the forts out of materials that were found locally. If forests were nearby, then wood was used; in the deserts adobe buildings were constructed and in some locations, stone buildings were erected.
As forts continued to grow, over time, more facilities and buildings were added. Often, blacksmith shops, mess halls, and laundries, to name a few, were added to the forts. By the time, it was decommissioned, Fort Bowie, for instance, became somewhat luxurious. In addition to some 36 structures, flush toilets and street lamps, a tennis court and a steam-powered ice-making machine were installed at the fort.
A soldier’s life was difficult, lonely and often boring at these isolated, frontier army outposts. The vast majority of troops (privates) saw little or no combat and spent their days practicing drills, serving guard duty, preparing for inspections and working on manual labor projects – all for a monthly pay of $13.00. (Corporals made $15.00 per month and sergeants made $17.00 monthly.) Isolation often meant there were no nearby towns for the enlisted men to relieve the monotony of duty. In fact, the monotony of frontier troop life was too much for many of the soldiers and desertion rates were high – anywhere between 30%, as a high, to 19% of troopers deserted.
Army records show that the average age for an enlisted soldier was 23 years old and that the enlistment term was for five years. Many of the troopers were former Civil War soldiers and many were uneducated and illiterate. Training of soldiers was often sub-standard and sometimes troopers weren’t even able to ride horses (or mules) well enough to fight while on horseback.
Just as in the Civil War, high standards of hygiene were not initially enforced and therefore, diseases ran rampant. Far more troopers were treated for and killed by cholera, dysentery, malaria, fevers and other ailments rather than as a result of wounds received in combat.
Meals were generally considered poor and unappetizing – menus included hash, stew, baked beans, salt bacon, coffee, and bread. Sometimes, troops maintained vegetable gardens and hunted fresh game to supplement their meals. Brown sugar, molasses and vinegar were also stocked by the military.