Saturday, May 19, 2012

“Wagon Boss and Mule Mechanic”

Over the course of the next year we (Kip Lindberg and Matt M. Matthews) will be publishing, in installments, the writings of Robert Morris Peck. R.M. Peck was born in Kentucky in 1840, enlisted the Army in 1856, and served with the 1st U.S. Cavalry in the Kansas Territory. Unlike many in the pre-war Army, Peck was native-born, and literate, and recorded his experiences in patrolling the wild expanses of prairie, his skirmishes with Cheyenne Indians, and the views of the turbulence and violence of the "Bleeding Kansas" era in his journals. Later in life he expanded his journal record into a series of articles on his service in the pre-war cavalry, which today is being edited for publication by noted Kansas historian Dr. Leo Oliva.

In May 1861, with the nation divided by Civil War, Peck's five year enlistment expired. Rather than re-enlisted, Peck took work as a wagon-master, in charge of moving Army quartermaster and commissary supplies from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Scott, Kansas, and down to Fort Gibson, in the Indian Territory. For the next four years, as the fighting ebbed and flowed across the Trans-Mississippi, Peck recorded his observations of the war and its impact on the civilians affected, or Army triumphs and failures, of heroes, cowards, and criminals, of tales of patriotism and corruption, and all while telling what is a forgotten story today: the massive effort required to supply armies with the food, munitions, and supplies necessary to fight a war, over a vast area lacking navigable rivers, rail lines, or roadways.

Peck later expanded his recollections into a series of articles for the National Tribune, a weekly newspaper for members of the Grand Army of the Republic, the national organization for Union Army veterans of the Civil War. His 26 installments covered aspects of the war in Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Indian Territory seldom covered before or since, and presented in incredible detail. His story is true to the man; he writes what he saw, and what he thought, and is unapologetic overall. Although himself a Union veteran, writing for a Union veterans organization, he has both praise and contempt for the leading figures of the Union war effort in the Trans-Mississippi, and for the Confederate leadership as well. Although only one man's story, Peck's recollections are a wonderful read, and offer today's researcher insight previously unobtainable.

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