28. Frontier Army Wives

Ernst Ulmer, a Kansas City native, painted this interpretation of the song "The Girl I left Behind Me" which depicts the Dragoons at Fort Leavenworth, ca 1840. In this painting a soldier says goodbye to his family before leaving on campaign. Friends of the Frontier Army collection.

Life in the Army on the frontier was difficult. History typically reflects the struggles of soldiers during this time, however the wives of these soldiers also played a crucial part in the frontier army story.

Read about the biography of Alice Kirk Grierson, wife to Brigadier General Grierson, to get a glimpse into the life of a frontier army wife. Benjamin Grierson was the commander in charge of the newly formed 10th Cavalry also known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

By: Alicia Embrey and Stacey Medve

Excerpt from “The Girl I Left Behind: Frontier Army Wives 1817-1917” A Frontier Army Museum Publication. Available in the museum gift shop.

Alice Kirk Grierson began her life as a Frontier Army wife at the advanced age of 38. She had already endured financial loss, personal difficulties, and frequent separation from her husband and family. She would bear 7 children, 4 of whom would live to adulthood. While her life tells of great hardships, it also speaks of a woman who was tough, intrepid, and who had great strength of character. She was a woman not unlike her peers: supportive, determined, unflappable – truly a remarkable woman.

Alice was born in 1828 in Youngstown, Ohio to a wealthy, devout Christian, upper-middle class family. She was the first of 13 children. In 1854 Alice married Benjamin Henry Grierson, a childhood friend who lacked the piety Alice’s father required of a son-in-law. Alice overcame her father’s objections to marry the music teacher.

After serious financial reverses, Ben joined the Union army in 1861 as an unpaid aide in an Illinois Infantry Regiment. He quickly was promoted to Major then Colonel due to his uncanny leadership ability. This provided the Griersons with their first steady income. It also provided Alice with her first taste of life as an Army wife. As she raised her family alone, she became acutely aware of the rising death toll from the War of the Rebellion.

After his distinguished service in the Civil War, Benjamin Grierson continued his career in the reorganized Army as Colonel with the encouragement of his wife. He assumed command of the Tenth Cavalry, a regiment of black soldiers later known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

Alice began her frontier Army life in 1866 when she and her three children joined her husband at Fort Leavenworth. Although the Grierson’ stay was short, they both contributed greatly to the organization and recruitment of quality soldiers which would form the famous Tenth Cavalry.

Over the next twenty years, the Griersons’ travel led them throughout the western frontier. They were posted to Fort Riley, Kansas (1867), Fort Gibson, and Fort Sill, Indian Territory (1868 and 1869), Fort Concho, and Fort Davis, Texas (1875-1882). Their later assignments were all in the Arizona Territory. Except for the growing financial concerns, Alice enjoyed these assignments. Due to the advancement of the railroad, there was a wide variety of social and cultural activities. Unfortunately, financial concerns overshadowed their lives.

Alice never lived to see her husband’s dream of being promoted to General come true. She died August 16, 1888 after a long-ignored illness. Twenty months later, Colonel Grierson received his promotion to Brigadier General. Alice Kirk Grierson was a supportive wife, loving mother and a friend to all those she met. General Grierson felt that his promotion was as much Alice’s achievement as his own. His success as an officer and as a man was due to Alice’s tireless efforts during their lifetime.

1880 women's wedding slippers. Worn by Susan Bonapart Palmer at her wedding to Lt. Ethen Smith of the 5th Cavalry on May 17, 1880. Lt. Smith went on in his career to become a Major General. Frontier Army Museum collection.
Photo of Military husband and wife ca. 1877, Frontier Army Museum collection.