Materiality and the King of Battle

I’m working on pulling together a talk for an upcoming NPS conference on battlefield archaeology. I’m focusing on artillery ammunition, because I’m that kind of geek (seriously, my master’s thesis was all about artillery ammunition).

One of the angles I’m looking at (and I don’t know if I’m even going to throw this into the final talk at this point), is the way in which we can use artillery ammunition as a referent (an index, if you want to whip out the semiotics) for the artillery piece itself. When we talk about deposited ammunition (small arms or artillery), we often use it as a direct connection to the weapon that fired it, which itself is a connection to the soldier(s) operating said weapon.

I’m pulling together anecdotal evidence on how gunners curated and maintained their pieces, and how big a deal it was when someone lost (gasp) or captured/saved artillery pieces in battle. There were 11 Medals of Honor earned during the Civil War for capturing or saving an artillery piece in combat.

I need to find more information on the relationships soldiers developed with their weaponry during combat and military service, particularly in the 19th century. It’s a profoundly different relationship than that which they had with most of the other things we find on a battlefield, which are almost all ammunition and therefore meant to be expended.

For those who feel like this last bit is a little too touchy-feely, I’ll leave you with a section of the Rifleman’s Creed, and you can file your complaints with the U.S. Marines.

My rifle is human, even as I am human, because it is my life.  Thus, I will learn it as a brother.  I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel.  I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready.  We will become part of each other.

George Bent and Pea Ridge

In working on a chapter on Pea Ridge, I came across some interesting history on one of the battle’s participants. I’ve been looking closely at Landis’s Missouri Battery, a unit of the Missouri State Guard that may or may not have participated in the battle. The unit commander, Captain John M. Landis, wrote a memoir after the war that said the unit arrived after the battle (Landis 1895), while other documents and artifacts suggest that they were (that’s a tease, but consider it a tease to order the edited volume when it comes out).

One of the people a mentor and colleague suggested I look at was George Bent. When I was a kid in Colorado, I remember distinctly visiting Bent’s Old Fort, a trading post established by brothers William and Charles Bent, so the family name was familiar, and very western.

George Bent was William’s son, and also the son of Owl Woman, a Cheyenne. Growing up of mixed race was a tough life, and it fed into his Civil War experience. Bent joined the Missouri State Guard following the Camp Jackson Massacre in 1861, becoming a cavalryman. There have been two biographies of Landis, both of which put Bent in Martin Greene’s First Missouri Cavalry. According to the more recent, that by Halaas and Masich (2004), Bent served with Landis’s battery at the battle.

After the battle of Corinth, Mississippi, Bent left Confederate service. He was captured by the Union army and paroled at his father’s post out in Colorado. He soon found himself in Black Kettle’s camp along Sand Creek, and was caught in the middle of the Sand Creek Massacre. Embittered by the attack, he becomes a Dog Soldier and fights against the U.S. Army in various places around Colorado.

After the war, Bent becomes an adviser and interpreter to Black Kettle, helping iron out the Medicine Lodge Treaty. He married Magpie Woman, daughter of Black Kettle. Bent’s background, part white, part Native American, continued to govern his life.

George Bent’s life is chronicled in Hyde’s Life of George Bent: Written from his Letters and David Halaas and Andrew Masich’s Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent. Halaas and Masich gave a podcast on their work to Colorado Public Radio, which you can find here.


Halaas, David F. and Andrew Masich
2004     Halfbreed: The Remarkable True Story of George Bent. Da Capo Press, Boston.

Hyde, George E.
1968     Life of George Bent: Written from His Letters. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Landis, John C.
1895     The Landis Battery. St. Louis Republic, May 12.