In 1918, urged on by his son Harry, John Benton Hart began to tell stories of a three-year period in his youth. He recalled his days as a trooper in the Eleventh Kansas Cavalry, fighting in Missouri and on the frontier, and his time as a civilian jack-of-all-trades doing risky work for the U.S. Army on the Wyoming-Montana Bozeman Trail in the middle of the Indian resistance campaign known as Red Cloud’s War. Once started, John Benton Hart became an enthusiastic raconteur, describing events with an almost cinematic vividness, while his son, an aspiring writer, documented his father’s testimony in what became several manuscripts. Compiled and reproduced here, edited by historian John Hart, John Benton Hart’s great-grandson, this memoir is a singular document of living history.
As a young Kansas cavalryman, John Benton Hart participated in two momentous episodes of the Civil War era—Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition of 1864, including the Battle of Westport, and such engagements in the Plains Indian Wars as the Battle of Platte Bridge in July 1865 and the Hayfield Fight near Fort C. F. Smith in 1867. In the engaging style of a natural storyteller, Hart re-creates these events as he experienced them, giving readers a rare glimpse at moments of historical import from the point of view of the “ordinary” soldier. In arresting detail, he also tells of crossing the Plains as a bullwhacker, carrying the mail between the beleaguered forts on the Bozeman Trail, and befriending scout Jim Bridger and Mountain Crow Chief Blackfoot.
Framed and supplemented with the editor’s biographical, historical, and explanatory notes, Hart’s memoir offers a new perspective on events long fixed in the historical imagination. As history writ large or on a personal scale, Bluecoat and Pioneer tells a remarkable story.
“John Hart offers scholars and general readers alike perhaps the most important original memoir of an enlisted soldier and plains frontiersman. This book will forever take its place alongside other outstanding scholarship and original reminiscences related to the 1864 Kansas Border War and Red Cloud’s War of 1866–1868 along the Bozeman Trail.”—John H. Monnett, author of Tell Them We Are Going Home: The Odyssey of the Northern Cheyennes and editor of Eyewitness to the Fetterman Fight: Indian Views
“John Benton Hart’s recollections—along with his great-grandson’s accompanying contextual narrative—describe and reflect on his experience with the Eleventh Kansas Cavalry in 1864 and as a soldier and private citizen on the post–Civil War western frontier. Bluecoat and Pioneer adds to our understanding and is simply a delightful read.”—Virgil W. Dean, past editor of Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains
“John Benton Hart and his ‘wild-eyed, daredevil bunch’ of Union cavalry battled Confederates in Missouri and Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors later in present-day Wyoming. This young horse soldier left an old man’s intensely personal reminiscence, rescued from oblivion by his great-grandson, that reads true.”—Eli Paul, author of All Because of a Mormon Cow: Historical Accounts of the Grattan Massacre, 1855–1856