Missoulian Review

Fort Missoula CoverBy Don Spritzer for the Missoulian – December 8, 2013

In reading Gary Glynn’s thoroughly researched, well organized chronicle of Fort Missoula, “That Beautiful Little Post,” one cannot help being struck by the many ways Missoula’s fort has been both a mirror and a catalyst. Throughout the post’s long, colorful history, it has both reflected and helped shape so many major trends and events – locally, regionally, and nationally.

Certainly it was local fear that goaded the military to locate a post near the then tiny trade center of Missoula in the mid-1870s. Just to the east American soldiers were battling the Sioux. Closer to home a handful of settlers in the Missoula area were concerned about possible trouble from Chief Charlo’s band of Salish still living in the Bitterroot Valley. And, Glynn adds, merchants felt that the local economy could use the boost that a military post could provide during a time of national recession.

Interestingly, as the author notes, Fort Missoula never really was a “fort” in the real sense of the word. It always consisted of a group of solidly-constructed buildings, but never had a stockade or any sort of fortifications. At the time, such “open plan” forts were not uncommon. The few soldiers stationed at these outposts had to patrol huge areas, and they never could have prevented a determined enemy assault.

Fortunately for Missoulians, such an attack never occurred. In fact, the only time Missoula based soldiers ever engaged in action on home soil occurred in 1877 while the fort was still under construction. Glynn neatly digests the story of the flight of the Nez Perce Indians from their homeland in present Oregon and Idaho across much of Montana while being relentlessly pursued by the U. S. Army. Soldiers from Fort Missoula commanded by Captain Charles Rawn failed to stop the Nez Perce in the Lolo canyon at the aptly-named Fort Fizzle. Later, Fort Missoula soldiers engaged the tribe at the infamous Big Hole Battle. Of the eight Fort Missoula Congressional Medal of Honor winners listed in the book, four received the award for action at the Big Hole Battle. Glynn is careful to point out the massacre of Nez Perce women and children that also occurred at the Big Hole.

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The author devoted two full chapters to the posting of African Americans of the 25th Infantry Regiment. Summing up their Fort Missoula stay, he writes: “Like other black units in the segregated U. S. Army, the men of the 25th were equipped with the poorest of equipment and were often discriminated against by white soldiers. Despite these hardships, the regiment had the lowest desertion rate in the army and one of the highest reenlistment rates by 1896.”

Glynn provides a fascinating re-telling of the adventures of Fort Missoula’s famous black bicycle corps, including their epic 40-day trek from Missoula to St. Louis. Both the unit and the trip were the brainchild of Lieutenant James Moss, the white commander stationed at Fort Missoula. Moss had graduated at the bottom of his West Point class, but proved to be a charismatic commander and a master of detail, determined to prove the military value of the bicycle. As the book notes, the Fort Missoula “wheelmen” faced “1,900 miles of unpaved roads” along with “blizzards, hailstorms, rattlesnakes, intense heat,” local farmers who deliberately gave them wrong directions, and rock-throwing children. Although many have viewed the St. Louis trek as an interesting but insignificant sideshow, Glynn argues that the event “proved the feasibility of using bicycles in a military context.” He points out that military units from many nations fielded bicycle troops during both world wars and even in the Vietnam conflict.

Besides his new accounts of Fort Missoula’s oft-told adventure stories, Glynn gives readers a clear picture of what life was like for the average soldier stationed there. There are details about uniforms worn, food eaten, medical care, entertainment, and, not surprisingly, heavy drinking. Wagons hauled the fort’s first water supply from the Clark Fork, and for six decades, beginning in 1883, shots from a vintage Civil War cannon rang throughout the valley announcing morning reveille and evening retreat.

Like most military posts, Fort Missoula always operated on a tight budget and was subject to the whims of Congress and the military high command, which announced the post’s slated abandonment on more than one occasion. Following a building boom that witnessed the construction of the iconic red-roofed structures of “officers’ row,” the post sat nearly empty throughout the First World War.

The military stood ready to vacate the post in the early 1930s when, ironically, the Great Depression gave it new life. Throughout most of the decade, Fort Missoula served as Northwest Regional Headquarters for the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Thousands of young men received training at Fort Missoula before embarking to dozens of CCC work camps in national parks and forests throughout the Northwest.

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During World War II, Fort Missoula played a central role in one of the most shameful chapters in American history – the imprisonment of thousands of so-called enemy aliens. Glynn offers an even-handed account of this episode. He points out that the place became a prison in the truest sense of the word, complete with armed guards, a chain-link fence and barbed wire. But he adds that the captured Italian seamen “were allowed at least two hours of recreation per day, were supplied with books and magazines,” and had their own chef, carpenters, shoemakers, barbers, and priest at the place they renamed “Bella Vista.”

Glynn takes note of the often cruel, discriminatory treatment given thousands of “Issei” Americans of Japanese ancestry who passed through the fort’s historic courtroom before being shipped to relocation centers elsewhere. He also tells of a lesser-known episode in the fort’s story when it housed more than one thousand military prisoners near the war’s end. These American convicts proved much more difficult to handle than the Italians and Japanese. Several riots broke out, one man was shot, another stabbed to death, more than one hundred escaped, and, in 1946, arsonist inmates burned down a barracks building.

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Finally, Glynn brings the fort’s story up to date by detailing the many uses of the post’s buildings and grounds as the military gradually abandoned the place. By 1973, the city of Missoula, Missoula County, Missoula County High School, Missoula Community Hospital, and the University of Montana all owned or were leasing a portion of the fort’s land. And, as has long been typical in Missoula, there were a number of bitter controversies over how that land should be used. The author provides a detailed account of the protracted fight during the 1990s between the University of Montana’s administration and a group of locals who rallied under the banner, “Save the Fort.” The battle ended, at least temporarily, in 1995 when Montana’s Attorney General ruled that the university’s planned land sale was illegal.

Glynn, who for many years has been an active supporter of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, also includes the story of the museum from its origins in the 1970s to its present-day extensive, vibrant campus. Complementing the book’s text are dozens of clearly reproduced photographs, many in color and most published for the first time. Two detailed, colored aerial view maps provide a clear picture of the fort’s property boundaries and the current location of every building on the grounds. The book also contains many fascinating “sidebars” describing fort-related buildings, people and events ranging from a visit by Mark Twain to Missoula’s first airplane flight to the museum’s beautifully restored streetcar.

And the book even has a happy ending, as Glynn writes: “Unlike most historic forts, abandonment by the Army did not mean a long slide into obsolescence. A remarkable transformation has taken place since the 1960s, and the once remote military post is now a cherished community asset, home to dozens of vibrant businesses and organizations, cultural and educational groups, western Montana’s largest medical complex, two golf courses and a developing regional park. Numerous governmental agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, State of Montana, Montana National Guard and University of Montana also have a presence at the fort.”

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