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A Private’s Diary


Wilmot P. Sanford enlisted in the United States Army in his hometown of Boston, Massachusetts in 1872. He was a member of Company D, 6th Regiment, United States Infantry. Private Sanford was eventually stationed at Ft. Buford, located at the junction of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers in western North Dakota.

What’s so noteworthy about Private Sanford? Interestingly, he kept a diary while stationed at Ft. Buford. For a man with little education who never rose above the rank of private, keeping a diary was highly unusual for his time. The contents of this diary however, give us a wonderfully enjoyable look at the everyday life of the common soldier.

Private Sanford’s misspellings, lack of punctuation and utter lack of color in his writing only add to its interest. Throughout his daily entries, we learn of a man who perhaps unwittingly manages to make even the most mundane daily routines of frontier post life seem interesting.

Private Sanford’s diary reminds us what life was like at a remote infantry fort in the mid 1870’s. The constant daily work parties, the fatigue, with notably few methods of relaxation, were the norm. Perhaps this harsh environment partially explains his indifference about military life and his attitude of “let’s-just-get-this-over-with.”

What about military food? His entry for November 22, 1874 reads, “Stew for breakfast, backed beans for dinner, fried mush for supper.”

Military entertainment? His December 10th entry reads, “Came off sick report and on no duty, but went & helped the Lieutenant clean up his rooms from the party last night and got some cigars and whiskey.”

How about the daily routine? On February 12th, he records, “Drilled the bayonet exercise with arms. Every man on fatigue today. Ice cutting is finished.”

Sanford kept daily records of the weather. He recorded who he wrote letters to and who he received letters from. He talked about who was in jail, and how long before he would become a civilian again.

Private Sanford was discharged on April 15, 1877. While the desertion rate for the army in the 1870’s was thirty percent, he chose to serve out his time. His time in the army proved to be nothing of interest. In fact, by his own admission, it was relatively boring. After his discharge, he returned to farming.

Private Sanford gave the twenty-first century reader an insight into something otherwise quite lost; the daily life of a private soldier on the North Dakota prairie.

Private Wilmot P. Sanford’s unremarkable military career however, was faithfully recorded in his diary; a diary that began on this date, September 26, 1874.

by Dave Seifert

Source: Mattison, Ray H, Editor, “North Dakota History: Journal of the Northern Plains”, Innis, Ben, Editor, “The Fort Buford Diary of Pvt. Sanford”. Volume 33, Number 4, Fall, 1966.