Following the Civil War, many officers born and raised in the East found themselves serving their country on the Kansas frontier. One such man was Captain Albert Barnitz, born in Pennsylvania in 1835 and reared in Ohio. He studied first at Kenyon College and later continued his education at Cleveland Law College. While there, he published a book of poetry titled Mystic Delvings. This hinted at innate writing tendencies that modern readers still enjoy.
Barnitz’s road to the Kansas frontier began after the death of his first wife who died in childbirth in 1860. Still grieving, he soon joined the 13th Ohio Infantry as a three-month volunteer in 1861. Following that service, he enlisted in the 2nd Ohio Cavalry as a sergeant. By 1863, Barnitz achieved senior captain rank.
Following his recovery from severe injuries, Barnitz returned to serve under the command of George A. Custer in the Shenandoah Valley and fought his last battle at Appomattox. He returned briefly to civilian life, but received a captain’s commission in the U.S. Army in 1866. The following year he married his second wife Jennie Platt, and they began their Great Plains adventure that included writing and saving a series of letters and journals which shed light on military and social life of the time.
During his military career, Barnitz served at several frontier forts, including Leavenworth, Riley, and Harker. His wife Jennie joined him at several of these postings. When they weren’t together, they wrote one another regularly. Albert also kept a journal of his experiences over decades. Fortunately for posterity, they saved these documents.
Through these letters and journals, readers can time travel to the years 1866 – 1869 on the Plains. Robert Utley collected and edited them into the book Life in Custer’s 7th Cavalry. Barnitz and Jennie write about military experiences, life on the prairie, Hancock’s failed expedition, a battle with Indians at Fort Wallace, Camp Alfred Gibbs (near the town of Ellis, Kansas), and Jennie surviving a flash flood at the site of the first Fort Hays.
Of interest to history buffs, Albert and Jennie’s letters reveal personal information about the Custers, Colonel Alfred Gibbs, Major Joel Elliott, Miles Keogh, and other famous colleagues. Through this couple’s running commentary, readers see these historical personages as real people with their strengths and frailties. In addition, readers see the evolution of Barnitz’s attitudes about these individuals and realize Captain Barnitz and Jennie’s opinions weren’t static. This couple’s correspondence must’ve engaged Robert Utley completely as he studied their decades of text.
Their letters reveal Albert and Jennie’s love story, his desire to be a good officer, and his disgust with fellow officers who drank too much or abused their troops. Interested in nature, he provides excellent accounts of wildlife, plants, and weather in this region as well.
Because Barnitz had the observational and writing skills of a poet, he thoroughly recorded the essence of military life during one of the frontier’s most active periods, providing a time machine-like glimpse into a vanished era. Life in Custer’s Cavalry is more than communication between a man and woman. It’s an invitation to visit their world.