Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Podcasting Since January 2008

The US Army Bicycle Corps – Podcast #20

In Podcast #6, I told you about the US Camel Corp. Now I present to you the story of the US Bicycle Corp.

Toward the end of the 19th century, bicycles became more reliable and easier to ride. This was mostly due to the inventions in 1874 of the safety chain-driven bike by H.J. Lawson and the pneumatic (air-filled) tire by John Dunlop in 1887.

In the United States, with the automobile and motorcycle still years away from mass production, the only way to move troops across the continent was either by horse or railroad. With horses requiring food, water, and a lot of care, and with railroads being extremely limited in where they could go, bicycles had the promise of being a viable alternative. Bikes did not eat anything, required little care, and were free to roam the land in any direction. Surprisingly, bicycles even moved faster than horses on decent roadways.

The idea of using bicycles to move Army troops in the United States was the brainchild of a West Point graduate named James A. Moss stationed at Fort Missoula in Montana.  He was not the first to use bicycles in the military but was certainly the catalyst in making them an important future part of it.

In 1896, Moss was authorized to establish the 25th US Infantry Bicycle Corps at Fort Missoula in July 1896. With Lieutenant Moss in command, the corps consisted of:

  • a sergeant
  • a corporal
  • a musician (to play reveille and taps)
  • 5 privates, which included one mechanic.

They began by holding practice rides ranging between 15 and 40 miles each day. Additional exercises included fence climbing and stream crossing.

Their first major challenge was a bike ride to Lake McDonald, which is the largest lake in Glacier National Park, which is about 150 miles north of the fort. They managed to get to the lake with, just about 24 hours of actual peddling time.

Next, they peddled their way to Yellowstone Park and back, covering 791 miles in only 126 hours of actual traveling. That is a little over 6-1/2 miles per hour, which was pretty remarkable if you think about the lack of paved roads at that time.

Then it was time for their ultimate challenge. It was decided that they should bike to St. Louis. You don’t have to know much about geography to know that this is a long-distance to bike. The round trip was estimated at about 2800 miles and was chosen for its long length, ruggedness, and extreme weather conditions. It followed the paths of the railroads and would take the men through Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska before ending in Missouri.

This required that the 25th Infantry be expanded to twenty-three men, including a surgeon and an additional corporal. All of the men were African-American, except for Moss and the doctor. A Daily Missoulian reporter named Edwin H. Boos would accompany them and send Reports to newspapers across the United States.

Keep in mind that bicycles at this time were not the streamlined, multi-geared, lightweight models of today. These were heavy steel beasts and weighed nearly eighty pounds when packed with their gear. They clearly could not carry everything for the entire trip, so food pickups were set up for every 100 miles of the trip.

They left Fort Missoula at dawn on Sunday June 14,1897. They encountered a violent afternoon thundershower their very first day out and had to deal with mud that stuck to their wheels. They ended up walking the bikes for part of the day yet managing to cover 54-1/2 miles.

American Bicycle Corps at Fort Missoula in 1897. Wikipedia image.

Things would only get worse. They hit terrible sleet and a snowstorm near this continental divide on the 4th day. Frozen fingers, ears, and all, they carried on.

Then there were the incredible swarms of mosquitoes at Fort Custer in Montana, rocky roads, and their seven crossings of the Little Bighorn River. And how about their 20-mile uphill climb under an intense sun in Gillette, Wyoming?

As if the prickly pear cactus needles in South Dakota weren’t bad enough, they were forced to drink extremely alkali water that made Lieutenant Moss very sick. He was forced to spend four days in Alliance, Nebraska, and later caught up to his troops by train.

During these four days without Moss, they encountered the hottest temperatures of the journey: sometimes in excess of 110°F. Their bikes were sinking 8 to 10 inches in the sand and they were forced to ride for miles on the bouncy bicycle tracks. Even worse, half of the men became sick from the alkali water and two had developed blisters on their feet from the hot sand.

Yet, they peddled on. Personally, I would have stopped at the station and taken that last strain to Clarksville…

One thing that had not been anticipated was the response of the local populace, particularly in Missouri, to the arrival of black men into their community. While no violence was reported, the racist comments sometimes filled the air of some of the towns that they cycled through.

They finally arrived in St. Louis at 6 PM on July 24th to the cheering of large crowds. This was followed by a parade several days later.

So here are the stats on their journey:

  • 40 days, 34 for traveling, and 6 for rest
  • they pushed their bikes nearly 400 of the 1900 miles
  • They averaged 52 miles per day
  • It was successfully shown that men could be moved twice as fast at one-third of the cost of traveling by horse.

While their journey was a success, the Army concluded that the obstacles to ride back to Fort Missoula were too great and ordered that the men make the return trip by train.

The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps was officially disbanded on April 10, 1898. If there were any thoughts of trying it again in the future, they were quickly wiped out shortly after the turn of the century by the increasing popularity of cars and motorcycles.

Bicycles were still used to move infantry into the 21st century until the Swiss Army’s Bicycle Regiment disbanded. There are reports of folding mountain bikes being used by the US Special Forces in their fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

One final suggestion. I think that they should eliminate the intense Tour de France bike race, the Ironman challenge, and other Ultra Intense marathons. Having modern athletes race along the path of these twenty-three men would be the most grueling challenge of all time.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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