History of Fort Davis, Texas
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Peace, plenty, and contentment reign throughout our borders, and our beloved country presents a sublime moral spectacle to the world. . . . In reviewing the great events of the past year and contrasting the agitated and disturbed state of other countries with our own tranquil and happy condition, we may congratulate ourselves that we are the most favored people on the face of the earth. [1]

So trumpeted Pres. James K. Polk in the wake of the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Indeed, the treaty secured for the United States a huge expanse of the American Southwest, including the Trans-Pecos. But like Spain, Mexico, and the Republic of Texas before it, the United States found its occupation of western Texas a tenuous one. The region's immense size, rugged terrain, and indigenous tribes confounded the intruders. And like their predecessors in Madrid, Mexico City, and several Texas capitals before them, Washington planners initially saw little intrinsic value in the lands around what would become Fort Davis. Yet commercial interests—the discovery of gold in California, the trade with Chihuahua City, the projected transcontinental railroad—combined with the confident, self-assured mobility of many Americans to lead the nation to establish its presence in far western Texas.

The army hoped that Fort Davis would dissuade Indians from attacking travelers in the Trans-Pecos, while at the same time encouraging western settlement. Like a hundred other western posts, Davis was part of a process of conquest in which soldiers and settlers saw themselves pushing inexorably forward to the Pacific Ocean. These men and women firmly believed that a Christian God supported their quest to civilize the barren lands. Settling this wilderness, they must brush aside what they perceived to be the inferior occupants of times past. But in reality they were not occupying an empty landscape. Indians, conquistadores, missionaries, rogues, and settlers—all had passed through the vicinity of what Americans called the Painted Comanche Camp. [2]

Why, then, did the United States win the contest for empire in the Trans-Pecos where so many others had failed? Indians would continue to contest the Fort Davis region, but had neither the numbers nor the organization to overcome a sustained and determined invader. Spain, beset by the imperial problems resulting from two centuries of world domination, had too few resources to occupy the Trans-Pecos save for a tentative effort along the Rio Grande. Plagued by internal strife, Mexico could never convince sufficient numbers of loyal colonists to move into Texas.

Those Mexicans who did go north viewed the central government with ambivalence. Local officials seemed paralyzed; the mission system collapsed as secularization and a shortage of priests tested even the most faithful. Indian affairs remained a dilemma, as too few troops and too little money prevented Mexico from establishing a fair or consistent policy. Military defeats cost Mexico the war with the United States—but her northern frontiersmen also seemed to be less willing to fight for their central government than did their Yankee counterparts. [3]

By contrast, the United States system seemed ideally suited for expansion into western Texas. Nineteenth-century U.S. society encouraged individual initiative and enterprise among white males. The territorial system, although often affected by the inconsistent winds of politics, offered newly organized areas the prospect of full equality with older regions. Abundant resources and irrepressible confidence gave the youthful nation a fearsome vitality. French Louisiana and Spanish Florida were sold rather than risked to American expansionism. In the north, Russia also retreated before the Yankee colossus; even mighty Great Britain declined to fight the United States on the North American continent after the War of 1812.

Those Americans who would eventually occupy Fort Davis had no time for such speculation, however proud they might have been of their nation's growth. They had too much to do. Like their comrades at countless other frontier posts throughout the American West, the community at Fort Davis would struggle against myriad problems beyond their immediate control. Politicians limited the size and composition of the army while at the same time demanding aggressive action against Indians. Distances, terrain, and environmental conditions inhibited the military's movements and effectiveness. The soldiers and settlers battled heat, cold, thirst, hunger, and loneliness. Yet they built, built, and built even more, rarely questioning their assumed right to conquer what they thought to be a wilderness.

During the 1840s the United States achieved what many felt to be its manifest destiny. By annexing Texas, resolving the Oregon dispute, and seizing the greater Southwest, the United States staked its claim as a continental power. Completed with dramatic suddenness, the new acquisitions also changed the relationship between the federal government and western Indians. Traditionally, the United States had attempted to establish a permanent frontier. It removed Indians to areas west of this imaginary line; military forts, constructed just ahead of white settlement, theoretically preserved the peace. [4]

Yet the idea of a permanent Indian frontier had never worked smoothly. The line was moved continually westward, always into the lands Indians would occupy "in perpetuity." By shattering the myth of a permanent Indian frontier, expansion to the Pacific simply rendered the ineffective old policy obsolete. An imaginary line could scarcely be depended upon to answer the disputes between indigenous populations and American settlers. Furthermore, a diverse array of cultures and peoples lived in the lands now claimed by the United States. Many of these occupants, including Apache and Comanche Indians, threatened to sever the communication routes linking east and west. [5]

In part to cope with these problems, Congress created the Department of the Interior in 1849. Along with pensions and the federal domain, the new department's responsibilities included Indian affairs, formerly housed in the War Department. Few government officials explicitly advocated extermination of the Indians. At the opposite extreme, few saw much value in tribal cultures or lifestyles. The vast majority instead argued that Indians should adopt the ways of western civilization while living on specially designated reservations. With missionaries and teachers in their midst, they would give up their old ways and become respectable Christian farmers. Indians must be separated, according to the theory, from such evil influences as alcohol, disease, and greed, which were endemic in the very culture they were supposed to accept. Few who held this view recognized its essential paradox.

Charles M. Conrad, secretary of war for Pres. Millard Fillmore from 1850 to 1853, firmly supported the reservation scheme. Arguing that contact between Indians and whites inevitably led to trouble, Conrad asserted that "rigid adherence to the policy . . . of setting apart a portion of territory for the exclusive occupancy of the Indians" provided the best solution to the dilemma. At the same time, he recognized that Texas posed special challenges. Unlike other states and territories, Texas retained ownership of its public lands. In order to establish reservations for the thirty thousand Indians of Texas, then, the United States would have to either purchase the land or convince Texans to set up reserves of their own. [6]

Given financial constraints and the state's historic antipathy toward Indians, neither option appeared viable. Largely at the instigation of state agent Robert S. Neighbors, however, the Texas legislature sponsored two reservations (known as the Brazos and Comanche reserves) along the upper Brazos River in 1854. The state gave up jurisdiction over an area not to exceed twelve leagues to the United States government, which was in turn authorized to settle Indians on the reserves, establish agencies and military posts, and exercise control over its wards. State officials also pondered the formation of a Mescalero Apache reservation west of the Pecos River. Claimed by sponsors to enjoy the support of West Texans, the proposed agreement would cede five leagues of state land to the federal government. [7]

The Brazos reservation, occupied by semiagricultural tribes such as the Caddo, Waco, Tawakoni, Tonkawa, and Delaware, initially met its designers' objectives. Agricultural efforts were thriving; education in the arts of western civilization proceeded apace. But the more mobile groups on the Comanche reservation made less progress. Troops at Fort Belknap and Camp Cooper could not always separate friend from foe. As nonreservation tribes continued their raids, Texans, who remained dubious about the projects, found it difficult to distinguish their actions from those of the reservation peoples. In 1859, following a series of ugly incidents. Neighbors escorted the inhabitants of both reservations across the Red River into the Indian territory. [8]

As if to symbolize the entire tragic episode, one Texan, angry at Neighbors for befriending the tribes, murdered the former agent shortly after the removal. The failure of the brief effort to create Indian reservations in Texas had important consequences for Fort Davis. Forgotten was the planned reserve west of the Pecos River. As such, the state government refused to allow the Trans-Pecos tribes to retain even a small portion of their nomadic haunts. An Indian reservation would not have guaranteed peace in West Texas; still, it might have doused some of the sparks ignited by the clash of cultures. Given the cultural propensities of all involved and without even the imperfect prospect offered by a reservation in Texas, violence between Indian and non-Indian was almost inevitable.

Even had the Texas reservations brought about the desired results, they would not have prevented tribes living outside the state from endangering traffic between El Paso and San Antonio. Particularly important during the 1850s were the Mescalero Apaches, who claimed western Texas and eastern New Mexico as their traditional hunting grounds. The trespassers pouring into these lands seemed fair prey to the Mescaleros. In return, military authorities in New Mexico determined to show no quarter. Only after forcing the tribes onto reservations could the much vaunted process of civilization begin. In accord with this thinking, the army established forts Conrad and Fillmore along the Rio Grande as agents negotiated a treaty with the Mescaleros in 1852. The Indians acknowledged the supremacy of the United States and its laws and promised to stop their raids into Mexico. In return the government agreed to grant annuities and any "liberal and humane measurements" it deemed suitable. Subsequently, the Gadsden Purchase ended U.S. responsibility for Indian raids into Mexico, but relations between Washington and southwestern tribes soon deteriorated. The collapse of the uneasy 1852 treaty surprised no one. [9]

Under these conditions, few could envy the situation inherited by the commander of the Department of Texas, Bvt. Maj. Gen. Persifor Smith. Upon appointing Smith to this position (in what was then known as the Eighth Military District), Secretary of War William M. Conrad had instructed him to "revise the whole system of defense." Smith was to establish new posts where needed, protect settlers, carry out treaty obligations with Mexico, and pursue Indians deemed hostile by the government into their homelands. Meanwhile, he should reduce expenses! [10]

Formerly a prominent New Orleans attorney, Smith already possessed a formidable military record. He had raised a regiment of volunteers and fought in the Second Seminole War in Florida. In the early stages of the Mexican War he distinguished himself in combat at Monterrey. Receiving a brevet promotion to brigadier general, he again performed well during Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott's campaign from Veracruz to Mexico City. After the war Smith received yet another brevet, and commanded the Department of the Pacific before coming to Texas. [11]

Eager to do well, Smith constructed a line of posts just ahead of settlement in Texas—from Fort Belknap (established 1851) to the north, it included forts Phantom Hill (1851), Chadbourne (1852), McKavett (1852), Terrett (1852), and Clark (1852). An older line of forts, including Worth (1849), Graham (1849), Gates (1849), Croghan (1849), Mason (1851), and Martin Scott (1848) provided interior defense. To guard the lower Rio Grande, forts Bliss (1849), Inge (1849), Duncan (1849), Ewell (1852), Merrill (1850), McIntosh (1849), and Brown (1846) formed what on paper appeared to be another formidable double line of garrisons. [12]

Fig. 2:3. Bvt. Maj. Gen. Persifor Smith, ca. 1850. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives, AC-28.

Smith hoped the posts could counter the mounted Indian warriors of Texas. In the event of Indian incursions, infantry stationed at the outer posts would alert cavalry manning the interior line. The troopers were to pursue the intruders as the foot soldiers cut off their retreat. By holding the mounted soldiers nearer the settlements along the inner positions, this disposition also reduced expenses. Or so went the theory. In practice, the infantry had little means of warning the cavalry in time for effective action. Furthermore, the 150 miles which typically separated the posts made it impossible to discover every incursion. And finally, the system left the way to El Paso unguarded west of Fort Clark. [13]

Map 2:3. Federal forts in Texas, 1848-1861. Map © by Jack Jackson. Originally published in Robert Wooster, Soldiers, Sutlers, and Settlers (Texas A & M University Press, 1987), p. 11. Reprinted with permission. (click on image for a PDF version)

All military observers agreed that permanent garrisons were needed to guard the Trans-Pecos. Debate centered largely on the proper sites for such positions. In 1850 then department commander Bvt. Maj. Gen. George M. Brooke had recommended posts along the Rio Grande opposite San Carlos and Presidio del Norte. Later that year, Bvt. Maj. William W. Chapman had called for one at the "Grand Indian Crossing" of the Rio Grande, 120 miles above the Pecos River junction. Lt. Duff C. Green suggested a similar location in 1852. [14] Quartermaster Gen. Thomas Jesup also emphasized the Rio Grande line. With thirty-five years' experience as quartermaster, Jesup believed supply posed the major problem for any prospective military positions in the Trans-Pecos. He pointed out that Spain had built a post near the mouth of the Rio Conchos at Presidio. Labeling this "the true strategic point," Jesup believed that five hundred men should garrison the site, which could presumably be supplied from Mexico. [15]

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis lent his support to such proposals when, in 1853, he reported that arrangements to build a line of forts along the great river were well underway. In addition to a large post at El Paso [Fort Bliss], a sizeable position at the Great Comanche Trail crossing was "in contemplation." Department commander Smith, however, begged to differ. In May 1854 he concluded: "I . . . am convinced that there is no fit location on the river itself. Abrupt barren hills without grass or timber come in on to the river on our side, leaving occasionally a small bottom of level ground too narrow for our purpose." Smith instead recommended a site near the head of the Limpia River a few miles from Wild Rose Pass. To ensure that he made an informed decision, he promised to lead a column into West Texas that June. [16]

On December 30, 1853, Companies B, E, I, and K, Eighth Infantry Regiment, had camped near the head of the Limpia en route from Fort Clark to El Paso. Smith and an escort finally reached the old "Painted Comanche Camp" by early October 1854. Six companies of the Eighth Infantry joined Smith shortly thereafter. Impressed by the site's strategic location near the roads to Presidio del Norte and El Paso and in the center of Mescalero haunts, Smith wrote on October 9: "I have established [Lt.] Col. [Washington] Seawell with his six companies there . . . and have taken the liberty of naming it without reference to the Department—I have called it Fort Davis" [after Secretary of War Jefferson Davis]. In a conflicting statement, Smith at the same time promised: "I will decide nothing finally until I have seen the Presidio." [17]

The trip to Presidio confirmed Smith's decision to build the post along the Limpia. Grazing, water, and fuel were available in sufficient quantities. The site, located about one-quarter mile south of the Painted Camp, also protected the lower route to El Paso and the trail to Presidio. The initial garrison included the six companies and the headquarters, field staff, and band of the Eighth Infantry Regiment. The company commanders were a veteran, battle-tested lot including four West Pointers and four men who had won brevet appointments during the Mexican War. Hoping to protect the garrison from cold winter northers, he tucked the fort into a canyon flanked on three sides by steep rock walls. Indian attacks in the area were frequent; a mail bag carrying several of Smith's own communications was lost in one such incident. [18]

Beautiful though the position was, subordinate Lt. Col. Washington Seawell thought it a poor choice. A career military man, Seawell had graduated a respectable twentieth in his West Point class of 1821. He had compiled an unspectacular record as a junior officer, winning a single brevet for meritorious service against the Florida Seminoles in 1841. Along with many other officers, Seawell feared that Indians could approach unobserved and fire down into the post from the overlooking cliffs. He instead favored a position safely outside the mouth of the canyon. Seawell's protestations were in vain, however, and the troops began work in October 1854. [19]

As was usually the case at frontier posts, the early structures at Fort Davis were little more than rude shelters against the elements. Congress had appropriated $100,000 for West Texas forts, but the want of materials and laborers plus bureaucratic red tape slowed construction. Regimental adjutant Lt. Richard I. Dodge, a West Point graduate who later wrote several books on his western experiences, sought out more permanent construction materials as the troops settled in for their first winter. Dodge remembered that they had a special reason for immediately plunging into their task: "The winter weather was expected to be severe, and we immediately busied ourselves with preparations for such shelter as short time and scant materials would allow us to build." [20]

As of March 1855 Lt. Albert J. Myer still lived under canvas, but he was determined to make the best of the situation. Myer had assembled a housing complex which included a main tent divided into three "rooms." A servant lived in a smaller tent nearby; a brush fence surrounded the complex. Although his tent had no windows, "I think canvas the best building material in this climate. Dust cannot penetrate it. It is impervious to rain and it looks always white and clean." He continued facetiously, "it is very tight and warm and I have often thought how cozily I am fixed." Myer took the discomfort in stride; as he had already realized, "a man gets used to taking things cooly [sic] after a little service with the army." [21]

Like most frontier posts, Fort Davis had no wooden palisades. Its structures instead formed a rough square around an open parade ground. "There is nothing to prevent Indians or anyone else, from riding through the posts in any direction. They are built simply for quarters, and their localities for defence is seldom thought of," remembered one officer. "They are placed so as to have a level place for a parade, convenient to water & c., without any expectation that they will ever have to stand a siege." [22]

The troops used local materials whenever possible. The early structures, or "jacales," consisted of oak and cottonwood slabs set up lengthwise about a rude frame. Mud and prairie grass chinked the gaps of the picket structures. Lt. Zenas R. Bliss's house, for example, was fifteen feet square and six feet high. The canvas roof and warped walls provided an unanticipated source of ventilation, convenient until the first snows began pouring through the cracks. The first enlisted men's barracks, fifty-six feet long by twenty feet wide, were of similar picket construction. Lt. Edward Hartz described the quarters as "humble though comfortable"; a fellow officer, passing through Davis en route to New Mexico, proved less generous: "Fort Davis is a poorly built fort." [23]

In the spring of 1856 Insp. Gen. J. K. F. Mansfield made another swing through West Texas. A career army man who had already recognized the need to hold the Trans-Pecos, Mansfield had established a solid reputation as engineer on the nation's coastal fortifications. He had also performed valuable reconnaissance work during the war against Mexico, winning brevet appointments for his gallant and meritorious service in fighting near Fort Brown, at Monterrey, and at Buena Vista. Mansfield was subsequently appointed inspector general, a job which took him to virtually all of the army's scattered military establishments before his death at the Battle of Antietam. [24]

When Mansfield conducted his inspection of Fort Davis in the spring of 1856, the guardhouse held sixteen prisoners. In addition to the barracks and officers' quarters, the troops had also erected a variety of miscellaneous buildings. Two or three female laundresses per company lived in tiny jacales near their clients. A large, specially designed tent and a small wood building constituted the post hospital. The bakery was also of wood. The blacksmith's shop, powder magazine, and quartermaster's storehouse were of stone, although the latter two buildings had only canvas roofs. [25]

Fig. 2:4. Insp. Glen J. F. K. Mansfield's outline of Fort Davis, 1856. Photograph from Fort Davis Archives.

Fig. 2:5. Parade grounds and Hospital Canyon. Original watercolor by Capt. Arthur T. Lee, 1854-58. Photograph courtesy of Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester.

The troops and officers of the garrison sought to make themselves as comfortable as possible, even though no official lease had been signed. Thirty miles north of the fort, the troops had already erected a lime kiln for use in construction. A circular sawmill, driven by twelve mules, provided lumber. Commanding the Department of Texas, Col. Albert Sidney Johnston urged the government to secure a lease immediately. Only then, according to the government, should permanent construction begin, with troops providing the labor. Using native timber and stone, the project would cost the government only the small extra pay it allotted soldier-builders, plus minimal purchases of glass, door locks, and nails. [26]

Johnston was an adopted Texan and one of the army's most respected officers. He had recently been appointed to lead the Second Cavalry, widely recognized as the army's elite regiment. It is not surprising, therefore, that Johnston's report on conditions at Fort Davis went to the core of one of the army's strategic dilemmas. Fort Davis should be built because planners deemed it important, not because the army had spent a few dollars to shelter the troops. As he well knew, convenience rather than strategic plan usually drove the army. [27]

But as negotiations for the lease continued, the garrison became increasingly anxious to improve its housing. In late August 1856 Capt. Arthur T. Lee, commanding the post during Colonel Seawell's temporary absence, requested "permission to erect such structures as will protect the comd. during the approaching winter." In accordance with the army custom of using local materials, the cream-colored limestone quarried nearby would be used on the new buildings. On September 13, Captain Lee informed departmental superiors that work had begun. [28]

This was exactly the situation Johnston had sought to avoid. Captain Lee, a junior officer, was setting general policy. The department's assistant adjutant general, Don Carlos Buell, replied in no uncertain terms to Lee's communications. "You must have been aware of the contemplated removal of the post to another location as soon as authority was received from the War Department for the erection of buildings, and a lease of the land was secured," wrote Buell, who had in July 1856 ordered Lee to send out a team to reconnoiter the area between Leon Spring and Eagle Spring, presumably with a view to selecting a new site for a post. Only the "absolute want of shelter for the troops" could justify the new construction program. Reluctantly the department approved Lee's request for doors and windows, but insisted that his construction be of a temporary nature. [29]

In suggesting a change of sites, Buell was apparently referring to earlier instructions he had sent Seawell. In July 1856 Buell It is uncertain whether Lee's commanding officer, Washington Seawell, approved of his subordinate's initiative. Lee's decision to begin the program during Seawell's absence must have galled his superior. The two men had already compiled an impressive list of complaints against one another, with the feuding evident almost as soon as they reached Fort Davis. Seawell had requested that Lee be court-martialed in December 1854, only to withdraw his charges the following October. [30]

Lee played his part with great gusto. A multitalented individual, Lee compiled a number of field sketches during his service in the Davis Mountains, later using the notes to produce an impressive series of watercolor landscapes. The captain also dabbled in history, music, engineering, and architecture. He repeatedly requested leaves of absence, probably in order to get away from Seawell. During the summer of 1855 he filed two formal complaints against his post commander. More specific charges against Seawell came in September 1856—just as Lee sought permission to expand the buildings at Fort Davis. This time Lee claimed that Seawell had illegally appropriated an army horse for his private use while living in San Antonio. Lee followed up these attacks with additional criticisms about Seawell's actions as post commander at Davis. [31]

The Department of Texas refused to entertain Lee's charges against Seawell as post commander, but did keep the investigation of the latter's alleged misuse of a public animal open for several months before dropping the case. Not to be outdone, Seawell again preferred charges against Captain Lee. Various department officials tried to convince Seawell to withdraw the charges. Finally they threw them out despite his protestations. On at least three occasions, Seawell requested that the department forward his charges along to Washington for review. New department commander David E. Twiggs finally sent the papers on up the bureaucratic channels; his final comments "that the interests of the service do not require a court martial to investigate the enclosed charges" undoubtedly marked a sensible opinion on the Seawell-Lee dispute. [32]

Whatever the cause of the feud, the building program continued. In response to Buell's assertion that Fort Davis might be moved, Lee claimed to know nothing of such news. In January 1857, in what must be interpreted as at least a tacit approval of Lee's expansion program, departmental headquarters promised to give "favorable consideration" to detailed plans for a new hospital. That same month Lee reported good progress on the new quarters. Six stone enlisted men's barracks at the mouth of the canyon now replaced the old jacales. Sixty feet by twenty feet, each barracks had a thatched roof and flagged stone floors. The commanding officer occupied a thirty-eight by twenty-foot frame house, with two rooms, two glazed windows, and thatched roof. A powder magazine, blacksmith's shop, and bakery were intended to be temporary but had stone walls. As one entered the canyon and went past the enlisted barracks, these structures stood near the right side of the rocky cliffs. [33]

Other buildings, however, lagged behind. The troops still used the dilapidated old temporary quarters, located within fifteen yards of the new barracks, as kitchens and mess halls. Married men lived with their families in thirteen rundown hovels, each sixteen by fourteen feet. The proposed new hospital remained on the drawing board. The quartermaster's storehouses seemed in real danger of collapsing, their thin walls unable to support anything more than canvas roofing materials. Even the officers' quarters, scattered along the left side of the canyon past the enlisted barracks, drew criticism from observers. Seven homes were thirty-two by sixteen feet each, four others, each twenty by sixteen feet, had board floors, glazed windows, and thatched roofs. But the green wood used in what was supposedly temporary construction had warped over the years. "The condition of all of them is bad. . . . They are altogether uncomfortable and insufficient quarters," concluded regimental quartermaster Lt. Thomas M. Jones in June 1857. [34]

General Twiggs sympathized with the problems facing his troops. He requested that the War Department spend the remnants of a $150,000 appropriation for "forts on the Western frontier of Texas." Troops "in Texas are sent in almost perpetual banishment from civilization." In his view, "common humanity would dictate that they be better quartered than they are now." Twiggs called upon the army to earmark $10,000 for construction and repairs at Fort Davis. Officers needed new kitchens; the hospital, built with wooden pegs rather than metal nails, required extensive remodeling. Stone quarters for the commanding officer and company officers were essential, as were limestone quartermaster and commissary storehouses, a guard house, quarters for the band and noncommissioned officers, and an adjutant's office. [35]

Acting Asst. Q.M. William McE. Dye noticed several changes at Fort Davis by 1859, although major construction had not yet begun. The six stone enlisted barracks remained in satisfactory condition, their two-foot-thick walls providing suitable protection from the elements. The smaller garrison allowed Companies D and G to spread out into two buildings each. The regimental band claimed a fifth set; the final structure had been converted to a guard house. A new quartermaster and commissary storehouse was the only major addition since 1857. One hundred feet long by twenty feet wide, its thick stone walls and shingled roof housed issue rooms, storage facilities, and offices. As was almost inevitably the case at the frontier forts, the married men and laundresses remained in thirteen ramshackle houses scattered deep inside the canyon past the officers' quarters. The latter buildings likewise showed little evidence of repairs or new construction. Despite the poor structures, at least one officer, Lt. DeWitt C. Peters, seemed satisfied with his living arrangements. He and his wife occupied a "large and comfortable" house, "well furnished" with a nice yard, a covered chicken house, and a carriage shed. [36]

Fort Davis briefly played host to Lt. Col. Joseph E. Johnston in 1859. Johnston, of course, had helped reconnoiter the road to El Paso during the early 1850s and later became a full general in the Confederate army. On this occasion, Johnston came through while inspecting posts in Texas and New Mexico. He labeled the new commissary/quartermaster building "capacious & secure." The barracks again seemed in fine order, but the officers' houses "are huts of the slightest kind." The magazine and bakery also earned Johnston's approval. The stable, though small, was "a very good one." [37]

In commenting on the needed repairs, Johnston hinted at one of the reasons for the War Department's refusal to fully fund construction at Fort Davis. Although most traffic now traveled the southern route through Fort Davis, the question of the most suitable road to El Paso still lingered. As had adjutant Buell, Johnston advocated using the upper road (the old Ford-Neighbors route), which swung north of Davis along the Guadalupe Mountains. Fort Davis had been established to protect travelers, the mails, and to encourage western expansion, not to foster local growth. Johnston believed the region's aridity limited its immediate use by large numbers of settlers. Should the road be changed, then, Davis would become obsolete and any new monies spent wasted. [38]

The ubiquitous Insp. Gen. J. K. F. Mansfield returned to Fort Davis for a final time in 1860. As one of the primary champions of the fort's location, Mansfield expressed none of Johnston's doubts about its strategic value. Nonetheless, Mansfield's latest report suggested further deterioration of post facilities. The burgeoning six-company post of the mid-1850s now held parts of only two. The sawmill was out of order. The magazine's shingled roof made it a potential powderkeg in case of a fire. "No body would go near it," commented Mansfield laconically. Most of the officers' quarters lay abandoned, "useless except for temporary purposes." [39]

Mansfield made sweeping recommendations about the enlisted barracks, along with the quartermaster/commissary storehouse, once the pride of the fort. Shingles should replace the thatched roofs of the six stone barracks. Glass windows would add further comfort. The flimsy temporary quarters behind the stone buildings still served as kitchens and mess rooms despite every inspector's insistence that they be demolished. Mansfield advised that they be "burned for firewood." With only two companies in the garrison, the troops could convert every other stone barracks into a kitchen/mess hall complex. [40]

The poor condition of Fort Davis' antebellum hospital drew continual fire. Its location gave that feature its oft-used name, Hospital Canyon. Lieutenant Jones described its "rickety condition" in 1857; two years later, Lieutenant McE. Dye described it as having been "rather flimsily constructed." In 1860 Mansfield was less generous. "The hospital is a worthless building of posts set on end, and shrunken in, & rotten, & thatched roof, & rough floors & braced outside, but will soon fall down, or be blown down. Another should be provided immediately." As a cost-saving measure, he suggested that the stone from one of the enlisted barracks be used in constructing a new hospital. [41]

With such an insufficient hospital, army surgeons faced a formidable task indeed. Conditions in the army as a whole merely added to the problems. The one-hundred-odd surgeons and assistant surgeons could scarcely begin to serve the army's diverse needs at each of its eighty-five posts. Many recruits entered the service unfit for duty and unacclimated to frontier conditions. Their sanitary habits were often abominable. A ten-year study concluded in 1859 showed that on the whole, the typical soldier was sick 2.85 times a year. Of those who reported sick, one in every 102 died. Rates for troops stationed in Texas generally ranged higher than the national norms. Constant construction and field duty, inadequate quarters, the shortage of qualified medical personnel, and alcoholism compounded the problem. Digestive disorders accounted for nearly forty-four percent of the deaths on the western frontiers of Texas; not surprisingly, cholera, at least partially explained by poor sanitation, proved the most common of the fatal disorders. [42]

Although a common ailment in Texas, scurvy did not become a serious problem at Fort Davis. Indeed, considering the poor hospital and the isolated location, the surgeons at antebellum Fort Davis did a remarkably good job in keeping sickness rates relatively low. The efforts of Lafayette Guild, Albert J. Myer, Andrew J. Foard, Charles Sutherland, and DeWitt C. Peters stand in marked contrast to those of an early doctor in the region, Thomas A. McParlin. McParlin served on Maj. Gen. Persifor Smith's staff, and accompanied the expedition which established the fort in 1854. From the Painted Camp on the Limpia, McParlin, who should have been busy enough tending to the minor injuries and ailments which inevitably occurred during such a campaign, instead composed a seven-page diatribe as to his seniority in relation to that of a fellow doctor. [43]

The first official post surgeon, LaFayette Gould, applied for a leave of absence almost as soon as he arrived at the fort, possibly because of a dispute with post commander Washington Seawell. Albert J. Myer replaced Gould. Born in 1828, Myer graduated from Geneva (now Hobart) College, New York, in 1847, and earned his medical degree from Buffalo four years later. After passing his army boards in 1854, Myer was sent to Texas, a journey which the inexperienced easterner found "rather exciting." Myer possessed the sense of humor necessary to excel on the frontier. Upon hearing that a friend had fallen ill, the surgeon advised sagely: "avoid Doctors and Medicine!" Following his transfer from Davis, Myer compiled a remarkable career record. He devised a signal system, which the army approved in 1859-60, and developed the Signal Corps as well as the army's weather service. [44]

Asst. Surgeon Andrew J. Foard replaced Myer. In spite of the flimsy hospital, Foard impressed inspector Mansfield during the latter's 1856 tour. "This is a healthy post," commented Mansfield, who also noted tersely, hospital in "good order & records profusely kept." A steward, two matrons, four attendants, and a cook complemented Foard, whose hospital boasted twenty-five iron bedsteads and ample supplies despite its unimposing condition. Charles Sutherland and DeWitt C. Peters succeeded Foard; the lack of complaints during their tenure attested to their capable service at Fort Davis. By the late 1850s the smaller garrison allowed the surgeon a relatively easy schedule. Peters, for example, rose at seven o'clock to check on affairs at the infirmary before taking a leisurely breakfast with his wife about 8:15. He then inspected the garrison, tending his military patients as well as assorted travelers and local residents who had fallen sick. [45]

Though the Fort Davis surgeons compiled an enviable record before 1860, even the most well-versed army doctors could do little to combat malaria, diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera, diseases whose causes and cures would not be understood for many years. Popular treatments included the almost inevitable purgatives, bleedings, and laxatives. Exotic treatments often did more damage than the ailments they were designed to cure. On the other hand, venereal diseases were common (striking between six and seven percent of the troops nationwide) but not considered serious, as army medical men understood the common strains of these sexually transmitted diseases fairly well. [46]

Soldiers maintained few expectations about the miracles of nineteenth-century medicine. When Lt. Zenas R. Bliss contracted smallpox, the surgeon simply quarantined him outside the post. Bliss found his own accomodations—a ranch about a mile away from Fort Davis. An older Hispanic woman took care of the ailing officer; the post doctor also paid daily visits. As Bliss began his recovery, fellow officers hurled good-natured insults at him, making sure that they did so from a safe distance across a nearby creek. [47]

Considering the contemporary levels of medical knowledge, some tragedies were unavoidable. Few understood the symptoms or causes of mental illness. When a board of officers at Davis rejected one new recruit because of insanity, it argued that he had the condition before signing up for the army in Philadelphia. The former private died in the government hospital for the insane within two years of his enlistment. The board could have assessed the blame on either his recruiting officer or the attending surgeon, as the letter of the law allowed. Instead, it noted "the difficulty of its (his insanity) detection without opportunity for prolonged observation," and assigned no guilt. [48]

More avoidable were petty disputes concerning hospital stewards. Company officers assigned hospital workers from the ranks. Logically, most officers wanted to retain their best soldiers for company duty and thus dispatched their least capable men to the hospital. Surgeons, on the other hand, believed it essential that they have good assistants and frequently challenged the system. Having been company officers rather than surgeons, post commanders almost inevitably sided with the former. In a typical example at Fort Davis, one Otto Bauman had a reputation as a good hospital steward. Only the stringent efforts of surgeons Myer and Foard secured Bauman a much deserved promotion to sergeant; apparently his company officer objected to a noncommissioned man being away from regular duty. [49]

The army paid little attention to the care of its dead before the Civil War. Under the aegis of the Quartermaster Department, cemeteries were poorly tended. Record-keeping proved equally spotty. According to custom, the army provided funds for the coffins and headboards of enlisted men at the post where they died. No money was available for burying officers; the department generally agreed only that if the surviving family furnished a leaden coffin, the service would transport the coffin to its interment location free of charge. The pre-Civil War cemetery at Fort Davis lay just north of the enlisted men's barracks; little else is known about the first cemetery. [50]

The garrison also carried out more traditional military functions. All antebellum observers agreed that Davis's garrison was not large enough to build, scout, explore, and provide escorts to immigrant trains. In this, Davis typified virtually every western fort. Eager to cut government spending and fearful that a large regular military establishment threatened American liberty, Congress had reduced the army to about ten thousand following the war with Mexico. Although the annexation of Texas, the acquisition of the Southwest, and the resolution of the Oregon dispute had added a million square miles to the nation's domain, the army of 1851 was only twenty percent larger than that of 1845. Rep. Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio summed up the fears of many:

I am opposed to any measure which contemplates an increase in the Army. . . . It is a time of peace. . . . We see our officers now in almost every city strutting about the streets in indolence, sustained by the laboring people, fed from the public crib, but doing nothing whatever to support themselves or to increase the wealth of the nation. Sir, I would discharge every officer, and let him support himself. [51]

Army supporters mounted a vigorous counteroffensive. In an 1850 address Pres. Millard Fillmore pointed out the "entirely inadequate" manpower levels in Texas and New Mexico and called for another mounted regiment. That year Congress allowed frontier units to raise the number of privates per company from fifty to seventy-four. With ten companies each plus assorted staff (colonel, lieutenant colonel, two majors, an adjutant and quartermaster assigned from the regular line officers, sergeant major, and quartermaster sergeant) and musicians (buglers for cavalry, fifers, drummers, and bandsmen for infantry) on paper the frontier regiment could number almost nine hundred men. Another increase came in 1855, when Congress added two infantry and two cavalry regiments to the regular army's existing four artillery, eight infantry, and three mounted units. [52]

Although the increases raised the legal limits to 14,000 personnel in 1850 and 18,000 in 1855, the 10,000 miles of coastal and international boundaries and the 8,000 miles of interior frontiers and travel routes meant that every garrison was strapped for troops. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis deemed the army "manifestly inadequate" to perform its multiple tasks. In order to repress Indian attacks in threatened regions, men had to be transported at great expense from other forts. As troops left one area to go to another, the former point, once protected, now invited Indian attack. And what would happen during an emergency, wondered Davis. [53]

To make matters worse, the army never met even its authorized force levels. In 1853 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis estimated that since the Mexican War, actual strength reached only four-fifths of legal limits. And of the actual strength, sixteen percent deserted every year; another twelve percent died or were discharged annually. Detached service duties took an additional toll, particularly among officers, who were liable for service on courts-martial, boards of survey, recruiting details, and action in the field. Frontier garrisons, then, remained pitifully small. Figures for June 1853 are typical. At that time the authorized strength of the army was 13,821, but its actual size was 10,417. Of that number 8,342 were assigned to the fifty-four western posts, but only 6,918 were present. The average strength of a western post was 128. {54]

In light of such problems, Fort Davis seemed relatively well off. Of course, such analysis says little for army readiness. Before the Civil War Davis housed between one and six companies of the Eighth Infantry Regiment; it also hosted the regimental headquarters until 1860. Companies of frontier regiments like the Eighth were entitled to one captain, two lieutenants, one orderly sergeant, four sergeants, four corporals, and seventy-four privates. At its height during the mid-1850s Fort Davis served as home to 400 soldiers. As such, it stood among the army's biggest western posts—the largest that year, Fort Riley, Kansas, boasted 529 men. [55]

But the units at Davis rarely approached their paper strengths. Col. J. K. F. Mansfield's inspection of June 1856 revealed the limited strength of even an important post like Davis. Inspecting Companies A, C, D, F, G, and H, Mansfield counted eight officers and 397 enlisted personnel as present. Ill-health claimed two officers and twenty-two enlisted men; another sixteen privates were in confinement. Forty-nine men held down extra duty and were thus unavailable for field service. Twenty more were either scouting, on escort duty, assigned to the post garden, or on detached service. Six officers and 282 enlisted men thus comprised the garrison's disposable force. The shortage of officers loomed particularly large; F Company had no commissioned personnel available. [56]

When Mansfield returned in October 1860 he found conditions in a virtual state of chaos. Fort Davis now held only one company. Yet even that figure is misleading. Commanding officer Washington Seawell had been on court-martial duty at Fort Bliss since July and had taken a small escort. A lieutenant, three noncommissioned officers, and nineteen privates were on detached duty at Fort Quitman; another officer was at San Antonio. This left the garrison at Fort Davis with a strength of one commissioned officer, one sergeant, two corporals, one musician, and twenty-six privates. Of these men, one corporal and nine privates were on extra duty and another seven privates in confinement, thus leaving one officer and twelve men available for military purposes. Obviously, thirteen soldiers could do little to protect the peace in western Texas. One immigrant summed it up well. Although military posts were as welcome to travelers "as the oasis in the desert . . . a parade of the entire force would sometimes diminish our feeling of security." [57]

Supplying even these small garrisons at a reasonable expense confounded expert and casual observer alike. Due largely to the massive territorial gains of recent years, annual transportation costs alone exceeded two million dollars by 1851, with further increases during the years to come; in 1845 they had been a mere $130,000. Congress screamed for reform. In 1851 Secretary of War Conrad directed that all frontier garrisons plant gardens in hopes of reducing the army's food bill and relieving the strain on transportation. The War Department also ordered western commanders to replace unnecessary civilian employees with military personnel. Dutiful officers tried to abide with these programs; in Texas, however, the troops were too busy chasing Indians or building new posts to plant gardens in 1852. [58]

The major budgetary culprits remained purchases and transportation rather than a bloated bureaucracy or a few onions or potatoes. Only river improvements or a transcontinental railroad could significantly reduce the quartermaster department's expenditures. Efforts to improve the Rio Grande proved futile. But a number of important politicians became interested in a railroad to the Pacific—and many of these men believed the line should go through Texas. [59]

Texas senators Sam Houston and Thomas J. Rusk eagerly supported the railroad. James K Polk's former secretary of the treasury, Robert J. Walker, and James Gadsden, who negotiated a major land purchase from Mexico in 1853, also expressed sympathy for a Texas route. The Corps of Topographical Engineers' surveys in western Texas gave further momentum to the transcontinental project. And in a major effort to generate interest and practical knowledge, Congress appropriated $150,000 for army engineers to explore possible railroad routes in 1853. [60]

None of the four routes surveyed in accord with this legislation dealt with the immediate area around Fort Davis, although the proposed route along the thirty-second parallel included an expedition through the Guadalupe Mountains. Conducted by Capt. John Pope, the latter team enthusiastically espoused the virtues of the southern route. But the leaders of the three competing parties were equally effusive about their assigned routes. Contemporary economists believed the nation could support only one transcontinental railroad during the 1850s. Predictably, the project became entangled in the decade's sectional controversies and the Pacific railroad movement temporarily ground to a halt amidst local and national jealousies. [61]

Denied a railroad, transportation costs continued to drain the quartermaster's department; money which might have been spent on construction instead paid for the transfer of food and equipment to the far-flung western posts. Locally available outlets failed to meet the garrison's massive requirements, so most of Davis's supplies came by sea to Corpus Christi or Indianola and overland via San Antonio. As an example, from October 7, 1854, through March 31, 1856, a total of nearly $92,500 was spent for forage, supplies to maintain the Mounted Rifle regiment that was temporarily attached to Fort Davis, and for supplies to maintain transient teams that were based there. [62]

In a desperate effort to stem the tide of red ink, the government turned to private contractors in 1855. George Howard dominated the Texas market at the San Antonio depot; for every one hundred miles to outposts like Davis, Bliss (El Paso) and Fillmore (New Mexico), he charged $1.70 per hundred pounds, a reasonable sum for the period. Wastage, some of which was inevitable considering the circumstances, added to the army's miseries. The ever-vigilant inspector Mansfield calculated that during the year ending May 31, 1856, post inspectors condemned ten percent of the 2,000 barrels of pork, eight percent of the 300,000 pounds of bacon, thirteen percent of the 5,500 barrels of flour, and twenty-one percent of the 280,000 pounds of bread brought into the Department of Texas. [63]

Efforts to resolve the transportation crisis took an unusual turn in 1855, when Congress appropriated thirty thousand dollars to test the adaptability of camels to the American West. Largely the pet project of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the camel experiment hinged on Davis's belief in the so-called Great American Desert. Like many prominent Americans, Davis concluded that much of the west could never support non-Indian settlers. Since camels had proved their usefulness in the Middle East, it seemed logical that they would perform well in the American West. In theory replacing oxen and mules with the hardy camels would reduce transportation costs. Davis was not alone in his support for the ungainly beasts; Maj. Henry Wayne, surveyor and ethnologist John Russell Bartlett, archeologist George R. Gliddon, and diplomat and geographer George Perkins Marsh also called for their introduction. [64]

Accordingly, Major Wayne sailed to the Middle East. By the spring of 1856 the War Department had begun to import to Texas the first of what eventually numbered more than seventy camels. After allowing the beasts time to recover from their exhausting ocean journey, the army began an intensive series of experiments from its base at Camp Verde. One of Wayne's public exhibitions at the town plaza of nearby San Antonio dazzled the skeptical Texans. Ordering a camel to kneel, handlers loaded two bales of hay, each weighing more than three hundred pounds, onto the animal. Fearing the ungainly camel would not be able to stand, the crowd gasped as Wayne tied on two additional bales of similar weights. Almost effortlessly, the beast rose and calmly plodded away. This group needed no further convincing. [65]

In July 1857 Lt. Edward F. Beale led twenty-five of the camels through West Texas en route to Arizona. Although stories of Indian depredations abounded, the party encountered no difficulties from this source. Beale and the camels reached Fort Davis about sunrise on the seventeenth. In a dramatic understatement, he noted that "we were kindly treated by the officers." Indeed they must have been, for the sight of the camels, their exhausted escort, and the Arabian handlers surely broke the boredom of the West Texas summer. Another diarist came closer to capturing the spirit of the moment when he reported that "a number of young gentlemen" returned to camp in the wee hours of the night "with a gait that denoted a slight indulgence in alcoholic stimulants. Subsequently I was informed that the whole party who were in the Fort after dark got very funny." Resting only briefly as two of their wagons were repaired and the late-night revelers recovered, the Beale party pressed on the following afternoon. [66]

The army conducted similar experiments for the remainder of the decade, with Fort Davis serving as an important base of operations and source of manpower. In 1859 Secretary of War John B. Floyd ordered the camels to assist efforts to find a more direct route between San Antonio and Fort Davis. Lt. Edward L. Hartz and a squad from the Fort Davis garrison escorted the expedition. They left Camp Hudson on May 23 and reached Fort Davis by June 26. Once again, the camels displayed their remarkable staying power. "The horses and mules nearly exhausted," noted Hartz, "the camels appeared strong and vigorous." The Hartz caravan remained at the Limpia post for three days, allowing the horses and mules to recuperate and the handlers to care for some of the camels whose backs needed attention. The expedition then turned back to Fort Stockton before proceeding down the Pecos River to the Rio Grande. [67]

The following year Bvt. Lt. William H. Echols and thirty-one soldiers accompanied a twenty-four camel caravan that blazed a trail from Fort Davis to Presidio del Norte, then along the Rio Grande and across country to San Carlos. The hardy camels easily outstripped the accompanying mules, which nearly died for want of water before struggling back to Fort Davis. Echols described the terrain between Presidio and San Carlos as being too rough for normal travel. "I never conceived that there could be such a country," he wrote. "I cheerfully concur with all who regard this region as impassable." [68]

Like every other test, the Beale, Hartz, and Echols trials proved the camels needed less water, less food, and could at the same time carry a larger burden than horses, oxen, or mules. Yet the camels found it difficult to negotiate muddy or slippery ground, and their personal habits offended the army's packers and handlers. Few could bear the camels' fierceness during rutting season, acute halitosis and general bad odor, voluminous sneezing, and shedding of frighteningly large clumps of hair. The army also failed to establish a breeding program; furthermore, the camels lost their most powerful champion when Jefferson Davis left the War Department in 1857. Amidst the growing sectional crisis, the army lost interest in the camels; they had been sold, lost, or largely forgotten by the time of the Civil War. [69]

The imaginative though unsuccessful camel program notwithstanding, the army's transportation and supply problems remained unsolved. The composition of the army posed further challenges. In 1848 only three of the fifteen regiments were mounted; the 1855 measures added but two new infantry and two new cavalry units. Experts generally agreed that only mounted men could hope to fight Comanches and Apaches. Yet equipping and supplying a cavalryman cost from two to four times as much as a foot soldier, a disparity that became even more pronounced when the troopers were on duty in the field. [70]

The lack of mobility particularly hampered the army's efforts in West Texas, where distance, terrain, and the Mexican boundary gave every advantage to Indian raiders. "Parties of hostile Indians are prowling in all directions west of the Nueces, and the Government troops seem to be wholly unable to check their depredations," charged one newspaper. The Texans, who had made their opposition to Indians well-known, exhibited little patience. After winning its independence from Mexico in 1836, the Republic of Texas, with the notable exception of Pres. Sam Houston, had attempted to expel all Indians. As witnessed in the short-lived reservation experiment, the state showed little change of heart following annexation. [71]

Blasting the federal government's failure to check Indian depredations, Texans reserved their severest attacks for the infantry. Senator Houston, a long-time regular army critic who advocated more pacific relations with Indians, echoed the charge, claiming that "the infantry dare not go out in any hostile manner for fear of being shot and scalped!" Texans also believed the army had ignored their needs in favor of other sections of the country. The sectional crisis in Kansas and the military occupation of Mormon-dominated Utah sparked fresh charges of negligence. Rep. Guy M. Bryan of Texas and Texas Secretary of State T. S. Anderson reported rumors that the entire army was to be withdrawn in 1858. Gov. Hardin Runnels claimed that "Texas has not received her quota of protection." [72]

The Lone Star state had a ready answer to the Indian question—the Texas Rangers. Texans attributed almost mythical qualities to these volunteers, who were to supply their own horses and arms and knew the frontier terrain. "I would rather have two hundred and fifty Texas rangers than five hundred of the best cavalry you could raise," Houston concluded. Not only were the mounted volunteers better fighters, according to the Texans, but they offered the public protection against the standing army's threat to civil liberties. Rarely admitted was yet another advantage: controlled by the state, ranger units meant jobs, political patronage, and money for the frontier. As such, the state's governors and legislatures repeatedly requested that the federal government fund the volunteers. [73]

The army responded vigorously to these attacks. War Department officials maintained that Texans exaggerated the number and magnitude of Indian depredations. They also noted that between fifteen and forty percent of the entire army was stationed in the Lone Star state. As for the volunteers, they cost more money than regulars, and by their ill-disciplined actions created rather than prevented frontier hostilities. William J. Hardee, a dragoon officer who led a mixed regular/volunteer force in 1850, reminded his superiors that "where the horses are owned by the volunteers, it must be expected that they will consider the preservation of their animals as paramount to other considerations." Another regular concluded:

Rangers are rowdies; rowdies in dress, manner and feeling. Take one of the lowest canal drivers, dress him in ragged clothes . . . utterly eradicate any little trace of civilization or refinement that may have by chance been acquired—then turn him loose, a lazy, ruffianly scoundrel in a country where little is known of, less cared for, the laws of God or man, and you have the material for a Texan Mounted Ranger. [74]

The rivalry notwithstanding, the state of Texas periodically organized Ranger companies during the 1850s. Cooperative efforts with federal troops at best gave mixed results. In one incident, Maj. John S. Simonson, based at Fort Davis, arranged to lead a mixed detachment of mounted riflemen and state troops against suspected Mescalero haunts in the Guadalupe Mountains. The troubles began even before the volunteers reached Fort Davis. In a wild alcoholic frenzy west of San Antonio, one of the Ranger companies pillaged the unfortunate little hamlet of D'Hanis. Simonson found out about the episode after meeting up with the Rangers outside Fort Davis. He promptly arrested the company's captain and eleven others for their misconduct. Neither the Davis-based expedition nor another column from Fort Bliss encountered any Indians; although the remaining two Ranger companies gave Simonson no trouble, the exercise had been a failure. [75]

Bewildered by the seemingly insoluble problems which plagued frontier garrisons like Fort Davis, Secretary of War Charles M. Conrad suggested major policy changes in the early 1850s. Distributing arms among frontier citizens offered at least a temporary solution, he reasoned. To help solve southwestern conflicts with Apaches and Comanches, even the Pueblo Indians might receive government weapons. Also of consequence to Fort Davis, had it been adopted, was Conrad's revolutionary proposal to evacuate the military from New Mexico. In his view the resulting savings could be used to benefit other locales. Otherwise, Conrad suggested, the government should make peace at any price. "It would be far less expensive to feed than to fight them," he argued. [76]

Upon assuming the War Department reins in 1853, Jefferson Davis shelved most of Conrad's controversial proposals. Davis instead emphasized the need to avoid scattering small posts along the frontier. Recalling visions of the Great American Desert and the permanent Indian frontier, he argued that "a line . . . has been reached, beyond which civilization has ceased to follow in the train of advancing posts." By concentrating its manpower in large positions along this line, the army could improve discipline, reduce expenditures, and display strength rather than weakness to the Indians. Yet as Secretary Davis soon realized, troops from even the biggest posts could not be everywhere at once; every community and every traveler could not receive an army escort. As such, later refinements called for troops to campaign in Indian country on a regular basis. [77]

Had such a strategy been adopted, Fort Davis, a key link in the San Antonio-El Paso chain, would have received an even larger garrison and added responsibilities. Countless military officials continued to favor the consolidation policy for the next half century, but abandoning a frontier fort proved extremely difficult. A fort meant jobs, contracts, and better security for local residents, facts not lost upon politicians. It also offered a place for rest and refitting, as well as the promise of escort and protection for western travelers. And even the best equipped troops could not always remain in the field. Finally, active campaigns, no matter how vigorously led or actively pursued, often failed to discover, much less defeat, any Indians believed to be hostile. Political and military realities thus doomed the idea of concentration from almost the beginning.

Fort Davis typifies the experiences of many western military establishments before the Civil War. A number of officials within the Department of Texas continued to question its strategic importance, as the best route to El Paso remained a subject of contention into the latter 1850s. Further constrained by budget limitations, Fort Davis never offered adequate housing and facilities for all those who lived there. Its defenses consisted of a cluster of buildings rather than an elaborate palisade; with some exceptions, foot soldiers rather than cavalry garrisoned the lonely outpost. Supply problems remained unresolved as did disputes between state and federal governments over Indian and military policy.

Traditional fears of a large military establishment, tight budget restraints, and the lack of practicable strategic planning combined to limit the army's options throughout the 1850s. As a result, frontier posts like Fort Davis could not fulfill all of their assigned duties. At the same time, logically conceived, adequately funded, and consistently applied measures which might have reduced frontier disputes between Indians and non-Indians were neither formulated nor implemented. With neither resources nor mandate to change, the army simply continued in its old ways by adding a series of additional forts in the Trans-Pecos. Fort Lancaster was constructed in 1855; Camp Hudson came the following year. Forts Quitman (1858) and Stockton (1859) were later added to help Fort Davis protect the Trans-Pecos.

Officers like those stationed at Davis tried mightily to carry out their assignments. But many agreed with the discouraged Lt. Col. Washington Seawell, who penned the following complaints while establishing Fort Davis:

This post being in the midst of a numerous tribe of Indians actually engaged in war with it, and having in its garrison of six companies only 190 men, and to be relied on for service scarcely 170, I respectfully request that recruits be sent to it as early as practicable. Were the companies now here full, the Indians would be in a short time driven from the country or exterminated, and this post and the road relieved from constant annoyance and danger. [78]

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Last Updated: 13-Feb-2008