History of Fort Davis, Texas
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Before the Civil War, troops from Fort Davis participated in a number of scouting reconnaissances, explorations, and military campaigns against the Indians of the Trans-Pecos. More often than not these expeditions failed to inflict any serious defeats upon those Indians whom the federal government deemed hostile. Admittedly, the post's commander during most of the 1850s, Lt. Col. Washington Seawell, lacked the hard driving vigor that might have inspired subordinates to develop original means of forcing the Indians to fight. Still, his command compiled a respectable record. Rarely could the troops be fairly accused of having neglected their duties. Their failure to complete the conquest of the region or to protect every settler and traveler instead stemmed from factors largely beyond their control.

The military faced many problems in grappling with western Indians throughout the nineteenth century. Distances between its thinly garrisoned western outposts made it impossible to separate Indians from non-Indians. Compounding the army's difficulties was the masterful use of mobile, nontraditional warfare by its foes. Too, the army never possessed the manpower, horses, or supplies it believed essential to defeating the tribes. Finally, the government failed to establish a clear, effective Indian policy, a mistake exacerbated by the army's own lack of strategic planning. An essential paradox existed along the frontiers of Texas and the West. The United States wanted to settle the region with farmers of solid European stock, yet refused to fund adequately the single most important agency assisting that development—the regular army.

The inability to crush Indian resistance was not, however, entirely attributable to events outside the army's jurisdiction. In the words of one historian, the army viewed the Indian wars as a "fleeting bother," not important enough to merit serious intellectual attention. Strategically the military made little effort to formulate a consistent, workable policy that took into account the era's political restrictions. On a tactical level, the army also failed to develop sound doctrine. Henry Halleck's Elements of Military Art and Science (1846), contained little of value to the frontier soldier fighting Indians. The two most up-to-date tactical manuals, Capt. William J. Hardee's Infantry Tactics (1855) and Col. Philip St. George Cooke's Cavalry Tactics (officially adopted in 1861), dealt with conventional warfare rather than situations encountered against Indians. [1]

A West Point education offered little guidance on fighting Indians. Interested in producing engineers who could also be soldiers rather than soldiers who knew engineering, West Point administrators emphasized mathematics and the sciences rather than military tactics and strategy. In the academy's most celebrated course, that on military and civil engineering and the science of war, Prof. Dennis Hart Mahan spoke only briefly to the complexities of combat against Indians. He did comment upon the value of the army's superior firepower and the use of Indian to fight Indian. Yet Mahan clearly stressed engineering and tactics of use against conventional European enemies; the tactical instruction presented in other courses largely ignored frontier realities. [2]

On a more informal level, several antebellum books written by army officers provided suggestions for handling tribes labeled hostile. Young officers seeking to learn something of Indian fighting might, for example, have read a few pages of Philip St. George Cooke's Scenes and Adventures in the Army: or, Romance of Military Life, or scanned George Catlin's Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians for information on Indian culture. And following a tour of the Crimean war, Capt. George B. McClellan suggested that the U.S. Army develop a light cavalry with enough mobility to force the Indians to battle. Yet McClellan's report, buried in an obscure government document, was never adopted by his superiors in the War Department. [3]

Similar thinking, which emphasized warfare against perceived threats from Europe rather than frontier conditions, also permeated decisions regarding equipment and uniforms. Budgetary restrictions limited the development and deployment of the newest weapons systems among western-based regulars. Beset by financial woes, the army also failed to design uniforms practical to the western environments. Change was not impossible; in fact, the period saw dramatic modifications in the army's appearance and equipment. On the other hand, few planners admitted that Indian warfare deserved as much attention as possible conflict with any of the great powers of Europe. Western garrisons suffered accordingly.

The army's shoulder and hand arms underwent tremendous technological change during the 1840s and 1850s. Before this time, the army remained wedded to the old flintlock system, a time-consuming, elaborate process which tested the mettle of anyone under fire. The Model 1842 Percussion Musket represented a marked improvement over the flintlock. The developing percussion system boasted a copper cap containing fulminate of mercury. Placed upon a hollow cone, the cap sparked an explosion in the main chamber when struck by the falling hammer. Although still a smoothbore, the new .69 caliber weapon weighed just over nine pounds, was slightly less than fifty-eight inches long, and fired a one-ounce spherical ball. The army also tried to convert existing flintlocks to the percussion system. [4]

Even more dramatic changes were forthcoming. The smoothbore muskets were fairly reliable, but inaccurate and relatively short in range. Weapons makers had long known that a spinning projectile had greater range, velocity, and accuracy than one that did not. In 1850 Capt. Claude Minie of the French army designed an ingenious system which made rifled weapons more practicable. Minie invented a cylindrical, pointed projectile with an iron plug at its hollow base. When driven into the ball by the primer's explosion, the plug forced the bullet to expand, filling the grooves of the barrel as it was discharged, and thus producing the desired spinning effect. Strongly backed by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, rifled weaponry, boasting greater range and accuracy, was adopted on a wide scale with the .58 caliber Model 1855 Rifle and Rifle-Musket. [5]

Slightly under six feet in length and weighing nine pounds two ounces, the 1855 Rifle-Musket also boasted the recently developed Maynard tape primer system. Developed by Washington dentist Edward Maynard, the new paper primer did away with the maddeningly small percussion cap. Consisting instead of a paper coated with fulminate, the tape was pushed to the surface when the hammer was cocked, and ignited the main charge when hit by the hammer. The army equipped a number of its older firearms with the Maynard system, although it often proved unreliable during inclement weather. [6]

Fig. 3:6. Drawing © by Jack Jackson. Originally published in Donald Wooster, Soldiers, Sutlers, and Settlers (Texas A & M University Press, 1987, p. 133. Reprinted with permission.

Mounted troops also benefited from the weapons development. The army developed a variety of rifled carbines to replace the ridiculous musketoon and the aging 1841 model rifle. Even more valuable, however, was the revolutionary work of Samuel Colt. In 1836 Colt received a patent for his repeating pistol, which used an ingeniously designed cylindrical revolving mechanism to hold several charges. The United States Army, however, refused to adopt the repeating pistols, its conservative ordnance boards claiming that the weapon was too heavy and would encourage the troops to waste ammunition. However, experiences gained during the Mexican War showed the need for such a repeating weapon. With the active support of Capt. Samuel H. Walker, the U.S. Army placed a major order for the pistols in 1847. Assured of a buyer, Colt began producing his pistol by the thousands. [7]

Several versions of the Colt repeater were developed in the coming years; whatever the particular style, the pistol became the most prominent small arms weapon of U.S. mounted troops. One version, the big Model 1848 dragoon pistol, was a .44 caliber, six-shot, single-action weapon. Fourteen inches long, the weapon weighed four pounds, one ounce. Another popular gun was the .36 caliber Model 1851 Navy version, which weighed only two pounds ten ounces and was a full inch shorter than the dragoon model. Experts disagreed on which of the two was more suitable to fighting Indians. Lighter and easier to handle, the Navy pistol could not match the velocity and range offered by the dragoon model. [8]

The new weapons, however, took time to reach a frontier post like Fort Davis. During his 1856 inspection, Col. J. K. F. Mansfield found a total of 442 muskets at Fort Davis. Only 33 had the new Maynard primer system. Mansfield also found the 6 companies in possession of a grand total of 3 rifles, 1 Sharps carbine, and 4 swords. The garrison magazine also reflected the slow introduction of new technology to the western frontiers. While it still had 49,000 powder-and-ball cartridges the fort possessed only 4,510 rifle balls. It did have 690 Colt pistol cartridges for use by officers, whose weapons were not accounted for by Mansfield. [9]

Mounted men also carried sabers. One dragoon, an affirmed advocate of the Colt revolver, scorned the saber, exclaiming that "in marching it makes a noise which may be heard at some distance, perhaps preventing a surprise, and in a charge, when not drawn, is positively an encumbrance." A cavalryman added that "the sabre in Indian fighting is simply a nuisance; they jingle abominably, and are of no earthly use. If a soldier gets enough on an Indian to use a sabre, it is about an even thing as to which goes under first." Some officers allowed their men to leave their sabers behind in the barracks; still, the edged weapons occasionally proved handy when fighting Indians during the 1850s. [10]

Fig. 3:7. Drawing © by Jack Jackson. Originally published in Robert Wooster, Soldiers, Sutlers, and Settlers (Texas A & M University Press, 1987), p. 135. Reprinted with permission.

Artillery also played an effective role in a number of Indian fights before the Civil War, although no instances of its use by the Fort Davis garrison have been identified. Still, it presented another example of the army's technological superiority over its Indian foes throughout the 1850s. The guns situated at Fort Davis during the period are typical for an important frontier post. In 1856 Mansfield found one 6-pound gun, two 12-pound howitzers, and an unspecified "brass mountain howitzer." On his return visit in 1860 Mansfield noted only the first three pieces. Probably of the popular 1840-41 series, the 12-pounders were originally designed for pack use. The guns could propel an 8.9-pound shell for more than a mile. Although the carriages of these guns at Fort Davis remained in a chronic state of disorder, the howitzers were particularly important in the saga of the Indian fighting army. [11]

In 1851 new regulations provided for sweeping changes in military dress, although the army continued to issue accumulated stocks of older uniforms for several years. Dark blue frock coats, with skirt extending to mid-thigh, replaced the old swallow-tailed jackets popular before the Mexican war. Senior officers sported double-breasted coats; captains and lieutenants, along with enlisted men, wore single-breated frocks. Stand-up collars with one-inch yellow metal regimental numbers, along with nine gilt breast buttons each adorned with the soldier's service branch letter (I for infantry, R for mounted riflemen, A for artillery, D for dragoons, and later C for cavalry) gave the enlisted men a particularly martial air. Chevrons denoting rank decorated the soldier's upper sleeves; diagonal half-chevrons below the elbow were awarded for every five years of service. Trim, facings, and piping were colored according to the man's service branch. Infantry was light or Saxony blue, mounted rifles emerald green, artillery red, dragoons orange, and cavalry yellow. [12]

Uniform trousers were loose enough "to spread well over the boot." Regimental officers and enlisted personnel wore sky blue pants; general officers and staff carried a darker blue shade. Welts one-eighth inch in diameter were sewn into the outer seam of the pants legs. These thin stripes also corresponded with the trim of the soldier's uniform jacket. Since the infantry's light blue too closely matched the trousers, it received dark blue welts. [13]

Fig. 3:8. 1851 regulation uniforms (from left): enlisted, noncommissioned, colonel. Drawings © by Jack Jackson. Originally published in Robert Wooster, Soldiers, Sulters, and Settlers, (Texas A & M University Press, 1987), p. 124. Reprinted with permission.

A variety of miscellaneous equipment also adorned the official uniform. Officers wore crimsoned silk sashes which went twice around the waist and were tied at the left hip; regimental and first sergeants boasted red worsted sashes. Medical officers sported green sashes. A sash worn across the body from right shoulder to left hip distinguished the officer of the day. Black leather cartridge boxes, knapsacks, and canteens were also issued to the troops, as were flannel shirts, drawers, and stockings. White gloves, black cravats, swords, epaulettes, and sword belt plates rounded out the uniform accessories. Commissioned officers also received dark blue cloaks; enlisted men wore blue gray overcoats. [14]

Minor changes came throughout the 1850s. The army briefly adopted a more fanciful French chasseur pattern coat. With fuller pleated skirts, the new coat appeared only infrequently before the Civil War. In 1857 the clothing department began to issue a sky blue fatigue jacket to troops of all arms. For a brief period the army changed uniform trousers to dark blue, although again the new patterns were rarely worn. Brass scales replaced the shoulder epaulettes. The cords on the trousers of enlisted men were dispensed with as well. [15]

Official regulations also covered hair styles and headgear. General Orders No. 31, article 218 called for short hair and limited moustaches to those in cavalry regiments. The dark blue official shako, approximately six inches high, was faced with a yellow metal letter denoting the individual company on the hat face. A small pompon of corresponding service color topped the hat. Bands of scarlet, light blue, green, orange, or yellow initially signified an enlisted man, although these colorings were done away with during the decade. A gold embroidered design (infantry: bugle; dragoons: two crossed sabers, edges turned up; mounted riflemen: trumpet; cavalry: two crossed sabers, edges turned down; topographical engineers: gold wreath of oak leaves encircling a shield) emblazoned the officers' shakos. [16]

Though inspiring in its Napoleonic appearance, such headgear scarcely served the western soldier's needs. Its narrow leather vizor (two and one-fourth inches wide at the middle) neither shaded the eyes nor protected the neck from the burning Texas sun. As W. G. Freeman reported during his 1854 inspection of the Department of Texas, soldiers on scouting expeditions or off duty dispensed with the official shako in favor of a broad brimmed "Texas hat," which was "almost universally worn." [17]

Official relief for the beleaguered infantry at Fort Davis did not come until 1858, when the Quartermaster Department began issuing dark blue forage caps. Although the new hats never matched the elegent French kepi on which they were based, they proved more serviceable than did the older shakos or the fanciful Jeff Davis models, adopted for the cavalry in 1855. These caps also served as the forerunner for the famous "bummer's caps" worn during the Civil War. Further improvements for mounted troops came in 1859, when the army finally began providing leather chin straps. [18]

In a cost-saving measure, uniforms were to be worn on dress parade as well as on fatigue and field duty. Inevitably, however, shortages in official garments affected the Fort Davis garrison. During an inspection of Fort Davis in 1856, for example, none of the forty soldiers comprising the Eighth Infantry's Company A had the new uniforms. Company C, though not in uniform, presented a "neat" appearance. As for Company D, Mansfield reported "a want of pantaloons for the men." Five men of Company F and thirteen in Company G had no canteens. The latter company was also "deficient in pantaloons." Of the 251 men on parade at Fort Davis, at least 149 did not have their official shakos. [19]

Although the heavy woolen cloth of the official uniform was suitable for hard winter service, the Texas summers led many troops to design more comfortable outfits, especially when campaigning. "White pants and summer clothes generally have usurped the woolens," wrote Lt. Edward Hartz to his father in April 1857. Flannel hunting shirts and slouched hats were common. A Second Cavalry officer serving in Texas left the following classic description of the antebellum uniform:

corduroy pants, a hickory or blue flannel shirt, cut down in front, studded with pockets and worn outside; a slouched hat and long beard, cavalry boots worn over the pants, knife and revolver belted to the side and a double barrel gun across the pommel, complete the costume as truly serviceable as it is unmilitary. [20]

The modifications made by frontier regulars had a practical purpose—serviceability in field operations, for which troops based at Fort Davis were noteworthy throughout the mid to late 1850s. On September 28, 1854 Maj. Gen. Persifor Smith left El Paso en route to selecting the site that eventually became Fort Davis. Accompanying Smith was Capt. John G. Walker, who later commanded a division at Antietam and led the Texas Division from 1863-65 in the Civil War. Also with Smith were a hundred Mounted Riflemen commanded by Captain Walker, twelve men and a mountain howitzer under the lead of Lt. Dabney H. Maury, Lt. Eugene A. Carr, aide-de-camp Lt. Alfred Gibbs, several civilians and guides, and Asst. Surgeon Thomas A. McParlan. Upon reaching Eagle Springs, some 120 miles east of El Paso, Smith's party encountered a group of immigrants herding cattle to California. The cattlemen reported that Indian marauders had a day and a half earlier taken a number of cattle. Upon locating the Indian trail, which headed southwest toward the Rio Grande, Smith dispatched Captain Walker after the Indians. [21]

Fig. 3:9. Drawing © by Jack Jackson. Originally published in Robert Wooster, Soldiers, Sulters, and Settlers, (Texas A & M University Press, 1987), p. 126. Reprinted with permission.

Walker's command included forty-one noncommissioned personnel, Smith's stepson Francis Armstrong, two cattlemen, and a civilian guide, Policarpio ("Polly") Rodriguez. His second-in-command was Lt. Eugene A. Carr, who later won the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Pea Ridge in 1862. Walker's command lost the trail in the tangled terrain that night, only to discover it again when the Indians doubled back in a vain effort to elude pursuit. Having traveled more than sixty miles in twenty hours, Walker renewed the chase early the following morning. About noon the bluecoats glimpsed smoke, presumably from an Indian camp, ten to twelve miles away. Hoping to escape detection, the soldiers remained hidden until nightfall. They moved out once again at dusk, but the overcast night prevented them from following the trail. [22]

Walker resumed the pursuit at dawn the following morning. After a march of several miles, his troops struck another Indian trail headed in a different direction. Walker conjectured that this meant the original culprits had belonged to two different villages and that the smoke seen previously marked the site where they divided the spoils. Pushing on ahead, another ten miles revealed two Indians driving a large herd of horses.

Prudently leaving a reserve, Captain Walker took half of the remaining forces and left the rest under Lieutenant Carr. Carr's section reached the Indians at a gallop and drove them up one of the mountainsides. Suddenly, a much larger band of Indians swept out of the mouth of a protected gorge and fell upon Carr and his men. Carr was severely wounded but pressed the fight bravely, his revolvers proving especially valuable in the tangled contest. Walker's arrival with the remainder of the command drove away the Indians. In this encounter the soldiers had run smack into the middle of an Apache encampment of sixty to seventy lodges. "The sides of the mountains were literally covered with mounted and dismounted warriors," Walker recalled, "and with the women and children escaping from the village near which we were." [23]

Map 3:4. Campaigns in the Trans-Pecos, 1850s. Map drawn by the author. (click on image for a PDF version)

Walker and a detachment dismounted and destroyed the Indian lodges. Large quantities of beef were being cooked and cured—the bluecoats had interrupted a major feast. Meanwhile, Carr and eight to ten men again became separated. Quick action on the part of Walker, whose flanking movement forced the nearby warriors to retire, again saved the brash lieutenant despite the expert horsemanship of the Indians. [24]

Amidst the swirling combat, several Indian ponies captured in the initial rush panicked, the soldier guards unable to prevent their frenzied stampede. The serious nature of Carr's wound led Walker to withdraw to a small lake about a mile distant. Several bold warriors made a final dash, losing three of their own number but killing one private with a hail of arrows. Upon reaching the lake, the soldiers paused long enough to dress Carr's wound, now presumed fatal. The guide, Rodriguez, was also badly wounded. Walker estimated Indian losses at six or seven killed, and double that number injured.

Seeking professional attention for Carr's wound, Walker broke off the pursuit and rejoined General Smith's command seven miles west of Dead Man's Hole on the afternoon of October 5. Walker praised his entire command: Carr's gallant conduct had been "throughout worthy of his profession"; the soldiers ate hardtack for three days "without a murmor of discontent." Even the Mexican guide, Rodriguez, earned recognition for his "good service as a trailer and as a good rifle shot in the fight." General Smith agreed with Walker's conclusions, adding that Walker's "spirited action there is highly to his credit and that of his command. His own conduct is spoken of in the highest terms by all present and his clothes which are cut in more than 1/2 by the Indian arrows bear testimony of his having been in the thickest of the fight." [25]

Walker's scout confirmed the need for a post like Fort Davis. Smith knew, however, that the mere presence of troops would not deter Indian attacks. As such, he ordered Maj. John S. Simonson, Regiment of Mounted Rifles, to conduct another expedition west of Fort Davis. From the Department of New Mexico, Brig. Gen. John Garland dispatched his son-in-law, Bvt. Maj. James Longstreet, to cooperate with Simonson. From December to January, Simonson and Longstreet scoured the rugged Trans-Pecos. Searching the region north of the El Paso road as well as the area between Fort Davis and the Rio Grande, they failed to locate any Indians. Perhaps the leadership proved lacking. Although Longstreet later became one of Robert E. Lee's most solid corps commanders during the Civil War, Simonson was an aged veteran of the War of 1812. Later described as "a simple, but kind old fellow . . . deficient in reason, cramped in his understanding, and warped in his judgment," Simonson was certainly past his prime. [26]

Generously, Smith later concluded that the Indians, having been warned of the move, left the Trans-Pecos for safer refuges in the north. The Simonson-Longstreet expeditions did find good running water in the Guadalupe Mountains, which Smith argued might provide the basis for a better route for the road between El Paso and San Antonio. A site at Pine Spring, one hundred twenty-five miles northwest of Fort Davis, seemed particularly suited for army use. [27]

The Simonson and Longstreet columns were part of a larger campaign against the Mescalero Apaches. From the Department of New Mexico, Garland twice sent Bvt. Lt. Col. Daniel T. Chandler from Fort Conrad to the Sierra Blancas in 1854. From Las Lunas, Capt. Richard S. Ewell took a reinforced column into the Capitan Mountains. In a series of running battles, Mescalero warriors contested Ewell's skirmishers as the Indian women and children fled to safety. The soldiers finally reached an abandoned Apache village late in the afternoon of January 18, 1855, fending off an ambush in the process. Ewell claimed that his command killed fifteen Indians. Yet he had not inflicted a crushing blow. Exhausted by the terrain and the winter season, his troops limped back to the cover of the federal forts in New Mexico. The lack of forage hit the dragoon horses particularly hard. "The infantry were of valuable service," Ewell concluded, "and towards the end of the campaign were able to outmarch the dragoons." [28]

As Ewell fought in the Capitan Mountains, another New Mexico column commanded by Lt. Samuel D. Sturgis set off after a party of Mescaleros. Sturgis discovered the Indian band at the end of a grueling three-day chase. After a ragged volley, the bitter cold prevented the troops from reloading, so Sturgis ordered his men to charge with sabers drawn, a tactic only rarely used against Indians. In brisk hand-to-hand combat, four of Sturgis' command were wounded, one mortally; three Indians were killed and four others wounded. [29]

The frenzy of activity stunned the Mescalero. Fort Davis now guarded the Trans-Pecos. Although none of the fighting had been conclusive, the campaigns of Longstreet, Simonson, Chandler, Ewell, and Sturgis from Texas and New Mexico indicated the army's determination to force a peace. Also important was the death of a noted war chief, Santa Anna, at the hands of Ewell's men. This allowed the champion of more peaceful relations, Palanquito, to convince his fellow tribesmen to seek out terms. Warily, Garland called off his offensives, and Gov. David Meriweather of New Mexico concluded a treaty in May 1855. Congress refused to ratify the document, so official relations remained tenuous. In the meantime, Garland established Fort Stanton in the heart of Mescalero country, a continual reminder of the army's watchfulness and an important corollary in the history of Fort Davis. [30]

The recent campaigns in Texas and eastern New Mexico pointed out the hazards of life in the field. The harsh environment tested even the most experienced campaigners. Horses, mules, and even the sturdy camels found traversing the rocky outcroppings of the Trans-Pecos an arduous task indeed. The lack of water and the summer heat compounded everything—in desperation, soldiers placed buckshot in their mouths to work up precious droplets of saliva. Of course, northers could transform a pleasant day into a blizzard with devastating suddenness at any time between October and April. [31]

Supply problems compounded the difficulties of those called to active campaigning. Low food stocks meant that a stationary garrison could spare little for troops taking the field. Shortages of wagons (commonly referred to as ambulances) made carrying large rations difficult. Even if food and transport were both available, an officer faced a cruel dilemma. Should he take enough stores to provide for a long campaign, in the process virtually assuring that his weighted down band would not catch any Indians? Or should he strip his men of all but the barest essentials in hopes of gaining more mobility, thus risking starvation or dehydration?

The need for mobility perplexed antebellum planners. Economic constraints made it impossible to provide all the frontier regulars with horses, yet officers continually asked for more mounted men. Those at Fort Davis proved no exception. Although sympathetic to the problems, the army refused the request. Not only had Congress repealed the law once permitting such action, it also reduced the number of horses allowed each cavalry regiment. Under such limitations, officials were necessarily restricted in what they could provide their garrisons. As a stopgap measure, they suggested that officers muster up all available mules to form a flying detachment. [32]

Officers at Fort Davis found it difficult to accept such arguments. The prospect of chasing mounted Indians through the Trans-Pecos with mule-borne infantrymen could scarcely inspire confidence among likely participants. Experience showed that most such efforts proved futile. Perhaps Lt. Edward F. Beale, during his camel expedition of 1857, summed it up best. He described the newly erected Camp Hudson, on the Devil's River, as "an infantry post, which, of course, is very useful in protecting this portion of the Indian territory; foot soldiers being especially well adapted to the pursuit of tribes always mounted on the best horse flesh to be stolen in Texas and Mexico." [33]

Events did not always justify the claim that only cavalrymen could catch mounted Indians. As Captain Ewell discovered during his 1855 winter campaign in the mountains of New Mexico, the army's big horses tired quickly. Their dependence upon huge stores of grain limited their ability to maintain mountainous winter chases. Several post-Civil War campaigns later confirmed the effectiveness of well-led infantrymen under the proper conditions. The lack of horses inhibited the command at Fort Davis; it should not, however, have determined that their efforts be futile.

Carefully prepared foot soldiers with energetic officers could, especially in the winter months, penetrate the securest Indian haunts. Without forage, Indian ponies lost their endurance and speed. Too, Indians kept notoriously poor watch over their campsites. Just as the Indians often ambushed unwitting travelers, so could the bluecoats surprise unwary Indians. The army substantially increased its chances for success by striking the homes and villages of the tribes. "The first news of the departure of any party [of Indians] should be followed, not only by their pursuit, but by the punishment of the remainder of the tribe," advised Lt. W. H. C. Whiting in 1850. Such a tactic forced the warriors to fight against unfavorable odds and prevented their uninhibited flight into the vastness of the Trans-Pecos. Attacks upon Indian villages occurred only infrequently in the area near Fort Davis, however, as most of the warriors kept their families at a safe distance in the Guadalupe Mountains, New Mexico, or Chihuahua after the occupation of forts Davis and Bliss. [34]

Distances, aridity, and the availability of convenient escape routes to Mexico or the Fort Stanton Indian reservation further limited the effectiveness of infantry. For these reasons antebellum officers at Fort Davis rarely overcame their ingrained belief that foot soldiers had little chance to catch mounted Indians. Albert J. Myer's description of one failed effort to hunt down Indians who had stolen some army horses east of Fort Davis typifies this skepticism: "Infantry on foot after Indians on horseback. They were near enough, at one time, to fire and they did so, injuring, they say, two warriors, very badly, but after a long race in a broiling sun they came back utterly exhausted and the sixty horses were thenceforth missing." [35]

Qualified scouts, culled from local residents, proved essential to any operation. Rates for scouts varied before the Civil War; in January 1860 the War Department spent thirty dollars per month on those for Fort Davis. Theoretically these men knew the surrounding country and could track suspected Indian trails. Such a policy, however, made the army dependent upon special appropriations from a Congress more concerned with the impending sectional crisis than frontier defense. It also forced officers to sort out effective scouts from those who simply looked or talked the part. [36]

As was to be expected, contracting civilians turned up a fascinating array of individuals. The respected guide for Captain Walker's expedition of 1854, Policarpio Rodriguez, later became a Baptist preacher. Lt. Zenas R. Bliss, stationed at Fort Davis during the mid-1850s, liked to hire one Jesus Aiguelar. Jesus had been an Indian captive for several years and proved a trusted guide to Bliss before the Civil War. After the war, Bliss returned to Fort Clark, Texas, where he again hired Aiguelar until the latter's death. Other scouts included Sam Cherry and José Maria. Most of the antebellum scouts, however, remain shrouded in mystery. [37]

Inexperienced soldiers found it difficult to discriminate between real signs of Indians and other sounds. All too often, jittery young watchmen unnecessarily rousted troops from their slumber. At one point during the mid 1850s army stores of hay and firewood located about five miles from Fort Davis were set afire. Immediately parties set out in pursuit of Indians. Only later was it discovered that soldiers had mistakenly started the blaze. Edward Beale summed up what must have been a popular sentiment among veterans of one too many unwarranted alarms. "This evening many of our party have seen Indians, but for me, 'Ah! sinner that I am, I was not permitted to witness so glorious a sight,'" he wrote in 1857. "I encourage the young men, however, in the belief that deer, bushes, &c., which they have mistaken for Indians, are all veritable Comanches, as it makes them watchful on guard at night." [38]

Since Indian attack threatened any small party traversing the Trans-Pecos, expeditions from Fort Davis took a full complement of weapons. The road just west of Limpia Canyon seemed especially hazardous. "Many a careless traveller had cause to repent his lack of vigilance while going through it," wrote Mrs. Lydia Lane, an army wife and one of the most famous military diarists of the pre-Civil War years. "You do not expect to have a fight but you have been so used to thinking of and preparing for it that you look upon it as a matter of indifference. It is not courage it is merely custom," remembered one officer. Although large, properly equipped, and carefully led wagon trains and army columns had little to fear from Indian sorties, overconfident or inexperienced groups could find out too late that their lack of wariness had or would cost them their lives. [39]

The terrain seemed ideally suited to Indian tactics, honed by experiences collected over several generations. "All Indians are treated as hostile and hence none are seen," reported J. K. F. Mansfield. "Yet in traveling there are so many covers for them, no party can be safe." Well-known watering holes and campgrounds provided ideal opportunities to ambush the unwary. And following Indian trails proved difficult and dangerous, with some charging that Indians deliberately fouled water holes to discourage pursuit. [40]

The brutality of warfare conducted by both sides magnified the dangers. In attempting to force their more mobile foes to battle, the soldiers often struck Indian camps and villages. During the confused melees which followed, separating women and children from male warriors usually proved impossible. It was inconvenient or impossible to discriminate warrior from noncombatant in the heat of combat. Traditional rules of warfare also paled in light of customary Indian treatment of prisoners. Mutilated bodies and recollections of former hostages provided gruesome reminders of the fate awaiting those who fell captive. Of course, storytellers and gossips multiplied the number and ferocity of real events as tales of savagery swept the frontiers. One Fort Davis officer described his feelings toward Indians in the following manner:

The war on this frontier is one of extermination. In the worst sense of the word these tribes are savages. They are devils and the coldest blood must boil at the narration of the manner in which they have treated prisoners who have fallen into their hands, not men, alone, taken with arms in their hands, for they can but die, but innocent women and children. Orders are now issued to the troops to take no prisoners; to spare no one; to listen to no terms for peace until the race is cowed by their punishment. [41]

The real and alleged treatment of white women and children enraged the general populace and the army alike. Indeed, the suggestive detail of these lurid accounts gripped society as a whole. Such tales, combined with pseudoscientific claims of Indian inferiority, gave frontier settlers a subhuman villain to whom they could attribute all of their problems. Murders, raids, thefts, and unexplained incidents were simply blamed on Indians. Occasionally thoughtful army personnel like Lt. Zenas R. Bliss escaped the emotionalism of the times and realized that Texans exaggerated the extent of Indian depredations. "The Indians were so many, and killed so many people on the road," remembered Bliss, "that whenever a murder was committed, the perpetrators always endeavored to leave the impression that it was done by the Indians." [42]

Although Indians did not strike Fort Davis itself, they threatened all parties venturing from the immediate vicinity. In one such incident, guide Sam Cherry set out in search of lumber suitable for building with a four-man escort. A twelve-year-old drummer boy also slipped away to join the fun. Indians ambushed the party after it had proceded about six miles north of the post, near Wild Rose Pass. The four soldiers died fighting; Cherry, apparently suspecting a trap, spurred his mount and raced past the warriors. His horse stumbled and fell, however, pinning the guide beneath it. After a brief struggle, Cherry shot himself to avoid capture. The next day a detachment from the fort found the missing wood party. Although Cherry's body had not been touched, those of the four soldiers were horribly mutilated. Officials assumed that the little drummer boy had fallen captive. [43]

In August 1855 Lt. Horace Randal of the Eighth Infantry received a transfer to the First Dragoon Regiment, stationed in New Mexico. With a twenty-man escort, Randall set out from Fort Davis to join his new command. En route the lieutenant noticed signs of Indians leading into a canyon near Eagle Springs. Leaving six men to guard the horses, Randal posted seven men in the canyon's mouth and led the remaining seven soldiers around to the rear entrance. Randal's party drove about fifteen surprised Indians into the bluecoats waiting at the opposite end of the canyon. One Indian fired a shot that whizzed harmlessly past the well-covered soldiers, who poured a devastating fire upon their enemies. Eight Indians fell dead; two others were mortally wounded. Two of the remainder jumped off a sixty-foot precipice, presumably to their deaths, and the soldiers captured a young boy. Only two of the band escaped. According to a newspaper account, Randal personally scalped the dead chief; half of the fallen were women. [44]

Still another attack came against a small mail escort in early March 1856. And in the middle of an April day that same year, Indians drove off the post trader's [sutler's] animals less than a mile from the post. Typically, the pursuit party dispatched from Davis failed to catch any of the raiders. One such patrol, commanded by young Lieutenant Bliss, took off after some Indians who had stolen several stock. Anxious to press ahead, Bliss's command went three days without water. Bliss "of course could keep on their trail, but after following them 200 miles he had to strike El Paso almost starved." [45]

In June 1856 Inspector Mansfield reported a more embarrassing incident. Less than five hundred yards from Fort Davis, a band of Indians swooped down upon the post's cattle herd. Driving the cattle through a supposedly impenetrable pass, the Indians successfully escaped the soldiers' belated pursuit. On another occasion, the Indians almost got off with the horses of four companies of the Mounted Rifle Regiment, temporarily stationed at Fort Davis. Even more humiliating was the subsequent realization that less than half a dozen Mescaleros nearly accomplished the daring feat despite the presence of a strong guard. [46]

Obviously, the garrison needed to do something more dramatic if it hoped to check the growing depredations. Capt. Arthur T. Lee and Lieutenant Hartz had led scouting parties from Fort Davis that spring. Although department officials at San Antonio dubbed the information they brought back "useful and interesting," it had not overawed the Indians of the Trans-Pecos. As such, adjutant Don Carlos Buell ordered Colonel Seawell, commanding Fort Davis, to send out another reconnaissance under an energetic officer. [47]

While these orders were en route from San Antonio, Lt. Edward Hartz was again in the field, leading an exhausting but fruitless scout. The reconnaissance ordered by Buell apparently decided but little, so on October 1 the Department called for yet another detachment to scour the area southeast of Fort Davis. Seventy-five men would proceed to the Horsehead Crossing of the Pecos River. From here, they should follow the Great Comanche Trail to the southwest as it approached the Rio Grande. After reaching the great river, the expedition was to march to the El Paso road at Comanche Spring before returning to Fort Davis. [48]

The Davis expedition was to take only twenty days' rations; additional provisions were to meet the troops at Leon Springs, on the El Paso road. The command was to be "as lightly equipped as possible" and should "attack any Indians it may meet." Until it struck the Comanche War Trail, the detachment should mount small scouting parties so as to gather more information about the surrounding countryside. As reconnaissance was to be the group's primary object, the department singled out Edward Hartz to accompany the expedition, mapping and describing the region traversed. The department hoped Hartz and the column's commander would select a site for a new post where the Comanche trail crossed the Rio Grande. By October 18 the Davis garrison was preparing for the expedition. Lieutenant Hartz took the news philosophically: "I shall probably be absent a month or so and have some rough times," he wrote his father. "But as I am paid for seeing rough times as well as easy ones I am bound to 'put up' with the roughness and atone for it by making the most of my ease when it presents itself." [49]

Capt. Robert Maclay led the patrol, which explored the area between the Great Comanche Trail and the Rio Grande. But the Maclay scout found little to encourage the dream of a new Rio Grande position. As had earlier teams, the group found the terrain extremely difficult and the available resources limited. Scouts and guides proved ineffective. Buell, safely ensconced at San Antonio, assured Captain Lee that "but little importance" should be attached to the guides, for the latter seemed notoriously ill-equipped to lead army columns. [50]

Cognizant of such futile gestures, acting commander of the Department of Texas Col. Albert Sidney Johnston hoped to effect major changes in the final months of 1856. Seeking to reduce expenses, he recommended that Ringgold Barracks be relocated fifteen miles higher up the Rio Grande. Camp Cooper, in north central Texas, would probably be moved as well. And in continuing efforts to ease transportation to Fort Davis, Johnston ordered a road survey between that post and the Devil's River. If all proceeded according to plan, the army would establish a new fort sixty miles east of Fort Davis. [51]

Succeeding Johnston, new department commander Brig. Gen. David E. Twiggs was keenly aware of the difficulties of preventing Indian strikes against settlements, immigrants, mail and stage lines, and army stock. He blamed most of his woes on the shortage of mounted men. Scattered along the Indian frontier from Camp Cooper in north central Texas to the Rio Grande, the Second Cavalry Regiment, "though a most gallant, enterprising, and most successful corps," was "inadequate to give that protection which is expected of the Army by both the Government and the citizens of this State." [52]

To better protect the line from San Antonio to El Paso, Twiggs hoped to implement the design of his predecessor. Like Johnston, Twiggs believed a new post between forts Davis and Clark or Lancaster was necessary. If water, wood, and grass proved available, the best site seemed to be "on or near" the great Comanche trail. Such an outpost would "be of great advantage in facilitating the efforts to restrain the predatory expeditions of the Indians to and from Mexico," "over which large herds of stolen cattle and horses, and war parties of hostile Indians are constantly passing." [53]

In accord with Johnston's strategy, Twiggs's accession to command, and the reports of the Maclay-Hartz expeditions, the army would establish Fort Stockton at the junction of the lower El Paso road and the Great Comanche trail in 1859. Before this date, detachments had frequently camped at the site. Troops stationed at the new post could effectively patrol the lands to the mouth of the Pecos River. To garrison Fort Stockton, Fort Davis would be stripped of three of its six infantry companies. Such a move seemed well worth the risk; in Johnston's words, the strategically located fort "would greatly obstruct, if not entirely exclude the Indians from the use of the route in conducting their large predatory parties into Mexican territory." [54]

Johnston had not intended to minimize the value of the older Limpia post in projecting a transfer of three companies from Fort Davis to the new site. Indeed, he had labeled the service of the infantrymen at Davis, along with those at Belknap, Chadbourne, McKavett, and Lancaster, "useful and important." Davis and Lancaster were "indispensable for keeping open the communication from New Mexico." Moving troops away from Davis merely recognized the garrison's impossibly difficult task. Despite the best efforts of its soldiers, the small, poorly equipped, inadequately mounted and trained troops could scarcely hope to defeat the Indians of the Trans-Pecos. The proposed new post could, however, force them to be more cautious in their future strikes. [55]

Protecting the United States mail proved one of Fort Davis's most important assignments. Informal mail service, carried by freighters or private contractors like Henry Skillman and Bigfoot Wallace, had existed between El Paso and San Antonio since 1849. Wallace unsuccessfully tried to secure a formal contract in April 1851; later that year, Skillman inked a three-year deal with the federal government. For delivering mail along the lower route from Santa Fe through El Paso to San Antonio, Skillman was to receive $12,500 annually. [56]

Skillman carried mail from El Paso to Santa Fe every month, and from El Paso to San Antonio every other month. Contract renegotiations in 1852 raised Skillman's annual stipend to $28,000; in return, he would provide monthly service both ways. Stage passengers supplemented Skillman's government contract. And in exchange for carrying military dispatches, his mail parties received army escorts. Despite the machinations, Skillman sought to increase his annual subsidy to $50,000 when the contract expired in 1854. Disputes over the subsequent mail contracts led San Antonio merchant George W. Giddings to enter the service. In purchasing a contract from low bidder David Wasson, Giddings was to deliver the mail west of San Antonio for $16,750; in October 1854, Giddings and Skillman formed a partnership. [57]

From Fort Clark, the mail route followed the emigrant trail for nearly 180 miles to where it hit the Pecos River at Horsehead Crossing. The Pecos always proved a lively topic of discussion for contemporary diarists. Already exhausted by the long dry trail between Clark and the river, writers vied for the best means of describing the brackish Pecos water. "Hot discussion tonight . . . as to whether the Pecos water would or would not cook beans. Bet of five dollars," joked Burr G. Duval. "I am now able to state that Pecos water will not cook beans soft. Boiled them ten hours. They were edible but by no means choice." Another writer described his efforts to choke down a little moisture: "It is cool and unodorous, and its disagreeable taste is quite vanquished by holding the nose as you drink. Coffee boiled in it is a villanous decoction." [58]

The Pecos was especially maddening because the next permanent water lay eighty-three miles to the west, at Comanche Creek. A stage stand marked Leon Springs, nine miles further down the road. Barrilla Springs ["grass and water good, wood plenty"] was the next station, thirty-four miles from Leon. From Barrilla Springs, the trail wound its way through Wild Rose Pass for twenty-eight miles to Fort Davis, where the mail company maintained "La Limpia" station about a mile from the military post. [59]

The journey through Wild Rose Pass was always perilous. "This pass is considered the most dangerous of the rout [sic]. . . . Ten Indians could give a large party great trouble," wrote James G. Bell. According to local lore, Apache chief Espejo particularly favored the site for ambushes. Crossing the pass certainly added a perverse thrill to the final march to safety offered by nearby Fort Davis. [60]

Like the proverbial oasis in the desert, travelers could rest, refit, and replenish their supplies at Fort Davis after their arduous journeys. The post sutler sold merchandise; wagons could be repaired at the post blacksmith's shop. "It was a pleasure to us when we reached an army post where we were safe, and for that day, at least, could relax our vigilance. We met with kind friends everywhere, who supplied us with many small comforts which could not be purchased," recalled Mrs. Lydia Lane. When available, the post's residents presented the visitors with eggs, milk, and butter, virtually unobtainable elsewhere on the trails. The visits boosted the morale of Fort Davis residents and emigrants alike—starved for human companionship on the lonely Texas frontiers, soldiers and civilians quickly became friends. [61]

Mail parties could not tarry long at the Limpia station. Eighteen miles down the road lay Barrel Springs, with good water, fair grass, and sufficient wood. Nineteen more dangerous miles took travelers to the next major stop—El Muerto, or Dead Man's Hole. Here stood a typically bleak mail stand, with adobe corral, small combination sleeping quarters, storeroom and kitchen. A lone trader tended the animals and cooked meals for passengers for fifty cents each. El Muerto was as ominous in fact as it was in name, and remained one of the most dreaded stretches of the El Paso-San Antonio road. Signs of Indians were common; "the thieving red devils had been prowling around us in the night," remembered one frightened camper. [62]

Another thirty-two miles separated Dead Man's Hole from the next stage station at Van Horn's Well. The site itself offered only water, although forage and firewood could be found two miles to the east. Eagle Springs lay twenty miles down the road. Indians often waylaid travelers near the strategic springs. In November 1857 Indians struck a six-man party bound for California. Rashly, the California group had camped about eighty yards outside a waist-high dirt wall constructed by an earlier expedition. Although the emigrants drove off their attackers, one of the whites received an arrow wound in his arm; the party's dog was also killed in the confusion. [63]

Like the great majority of such occurrences, the Mescalero sortie had as its prime object the group's animals. Plunder, not murder, provided the lure for most Indian onslaughts in the Trans-Pecos. From Eagle Springs, the southern San Antonio-El Paso road wound its way another thirty-two miles past Fort Quitman to Canon de los Camenos, along the Rio Grande. Hugging the river for the remaining eighty-five miles, the road continued to Fort Bliss, where travelers and mail/stage lines could again relax their guard. Contemporaries agreed that the section along the Rio Grande seemed relatively free from Indian attack. [64]

The San Antonio-El Paso mail service still floundered as Indian depredations, bureaucratic tangles, and bad weather took their toll on the poorly capitalized venture. The mail trains each consisted of two wagons and an ambulance, accompanied by former state Rangers whom one observer described as nothing more than "drunken ruffians." In March 1855 Congress increased Giddings' compensation to $33,500 annually, but most of the money was impounded to pay plaintiffs from the earlier contract imbroglio. A year after the pay raise, Giddings again ran up enormous debts. [65]

In 1857 the federal government awarded a major contract for transcontinental mail service to a syndicate headed by John Butterfield. James Birch had actively lobbied for the contract; as partial consolation, Birch won the right to haul the mail from San Antonio to San Diego. Birch would receive $149,800 annually for providing semimonthly delivery. Birch's agent in San Antonio, Isaiah Z. Woods, secured a partnership with Giddings's debt burdened company. Giddings would still make the San Antonio-Santa Fe run; in return, he was granted a salary from the new parent company. Shortly after the agreement was signed, Birch's steamer sank in an Atlantic storm on September 13, 1857, and Birch drowned. In the aftermath Giddings assumed responsibility for the San Antonio-Santa Fe operations. Ironically, Skillman and Wallace drove the teams for the first mail runs of the Giddings-Birch syndicate. [66]

Yet troubles continued to mount. The cash starved Giddings enterprise struggled as Butterfield's overland mail line, running from St. Louis to San Francisco, initially struck the old Ford-Neighbors northern route at the Pecos River and followed it through the Guadalupe Mountains to El Paso. The lack of water and escalating Indian threats along the northern passage soon forced the Butterfield line to swing farther south to the Horsehead Crossing of the Pecos. From there, it paralleled the Giddings route through Fort Davis to El Paso. As such, two independent mail firms shared the road from 1859 to 1861. [67]

Problems with the army, which furnished regular escorts, also impeded the mail companies. Disputes between soldiers and drivers and private mail company guards were probably inevitable. In August 1855, for example, troops at Fort Davis complained about "the irregularity of expresses between Forts Davis and Clark" and filed "grievances in connection with the escorting of the mail" between the two posts. More trouble came in 1857, during an inspection of the route to California by mail superintendent and Birch-Giddings agent Isaiah Woods. Upon reaching Fort Davis, Woods asked that the army loan him enough mules to enable him to continue his journey. [68]

Washington Seawell, who commanded Fort Davis, lent Woods the mules. Then the trouble began. In his official report Woods stated only that the arduous journey had worn out his mules. He furthermore claimed that when he did not immediately return the animals to Fort Davis, Seawell advised fellow officers not to cooperate. Upon being provided a copy of Woods's report by California Sen. William M. Gwin, however, Seawell related a far different tale. According to Seawell, Woods lost his own mule train during an Indian attack. Seawell then lent the postal inspector thirty-six mules, with the understanding that the latter would return them upon reaching El Paso. Woods falsely reported a number of the animals having "strayed," and took them all the way to Tucson, Arizona. Seawell also complained about Woods's dual role as postal worker and company agent. "Besides being the superintendent," he wrote, "I have it from pretty good authority that Mr. Woods is also a secret partner in this mail contract." [69]

As federal officials debated Woods's report, the situation in western Texas continued to deteriorate. A dramatic attack on a mail party between forts Lancaster and Davis came about six o'clock on July 24, 1857. Sgt. Ernest Schroeder and six privates of the Eighth Infantry comprised the mail escort; six privates from a wood-gathering party led by a Sergeant Libbey of the First Infantry also accompanied the train. Encountering about sixty Indians twenty-five miles west of Lancaster, Schroeder and Libbey ordered their men to unhitch the mules and take cover behind the wagons. As the two groups warily surveyed one another, the Indians held up a white flag. Sergeant Libbey exchanged a few shouts with the Indians in Spanish; meanwhile, another band of Indians, hoping to get a better line of fire on the soldiers, crept up a small ravine. [70]

Suddenly, shots rang out. The two sergeants steadied their isolated command, pointing out the Indians' position to the privates. As Schroeder scurried about behind one of the wagons, Libbey exclaimed: "look out Sergt for the sons of bitches they will get the advantage of you if they can & dont put yourself in danger." True to Libbey's warning, the next volley felled Schroeder with a shot through the heart. The soldiers continued their fire, dropping two Indians from their horses as they ventured into the open. Surrounded and badly outnumbered by the two Indian groups, Libbey ordered his command to abandon the wagons. [71]

A fighting retreat began, half the men firing while the others reloaded. As the escort withdrew, they carried the limp frame of Sergeant Schroeder for nearly a mile and a half. There, the Indians made another charge; Libbey ordered his men to leave the body "& look out for ourselves." The fighting retreat continued as dark fell, with the warriors subsequently giving up the chase. The frightened escort limped back into Fort Lancaster about three o'clock the next morning. "Sergeant Libbey did all he possibly could; he was perfectly cool & behaved with courage & discretion," remembered one private. Another recalled that, despite the fearful odds, the command never panicked, killing five Indians in the skirmish. A board of inquiry reached a similar conclusion: "the conduct of the sergeants commanding the mail escort and the wood party is represented as perfectly correct, and it seems to have been gallant and judicious." [72]

In response, Lt. Edward L. Hartz led forty infantrymen out from Fort Lancaster. Many in his detachment, officially stationed at Davis, had been performing mail-escort duty between Lancaster and their home base. A brief site investigation convinced Hartz that Libbey and Schroeder had indeed acted properly. He also realized that his foot soldiers could not catch the mounted Indian ambushers. Furthermore, the lieutenant knew that the Indians would not attack a force as large as his. [73]

But Hartz was determined to punish the Indians. Hoping to lure them into an unwise attack, he kept most of his men under cover in the accompanying wagons, exposing only a dozen troops as "escorts." The ruse worked. Thinking the Hartz column was a regular supply train, a group of thirty to forty Mescaleros struck about forty-five miles west of Lancaster, near the point where the road left the Pecos River. Quickly realizing their mistake, the Mescaleros withdrew. A running battle resulted, during which the Indians set fire to the prairie, hoping to burn the wagon train or at least cover their own retreat. Without saddle animals, the Hartz command found pursuit impractical as the Indians fell back across the Pecos. Still, the soldiers claimed to have killed or wounded two Indians with no loss to themselves. [74]

Hartz had conducted himself well. His tactic drew his opponent into an ill-advised attack against his own strong though relatively immobile command. Yet the inability to mount an effective pursuit galled the young lieutenant. Mounted men must garrison the lonely West Texas posts if the army expected to protect the road to El Paso:

The impunity with which attacks have been made in the past week and the powerlessness of infantry to act with advantage against the bands at present infesting the road . . . show conclusively that the Indians are in virtual possession of the road . . ., having the power to retire beyond the reach of chastisement at their pleasure. [75]

The growing Indian activity directly affected Fort Davis. On May 31, 1858 some Mescaleros stole the mules belonging to a government mail party. In response, Seawell ordered Lt. William B. Hazen to "overtake and chasten" the Indians and recover the mules "if possible." Hazen would later rise to the rank of major general of volunteers during his long and illustrious military career. He also became a prolific writer who sparked controversy among his fellow officers, including a dashing young lieutenant colonel named George Armstrong Custer. But in 1858 Hazen remained a relatively green twenty-eight-year-old lieutenant. Upon receiving Seawell's instructions, he left Fort Davis on June 4 with thirty soldiers, twelve horses, and two Mexican guides. For four days he followed to the northwest an Indian trail believed to be left by chiefs Marco and Gomez. With water supplies dwindling, Hazen broke off the exhausting chase to make a forced march to a camp north of Eagle Springs. [76]

Hazen knew that he must resume the pursuit if he hoped to carry out his instructions. He and his men pushed on to the Guadalupe Mountains, where on the evening of June 10 they stumbled into a Mescalero encampment. Surprised, the one-hundred-odd Indians fled for cover up a canyon. Hazen's weary soldiers could not catch their foes, killing only one man and capturing but a single woman. But they did round up twenty-nine horses and government mules, and most of the Indians' camp: lodges, pelts, furniture, horse gear, arms, ammunition, and more than one thousand pounds of prepared food. Also recovered were fifty scalps. [77]

Hazen and his command then began the long march back to Fort Davis. Many of his troops, green recruits from the East, wilted in the summer heat. Musket barrels were too hot to touch; water from canteens was too hot to drink. A few desperate men drank urine, with predictably painful results. The big grain-fed American horses had broken down in the canyon chase, so all the men had to walk. At nightfall on the third day after the attack, they found a small salt spring, but more horses and men became ill as they consumed the briny sulphur water too greedily. [78]

That night, sentinel Pvt. Michael Kellett of D Company, Eighth Infantry, fell asleep in a quiet patch of grass. His relief on guard duty assumed Kellett had gone to bed; when he heard nearby rustling, he nervously blasted away without first issuing a challenge, shouting "Indians!" in the process. Kellett fell dead and the camp panicked. Another private on guard duty, Michael Hyers of C Company, rushed blindly into the campsite, firing and screaming. Several wild shots killed Hyers as horses, hit by stray bullets, stampeded through the campsite. With some difficulty, young Lieutenant Hazen restored a semblance of order as he gradually pieced together the evening's tragic events. [79]

Badly shaken, the Hazen detachment arrived back at Fort Davis on June 20, having marched some 450 miles. Furious at his men, Hazen commended three soldiers and the two scouts but damned the other twenty-seven infantrymen. "I never saw so worthless a set of men thrown together before in my life," wrote Hazen. "While in the Indian country they were much frightened, ready to fire at any time, on anything, and it was with peril that I could visit the sentinels at night." All but three of his horses had died in the Trans-Pecos, a country he described as "perfectly worthless for agricultural purposes." He found building stone, lime, and salt in the Guadalupes, but concluded that the remote location meant that the mountains "must remain valueless." Only mules could negotiate such a difficult environment, he noted. [80]

Hazen was transferred to Fort Inge in August 1858, and led a number of subsequent expeditions against Indians. He remained a sharp critic of those who he believed misrepresented the difficulties of settling the American West. Incensed by the wildly optimistic claims of postbellum railroad promoters, in 1875 he published a controversial essay, "The Great Middle Region of the United States, and its Limited Space of Arable Land," in the prestigious North American Review. Undoubtedly, his experiences while campaigning in the Trans-Pecos had affected his perceptions of the western environment. Unlike advocates on the other side of the debate, such as George Custer, Hazen emphasized the problems of future western settlement, particularly when newcomers tried to live west of the ninety-eighth meridian. [81]

In addition to providing escorts and launching punitive raids against the tribes, Davis commanders kept a wary eye on affairs in Mexico. The army often purchased supplies in Chihuahua; furthermore, it had some responsibilities toward protecting U.S. citizens south of the border. The unsettled nature of Mexico's internal affairs often strained such relationships. In June 1855 Major Simonson of the Mounted Rifles reported that the governor of Chihuahua "had forbidden the exportation of corn. This decree, made solely to annoy us, will embarrass our supplies of forage towards Fort Davis, where no corn is raised on our side of the river." While not critical to the success of the post on the Limpia, the order encouraged military efforts to make the post more self-sufficient. [82]

In his reports to Washington later that summer, Persifor Smith again brought up the dangerous situation along the Rio Grande. Several army detachments had investigated to no avail rumors that filibustering parties destined for Mexico were forming on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. American officers had done their best to expose any such plots, according to Smith, but had almost no reliable information with which to work. Smith also complained about raids from Mexico into Texas. After crossing into the United States "to murder and rob," the bandits then "carry back their booty for sale in sight of our frontier." [83]

Another controversy, which further strengthened the acknowledged need for an army presence in the Big Bend, arose in 1860. Lt. Theodore Fink, commanding the Davis garrison, reported that two American citizens had been harassed in Chihuahua City. According to Fink, renegade Mexican troops had combined with a gang of acknowledged outlaws to bring about a reign of terror throughout northern Mexico. In addition to driving the foreigners out of Chihuahua City, the bandits had murdered a number of residents. The governor of Chihuahua had sought assistance from U.S. authorities at Fort Bliss; Fink "as a matter of course" refused calls from the aggrieved U.S. citizens for help, but thought the matter serious enough to report to superiors. [84]

Colonel Seawell, temporarily in charge of the Department of Texas, forwarded Fink's letter to army headquarters. Seawell assured military officials that the Americans originally filing the complaint "are gentlemen of wealth and great respectability, whose statements, it is believed, can be relied upon as entirely correct." Commanding Gen. Winfield Scott, noting that the matter was "of international interest," submitted Fink's report to the Secretary of War. The matter was largely forgotten as the army faced the more immediate crisis of secession. The incident did, however, foreshadow what ultimately became a major responsibility for troops at Fort Davis—protecting the interests and lives of United States citizens in Mexico and along the Rio Grande. It also lent additional credence to the oft-heard arguments that the army needed a permanent post along the great river. [85]

The shortage of water had hindered efforts to garrison the Trans-Pecos. In attempting to alleviate the problem, Congress appropriated one hundred thousand dollars to drill experimental artesian wells in western Texas and New Mexico. Capt. John Pope of the Topographical Engineers commanded the surveying team, which found water fourteen miles east of the Pecos in 1855 before shifting operations to the Fort Fillmore, New Mexico area in the following year. Retracing his steps to the Pecos in spring 1856, Pope dug to 861 feet before running out of tubing. [86]

Pope returned in 1857. This time Fort Davis played a major role in his drilling efforts. Pope buoyantly predicted that he would find water, but the ever-present Lieutenant Hartz, who headed the Fort Davis escort team, seemed less excited about the prospect of spending several months in the field with the Pope survey. Upon receiving his orders to take seventy-five men from Companies C, D, F, and H (at Fort Davis) and A (at Camp Hudson) to meet Pope at San Antonio, Hartz summed up his feelings cogently: "The prospect before me is bleak." Pope's drilling was underway by September 1857; he dispatched Hartz from his camp along the Pecos to establish a wagon road to Fort Davis. Although the effort would facilitate the transfer of supplies to the drillers, the idea of building a road hardly thrilled the regulars. [87]

Bad luck had plagued Pope's artesian well project from the beginning. Pipes, drills, and steam power boiler all broke down. The winter was unusually severe and the soldier escort turned mutinous. From Fort Davis, Colonel Seawell requested that the troops engaged in the Pope project be returned to their companies for proper military training. Striking a common theme, he implied that such extra duty simply made the troops inefficient. Winfield Scott, commanding general of the army, agreed with Seawell's request. Even Pope admitted defeat in June 1858: "I am constrained to say after ten months of very severe and unremitted labor that, I fear that, without greater facilities and more extensive preparations than could have been secured under the appropriation . . . it will be impracticable to overcome the mechanical and physical difficulties of the work." [88]

Although it did not find enough water to justify continued exploration, the Pope survey made an unanticipated discovery of a different kind. Two Mexican boys, aged ten and twelve, stumbled into a group of soldiers en route from Davis to Pope's camp in early April 1858. According to what officers later pieced together, Comanches had captured the boys in Chihuahua the previous December and brought them into western Texas. Left behind when their captors swam the Pecos River, the hungry lads wandered for several days before finding soldiers who brought them into Pope's camp. After the necessary correspondence, Department of Texas officials ordered Seawell to escort the boys to the port of Mexican entry nearest Fort Davis (presumably Presidio), where they were to be turned over to Mexican officials. [89]

Although the army was performing many such functions throughout the nation, its primary task remained that of controlling violence between Indians and non-Indians. Clearly, military posts alone would not bring peace to the frontiers. In 1858 the fiery Brig. Gen. David E. Twiggs ordered his troops to take the offensive. "As long as there are wild Indians on the prairie, Texas can not be free from depredations," wrote Twiggs. His principal thrust came along Texas' northern frontiers, where Second Cavalrymen and Indian allies led by Maj. Earl Van Dorn whipped the Comanches at the battles of Rush Spring (October 1858) and Crooked Creek (May 1859). State troops under John S. (Rip) Ford also inflicted a sharp setback at the Battle of Antelope Hills (May 1858). [90]

Twiggs did not ignore the Trans-Pecos. Noting the recent murders of four cattlemen at Leon Springs, some seventy-five miles east of Fort Davis, a frustrated Twiggs exclaimed that "it is important that this road be well guarded, but I have not the force to do it." Still, in accord with the more aggressive stance, Capt. Albert G. Brackett conducted a major scouting expedition from Fort Lancaster in April 1859. Formerly an officer in the Fourth Infantry, Brackett had reentered the army after securing a prized commission in the Second Cavalry in 1855. He would later compile an impressive history of the U.S. Cavalry, and win Civil War brevets for his work in the Arkansas (1862) and Atlanta (1864) campaigns. Knowing the importance of a good guide, Brackett had requested that Colonel Seawell dispatch the scout Jose Maria from Fort Davis to Lancaster in anticipation of the movement. It is not known whether Maria took part in Brackett's expedition; Brackett's reports mention only "my guide Rogue." [91]

Whether the scout from Davis accompanied the Brackett column or not, the command, including sixty-six men of I Company, Second Cavalry Regiment, left Fort Lancaster on April 19. Supplies were short; the quartermaster could provide only fifteen days' meat ration. Undaunted, Brackett pushed south and west in the direction of the Comanche Trail. Water and grass grew increasingly scarce as the column rode past Comanche Springs and headed toward the Rio Grande. Brackett's expedition reached the river on April 30 opposite the deserted Spanish presidio at San Vicente. The site offered "only some coarse marsh grass," but seemed far superior to the mountains north of the river, which Brackett had found to be "totally devoid of grass or verdure and presenting a most bleak and desolate appearance." [92]

Brackett expected to find signs of Indians near San Vicente. His hunch proved correct when his scout discovered a large band ten miles below his own camp. Brackett immediately launched a surprise attack on the Indian lodges. In a short skirmish, his men killed two Indians and wounded another without loss to themselves. Three men earned Brackett's special commendation for their courage. [93]

Despite his victory, Brackett still had a major problem. Now out of meat, he was seventy-five miles as the crow flies from Presidio, the closest town of any size. In an illegal move born of desperation, he plunged across the Rio Grande into Mexico and headed for the village at San Carlos. He and his men arrived hungry but safe on May 5, most of them having had no rations whatsoever for the last two days. Upon reaching San Carlos, Brackett's men procured some beef while waiting for his broken-down pack train to limp in a day later. Without any means of carrying the supplies needed to make the hazardous journey back up the Comanche Trail, Brackett pushed west to Presidio del Norte, where he arrived on May 9. After explaining to Mexican authorities his actions, he and his command finally reached the safety of Fort Davis on the 15th. [94]

Despite occasional scouts like that led by Capt. Charles D. Jordan in spring 1859, Indian strikes continued to plague the West Texas mails. A typical incident occurred in the summer of 1859, when a group of Mescalero Apache ambushed a wagon near Fort Davis and made off with the mail pouches. Such conduct prompted mail parties to greet with rifle shots any Indians who approached their stages, even those bearing white flags. "The policy of the mail-men is, never, under any circumstances, to allow them [Indians] near us, and much less to risk the danger of having them actually in camp," wrote agent Isaiah Woods. [95]

A daring attack occurred on August 28, when eight Mescaleros stole nine mules and a horse from the El Muerto stage stand. One employee claimed to have followed the Indian trail long enough to ascertain that the raiding party had come from the Guadalupe Mountains near Fort Stanton, New Mexico. Reporting the attack from Fort Davis, Washington Seawell added caustically that the tribe was theoretically "at peace" and "taken care of by the government." He also explained that "if it had been possible for a foot command to overtake them," he would have dispatched a patrol. Deeming the situation hopeless, Seawell contented himself with a request that the commander at Fort Stanton search the reservation for the stolen animals. [96]

By 1860 Seawell had obviously tired of the outpost on the Limpia, where he had been stationed for most of the past five and one-half years. Called to San Antonio to take temporary command of the Department of Texas, in February he took the opportunity to request transfer of regimental headquarters to the Alamo city. "Though I think this change in the Head Quarters of the 8th Inf. is required by the interest of the service, I also ask it as a favor if it should be considered that my services entitle me to such an indulgence," wrote Seawell in his position as head of the regiment. [97]

Not surprisingly, temporary department chief Seawell favorably endorsed the request from regimental commander Seawell. On May 12 Secretary of War John B. Floyd approved the transfer; accordingly, the headquarters staff and band left Fort Davis on July 11. Presumably, such a move eased Seawell's task as regimental commander and department head by consolidating the separate positions in San Antonio. In reality, however, the transfer of the Eighth Infantry headquarters from Fort Davis was probably done for personal reasons—Seawell wanted to escape the loneliness of the Trans-Pecos. Ironically, the chicanery proved unnecessary; the army promoted Seawell to full colonel of the Sixth Infantry. He did, however, remain with his old regiment at San Antonio until the arrival of Lt. Col. William Hoffman in February 1861. [98]

Only after the transfer of regimental headquarters from Fort Davis to San Antonio was complete did officials realize that the action might not have been in the army's best interests. Robert E. Lee, fresh from a leave of absence in his home state of Virginia, had again assumed command of the department by June 13. Having captured John Brown after the latter's abortive raid on Harper's Ferry arsenal and armory while on leave, Lee admitted that the transfer "might have been desirable" while Seawell was in San Antonio on department business. Now, however, Lee pointed out that four companies of the Eighth Infantry were stationed in New Mexico along the road from El Paso to San Diego. The remainder of the regiment occupied posts in West Texas and along the upper Rio Grande. Lee intended to replace those on the Rio Grande with elements of the Third Infantry; he could then consolidate the Eighth on the El Paso roads. As such, a position at San Antonio seemed too far away from the regiment's area of prime responsibility. [99]

Army headquarters concurred with Lee's judgment. "When Lieut. Col. Seawell was in command of the Department of Texas, it was very proper that the Head Quarters of his Regiment (which he also commanded) should be at San Antonio," wrote Asst. Adj. Gen. Lorenzo Thomas. The revised placement of the Eighth Infantry, however, changed conditions dramatically. Commanding general Winfield Scott proposed that the Eighth's headquarters be returned to Fort Davis. [100]

Compared with the growing passions of secession, however, the proper location of the headquarters of the Eighth Infantry Regiment seemed trivial. As a result, the projected removal back to Fort Davis never occurred. Also abandoned was any pretence of following General Twiggs's more aggressive strategy of Indian campaigning. Twiggs himself admitted that he had ordered his command "to resort to the defensive system again." Not surprisingly, the list of real and imagined Indian depredations continued to mount as the army's paralysis became obvious. In early February 1861 Daniel Murphy, a prominent local resident, reported that Indians had driven off about one hundred mules from a wagon train hauling copper ore through the Fort Davis area. [101]

Despite the best efforts of the Fort Davis garrison during the 1850s, peace had not accompanied the growing federal presence in the Trans-Pecos. Inconsistent Indian policy and poorly conceived military strategy explained many of the difficulties faced by the Davis regulars, whose efforts were further complicated by outdated equipment and ill-suited uniforms. Still, the troops who used the outpost on the Limpia compiled several impressive campaigns against the Apaches. While not enough to eliminate Indian opposition to the U.S. intrusion, troops led by John G. Walker (1854), Horace Randal (1855), Edward L. Hartz (1857), and Albert G. Brackett (1859) each inflicted stinging defeats on various Indian bands.

Also significant were the contributions of Fort Davis-based troops to Trans-Pecos development. Though not as yet a beacon for large numbers of settlers, the region provided an important highway for western migration. Military posts like Stockton, Davis, Quitman, and Bliss made the arduous trip much more manageable. With army escorts, the mails now moved with a fair degree of regularity. Fort Davis personnel also assisted in scientific and topographical reconnaissance, like the Maclay/Hartz expedition and the abortive Pope artesian well experiment. And the regulars at Davis also maintained a distant watch on events in Mexico, whose domestic woes often threatened the property and lives of United States citizens.

In sum, life in the field was frustrating and dangerous, yet also lent a certain excitement to the daily lives of those who garrisoned Fort Davis in the 1850s. In describing his experiences, Lt. Edward L. Hartz, veteran of numerous Fort Davis campaigns throughout the antebellum period, accurately captured the feelings of most of his contemporaries. Hartz noted that "quarters are decidedly pleasant when returning fagged out from constant travelling, bivouacking and hard feeding. They offer you a comfortable bed, a roof to shelter, and the enticements of a tolerably well spread table." But in spite of the simple pleasures of garrison life, Hartz enjoyed the "excitement, adventure, and constant novelty" of active campaigning. He concluded that "life in the field . . . is in the main more desirable than being immured within the walls of the canon attending to the humdrum routines of garrison duty." [102]

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Last Updated: 13-Feb-2008