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Fort Davis National Historic Site
Fort Davis, Texas
In 1866, to increase the size of the United States Army, the United States Congress enacted legislation that changed the course of American military history. Opposed by many, the historic law created new regiments, two cavalry and four infantry units, which Congress stipulated “shall be composed of colored men.” For the first time, African Americans could serve in times of peace and received the guarantee of a permanent place in the United States Armed Forces. The new black regiments that became known as the Buffalo Soldiers would serve at Fort Davis, where they became key players in the defense of West Texas during the Indian Wars. They proved instrumental in the defeat of Apache Chief Victorio and in the settlement of America’s western frontier. Fort Davis National Historic Site commemorates the service of these brave African American soldiers to the nation and tells the story of their impact on military history.
Established in 1854, Fort Davis was important for the defense and settlement of America’s western frontier. Troops stationed at this historic military post served to protect emigrants, families, freighters, and mail coaches from the American Indians and bandits who raided travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. In the first seven years, the post’s initial occupants, Lt. Colonel Washington Seawell and six companies of the Eighth Infantry, often spent their days pursuing Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache Indians to ensure the safety of those traveling west.
Troops continued to perform this duty until the outbreak of the Civil War, when Texas’ secession from the Union lead to the Federal Government’s decision to evacuate the post. By 1861, Confederate troops gained control of Fort Davis and remained at the post until their removal by Union forces in 1862. Following the reacquisition of Fort Davis, the Federal Government abandoned the post, and it remained deserted until 1867, when the new African American regiments of the US Armed Forces reoccupied the fort.
For the first two years, the four companies of the newly formed Ninth Cavalry spent most of their time building a new fort near the original site and restoring old buildings the Indians destroyed during Fort Davis’ period of abandonment. Using adobe, the African American Cavalry, under the leadership of Lt. Colonel Wesley, erected office quarters, two barracks, a hospital, a guardhouse, and storehouses that are still standing at the fort. These troops also helped develop new roads and improved communication lines with other posts by stringing 91 miles of telegraph wire across the Southwest. In addition to making Fort Davis into one of the largest military posts in Texas, the troops continued pursuing elusive Apache and Comanche Indians to protect travelers and mail coaches on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. In this role the African American troops acquired the name of “Buffalo Soldiers.” Historians believe American Indians named these troops after comparing their hair to the mane of buffalo.
The Buffalo Soldiers served at Fort Davis from 1867 to 1885. Among the most noteworthy was Second Lt. Henry O. Flipper of the Tenth US Cavalry, the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Although he only served at the military post from 1880 to 1881, his story is significant in the history of the military justice system. While serving at Fort Davis, Second Lt. Flipper became a suspect in the disappearance of the commissary funds for which he was responsible. The trial took place at the Fort Davis chapel. Flipper pleaded not guilty on the two charges against him-- embezzlement of commissary funds in violation of the 60th Article of War and “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” under Article 61. Although Captain Merritt Barber ably defended Flipper, he was convicted of making a false statement, signing financial records he knew to be incorrect, and writing a check on a nonexistent bank account. He was dismissed from the Army. The conviction stood until the Civil Rights Movement influenced historians to revisit his case. In 1976, the Army posthumously gave Flipper an honorable discharge, and in 1999, President Clinton granted “a full and unconditional pardon to Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper.”
In 1880, the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty Fourth Infantry led a campaign that forced Apache Chief Victorio out of Texas and into Mexico, where Mexican soldiers in the Battle of Tres Castillos killed the Apaches and their leader Victorio. Two years after this victorious campaign, Fort Davis became the official headquarters for the African American Regiments, where they served until 1885. The Buffalo Soldiers and Fort Davis proved instrumental in the development and settlement of West Texas and Southeastern New Mexico. In 1891, the military abandoned Fort Davis after it had “outlived its usefulness.”
Visitors can begin their tour of Fort Davis National Historic Site at the visitor center and museum, where they may view a video presentation on the history of the fort. On the grounds, restored buildings and sites to tour include the Enlisted Men’s Barracks, the Commissary, the Officer’s Kitchen and Servant’s Quarters, the Post Hospital, the Commanding Officer’s Quarters, the Shared Lieutenants’ Quarters, and the First Fort Davis. Volunteers dress in period clothing and bugle calls from a sound presentation take tourists on a journey back to 1875.