Property raids and territory disputes were a fact of everyday life in the borderlands of post-Civil War Texas, but the federal government was determined to put a stop to. Five years of upheaval had resulted in a loss of land along the southern border and frequent attacks on settlers. To combat these problems, military forts sprang up throughout Texas in the decade following the Civil War and armed U.S troops made regular patrols. One of the most well-known of the patrolling groups was the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts out of Fort Clark, Brackettville, Texas. Remembered for their toughness and skill as trackers, it is their courage that has brought them the most recognition. And nowhere would those traits be more in evidence than during the Pecos River skirmish of April 25, 1875.
On that spring morning Lieutenant John L. Bullis, along with Seminole Scouts Sergeant John Ward, Private Pompey Factor, and Trumpeter Isaac Payne had been in hot pursuit of a band of Comanche or Apache raiders for just over a week. Though originally riding with Company A of the 25th Infantry the four men had separated from the larger group a few days earlier and headed west alone. On horseback, armed only with Spencer carbines and dwindling supplies, Bullis and his men would track the raiders for the next three days and cover more than 170 miles before finally picking up fresh trail markings about three miles east of present-day Seminole Springs. They followed the trail northwest towards Eagle Nest Crossing until they came to the Pecos River. Crouched high in the canyon above the raiding party, Bullis and the Scouts took stock of the situation. The raiders had already begun herding the horses across to the west bank by the time the group arrived and Bullis must have known that his window of opportunity was closing. If he didn’t act soon, the horses would be lost. The Scouts counted seventy-five horses and between twenty-five to thirty raiders; there were just four of them. The events of the next hour would not only bring commendation to the Seminole Scouts and Bullis, it would cement their reputations in the lore of the west.
Lieutenant John Lapham Bullis, a Quaker from New York State, was granted command of the Seminole Scouts in 1873. A career military man, he had first enlisted with the 126th New York Voluntary Infantry in 1862 just as the Civil War was ramping up. Captured first during the battle of Harpers Ferry and then at Gettysburg, he was briefly held at Libby Prison before serving out the remaining years of the war fighting around Richmond, Virginia. Mustered out of the army in 1866, the one time Captain spent a year working on the Mississippi before accepting a commission as Lieutenant with the 41st Infantry, now stationed in coastal Texas. When the army began downsizing in 1869 Bullis accepted a transfer to the newly established 24th U.S Infantry, one of two African-American infantry units.
The U.S. Government had first authorized the official formation of black cavalry and infantry troops in 1866, though black soldiers had fought during the Civil War in the years prior. By 1870 the military, aware of the growing necessity to protect the western frontier, began recruiting Seminole Maroons to act as scouts. The new recruits would be used primarily as reconnaissance and patrol forces and would not engage in any major skirmishes. But by 1873, with the U.S./Mexico border situation worsening and the Seminole Scouts proving themselves as excellent trackers and guides, a call went out for a commanding officer for the troop. Thirty-two year old John L. Bullis accepted the offer.
In an era when many men would have, and did, shun appointments with “colored” soldiers for more “prestigious” positions Bullis had a history of serving with African-American military units. Besides the 24th he had been commissioned in the 118th Infantry as a Captain and served with them during the final years of the Civil War. The eight years that Bullis spent as commander of the Seminole Scouts were to be landmark years in their history. During that period his men would fight in twenty-six battles, be awarded three Congressional Medals of Honor and, almost impossibly, not a single man would be killed or seriously injured. That record is all the more impressive when considering the odds they faced that April morning of 1875, high up in the canyons above the Pecos River.
On that day Bullis and the three scouts, Ward, Factor and Payne, despite being greatly outnumbered, decided to attack. Under cover of an uprooted bush the group crawled down the canyon to within seventy-five yards of the large raiding party. The men spread out, took up defensive positions, and then opened fire with their Spencer carbines. For about forty-five minutes Bullis and the Scouts were successful in holding their positions and almost succeeded in dispersing the herd. But slowly, their luck began to turn. Before too long the Comanche raiders were able to pinpoint their attacker’s positions; realizing that the attack force consisted of only four men they opened fire with their Winchester rifles. Outgunned, and in serious danger of being outflanked and cut off from their horses, Bullis and his men retreated back up the canyon. The three Scouts were able to mount up and ride out but Bullis’ horse spooked and he was left on the ground. What happened next is the stuff of legends. Sergeant John Ward, already on his way to safety, realized that Bullis was in trouble and turned his horse around. Isaac Payne and Pompey Factor followed suit. With Payne and Factor firing as quickly as they could to provide some cover, Ward headed straight for Bullis. The Lieutenant was able to leap onto the back of Wards horse and all four men rode out of the canyon under a hail of bullets. The raiders did not follow. For their bravery in saving Lieutenant Bullis’ life Sergeant John Ward, Private Pompey Factor and Trumpeter Isaac Payne were each awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Bullis, nicknamed “The Whirlwind” by his men, would serve with the Seminole Scouts until 1882. Though only eight of his forty-two years in the military were spent with the Scouts it is this period for which he is best remembered. Long after his service with them was over Bullis would receive brevet citations for his bravery fighting alongside Colonel Randal S. Mackenzie at Remolino, for his actions at the Pecos, and for his part in the Red River War of 1874. He would remain an admirer of the Seminole Scouts long after his tenure as commander was over, advocating to secure the land and rights that had been promised to them.