The Year 1865

Getting Back to Business

As 1865 began, Civil War in the East still kept regular troops off frontier duty. However, it would soon end, presenting the Army with another problem. Many of the regular Army and Volunteer troops sent back to frontier duty were tired of war and ready to go home. The end of Civil War also did not end the constantly changing commanders, and commands, at Fort Larned. This year would see nine command changes, and seven different commanders, for the post.

Tension with the Plains Indians would also continue to plague the fort. The previous year had ended with the tragedy at Sand Creek, which Col. Jesse Leavenworth, now retired and acting as an Indian agent stationed at Fort Larned, said had, "destroyed the last vestige of confidence between the red and white men."

Black & white photograph of Theodore Conkey
Capt. Theodore Conkey commanded Fort Larned from May 7, 1865 to June 27, 1865.

Public Domain

First Lt. W. D. Crocker of the Ninth Wisconsin Battery was in command of Fort Larned in January, but was soon replaced by Captain Thomas Moses, Jr., Second Colorado Cavalry. Shortly after Capt. Moses took command Indians attacked a wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail 65 miles west of the post. The soldiers and civilians were able to fight their way back to the fort with only one dead and one wounded.

By February, there were 342 enlisted men in garrison at Fort Larned, enough for Capt. Moses to resume active patrols on the Santa Fe Trail. These men were members of two different cavalry regiments—the 11th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry and the Second Colorado Cavalry—but they had no horses to ride. They did, however, have four 12-pound mountain howitzers if they needed the extra firepower.

It was not a good time for Cavalry soldiers to be without horses. The Plains Indians were so angry that Army officials in Santa Fe had to issue orders restricting travel between Forts Union and Larned to the first and 15th days of the month when military units would be available for escort duty.

One owner of a wagon train that regularly traveled the trail between Santa Fe and Missouri said the Indians on the warpath were so numerous in 1865 that even traveling in a wagon train of 1000 with military escort did not stop the warriors from attacking them. Faced with the seriousness of the situation, the Army made plans for a strong summer campaign against the Indians, who by March included many tribes coming up from Texas.

By April, there were 597 enlisted men at Fort Larned, the Second U.S. Infantry having joined the 2nd Colorado and 11th Kansas. In May, Capt. Theodore Conkey, 3rd Wisconsin Volunteer Cavalry, arrived at Fort Larned to take command, although the soldiers of his command would not arrive until later.

Fort Larned was the designated staging area for the planned summer expedition against the Indians. Col. Leavenworth wrote to Gen. Dodge asking for restraint in the Army's dealings with the Indians. Although Leavenworth was trying hard to work out a peaceful solution for the conflict between the Indians and Whites, many braves were on the warpath along the Santa Fe Trail.

By June, Capt. Thomas Moses, Jr. was back in command at Fort Larned with 223 enlisted men of the 2nd U.S. Infantry and 2nd Colorado Cavalry under his command. The 2nd U.S. was a unit of "Galvanized Yankees," or Confederate prisoners of war who had accepted pardon and freedom, in exchange for joining the Union Army and assignment on the frontier.

As the summer of 1865 wore on, Indians continued to attack White traders and soldiers. The dangerous situation on the trail created crowded conditions at Fort Larned as wagons sometimes waited for weeks in order to form a large enough, safer, wagon train to continue traveling. While they waited, their animals ate all the pasturage in the fort's vicinity, forcing the army to send the cavalry horses further away under guard to find enough forage for them.

In July, command of the post passed to Major H.C. Haas of the 15th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry. The arrival of his unit to Fort Larned brought the garrison strength up to 475 men. During this time, Indians in the area increased their attacks around the fort because it had become the staging area for Gen. Dodge's expedition against the Southwestern Indians. By late July, Capt. Moses was once again in command of the fort.

By the summer of 1865, the Army began to disband its troops as the Civil War drew to a close. The Indians took advantage of the decreased troops to increase their attacks on White settlers and traders alike. In August, the garrison at Fort Larned consisted of 294 enlisted men from the 15th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, 2nd U.S. Volunteer Infantry (Galvanized Yankees) and the 2nd Colorado Cavalry, all commanded by Captain. C.O. Smith, Kansas Cavalry.

By September of 1865, Fort Larned's garrison was down to 126 enlisted men of the 2nd U.S. Volunteers with the post commander now Capt. Thomas J. Maloney. More troops were on the way, though. The 48th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, commanded by Col. Uri B. Pearsall, left Lawrence, Kansas the first week of September enroute for Fort Larned.

One soldier in the regiment, John Morrill, wrote many letters home describing the trip and the surrounding landscape. When he arrived, he wrote that one could "look across for miles and see nothing to break the monotony and then again you will meet with a small creek and here and there a scattering of trees."

In October the garrison consisted of the 48th Wisconsin, 2nd U.S. Volunteers and the 17th Illinois Cavalry with Col. Pearsall in command. Col. Pearsall kept the men busy repairing the adobe buildings and dugouts to prepare for the coming winter, which also helped to somewhat relieve the constant boredom.

Even with the fort’s small cavalry force busy patrolling the trail, Col. Pearsall could only provide escorts for the government wagon trains due to his small garrison. He told the agent of one commercial wagon company that he would provide soldier guards to go with them if the agent would give the soldiers a seat on the coaches. Besides a shortage of men, Capt. Pearsall didn’t have enough teams or wagons. And Brevet Major W.H. Forwood, assistant surgeon reported that the officers and men had to remain especially alert because the Indians were quick to take advantage of any mistake.

On November 25, 1865, the officers of the 48th Wisconsin published their first copy of The Plains, a newspaper detailing life at Fort Larned. This issue was also the last, since the 48th received orders to return to Wisconsin in early December. The one issue they did print, though, was full of interesting and relevant local news and information. It was three pages long, with a fourth blank page, so subscribers could send a copy home to loved ones with written comments. According to the publishers, the paper had one purpose: "We are running a paper for our amusement—for the fun of the thing—That's all—and why not, pray tell?"

Col. Pearsall, anxious to leave for home "out of this godforsaken hole!" turned over command of the fort to Major Hiram Dryer, 13th U.S. Inf. on Dec. 6, 1865. Maj. Dryer had arrived at Fort Larned on December 4th with companies A, C, and F of the 13th U.S., totaling 114 men. By the end of the year, the total strength of the garrison at Fort Larned was 127 men from the 13th U.S. Infantry and 2nd U.S. Cavalry. Deep snow prevented the Cavalry from making their patrols, as well as Maj. Dryer escorting Col. William Bent to meet with a band of Indians in the area of Mulberry Creek.

The year ended with Maj. Dryer in charge at Fort Larned, but with the Amy's activities limited due to severe winter weather. Friction had increased not only between the white traders and settlers and the Indians, but also between those same whites and the army who was there to help them. Civil War in the east was over, more and more people were moving west to trade and live, and the army had the thankless job of protecting them and dealing with the Indians.

Last updated: February 13, 2024

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