In June of 1874 companies A and B of the 19th Infantry transferred west to Fort Larned from duty along the Gulf Coast. Captain William J. Lyster, 19th Infantry, took over the command of the post from Capt. Snyder, who went with his company to Fort Leavenworth. At the time he assumed command in early July the garrison had a total of 119 men.
By July, however, all but 49 of those soldiers had been sent to protect construction crews for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Although the rail line was past Fort Dodge at this point, Fort Larned was still responsible for sending soldiers to guard the workers. Lt. Richard Vance of the 19th Infantry, was in charge, and ordered them to all go fully armed, carrying 100 rounds of ammunition, “just in case”. Their departure left Captain Lyster with 50 men and the post surgeon to carry out all the garrison duties. These duties also included the work normally done by civilian teamsters, who were no longer at the fort.
Although Indians were relatively scarce in the area around Fort Larned, the Army still had to deal with them in other areas surrounding the fort. In August Indian expedition were sent out from Forts Dodge, Sill and Texas. The summer of 1874 also saw locusts destroy crops in Pawnee County. According to the editor of the Larned paper at the time, the locusts, “swept through green fields like a flame, the lush green sticks of corn and gardens literally falling before the hungry invaders, leaving bare fields.”
William Lyster was from Detroit, Michigan. He joined the Army during the Civil War, starting his service with Company G, 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry as a 2nd Lieutenant on May 10, 1861. He was then commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant in the 19th Infantry regiment on May 14, 1861. He was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh on April 7, 1862, and received a promotion to brevet captain for “gallant and meritorious service in the Battle of Shiloh, Tenn.” The following year he was promoted to brevet major for “gallant and meritorious service in the Battle of Chickamauga, Ga.” He was promoted to the rank of Captain on August 9, 1864, and then to brevet Lt. Col for “gallant and meritorious service in the Battle of Mission Ridge, Tenn. and during the Atlanta campaign.”
By the time Capt. Lyster got to Fort Larned things had changed drastically since the height of its active days from 1866 to 1870. Much of the daily activity at the fort had less to do with military operations and more to do with ways to keep the soldiers occupied and out of trouble. One of the main avenues for soldiers to get in trouble was alcohol, which brought the attention of temperance societies to the fort. One local group called the Rising Star Temperance Lodge set up a reading room/library at the fort, offering daily and weekly newspapers to read as well as books. Another group called the Good Templars was dedicated to fighting “…the fearful influence of the saloons and gambling dens…” In both instances the groups tried to offer alternative activities for the soldiers besides trips to the sutler’s store to drink.
The railroads were definitely making travel between posts much easier. In September of 1874 Corporal Dennis Riley, Co. A, 19th Inf., went to Fort Leavenworth for duty with the Adjutant General’s Office. His trip there took two days by train and he “commuted” two days’ rations for 75 cents a day to buy his meals. The same trip before the railroads would have taken him six weeks traveling with a force strong enough to provide protection from possible Indian attacks.
By October, Capt. Lyster had only 35 men under his command, which was definitely not enough to keep up with all the daily garrison duties. Not only was his garrison strength down, but apparently many of the buildings at the fort were deteriorating. He reported to the Quartermaster General that Fort Larned needed almost everything to fix the buildings, including new shingles, and flooring, at a cost of $1,064.75. The money for the repairs would finally be authorized by the Secretary of War in 1875, but the fort was only given $174.60. There was no money allocated to replace the adobe quarters for the laundresses and ordnance sergeant, although the hospital steward and matron got a brand new wood building for their quarters, complete with a covered porch on the west side.
The winter of 1874-75 was extremely cold, prompting Capt. Lyster to authorize extra fuel. The cold weather also gave him a chance to re-floor the hospital and barracks buildings. All the work was done by soldiers receiving extra duty pay, which was much cheaper than paying civilian workers. The soldiers and officers were also kept busy all winter and spring delivering relief supplies coming into the area to help farmers devastated by drought and grasshoppers the previous summer.
Although life could be hard for the settlers on the plains, apparently Fort Larned provided a place for many of the local citizens to gather and enjoy themselves. Charlie Welcher, a settler from the 1870s remembers that their “…entertainments in those days were few. Some of the entertainments were the barn dances held in one of the big barns at Fort Larned. These dances were attended by a great many from Larned who came out in loaded buggies and wagons. It was the buggies and wagons that were loaded, not the occupants. Except a few.”
In 1876 Capt. Lyster decided to do away with a full-time post blacksmith. In the future the Quartermaster Department would hire blacksmiths for jobs as they were needed. During June, the post garrison was down to 31 enlisted men, which was further reduced when Co. B of the 19th Infantry was ordered to Fort Larned. With only 10 enlisted men and the surgeon, Capt. Lyster had no choice but to hire to civilian teamsters to try to keep the post running with his limited manpower.
The reduced garrison, and lack of any meaningful purpose to accomplish, left many of the men at Fort Larned susceptible to boredom, which many of them relieved with alcohol. Although drinking often landed the men in the hospital due to overindulgence or accidents caused by drunkenness, the officers often tolerated it simply because it gave the soldiers something to do to ease their loneliness and boredom. Although garrison duty could also be dull for the officers, they had more freedom than the enlisted men to find entertainment. They could host dinner parties and dances in their quarters, or go into the town of Larned to enjoy the company of the civilians there.
The problems of the enlisted men were compounded by the fact that they and the officers did not get paid for several months in 1877 because Congress could not agree on a budget for the Army. Soldiers in garrisons at least had a place to live and food to eat, and officers were able to get a credit advance from a New York banking group, but anybody on detached service was dependent on their pay to get the necessities they needed
On Memorial Day, 1877, Capt. Lyster led the entire garrison of 33 enlisted men, in formation out to the post cemetery to mark the graves of their fallen comrades. By June, the garrison was reported to be 32 enlisted, now being commanded by Capt. Jacob Smith, who came to Fort Larned with Co. D, 19th Infantry, from Fort Lyon Colorado. Capt. Lyster had been transferred to Camp Supply, Indian Territory, along with a company of solders.
While at Camp Supply, Capt. Lyster lost a considerable amount of personal property to fire. He was reimbursed for the loss, being unable to save his own property because he was rescuing public property during that same fire. He would go on to serve at many frontier Army posts, including Fort Randall in South Dakota and Fort Sidney in Nebraska. He was promoted to Major of the 6th Infantry on October 13, 1886, then to Lt. Col. of the 21st Infantry on August 1, 1891. On May 1, 1896, he was promoted to colonel of the 9th Infantry, after which he retired on June 27, 1897. He died on September 3, 1897.
Fort Larned’s life as an Army post was definitely coming to a close during Capt. Lyster’s tenure. The drastically reduced garrison size, the fact that they no longer kept civilian workers on full time, and the lack of real work for the men to do, were all indications that the post would soon be closed. It still had two more years of life left in it, but the end was definitely on the horizon.
Last updated: October 31, 2017