Sunday, June 18, 2017

Walker

Samuel Walker


It seemed like an unlikely pairing: a well-heeled Connecticut gunmaker and a rough hewn Texas Ranger.  Despite their backgrounds, both had an abiding passion for firearms, and how to improve them.  They met at a New York gunsmith shop to exchange their ideas.  The result was a revolving pistol that would change the course of Texas and the American West.
 
Fighting Mexicans and Comanches provided Texas Rangers with more than a firsthand knowledge of firearms.  Being on horseback, it was crucial they have repeating firepower to take out mounted, hard charging adversaries.  This needed feature became apparent in confrontations with the Comanches.  The “Lords of the Plains” could use a bow and arrow faster than Rangers could fire and reload a musket.  To make matters worse, the Rangers often had to get off their horses to fire at them; the Comanches could stay on horseback.  The solution came from an unlikely source: the Texas Navy.  In 1839, the Texas Navy purchased 130 of Samuel Colt’s revolving pistols.  Named for their origin of manufacture, Patterson, New Jersey, the Patterson Colt featured a five shot cylinder with .36 caliber paper charges.  Though fragile with its delicate frame, pocket watch mechanisms and cumbersome reload process, the Colts provided game changing firepower.  Better yet, they could be fired on horseback.  When Republic of Texas President Sam Houston disbanded the navy, a surplus of Texas Navy Colt revolvers became available.  The Rangers helped themselves.

On June 8, 1844, the Patterson Colts got a thorough shakedown.  At the battle of Walker’s Creek, fifty miles north of San Antonio, a Ranger detachment of 14 battled 70 Comanches under Yellow Wolf.   When numbers were starting to tip the balance in the Comanches favor, Captain Jack “Coffee” Hayes shouted, “Any man who has a load, kill that chief!”  Yellow Wolf was dropped from his saddle while his warriors fled the battlefield.  Under the superior leadership of Captain Hayes and their Colts’ firepower, the Rangers won a signal victory that put the enemies of Texas on notice.

One of the Rangers, Samuel Walker (no connection to the creek), suffered a gapping lance wound in the back during the battle.  He recovered in time for the War with Mexico where he served as a Ranger lieutenant.  The Rangers continued to prove their mettle, but more manpower was needed.  During a recruiting trip to New York, Walker was approached by the Patterson Colt’s manufacturer: Samuel Colt.  The famed gun maker, however, was flat broke.  He desperately needed a sale.  Both Samuels warmed to each other and started an earnest discussion on revolvers.  The Patterson’s shortcomings were the main topic.  How do you make a proven revolver better?  Walker had answers.   

As in any confrontation with overwhelming numbers, firepower was vital.  Instead of five chambers, a sixth chamber would be added.   The reloading process was simplified; the cylinder could be reloaded without taking the revolver apart.  A loading lever was attached to secure the cartridges in their chambers.  Stopping power from one shot depended on the caliber.  The .34 caliber bullet was replaced with a .44 caliber.  The result of the discussion was a new revolver that was heavier, sturdier, and packed a wallop.  The reloading was still cumbersome, but was compensated for by having more loaded revolvers on hand.  Instead of one revolver, a Ranger would carry from two to five revolvers.  Also, the reloading lever was often knocked loose when the revolver was discharged.  A piece of rawhide cord was often used to secure the lever to the barrel.  The most serious problem was a ruptured cylinder after firing; a problem caused by loose powder igniting the cartridges in the other cylinders.  Nevertheless, the Walker Colt was the most powerful handgun prior to the modern day .357 Magnum.


The first six- shooter was manufactured during the War with Mexico.  In 1847, Samuel Walker would receive two of his namesake revolvers.  Tragically, he was killed at the Battle of Huamantla.  Only 1,100 Walker Colts were produced, making them extremely rare and coveted by gun collectors.  At auction, a Walker Colt could go for as high as $950,000.00.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Duplicitous Trail Drives

John Chisum


During the Civil War, there were instances on both sides of profit replacing patriotism.  The sudden lack of markets and severe income loss led some to circumvent government authority for new business opportunities, especially if the authority was on the losing side.  Late in the war, cotton was always a hot commodity in illegal trading with the enemy.  In West Texas, a different commodity offered a second monetary source:  Cattle.

After Confederate forces were driven from Southeast New Mexico, Union forces occupied the region and established an Indian reservation near their newly constructed Fort Sumner.  The reservation was built on an arid, uninhabitable stretch called the Bosque Redondo.  Into this dreadful landscape, the U.S Army, under the firm command of General James Carlton, crammed members of the Navajo and Mescalero Apache tribes.  During the months to come, Bosque Redondo would prove to be more of a prison camp hellhole than a reservation.  To begin with, the Mescalero and Navajo had fought each other for decades, and weren’t about to make a lasting peace.  The dry weather wouldn’t allow sustained crop production.  Being that it was in a desert, there was no wood to make fires and only a brackish trickle of water to drink.  To make matters worse, the Comanches raided the reservation and stole the Navajo’s horses.  A stable food source was quickly needed to feed the reservation and the Union forts in New Mexico.

In 1864, Union contractors James Patterson and William Franks contacted Texas ranchers to arrange cattle drives to Fort Sumner and Union held El Paso.  They carried plenty of cash to make their purchases.  With Confederate markets cut off by the loss of the Mississippi and Confederate currency on the wane, it was difficult not to accept their offers.  Famed Texas Ranger James “Buck” Barry reported to his superiors, “It might be well to inform you that we have five men here under arrest that say they were hired by one Patterson in New Mexico to drive beef from our frontier.”  The Texas Third Frontier District reported a drive of 1,000 to 1,500 cattle heading west over their district.   The most notable of these unlawful ranchers was famed cattle baron John Chisum.  Although he supplied the Confederate Army with 4,000 head of cattle, Chisum sought approval from the Texas governor to move his vast herds from Denton County to Concho County in West Texas, a remote area near the New Mexico border and conveniently too remote for Confederate authorities.  In his book, “From the Cow Camp to the Pulpit,” one of Chisum’s ranch hands, M.C. Smith, wrote about the assembly of a cattle herd destined for Fort Sumner in September 1864 – seven months before the end of the war.  After the war, Smith went to work for Patterson.

The Texas government had few men and funds to patrol West Texas.  Most defensive efforts were focused on the Texas coast where Union amphibious operations were a constant threat.  Ironically, the Native Americans that plagued Confederate Texas also kept Union troops in New Mexico occupied and away from the more populated East Texas.

Though their loyalties became more blurred toward the war’s final month, Texas ranchers, nevertheless, had a keen eye toward the future.  In 1866, the Goodnight-Loving Trail was established to drive Texas herds into New Mexico.  The great cattle drives to Kansas followed shortly.  Though traitorous by law, it’s still good to know these unlawful Texas cattle drives went to feed hungry Navaho children.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

"Let Us Charge the Cannon !"

Colonel Hinche Mabry



General Sterling Price had all the evidence he needed – a Yankee attack was coming. Horribly spattered with the blood of his comrade, the scout before him needed little to convince the portly Missourian. Just southwest of Iuka, Mississippi, he had encountered a Federal cavalry detachment on the San Jacinto Road. Price sent an infantry brigade, under General Louis Hebert, to counter the threat. A Union army, under the command of General William Rosecrans, was indeed marching steadily toward Price from the southeast. At the same time, a second army was advancing on him from the northwest. Under the overall command of General Ulysses S. Grant, both armies were executing a classic pincers move to trap Price in Iuka. Price would have to move quickly to avoid the trap. Hebert sent the Third Texas Cavalry regiment out ahead to find and screen Rosecrans’s advance – an overwhelming task at best.

The Third Texas Cavalry was actually the Third Dismounted Texas Cavalry. Consisting mostly of planters from Northeast Texas and armed prodigiously with shotguns, the Third had shed their mounts to become infantry. Their commander felt there were too many cavalry units in Mississippi. Encamped at the railroad junction of Corinth, the dismounted Texans learned the rudiments of infantry drill during the spring of 1862. They suffered staggering losses from disease and Corinth’s foul water supply. Fortunately for their health, but not their moral, the Confederates were forced to evacuate Corinth before a massive Federal offensive. Under the command of General Braxton Bragg, the Confederates later retook the initiative by invading Kentucky. Sterling Price was left behind to guard Mississippi. The newly appointed commander of the Vicksburg, Mississippi garrison, General Earl Van Dorn, requested Price to join him and invade West Tennessee while Bragg was in Kentucky. Price would have to get out of Iuka before joining Van Dorn.

Rosecran’s deployed his regiments to meet Hebert’s brigade. In the center of the line, directly in front of the Texans, was the 11th Ohio Artillery. The Federals were aligned along the south slope of a ravine. No sooner had the 3rd Texas descended into the ravine, when a shower of canister shot forced them to hit the dirt. Sgt. W. P. Helm recalled:



“The roaring artillery, the rattle of the musketry, the hailstorm of grape and ball were mowing us down like grain before we could locate from whence it came. We were trapped; there could be no retreat, and certain death was in our advance. We fell prostrate to the ground.”

The certain death was a gruesome decapitation if you stood up. There was only one solution - charge the battery and take the guns. With a rebel yell, the Third got to its feet and charged into the Union line. To the right of the battery, the 48th Indiana, a regiment consisting of green recruits, bolted to the rear when the Texans hit their line. Their brigade commander, Colonel John B. Sanborn, ordered them to stand and fight, drawing his pistol and shooting two who didn’t. The regiment directly behind the 48th, the 16th Ohio, was swept up by the 48th’s rout – a domino effect. The battery, however, kept many of the Texans back. To make matters worse, they were being fired on by their fellow Confederates behind them. After three attempts, the Third’s Colonel Hinche Mabry rallied his men for a fourth. “Boys if we are to die, let it be by Yankee bullets, not by our friends,” he cried. “So let us charge the cannon.” The Ohioans fought with an unmatched fury. Helm recalled, “Sword and bayonet were crossed. Muskets, revolvers knives, ramrods, gun swabs – all mingled in the death dealing fray."  Only a handful of the fifty four artillerymen were still standing when their battery was captured. One of the dead was found holding the bridles of his battery horses with a firm death grip. The horses were dead as well. Respectfully, the Texans released the survivors, but kept their six cannons. Of the 388 men in the Third Texas, 22 were killed and 74 were wounded - the highest loss the regiment suffered in battle. The Third continued serving in Mississippi until the end of the Civil War. They eventually regained their mounts and became part of the famed Sul Ross cavalry brigade. The brave charge of the Third Texas held up Rosecran’s advance and helped Price make his escape.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Longhorns



Like the state they come from, the Texas Longhorn has had its ups and downs with a near extinction thrown in.  Known for its extended rack of horns (up to six feet from tip to tip), the legendary bovine has amazing durability, extraordinary adaptability, and were easy to herd on extended cattle drives.  Unlike other cattle breeds, the Texas Longhorn is the only breed to have developed naturally within the United States. 

The Longhorn originated from feral cattle brought over by the Spaniards then released over time on the open range.  After two centuries, they were cross-bred with English cattle brought over by U.S. settlers.  By the time of the Civil War, a distinct American cow had emerged.   After the great buffalo herds were hunted off, wild longhorns took their place on the rich grazing lands of the Great Plains.  As longhorn herds grew, so did the demand for beef.  The problem was rounding them up and getting them to market.  Inclement weather, hostile Indians, and cattle rustlers were just a few of the hazards. 

The cattle drive was developed to herd thousands of cattle across Texas, the Indian Territory and Kansas to the railroads that carried them to packing plants back East.  For twenty years, the cattle drives brought ten million cows to Kansas rail heads.  The average drive usually required ten to fifteen cowboys, along with a cook, to manage it.   Longhorns had the long legs and tough hooves to travel long distances.  Also, they had the horns to fight off predators.  What they didn’t have was a less than skittish nature.  Loud sudden noises, like thunder, or the flash of a match lighting a cigarette could set off a stampede.  Cowboys would try to stop a stampede by dispatching their best riders to the front of the herd where they reigned in their horses to slow it down.  Another trick was to turn the herd by waving their coats or firing their pistols near the longhorns’ heads, forcing them to change their direction.  If a cowboy fell from his saddle, he was at risk of being trampled.  

In the early 1880’s, a fatal cattle disease brought about a quarantine followed by legislation banning longhorns from Kansas.   Texas fever was carried by ticks that dropped from their immune longhorn hosts and infected Northern cattle breeds.  Kansas dirt farmers, armed with Winchesters, would block cattle drives at the border.  Sometimes the farmers were actually extortionists or cattle rustlers looking for a cash payment or a cut of the herd before letting the cattle pass.  One trail hand recounted what his boss did when a group tried to stop his drive:

‘The Old Man got a shotgun loaded with buckshot and led the way, saying: “John, get over on that point with your Winchester and point these cattle in behind me.”  He slid his shotgun across the saddle in front of him and we did the same with our Winchesters.  He rode right across, and as he rode up to them, he said: “I’ve monkeyed as long as I want to with you,” and they fell back to the sides, and went home after we passed.  If they had done a thing, we would have filled them so damned full of lead they’d never have got away.’

Other trail bosses complied with the farmers and turned their herds west.  “Bend em West boys,” one frustrated boss ordered.  “Nothing in Kansas anyhow except the three suns – sunflowers, sunshine and  sons-of-bitches.”

The barbed wire fence brought about the end of open range cattle raising and long cattle drives.  Cattlemen turned to railroads instead to get their cows to market.   By 1927, the longhorns were almost bred out of existence.  For ranchers, the quality of beef replaced a longhorn’s durability.  To save the few remaining longhorn herds, wealthy Texas oilmen and government officials placed longhorn herds on wildlife refuges in Texas and Oklahoma.  The Texas Longhorn is now a curiosity, but a new demand for lean longhorn beef has emerged from diet conscious Americans.  The Longhorn is also assisted by being the mascot for the University of Texas.




Famed cattle baron, Charles Goodnight, best summed up the qualities of the Longhorn:


“As trail cattle their equal has never been known and never will be.  Their hoofs are superior to those of any other cattle.  In stampedes they hold together better, are easier circled in a run, and rarely split off when you commence to turn the front.  No animal of the cow kind will shift and take care of itself under all conditions as will the longhorns.  They can go farther without water and endure more suffering than others.”

Friday, October 7, 2016

General Polecat

Prince Camile De Polignac


During the Civil War, most of the generals on both sides were American born and received their training from U.S. military academies.  In a few cases, they came from foreign countries and had served in their country’s army.  German officers received experience through a failed revolution against the Prussian monarchy.  French and British officers served due to a sense of adventure and an earnest support for the Union or Confederate causes. Oddly enough, one of them commanded a brigade of Texans. 

Camille Armand Jules Marie de Polignac or the Prince de Polignac was a French nobleman through and through – something right out of a Hollywood script.  Born on February 16, 1832, his father served as a minister in the French court of Charles X.  Young Polignac served as a lieutenant in the French army during the Crimean War.  After his service, he traveled to Central America to study geography.  He also studied music and was known to break into verse when the mood suited him.  Not one to let a military career languish, Polignac offered his services to the Confederacy.  He served as a staff officer in the commands of both Braxton Bragg and P.G.T. Beauregard. 

What General Polignac had in dash and discipline would be sorely lacking in his command.  His brigade included some of the worst regiments to come out of Texas.  The 22nd Texas Cavalry, the 31st Texas Cavalry, and the 34th Texas Cavalry came from North Texas counties that were opposed to secession before the war.   Originally from the South’s Border States, they were subsistence farmers that had little use for slaves.  Of the nineteen Texas counties that voted against secession, eight of them were in North Texas.  Needless to say, they were not thrilled about fighting for the Confederacy, preferring instead to be fighting Comanches near their homesteads.  Union threats from Kansas and Missouri led to their deployment in the Indian Territory (now present day Oklahoma), a place with little to sustain troops and a fragile moral.  There were shortages of everything: clothes, shelter, weapons, food, medicine, and discipline.  They also had to fight alongside Confederate Indian regiments whom they had little regard for.  To make matters worse, many of them succumbed to illness and were forced to go on extended leave, provided they hadn’t died already before departing.  Desertions increased and mutiny became a greater threat than the Union Army.  The brigade saw some action at Shirley’s Ford and Newtonia in Missouri, but did little to reinforce their lagging reputation.  General Thomas Hindman, their district commander, finally had enough of this ill-disciplined band of Texans; he took away their horses.  Now dismounted, and feeling like teenagers barred from a homecoming dance, they were forced to fight on foot.

Unreliable as cavalry, they were even more so as infantry.  After withdrawing from Missouri, the 31st nearly mutinied when they arrived at Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Some stability returned with the arrival of the 15th Texas Infantry, tough farm boys from Central Texas with a strong sense of cause.  Ordered back to the Indian Territory, the dismounted Texans were forced to endure one of the Civil War’s worst marches.  In January, 1863, many of them died from exposure as they trudged along in frigid temperatures with moldy corn meal to sustain them.  Unionist guerillas, led by Texas Unionist Martin Hart, attacked their supply wagons.  Alfred T. Howell of the 34th Texas recalled:

“By day, I limped along in my rundown boots, holes wearing into my feet.  At night my feet swelled and I could not stand.  Men died every day.  They laid themselves down.  They would not move and they died.  Men died on the wagons.  From Fort Smith to the Mouth of the Kiamichi where we camped, our trail was a long graveyard.  The bones of dead horses and mules, with destroyed and castaway wagons, would have made almost a turnpike.”

During the following spring, the dismounted Texans marched to Shreveport.  General Richard Taylor, Commander of Confederate forces in Louisiana, was not impressed with his new brigade.  Even more so when he discovered that many of them had no weapons.  Training was needed, and a lot of it.  Two of the regiments were placed in camps of instruction for schooling in infantry tactics.

In October, 1863, Polignac assumed command of the brigade, but his men couldn’t pronounce his name, much less comprehend his noble origin.  They came up with an easier name to pronounce – Polecat.  Fortunately, the prince took it all in good humor.  During a skirmish at Vidalia, Polignac stood up in his stirrups and exhorted his men to “Follow me! Follow me! You call me ‘Polecat,’ I will show you whether I am ‘Polecat’ or ‘Polignac!’ “He showed them the later.  Though forced to retire, he brought back a precious haul of four hundred cattle, horses and mules.  Further redemption came at the Battle of Mansfield in 1864, a key turning point during the Union’s Red River Campaign.  Polignac’s Texans assisted in outflanking the Union line and routing it off the field. 

For his actions at Mansfield, Polignac was promoted to Major General.  His replacement, Colonel James Harrison, presented him with a horse.  The Frenchman promised he would ride his noble charger across Texas after the war to visit his old brigade. Major General Polignac was later sent back to his native France on a mission to drum up support for the Confederacy.  The war ended before he could complete his mission.  He served again in the French Army during the Franco-Prussian War.  He died in 1921, the last surviving Confederate General of the Civil War.  His brigade returned to Texas where they were discharged in May, 1865.


No doubt glad to be returning home, they were no less glad to be returning with honorable service records.  Under a dapper Frenchman, Polignac’s Texas Brigade helped save the day at Mansfield and prevent a Union invasion of Texas.   

Friday, August 5, 2016

"Autie" Comes to Austin

The Custers and their maid


In U.S. history, few military notables have been adulated then hated like George Armstrong Custer.  He rose to stellar heights during the Civil War, becoming a general at the tender age of twenty-three.   His reckless cavalry charges and dashing looks made him a darling of the Union cause.  His wife Elizabeth, or Libby, had jaw-dropping looks that could stop traffic.  If you read the newspapers and followed the gossip, indications were anything but failure for “Autie” Custer.  After the war, and before the Battle of the Little Big Horn, his career began to slide.  Where did it start going wrong?  It may have started with a brief stint in Texas.   

After Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, there was a growing concern that the war would continue in remote Texas.  To make matters worse, French forces, under the puppet emperor Maximillian, had occupied Mexico while the U.S. was occupied with the Civil War.  President Lincoln was deeply worried that the French would try to retake territory lost during the War with Mexico or form an alliance with the Confederacy.  Grant’s able cavalry commander, General Phil Sheridan, was sent to Texas to command Union occupation forces.  He invited Custer to come along.

What awaited Custer was a disgruntled body of troops that would grow to despise him with each passing day.  After the war, men were anxious to get home to their families.  In response, many veteran units were mustered out, but some were forced to stay on as occupation troops.  Five veteran Union cavalry regiments, from the Mid-West, were selected to go to Texas.  Though the war was essentially over, they were not happy.  This duty was for recruits, not veterans that had fought in the war.  They wanted to go home now.

Alexandria, Louisiana was the assembly point for Custer’s new command.  Alexandria was devastated during the Union’s ill-fated Red River Campaign.  Most of the town was sacked, abandoned and burned to the ground.  The surrounding farmland was almost devoid of crops and livestock.  There was little left for an occupation army except sweltering heat and mosquitoes.  When Custer arrived on a comfy steamboat, a less then glowing reception awaited.  Although he was from Michigan, his fellow Mid-westerners saw him as an “Eastern Dandy.”  His curled, flowing hair and tailored uniforms didn’t help.  Custer, his wife Libby, and their maid took up residence at a deserted house where they were supplied with fresh fruits and vegetables purchased locally.  His men received nothing of the sort.  Because of the lack of palatable rations, there was a strong incentive to steal food from the locals.  Roving bands of soldiers scavenged the countryside and threatened the inhabitants.  In a show of conciliation toward Southerners, Sheridan ordered Custer to enforce “rigid discipline among the troops, and to prevent outrages on private persons and property.”  Custer’s men were in no mood to obey orders; they continued to steal. 

As the thefts worsened, Custer was forced to adopt Draconian measures to keep them in line, some of which were against military law.   By his orders, any man caught foraging would have his head shaved and receive twenty five lashes on his bare back.  If an officer failed to report it, he would be dishonorably discharged. 

On August 8, 1866, Custer was ordered to march to the Texas town of Hempstead, an isolated town in a region blanketed with towering pine trees and few good water sources.  The 240 mile ride took nineteen agonizing days.  Thirsty men began to desert in growing numbers while those that remained smoldered in resentment.   The 2nd Wisconsin regiment, the most troublesome of Custer’s command, circulated a petition to be disbanded immediately.  They even plotted to assassinate him.  An Iowa regiment had complained so loudly, the Iowa legislature and governor issued an official letter of condemnation on Custer. 

Upon arrival, Custer took up residence in a tent on the grounds of the nearby Groce Plantation.  The plantation had once served as a Confederate prison camp.  During his time there, he enjoyed hunting, family visitations and collecting stray dogs.  Whenever he rode out, a herd of dogs enthusiastically followed. 

Unfortunately, his men didn’t follow with the same enthusiasm.  Things got even worse.  They were forced to subsist on a dreadful ration of tooth-breaking hardtack and salted hog jowls.  With food like that, who wouldn’t steal?  Five men were flogged and had their heads shaved for livestock theft.  A deserter was shot.  One private wrote, “He was only twenty-five years of age, and had the usual egotism and self-importance of a young man.  He was a regular army officer, and had bred in him the tyranny of the regular army.  He did not distinguish between a regular soldier and a volunteer.  He had no sympathy in common with the private soldiers, but regarded them simply as machines created for the special purpose of obeying his imperial will.”   Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

In October, Custer’s command relocated to Austin.  The Texas capital was going through a period of lawlessness brought on by the war’s end.   Provisional Governor Andrew “Colossal Jack” Hamilton requested U.S. Troops to help enforce the law.  Austin’s Blind Asylum became Custer’s new home and headquarters.  The roomy asylum was also an ideal place for socializing.  During a Christmas party at the asylum, Custer dressed up as Santa Claus. 

Austin brought Custer close to society, but it also brought him close to the press.  Alleged cruelties against his men began appearing in newspapers.  When he learned of one damning article, he confronted a captain of the 1st Iowa who refused to retract it.  Custer reached for a horse whip and the captain drew his sword.  The fight was quickly broken up before it started.  The article was not retracted. 
  

Fortunately, Custer was ordered back east before his own men killed him.  The troublesome 2nd Wisconsin was mustered out right there in Austin and sent home.  Months later, Custer returned to the West to fight Indians.  Trouble still followed him.  He was suspended for a year after abandoning his post to visit Libby.  He led a controversial cavalry attack on a Cheyenne village that killed women and children.  President Ulysses S. Grant was angered when Custer gave testimony on administrative corruption to a Congressional committee.  Only a glorious death at the Little Bighorn kept his torch burning for decades ahead. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Cavalry Life on the Texas Plains




With the exception of the Civil War period, the U.S. Cavalry and Texas enjoyed a harmonious relationship until the early 1900’s.  Not surprising when you consider the following threats: bandits, Apaches, Kiowas, and Commanches.  To counter them, a chain of forts was built from Northwest Texas down to the Rio Grande.  Some avoided the U.S. defense budget ax while others were abandoned and left to the elements.  Four forts (Fort Stockton, Fort Hancock, Fort Davis and Fort Worth) outgrew their perimeters and became cities.  The forts not only offered up protection, they provided jobs, a sense of civility, and government authority where none existed.  Though often portrayed heroically in movies and TV shows, the reality of cavalry life was often more to the contrary: backbreaking construction work, raw endurance, and at times, absolute boredom. 

The post-civil war army was reduced in numbers to 25,000, with most assigned to far flung posts out West.  Enlisted personnel were often not the dutiful, patriotic volunteers of the Civil War, but hard-luck men who needed a job.  Many were immigrants: Germans, who barely spoke English, and Irish looking for a new life in frontier America.  Newly freed slaves, referred to as “buffalo soldiers,” also filled the ranks.   The majority of cavalry recruits were assembled at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, just south of St. Louis.  There they learned the bare essentials of military life within a short, three week period.  The real training came after they were shipped out to an active unit.

The nomadic, buffalo-hunting Plains Indians and the desert bound Apaches were the two biggest threats in the western frontier.  Texas was threatened by both.   The Comanches and their allies, the Kiowas, accounted for most of the attacks on Texas settlements.  Unmatched at stealing horses and raiding homesteads, they were exceptionally elusive.  They appeared without warning (sort of like a present day “flash mob” robbing a store), burned your house, kidnapped your wife and children, and quickly left the scene.  For the Comanches, war was more of a manly sport, like hunting, rather than a military drive to conquer a country or discipline a rebellious province.  They didn’t go looking for a battle; you had to bring the battle to them, provided you could find them.

 A second line of forts was constructed in the late 1800’s to replace the aging first line and further deter the Comanches. Their meager garrisons, however, didn’t have the numbers to halt every attack.  To prevent them, cavalrymen had to endure endless hours of patrolling in weather that could bake you in one minute and freeze you with a “blue norther” in the next.    If the weather didn’t kill you, the food brought its own hazards.  Salt pork (sometimes not fully processed with the pig skin still on it), beans, moldy potatoes, and a tooth-breaking cracker called hardtack were among the few foods that didn’t spoil over long periods of time.  Because of the lack of vegetables, it was not uncommon for fort garrisons to come down with scurvy.  If you wanted it fresh, you had to shoot it or grow it in a fort garden. Water was always in short supply and usually had to be shipped in from distant rivers on wagons.  Above all, the pay was absolutely lousy for the services performed: a whopping $13 dollars a month with food and board barely included.  The uniforms issued were surplus civil war uniforms that had to be retailored at the soldier’s expense. 

The weapons issued included the venerable, Colt revolver and the .45 caliber Springfield carbine.  Repeating rifles, Winchesters and Henrys, were also issued to a lesser extent.  Unlike the repeating rifles, the Springfield was single shot, but had greater long range accuracy.  Their adversaries were armed with repeating rifles as well.  In addition, they used bows and arrows with metal heads instead of flint.  This made them even more deadly if they hit you in the torso.

When not on duty, bored soldiers turned to vice.  Then as now, drinking was prevalent.  Alcohol could be purchased from town saloons and trading posts.  The more desperate would steal it from the fort’s medical dispensary.   Prostitutes could be found in saloons and brothels established outside the fort.  Because of their low pay, they couldn’t afford the more expensive prostitutes and had to settle for those with even fewer scruples and scant hygiene.  Eighty out of one thousand army personnel would come down with venereal disease.  Sometimes female companionship could be found among the fort’s laundresses; whose services went far and beyond scrubbing soiled underwear.  The most notorious, of the Texas vice-ridden fort towns, was near Fort Griffin along the Clear Fork of the Brazos.  Called simply “The Flat,” it was a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah on the prairie.  In addition to army personnel: cowboys, buffalo hunters, gunfighters, and professional gamblers spent a raucous evening or two at “The Flat.”  Among its visitors, were the West’s most famous and notorious: John Wesley Hardin, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Pat Garrett.


Comanche raids came to an end in 1874; General Phil Sheridan launched a sweeping offensive against the remaining Comanche villages in the Texas Panhandle.  Three of the columns were led by one of the Army’s best Indian fighters, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie.  Aided by Tonkawa scouts, he caught up with the Comanches at Palo Duro Canyon.  Scaling the canyon walls at night, Mackenzie’s troopers surprised a Comanche village of 1,000 and drove them from their tepees.  They burned the village and shot all their horses, leaving them helpless to the elements.   With the buffalo hunted out of existence in the Panhandle, the Comanches were forced on to a reservation at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. 

Despite the pay and hardships, the U.S. Cavalry played a crucial role in taming the West. Because of the inclusion of men of all economic backgrounds and race, they were indeed forerunners of today's U.S. Army.