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.

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