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Fort Davis

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This engaging, illustrated history of Fort Davis, one of the U.S. Army's most important western posts, relates the exciting history of Trans-Pecos Texas—the far western reaches off the state. Wooster traces the history of this Davis Mountains region from the days when Indians and later Spaniards and Mexicans inhabited the area, through its days as the site of Texan and American interests. The establishment and construction of Fort Davis in the mid-1850s tells the story of one of the army's largest western posts. We learn about the famous army camels which Secretary of War Jefferson Davis brought to the area, with Fort Davis serving as a base of operations, and about the difficult conditions imposed on the army by weather, climate, and Indians, Evacuated by the U.S. Army at the beginning of the Civil War, Fort Davis later was occupied by Texas state troops, then briefly reoccupied by the Federals. After the war, the War Department began shifting regular army units back to the western frontiers. Among these units were each of the famous black regiments, many of them composed of former slaves who proved to be excellent soldiers. The details of daily life—food, clothing, social activities, weapons, medical care—are thoroughly discussed, as are the often ineffective campaigns against Indians.

Robert Wooster skillfully uses the forty-year history of Fort Davis to provide a clear window into the frontier military experience and into nineteenth-century American society. Because of its black soldiers, and its large Mexican-American civilian community, Fort Davis is a prime resource for studying and understanding the stratified racial relations which accompanied the army's and the nation's westward expansion.

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1. Outpost on the Limpia

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1.

OUTPOST ON THE LIMPIA

JULIUS FROBEL, a German traveler, conducted an extensive tour of the Americas from 1850 to 1857. During the course of his wanderings, Frobel crossed the Davis Mountains of West Texas. “Nature appears here,” he wrote of the region, “more than anywhere else I have seen, like a landscape-painter, composing a picture with the most simple yet refined taste.” Most observers have agreed with Frobel, finding the air crisp and clean, the climate salubrious, and the surrounding elevations just high enough to be fairly called mountains yet low enough to be scaled by even the faintest of heart. With more water than the arid plains which encircle the canyons and peaks, the Fort Davis area offers a comfortable oasis amidst the vast Trans-Pecos region of Texas.1

Pictograph displays which confirm the presence of humans over thirteen hundred years ago are located less than forty miles northwest of Fort Davis. Five centuries later, Puebloan tribes began expanding southward from New Mexico down the Rio Grande, overwhelming the less-organized cultures of the indigenous populace. Many of the newer arrivals clustered in villages around La Junta, the junction of the Rios Concho and Grande. Known variously as Patarabueyes or Jumanos, these peoples, numbering about ten thousand, spoke a Uto-Aztecan dialect.2

 

2. Frontier Challenges and Civil War

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2.

FRONTIER CHALLENGES AND CIVIL WAR

AT ITS HEIGHT during the mid-1850s, Fort Davis, boasting a garrison of over four hundred soldiers, stood among the army’s largest frontier posts. But supplying, equipping, clothing, and staffing western forts, particularly one as large at Fort Davis, confounded expert and casual observer alike. Hoping to resolve these problems, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis imported more than seventy camels to Texas, where they roamed the Southwest on experimental expeditions from their base at Camp Verde, Texas. About sunrise on July 17, 1857, a party of twenty-five camels en route to Arizona reached Fort Davis. In a dramatic understatement, the commander of the exotic pilgrimage noted that “we were kindly treated by the officers.” Indeed they must have been, for the sight of the camels and their Arabian handlers surely interrupted the dog days of the West Texas summer. Another diarist came closer to capturing the true spirit of the occasion when he reported that “a number of young gentlemen” returned to camp in the wee hours of the night “with a gait that denoted a slight indulgence in alcoholic stimulants.”12

 

3. Reestablishing the Federal Presence

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3.

REESTABLISHING THE FEDERAL PRESENCE

ALTHOUGH THE CONFEDERACY collapsed in 1865, the need to establish the federal government’s supremacy in the South delayed the return of regular troops to West Texas. In the interim, Congress slowly reorganized the nation’s ground forces. By 1869, the army had been reduced to twenty-five infantry, ten cavalry, and five artillery regiments. Subsequent measures set an effective ceiling of twenty-seven thousand men. The reduced postwar army included four regiments (the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Infantry) consisting of black enlisted personnel, each of which was eventually posted at Fort Davis. Only after federal control over the former Confederate states seemed increasingly certain did the War Department begin shifting troops to the western frontiers. In 1867, the Ninth Cavalry spearheaded the reoccupation of the Trans-Pecos. Composed largely of former slaves, more than one-half of the Ninth Cavalry’s enlisted personnel were Civil War veterans. The steady income, food, clothing, and education offered by the army seemed promising to many blacks faced with limited employment options.30

 

4. Life at a Frontier Outpost

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4.

LIFE AT A FRONTIER OUTPOST

ON THE MILITARY POST ITSELF, reveille rousted enlisted personnel just after daybreak, with short drills initiated shortly thereafter. Breakfast, generally consisting of coffee, bacon, bread, and molasses, was served in the mess halls at about seven o’clock. An hour later, officers organized the daily guard. Inspection of company barracks began about nine o’clock; the officer of the day handled routine sanitation, sentinel, and guardhouse activities. For the enlisted men, selection to the guard meant closer supervision yet merited minor privileges like the chance to skip drills. Fatigue details, on the other hand, were seen as more burdensome. Although such extra duty meant additional income, most soldiers resented the unmilitary nature of these activities.

Lunch call, featuring hearty servings of beef or pork, bread, and coffee, heralded the day’s major meal. Standard vegetables included rice, peas, or beans. Fresh produce from the post garden or supplies purchased from post and company funds occasionally filled the void, but deficiencies in the official ration, lax inspection, inadequate storage facilities, and poor cooks took a heavy toll. Over a six-month period in 1874–1875, for example, a Fort Davis board of officers condemned, among other things, 900 pounds of hominy, 97 gallons of molasses, 208 pounds of vermicelli, 256 pounds of macaroni, 588 cans of condensed milk, 9 heads of cheese, 154 cans of sardines, 20 gallons of onions, 198 cans of sweet potatoes, 120 pounds of creamed tartar, 143 cans of onions, and 848 cans of lima beans. Ill-trained cooks, drafted from the ranks and ordered to the kitchen, hampered efforts to improve the diet. As one inspector complained, “the baker . . . has never served a regular trade at the business, & this may account in some measure for the indifferent bread.” Although the army made available an official cooking manual in 1883, Congress refused to provide for permanent cooks until 1898.41

 

5. The Defeat of the Indians

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5.

THE DEFEAT OF THE INDIANS

ALTHOUGH ROUTINE DUTY, economic concerns, and post society dominated the everyday life of the garrison, Fort Davis’s primary function remained the campaigns against the Indians. Between 1872 and 1874, a congressional committee calculated that Indians killed or captured more than two hundred whites and stole one hundred thousand cattle and horses in Texas alone. Few officers, however, understood the nature of warfare against Indians or exhibited the determination necessary to overtake the enemy. The garrison now routinely included a cavalry component, but most expeditions from Fort Davis met the fate described in an 1870 scout: “marched a distance of about 187 miles, without seeing any signs of Indians and without injury to men or stock.”57

An unusually successful operation came in September 1868, when Lt. Patrick Cusack and two troops of Ninth Cavalrymen caught two hundred Apaches eighty miles south of the post. Suffering two wounded, Cusack claimed that his men killed or wounded between forty and sixty Indians, captured a pony herd, recovered two hundred head of stolen cattle, and freed two prisoners. On their triumphant return to Davis pranksters donned their captured booty and pretended to be Indians, surprising a group of soldiers quarrying rock just off base. “You can imagine how fast those men ran trying to get back to the post,” laughed one veteran.58

 

6. Taps

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6.

TAPS

FORT DAVIS HAD LONG BEEN considered one of the army’s healthiest western posts, and its moderate climate and sheltering canyon walls made it a favorite among military personnel who enjoyed the serene isolation of the Trans-Pecos. It was therefore shocking when, during the mid-1880s, medical studies revealed abnormally high rates of typhoid, dysentery, malarial fevers, and diarrhea among the post’s garrison. “This is . . . somewhat of a disappointment,” noted Brig. Gen. David S. Stanley, commander of the military Department of Texas, “as Fort Davis . . . has long been reckoned as a good sanitarium for Texas.”68

An impure water supply seemed to be the problem. Grierson, the inveterate builder, had initiated an elaborate system for piping in water from the Limpia Creek. But in 1888, post surgeon John V. Lauderdale classified the water as a “thin pea soup emulsion.” Additional tinkering with the filter temporarily improved water quality, but the thousands of tadpoles which thrived in the reservoir seemed impossible to remove. Runoff water from the surrounding hills, laid bare by overgrazing, also poured through the military reservation, exacerbating the situation.69

 

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