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Against the Grain: Colonel Henry M. Lazelle and the U.S. Army

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Henry Martyn Lazelle (1832-1917), born in Enfield, Massachusetts, the son of a farmer, orphaned at the age of four, and raised by a succession of relatives and family friends, was the only cadet in the history of the U.S. Military Academy to be suspended and sent back a year (for poor grades and bad behavior) and eventually return as Commandant of the Corps of Cadets.

After graduating from West Point in 1855, he scouted with Kit Carson, was wounded by Apaches, and spent nearly a year as a "paroled" prisoner-of-war at the outbreak of the Civil War.

 Exchanged for a Confederate officer, he took command of a Union cavalry regiment, chasing Mosby's Rangers throughout northern Virginia. The early days of Reconstruction brought him to the Carolinas. Later he represented the U.S. at British Army maneuvers in India and commanded units and posts in the Far West and the Dakotas during the relocation and ravaging of the American Indian nations.

Due in part to an ingrained disposition to question the status quo, Lazelle's service as a commander and senior staff officer was punctuated at times with contention and controversy. In charge of the official records of the Civil War in Washington, he was accused of falsifying records, exonerated, but dismissed short of tour. As Commandant of Cadets at West Point, he was a key figure during the infamous court martial of Johnson Whittaker, one of West Point's first African American cadets.

 Again, he was relieved of duty after a bureaucratic battle with the Academy's Superintendent.æ Lazelle retired in 1894 as Colonel of the 18th U.S. Infantry at Fort Bliss, Texas, where his Army career had begun 38 years earlier. Along the way, he authored articles on military strategy and tactics, took up spiritualism, and published two books on the relationship between science and theology.

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12 Chapters

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1. A Five-Year Man

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Chapter 1

On a warm afternoon in early June 1850, Henry M. Lazell1 arrived at the Hudson River’s West Point landing on a steamboat from New York City. His first view of the Academy was from Highland Gorge. Some years earlier, another newly arrived cadet, Horatio G. Wright, remembered that he felt as if “the rugged granite walls of the Highland gorge frowned down upon my eager eyes with that cold, hard frown which they have worn through the last four ages. Break-Neck Hill, Bull Hill, Butter Hill and Crow’s Nest, brood in silent quaternion over the peaceful Hudson, as if in some mnemonic reveries of those Titans whose giant strength clave asunder their native union ‘in the old time before.’”2

As Henry stared up at the imposing fortress-like walls of the United States Military Academy, he wondered nervously whether this really was his destiny. Close to six feet tall, lean but solidly built, with deep blue eyes and sharp features, Henry knew he could handle the physical rigors of cadet life. But could the orphaned son of a poor Massachusetts farmer compete with the cream of society and really become an officer of the United States Army?

 

2. Operations Against the Apaches

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Chapter 2

When Cadet Henry M. Lazelle graduated from the United States Military Academy and was commissioned a Brevet (Bvt) 2nd Lieutenant of Infantry, officers were appointed to specific positions, carrying a specific grade, in specific units (e.g. 2nd Lieutenant, B Company, 1st Infantry Regiment). Academy graduates went into limbo status, as “brevetted” 2nd lieutenants, while awaiting “commissioning” as regular lieutenants in a unit with a vacant position. (Bvt) 2nd Lt. Lazelle, thus, was posted initially “in garrison” at Fort Columbus on Governors Island in New York Harbor.

For many years, Fort Columbus was the closest major Army post to West Point and served as a first posting or departure point for newly graduated cadets shipping out to posts along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. Late that summer, Lazelle was assigned to the 8th Infantry Regiment and posted to Fort Bliss, Department of Texas, with a promotion date of October 9, 1855, as 2nd Lieutenant of Company “I.” He did not formally join his regiment until March 18, 1856. Until then, he was officially “absent without leave,” not a pejorative in today’s sense of “AWOL,” but rather more akin to “administrative leave status” or “in transit.”1

 

3. From Prisoner of War to Prisoner Exchange Agent

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Chapter 3

During the Bonneville Campaign in 1857, Lazelle had foreseen conflict between North and South over the issue of slavery. Like most New Englanders, he found slavery morally repugnant, writing in his journal in May 1857 that it exposed Americans to “the scorn and ridicule of enlightened Europe, and the pity of a civilized world.” Moreover, he had little, if any, respect for those who would fight over it: “Shame be on Northern fanatics and Southern madmen, those political fools who stand disputing, and endangering the happiness of millions for the possession of a curse!”1

Before the war, Lazelle had written articles about New Mexico for the St. Louis Missouri Republican newspaper and the Merchants Scientific Magazine in New York City emphasizing “the futility of the doctrine of devoting its territory to Slave labor.”2 Most of all, however, he rued the notion that he, himself, might have to fight over this issue, writing in his journal:

 

4. Defending Washington

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Chapter 4

On September 17, 1863, Lazelle wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Sprague, still New York State Adjutant General, accepting his appointment as colonel of the 16th New York Cavalry, noting that he assumed command “with hesitancy and a want of confidence—the Cavalry is not my forte—even if I have one.” Nonetheless, he assured Sprague that, as long as he was in command, he would do his duty “so far as I know and can learn it to the extent of my capacity—and I hope you will not have occasion to feel that your confidence in me has been misplaced even though you ask me to manage men, and horses” (his emphasis).

Lazelle was not necessarily displaying a false sense of modesty. He had ranked near the bottom of his class in cavalry tactics and horsemanship when he graduated from West Point, and his name had been absent on the list of graduates “especially recommended for promotion in the mounted corps.” With somewhat limited “combat experience,” mostly chasing Indians, and little direct familiarity with the complexities of managing and leading a regiment, much less a newly formed one with raw recruits and inexperienced company officers, he must have known he faced some major leadership challenges.

 

5. The Pride of Mecklenburg County

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Chapter 5

With his resignation from the New York volunteers, Lazelle once again was a captain of the 8th Infantry, awaiting orders to his next assignment. He and Rebecca were about to begin a nomadic life. On October 20, 1864, he reported to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Army that his temporary address would be at the Office of the Commissary General of Prisoners, in care of Col. W. Hoffman. He was pleased to be back in the relative peace and calm of staff duty but had no intention of making his stay with Hoffman a lengthy one. Hoffman had been “breveted” to the rank of Brigadier General, but Lazelle chose to use Hoffman’s regular rank in his correspondence, perhaps a reflection of his lack of respect for his former senior officer.

Hoffman, on the other hand, apparently had no legacy of issues with Lazelle, either from their early days together in the 8th Infantry or from Lazelle’s inspector duty. He requested that Lazelle be permanently detailed to his staff, noting that his previous experience made him particularly fit for the service.1 Hoffman’s request was denied, much to Lazelle’s relief, with the notation that “Capt. Lazelle will be ordered to join his regiment,” then located at Hancock Barracks in Baltimore, Maryland.2

 

6. Indian Territory

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Chapter 6

On July 5, 1872, Capt. Lazelle and his company, along with the regimental headquarters and five other companies, departed David’s Island, en route by rail to Sioux City, Iowa, arriving on July 9. From Sioux City, the regimental headquarters and band left for Omaha Barracks (Fort Omaha) on July 11. Lazelle and the six companies—now a “battalion” commanded by Lt. Col. Henry D. Wallen—boarded the steamer Mary McDonald for a 630-mile trip up the Missouri River to Fort Rice, located south of Bismarck, arriving there on July 21.

Although ranked as a brevet major at the time, Lazelle was still serving as Captain of Company H. Lazelle family records give no indication of where Rebecca and the young boys were from July 1872 to July 1874 when he was operating in the field. However, the regiment’s Monthly Return from July 1872 indicates that the “officers’ wives” of the regiment accompanied the headquarters element to Omaha Barracks. It is quite possible that this included Lazelle’s family, as there were sufficient quarters for officers’ families on post.1

 

7. West Point—A New Battleground

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Chapter 7

Lazelle arrived at West Point in mid-June 1879, “assigned to duty as Commandant of Corps of Cadets, to take effect July 1, 1879,” and brevetted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He would not be promoted to lieutenant colonel (23rd Infantry) permanently until a year later. As had his predecessors, he also served as Instructor of Artillery, Cavalry, and Infantry Tactics, and was in charge of the Tactics Department.

When Lazelle’s family joined him from Hagerstown, the cadets were still “in camp,” sleeping in tents on the Academy grounds, just north of the library. Horace, then almost nine, remembered that they had their own house, still the Commandant’s Quarters today, and an Irishman and his wife as servants, Patrick and Mary. Mary was the cook, and Patrick did the gardening, milked the cow, and did general chores.1

The boys were quite impressed with their life at West Point. As the commandant’s wife, their mother was one of the “leading ladies” of the post, which made for an active social life. She had two “tailor-made” dresses for special occasions—one a deep green and the other garnet. They also went to a real school for the first time. The West Point School, a private school on post conducted by Major Braden, a retired officer, for the officers’ children, was only a three- to four-minute walk from their house.

 

8. A New Challenge—General Howard Takes Command

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Chapter 8

General Howard arrived at West Point in January 1881, as the Whittaker court martial was getting under way. Although roommates their plebe year, he and Lazelle had had no contact during their respective Army careers. Nonetheless, Lazelle undoubtedly knew a good deal about his former classmate, given Howard’s reputedly poor performance as a corps commander at the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and his high-profile post-war assignment as commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau.1

In March 1881, Howard told his good friend Gen. Irvin McDowell that things were “working in nicely” at the Academy, but he later characterized his tour as Superintendent as “the hardest office to fill that I ever had.” While to the outside viewer everything was neat and orderly, there was a “social undercurrent that was not so pleasant,” and resistance against his attempts to “relieve the overpressure of ‘the West Point system,’ particularly of the demerit part.”2

 

9. First to Purgatory, Then to India

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Chapter 9

Reassigned as lieutenant colonel of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, effective June 26, 1882,1 Lazelle remained at West Point until August 4. After spending time on leave, including the visit with the Barrows family in Canada, the family traveled to Fort Craig in December. Lazelle assumed command of the post on December 18. They remained there for just over a year.

At Fort Craig, Lazelle was officially on “detached duty,” as the headquarters of the regiment was located at Fort Union, northeast of Santa Fe. The post had a complement of some 13 officers and 145 enlisted men, with one company of the 23rd Infantry and two troops (companies) of the 4th Cavalry.

Established in 1854, the fort was located 35 miles south of the present town of Socorro, about halfway between Santa Fe and El Paso. At the time, it was one of the most desolate of eight forts along the main north-south road in the Rio Grande Valley, part of a 1,200-mile-long Spanish colonial trail—the El Camino Real—from Mexico City to Santa Fe.2

 

10. Back to Washington and Controversy

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Chapter 10

Lazelle’s family joined him in Vancouver, Washington, in the fall of 1886, moving into a large, two-story house on post with a wrap-around porch. Perhaps in celebration or to show his family what his job entailed, Lazelle mounted an inspection of Vancouver Barracks, “quite unexpectedly to the troops.”1 Jacob and Horace went to high school in Portland, Oregon, across the Columbia River from Vancouver, at a new school (the only one in the city) that had just been completed. However, the family’s stay in Vancouver was short, and their father soon headed to the other Washington on the Potomac River with a new assignment.

In May 1887, Lazelle received orders to oversee publication of the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion. This assignment was not without controversy and uncertainty, both in its origin and Lazelle’s execution of his duties. As with other assignments, such as taking command of the 16th New York Cavalry, it also reflected the contradictory elements of bluster, on the one hand, often challenging authority, and humility—or, perhaps, insecurity—on the other, in expressing concern about his ability to tackle new and challenging responsibilities.

 

11. Fort Clark, the 18th Infantry and Retirement

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Chapter 11

Colonel Lazelle and his family joined the 18th Infantry Regiment on October 24, 1889. When the Lazelles arrived at Fort Clark, the 3rd Cavalry was still headquartered there and its colonel was post commander. During October and November, the Headquarters and companies of the 18th Infantry made their way from the Department of Missouri to their new assignment. The Field Staff and Band, along with eight companies under the command of Maj. George K. Brady, arrived on post October 16. The last two companies arrived in November.

Fort Clark was established in June 1852 at Las Moras Spring, opposite the village of Brackettville, 17 miles from the Rio Grande, to protect travelers along the “Lower Road” from San Antonio to El Paso. The earliest quarters for enlisted men were tents along Las Moras Creek. An Inspector General report of November 1859 described the men’s quarters: “The troops are in tents & the ground dispersion is of course very unfavorable to discipline.”1

 

12. A Lost Soul

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Chapter 12

According to Horace, his father was very much at loose ends upon his retirement. Once ensconced at the West Hotel in Minneapolis, he could not stay put for long. In January 1895, he headed south, first to Thomasville, Georgia, just north of the Florida border near Tallahassee, and eventually on to Jamaica where he whiled away his time fishing.1 In March, he was back in New York City. Eventually, he returned to Minneapolis to build a house.

During this unsettled period, Lazelle also became increasingly drawn into spiritualism, which he first began exploring after Rebecca’s death. As Horace remembered, his father had long been fascinated with dreams, kept a dream book, and would interpret all of his dreams. Both he and Rebecca were quite superstitious. For example, she would never go out on Fridays. In exploring spiritualism after Rebecca’s death, Horace believed, his father was driven partly by guilt that he had given her too hard a life, and wanted to reach her after her death to say he was sorry. As he had written to his friend, Barrows, shortly after her death, he also believed that she, too, felt “a part” of his sorrow. He longed to share these feelings with her.

 

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