Contested Borderland

In the aftermath of the Civil War there was little law and order along Texas’ southern border with Mexico. Post war turmoil allowed bandits, gunmen, horse thieves, and cattle rustlers to flourish. One area in particular, commonly referred to as the “Nueces Strip,” was known for its lawlessness.

Situated between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers, ownership of the land had been contested between Texas and Mexico since 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought an official end to the Mexican-American war. Article V of the treaty established the Rio Grande as the southern boundary with the United States and also required Mexico to relinquish all claims to Texas.

However, the 150 mile strip became a virtual no man’s land with Texas claiming the Rio Grande as its southern border, and Mexico maintaining that the line of demarcation extended north to the Nueces River. The dispute resulted in frequent cross-border raids with Texas cattlemen and Mexican “caudillos” perpetrating acts of violence against the other and livestock exchanging hands illegally back and forth between the two warring parties.

To end the lawlessness Texas governor Richard Coke authorized a “Special Force” of Texas Rangers under the command of Captain Leander H. McNelly to aggressively deal with the situation. From 1875-1876 this force of some 41 men used brutal tactics to quell the illegal activity.

 

Captain Leander H. McNelly was your stereotypical Texan, tall and lithe. He also embodied the definition of the commonly used description “lean and mean;” he was utterly ruthless in the execution of the mandate given to him by the governor of the State of Texas. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Though successful, McNelly was eventually removed from his Ranger command for using questionable methods – including torture and summary executions, ignoring the orders of his superiors,  and making multiple border crossings into Mexico in violation of Mexican territorial sovereignty.

The Last Fight

On November 25, 1864 the United States Army under the command of Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson engaged the Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache in one of the largest engagements ever fought on the Great Plains. The 1st Regiment, New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry numbered 400 (including some 75 Ute scouts.) They encountered a much larger Indian force (upwards of 1500 hostiles) at an abandoned trading post in the Texas Panhandle near the Canadian River.

The legendary frontiersman had been ordered by General James H. Carleton, commander of the military district of New Mexico, to punish the tribes for raids along the Santa Fe Trail. Considered the best Indian fighter in the Army, Carson was nonetheless in failing health. He was at the end of his career and life; an aortic aneurysm would kill the famed mountain man, trapper, scout and soldier May 23, 1868.  However, on this day in 1864, his leadership would prevent what otherwise would have been a slaughter on the scale of Custer’s ignominious defeat at The Little Big Horn and the skirmish, later called the First Battle of Adobe Walls, would forever ensconce “Kit” Carson in the pantheon of great American heroes that opened up the West.

U.S. casualties amounted to 6 killed and 25 wounded, while the combined Indian force sustained over 100 killed and wounded. The difference proved to be the tactical use of twin mountain howitzers that repelled multiple attacks by the Indians and covered the retreat of Carson’s volunteers.

The U.S. Army declared the battle a victory. However, only Carson’s skilled use of artillery prevented a disaster, and the Plains Indians forever saw the retreat as a major victory of their own. Their supremacy in the Texas Panhandle would go unchallenged for almost another decade before Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie and the “Red River Wars” finally subdued the powerful Comanche and Kiowa.

Carson had been sent to “punish” the Plains Indians for their continued raids along the Santa Fe Trail. After successfully destroying a Kiowa village that lay some four miles outside of Adobe Walls, however, Carson quickly found his command facing a much larger Indian force than expected. Were it not for his skillful use of two mountain howitzers that kept the Indians at bay for upwards of eight hours, it is likely that the military force would have been overrun and massacred. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

 

 

 

Reflections on Memorial Day

I will resume the blog posts related to my two books Silver Taps and Palo Duro next week, but today my thoughts are on honoring those who in President Lincoln’s words gave “the last full measure of devotion” (their lives) fighting America’s wars.

 

The long holiday weekend that marked the beginning of summer saw countless Americans fire up the backyard grill, head to the pool or beach, and celebrate with family and friends. Few headed to our nation’s cemeteries in observance of the national holiday. Fewer still looked at their watches or clocks at 3:00 PM to observe a moment of silence in honor of our war dead. The solemnity of the day was born by those currently serving in the Armed Forces; veterans – especially those who shared the horrors of war, its hardships, common hopes and fears with fellow service members who did not come home; military families – mothers and fathers, wives or husbands, sons or daughters, sisters or brothers extended family members who lost a loved one; or members of our national, state and local governments whose duties require their presence and participation.

The history behind the holiday is known only to those who consciously choose to study it. Its genesis goes back to May 1868 when General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Union’s veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a decree that May 30th should be a nationwide commemoration of the more than 625,000 soldiers killed in the Civil War.

The day was called “Decoration Day” for the decorative flower arrangements placed on the graves of the fallen, and for more than fifty years it acknowledged only those killed in the Civil War. However, the United States entry into WWI began the transition to remember all of the country’s war dead, and gradually the holiday became known as Memorial Day. In 1968 the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” moved the observance from May 30th to the last Monday in May, with Memorial Day becoming an official federal holiday in 1971.

The cost of America’s wars continues to be staggering: WWI – 116,516, WWII – 405,399, Korea – 36,516, Vietnam -58,209, Iraq – 4,489, and Afghanistan – 2,356 (these numbers fluctuate by source, and by the loss of additional service members in ongoing conflicts.)

The price of freedom is born by only a small fraction of our society. The Veterans Administration estimates that only 7.3 percent of all living Americans have ever served in the military, and over half of those are over the age 60. Compulsory military service (the draft) ended January 27, 1973.

Given that the current population of the United States is roughly 326 million, and of that total 1.4 million men and women currently wear the uniform, only .04 percent of our total population safeguards the freedoms we enjoy.

That all volunteer force, in the words of Lt. General Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Retired,) president of the Military Officers Association of America, represents the “unbroken line, an enduring thread of honor, commitment and dedication.” They carry on a proud tradition embodied in their willingness and that of past generations to lay down their lives in defense of our values and way of life. As a people, we venerate them on Armed Forces Day just as we recognize past service on Veterans Day. Let us do no less to remember those that died. Theirs is a debt we can never repay.

 

 

 

The Frontier Battalion

As early as 1835 local militia were organized into ranging companies by Stephen F. Austin to aid in the common defense of early colonists in what would become the Republic of Texas. Their designation as Rangers derived from the vast areas over which they were required to “range” in the performance of their duties.

Following Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836 and its entry into the Union in 1845 the Rangers fame continued to spread, with names like John Coffee “Jack” Hays, “Big Foot” Wallace, and John “Rip” Ford recognized well beyond its borders. However, there was still no formal organization as such. These ranging companies banded together for days or months in response to Indian raids or the lawlessness that was brought on by Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War and then disbanded just as quickly as soon as the immediate threat was addressed.

The term “Texas Rangers” first appeared officially in May 1874 when Governor Richard Coke and the Texas Legislature appropriated funds and authorized the organization of six companies of 75 men each to maintain law and order on the Texas frontier. These Ranger companies became known as the Frontier Battalion and were commanded by Major John B. Jones.

John Jones sure didn’t look like the man to exercise the mandate given to him by the governor. At 5’8″, slightly built and soft-spoken, he was hardly of a stature to intimidate anyone, but he commanded respect and volunteers came from all over Texas to sign on the dotted line and serve under his leadership with unwavering loyalty. His creed, which they would all adopt, was “no man in the wrong can stand up to a man in the right who just keeps a-comin’.” And keep a-comin’ they did. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

The Apache Wars

The Apache made a distinction between raids and wars; the U.S. government did not. Raids were considered a right of passage for the young Apache warriors allowing them to gain status within their respective bands by counting coup or killing their enemies and capturing both horses and slaves. Their methodology was one of ambush on lone individuals or small groups, or quick strikes against isolated homesteads that allowed them to attack without warning, satisfy their blood lust, and then scatter before the cavalry, the Texas Rangers, or Mexican forces could retaliate. Vanishing into the deserts and mountains of the southwestern United States the Apache were elusive. Pitched battles against superior numbers and munitions were rare and avoided. There was no way the Apache could muster the numbers required to confront organized resistance or sustain the loss of warriors resulting from prolonged confrontations with an enemy that was better armed. Their survival depended on the ability to attack and disappear.

The Army garrisoned troops all along the frontier to respond to reports of rape, kidnapping, depredations, and indescribable mutilation and torture. However, neither infantry nor mounted patrols were adequate to the task at hand. Post duties and the distance between garrisons tied their hands.

Texas Rangers, free of the constraints of military life, offered greater flexibility in pursuing the Apache, but escape into Mexico and Arizona afforded sanctuary. International borders tied the hands of both the Rangers and U.S. government troops. Mexican forces fought the Apache on their side of the Rio Bravo and into the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona, but the lack of coordination across borders frequently hampered their effectiveness as well.

As a result, the “Apache Wars” lasted from 1861 to 1890, a span of almost thirty years.

As early as 1864, the Plains Apache had participated in the “1st Battle of Adobe Walls” in Texas; and, though they considered it a victory, had actually been repulsed by Kit Carson and his New Mexico soldiers. Ranald Mackenzie had scattered the Lipan and  Mescalero by 1873. A few of the Plains Apache had joined their Indian brothers in the ill-fated “2nd Battle of Adobe Walls” in 1874, but by the early months of 1875 both the Kiowa and Comanche had surrendered. That year also saw the Chiricahua, notably the Mimbreno division of the Central Apache led by Victorio (Bidu-ya) in New Mexico forcibly subdued and moved onto the San Carlos Indian Reservation.

By the summer of 1866, only a small band  of Chiricahua Apache still held out against the United States government. The Army found the few remaining renegades elusive. Though it employed upwards of five thousand soldiers to capture or kill the Apache, they continued to escape into Arizona and Mexico.

The hunt for the Apache transformed its leader, Geronimo (Goyaate) into a legend. – excerpts from Palo Duro.

Frontier Forts

Fort Martin Scott was one of several forts built by the Army to protect settlers from Indian raids. Established in 1848, it was the very first frontier outpost established in Texas. Units garrisoned there patrolled the area contiguous to the Fredericksburg-San Antonio Road and included at various times forces belonging to the 1st Infantry, the 2nd Dragoons, and the 4th U.S. Cavalry.

Today Fort Martin Scott is a historic site operated by the City of Fredericksburg. It  is located two miles west of the city on Baron’s Creek. Although the only surviving structure is the limestone guardhouse, the site has been restored to its original design and now includes the post commander’s quarters, sutler’s store, laundry, military hospital, enlisted men’s barracks, quartermaster’s warehouse, a stable with barn, and a blacksmith shop. The site is open to the public and hosts historical reenactments twice yearly. Its mission is to “preserve, protect, and promote” the State while opening dialogue and debate about its multicultural heritage and the historic significance of these frontier forts to the development of Texas.

The Army’s string of frontier forts extending into the Panhandle and New Mexico were believed to have been a major factor in subduing the Southern Plains Indians. In reality, they were too widely dispersed and poorly manned to be much of a deterrent to their raids. They did, however, significantly enhance the country’s economic growth and settler’s expansion into Indian lands. – excerpt from Palo Duro.

Adobe Walls

The 2nd Battle of Adobe Walls was fought in June 1874. The Southern Plains Indians hoped to use a triumph there as a springboard towards total victory in their Messianic War to finally drive the white man from sacred lands.

Though the outpost in West Texas would be abandoned after the attack, the Indians suffered a defeat that would herald their eventual subjugation and movement onto reservations.

The town, such as it was, consisted of the saloon, two stores owned by Leonard & Meyers and Charles Rath & Company, a blacksmith shop owned by Tom Keif, and a large corral for the horses. Though the annual buffalo migration could bring upwards of two to three hundred hunters into the area, at the moment there were only twenty-eight men and one woman present.

Most of them were not hunters. In fact, they were mainly the merchants who supplied the buffalo hunters with their provisions, the saloon keepers who made sure they didn’t go thirsty, and the cook and his wife who provided their meals. – excerpt from Palo Duro. 

Today visitors to the battle site will find little to mark the historic location. A few granite headstones have been erected and enclosed by protective barriers, but there is minimal evidence to suggest the importance of the 1874 confrontation.

The site does, however, remind visitors of the loneliness and isolation of the outpost/town as it existed at the turn of the nineteenth century. Cattle have replaced the buffalo that once roamed these same grounds, but otherwise not much has changed. The plains remain vast and flat with little in the way of trees or distinguishing landmarks to provide a sense of direction. It is only when you stumble across the granite markers that the battle site’s existence even becomes evident.

On the one  hand the memorial at Adobe Walls evokes feelings of neglect and lost significance. On the other, it serves as a symbolic reminder that the Plains Indians way of life disappeared not long after their defeat here.