Troopers leaving Fort Mason, Texas. Painting
by Melvin Warren; image courtesy of Mrs. Lucille Warren.
In Texas, the army had to position its troops not
only to face Indians from the west and north, but to
protect the international border with Mexico.
General William Jenkins Worth, shown
at the 1846 battle of Bishops Palace during the Mexican
War, was soon to become the first commander of what
later became the military Department of Texas. Courtesy
Library of Congress.
Encampment on the Leona, Texas, 90
miles west of San Antonio, May 13, 1849. Sketch by Capt.
Seth Eastman, courtesy Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum.
Click to enlarge.
The annexation of Texas and the acquisition
of the Southwest following the war against Mexico posed significant
challenges for the United States army in the west. Previously,
idealistic policy-makers had assumed that expansion would
occur from east to west, in a gradual, predictable process.
To protect this westward movement, the army had attempted
to establish military posts at strategic points. Indians would
be relocated west of these garrisons. Separating the two groups
might limit the opportunity for mischief on both sides. Some
had even envisioned a north/south military road dividing the
two peoples, further reducing the potential for conflict.
In practice, the War Department had never fully
implemented these plans. The army never had enough troops
to be everywhere at once, and political and economic pressures
rather than sound military principles often dictated the location
of frontier posts. In any event, the new western realities
shattered traditional thinking.
Lured by the discovery of gold in California,
tens of thousands of civilians rushed west, ruining any hopes
of an orderly American occupation of the newly acquired territories.
And in Texas, the army had to position its troops not only
to face Indians from the west and north, but to protect the
international border with Mexico. Furthermore, the Lone Star
state's ownership of its public lands prevented the federal
government from establishing large Indian reservations in
the western part of the state, save for an unsuccessful attempt
to carve out two enclaves on the Brazos River between 1854-1859.
In the absence of a comprehensive national strategy,
the first two commanders of what evolved into the military
Department of Texas, Maj. Gen. William J. Worth (1848-49)
and Maj. Gen. George Mercer Brooke, vice Brig Gen., (1849-51),
began the work of confirming United States authority along
the southern and western frontiers of Texas. Along the lower
Rio Grande, Forts Polk and Brown had been established during
the war against Mexico; to these, Brooke added Ringgold Barracks,
Fort McIntosh, and Fort Duncan.
An 1847 map of Mexico and Texas shows
the perceived location of Texas boundaries prior to
the end of the Mexican War as well as the range and
locations of various Indian groups across the region.
Click for more detail. Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection.
Lured by the discovery of gold in
California, thousands of emigrants rushed westward across
the frontier. In this 1850s drawing, emigrants are shown
fording the Pecos River in southwest Texas.
Fort McKavett on the San Saba
river exemplified the military planners' concept
of good location. It was established near a good
water source, had adequate forage, and abundant
building materialEdwards limestone.
| Finding Indians
deemed hostile by the government was difficult enough;
forcing them to fight often seemed impossible to
soldiers bewildered by their enemies' mobility,
knowledge of the terrain, and tactical sagacity.
Drill on parade ground, Fort
Davis. Tasks of the soldiers ranged from tedious
routineguard duty, fatigue duty, and drillsto
the sometimes less monotonous field assignmentspatrolling,
escorting settler caravans and mail coaches, and
the infrequent but more dangerous major expeditions
against the Indians. Detail of photograph, courtesy
Fort Davis NHS. Click to see full image.
To protect the western frontier, Forts
Inge, Lincoln, Martin Scott, Croghan, Gates, Graham,
and Worth were erected on Brooke's watch. Following
the general's death in 1851, his successor, Brevet Maj.
Gen. Persifor F. Smith, added Forts Ewell and Merrill
in South Texas. Pushing the military line further west,
Smith authorized construction of Forts Clark, Terrett,
Mason, McKavett, Chadbourne, Phantom Hill, and Belknap.
To help plug gaps in the northwest, Camp Cooper was
erected in 1856. A double line of forts now protected
Texas' southern and western frontiers.
On paper, the scheme looked grand indeed. Posts
would be located in areas where there was access to good water,
forage, and construction materials. The troops themselves
would do much of the building, thus holding construction costs
to a minimum. Since Indians almost never attacked the forts,
no defensive walls were necessary. Infantry based on the outer
cordon of the Worth-Brooke-Smith defensive line would alert
mounted troops, stationed in the inner line to reduce the
high costs of their upkeep, of the presence of Indians or
outlaws in their midst.
In reality, the forts were too far apart and
their garrisons too small (in 1860, for instance, the fourteen
military posts in Texas had an average strength of just less
than ninety men each) to completely patrol the immensity of
the Lone Star state. As one traveler put it upon observing
a frontier garrison, "a parade of the entire force would
sometimes diminish our feeling of security." Finding
Indians deemed hostile by the government was difficult enough;
forcing them to fight often seemed impossible to soldiers
bewildered by their enemies' mobility, knowledge of the terrain,
and tactical sagacity. Some posts were poorly situated; inadequate
water supplies at Phantom Hill and Belknap, for example, forced
Furthermore, the plans provided no protection
for the tenuous overland routes to Chihuahua, Santa Fe, and
California. To shield these vital lines, Fort Bliss, first
established in 1849, was reactivated five years later. Fort
Davis (1854), Fort Lancaster (1855), Camp Hudson (1856), Camp
Verde (1856), Fort Quitman (1858), and Fort Stockton (1859)
General Persifor Smith oversaw
construction of eight Texas forts during the 1850s.
Courtesy National Archives.
Soldiers at the Texas forts
did much of the building, saving on construction
costs. Click for more detail. Painting courtesy
Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Many forts were poorly positioned
and saw only brief service. Fort Phantom Hill
near present-day Abilene was forced to close due
to inadequate water supplies. Today only a few
chimneys and outbuildings remain. Photo by Steve Dial.
was constructed in 1855, one of several posts in the far southwestern
Texas frontier assigned to protect vital mail and emigrant routes
to Chihuahua and California. An unknown government draftsman sketched
this view from the south around 1861.
Texas during the Civil War. In 1861,
the Texas legislature created the Frontier Regiment
to guard frontier settlements. They occupied several
abandoned federal posts and established a line of 16
camps through the center of the state. Map courtesy
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Black soldiersmost of them
newly freed slavesjoined army ranks following
the Civil War, significantly changing the composition
of frontier regiments. Prior to that time, the majority
of troops were foreign born, including Irish, German,
and Italian emigrants. Courtesy National Archives.
Click to see full image.
Finally, the inexorable expansion of non-Indian
settlement meant that the lines of posts would be temporary.
Forts Polk, Gates, Lincoln, Croghan, Graham, Worth, Terrett,
Ewell, and Merrill were soon rendered obsolete.
Texas' declaration of secession in early 1861
caught federal military officials off guard. Although members
of several garrisons made their way to the safety of New Mexico,
the Indian territory, Kansas, or were evacuated from coastal
ports, nearly four hundred troops from stations west of San
Antonio were forced to surrender to state authorities. Texas
or Confederate troops occupied several of the abandoned posts,
especially in northwest Texas, but Indians burned and looted
some of the others, such as Fort Davis. In the absence of
federal troops, some Texans tried to defend themselves by
"forting up" in rude blockhouses or walled positions.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War
in mid-1865, military officials were more interested in reinstalling
federal authority in Texas than they were in reestablishing
the army's presence on the state's sparsely settled frontiers.
"Texas has not yet suffered from the war and will require
some intimidation," asserted Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan,
military commander of Texas and Louisiana. But as reports
of depredations attributed to Indians escalated, in 1866-67
the regulars in blue began marching west. The army once again
occupied Forts Bliss, Clark, Davis, McIntosh, Ringgold, and
Stockton, which became stalwarts of the post-Civil War frontier
By contrast, the federals only briefly returned
to Lancaster, Belknap, Martin Scott, Mason, Inge, Chadbourne,
Hudson, and Verde. In their stead came newer positions, further
west and northForts Richardson, Concho, Elliott, and
Griffin. Many garrisons also tended sub-posts to help them
patrol the long, sparsely settled distances of west Texas;
in some cases, such as the Fort Davis subposts of Camp Pena
Colorado and Fort Hancock, these former sub-posts evolved
into semi-permanent forts that outlived their mother bases.
General Philip Sheridan. After the
Civil War, he and other federal leaders sought to reassert
federal authority in Texas: "Texas has not suffered
from the war and will require some intimidation."
Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
Following the Civil War, reports
of escalating Indian depredations finally convinced
military leaders to take action. Abandoned forts were
re-activated and new posts established in the north
the enemy on the frontier. In reality, Texas forts were too far apart
and garrisons too small to adequately patrol the vast Lone Star state.
Painting by Nola Davis, courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
A total of 219 engagements between
the army and the Indians in Texas can be documented;
of these, 158 can be classified into the categories
shown. Click for detail.
Composition of U.S. Army. Over time,
a chronic shortage of mounted troops heightened the
army's difficulties in meeting an increasing variety
of assignments. Click to enlarge.
Total strength of the U.S. army from
1848 to 1874. Texans never felt they had their fair
share of troop resources, although in 1856, fully 25%
of the entire army was based in Texas.
School class at Fort McKavett, Texas,
1894. (Click to see full image.) Schools, roads, churches
and jobs were among the many benefits brought by the
U.S. army to Texas. Photo courtesy Fort McKavett SHS,
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Frontier forts served as bases from which scouts,
pursuits, large-scale offensives, and escorts or guards were
launched. Before the Civil War, most common was combat resulting
from a successful pursuit, triggered by information gleaned
by post or detachment commanders that Indians had been discovered.
Following the war, however, most engagements stemmed from
routine scouts, sent to interdict likely avenues of approach
or widely used trails or waterholes.
Most of the successful large-scale expeditions,
involving several companies engaged in campaigns that were
projected to take longer and involve greater distances, also
came after 1865. Combat involving mail parties, stagecoaches,
and construction teams accounted for less than 10 percent
of all engagements. The overwhelming majority of the fights
were short and badly fragmented skirmishes involving about
three dozen combatants per side. Sixty-four soldiers were
killed and 116 wounded during these clashes; the army reported
424 Indians killed, 112 wounded, and 267 taken prisoner.
Assessing the true military effectiveness of
the frontier forts in Texas is difficult. As historian Robert
Utley has noted, many officers saw the wars against the Indians
as a "fleeting bother," not worthy of the time or
energy it would take to develop tactics or strategy suitable
to such conflicts. Successful officers developed methods through
personal observation, by trial and error, by word of mouth,
or by individual ingenuity rather than through recognized
The vast majority of scouts, pursuits, and large-scale
campaigns found no Indians. Pointing to the futility of such
efforts, Texans often charged that the federal government
never devoted sufficient resources to their state. Although
such claims often made for good politics with the folks back
home, in reality Texas probably exceeded its fair share of
War Department resources; in 1856, for example, fully twenty-five
percent of the entire army was based in Texas. More telling,
if less politically popular, was the argument that the army
was simply too small to carry out all the responsibilities
expected of it. In addition to fighting Indians, regulars
garrisoned coastal defensive fortifications, provided assistance
to civilians in times of crisis, helped to maintain domestic
order, patrolled national parks, conducted scientific research,
and engaged in civil engineering jobs. The chronic shortage
of mounted troops exacerbated the army's difficulties.
Despite these shortfalls, the frontier forts
had an enormous impact on Texas history. As one observer exclaimed,
army forts served "as the oasis in the desert" for
many a weary traveler. The forts also provided a tremendous
economic stimulus. From 1849 to 1900, the army disbursed some
$70 million in Texas, an amount equivalent to more than twice
the valuation of all the assessed property in the state at
the time of its annexation. And with the army often came schools,
churches, roads, and surveys.
Offering jobs, profits, a modicum of American
culture, the army's forts often served as the genesis for
permanent civilian settlement, resulting in new towns like
San Angelo, Gatesville, Fort Davis, Fort Stockton, and Fort
Worth. Their presence also boosted the chances of existing
sites like San Antonio (usually the site of department headquarters),
Eagle Pass, Brownsville, and El Paso. As a legendary Texas
historian once put it, "No story of the Texas heritage
can be complete without telling the role its forts played
in making that heritage possible."
Cavalry Charge on the Plains. In
Texas, most of the successful large-scale expeditions
came after 1865. Painting by Frederick Remington, courtesy
Amon Carter Museum. Click to enlarge.
A stagecoach mired in the mud, on
mail route east of Fort Stockton, March 12, 1885. Escort
duty was a critical assignment for frontier troops.
Photo courtesy Fort Concho NHL. Click to enlarge.
An army encampment near Santa Rosa
Springs, circa 1884. Courtesy Fort Concho NHL. Click
to see full image.
No story of the Texas heritage can be complete without
telling the role its forts played in making that heritage
Families disembark their wagons for
a welcome rest at Fort Concho. As one observer has noted,
army forts served "as the oasis in the desert"
for many a weary traveler. Courtesy Fort Concho NHL.
Credits and Sources
U.S. Military on the Texas Frontier was written by
Robert Wooster, professor of history at Texas A&M-Corpus
Christi and author of numerous books and articles on forts and military
history (see Supporters and Conntributors). Maps and graphics, unless
otherwise noted, were composed by Clayton Drescher.
Sources consulted include:
Frantz, Joe B.
1970 The Significance of Frontier Forts to Texas. Southwestern
Historical Quarterly 74:204-205 (Oct., 1970).
Smith, David Paul
1992 Frontier Defense in the Civil War: Texas' Rangers and Rebels.
Texas A&M University Press, College Station.
Smith, Thomas T.
2000 The Old Army in Texas: A Research Guide to the U. S. Army
in Nineteenth-Century Texas. Texas State Historical Association,
1999 The U. S. Army and the Texas Frontier Economy,
1845-1900. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.
1978 The Frontier and the American Military Tradition. In The
American Military on the Frontier: Proceedings of the 7th Military
History Symposium, edited by James P. Tate. Office of Air Force
1973 Frontier Regulars: The United States Army
and the Indian, 1866-1891. Macmillan, New York.
1967 Frontiersmen in Blue: The United States Army
and the Indian, 1848-1865. Macmillan, New York.
1990 History of Fort Davis, Texas. Division of History, Southwest
Cultural Resources Center, Southwest Region, National Park Service,
Dept. of the Interior, Santa Fe.
1988 The Military and United States Indian Policy,
1865-1903. Yale University Press, New Haven.
1987 Soldiers, Sutlers, and Settlers: Garrison
Life on the Texas Frontier. Texas A&M University Press,