The Path to Hembrillo

The 9th Cavalry Moves to Texas

By February 1867, Hatch had organized twelve troops and made the move to Indianola, Texas by ship. Two of the troops were posted to Brownsville, but the other ten were ordered to San Antonio, Texas, arriving in April to begin three months of training before being sent to Forts Concho, McKavett, and others to begin pursuing Comanches (as Fort Concho lay astride the Comanche War Trail), Kickapoos from Mexico, and the Apache in the west.

In July 1869, the 9th Cavalry was ordered to western and southwestern Texas to maintain law and order between the Rio Grande and Concho Rivers from Fort Clark to El Paso. The three main tasks assigned were to protect the mail and stagecoach routes from San Antonio to El Paso, prevent depredations and raids by Native Americans, and try to bring under control the general lawlessness of the border area. Many Mexican raiders launched attacks in the north then quickly moved back south across the Rio Grande, due largely to the ineffectiveness of the Mexican government in the northern part of the country. Regimental Headquarters and Troops A, B, E, and K, were garrisoned at Fort Stockton. Troops C, D, F, G, H, and I, under Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt, were at Fort Davis. Troops L and M under First Lieutenant Hamilton had previously been sent to Brownsville. The 9th remained in Texas for eight years, nearly all of it in the field.

The borderlands region of West Texas is a land of extremes. Along the Rio Grande, tracing the border with Mexico, the land is broken by deep canyons and mountain ranges, plunging into valleys through which the river flows. Other areas along the river contained wide flood plains called bosques, with a thick growth of cottonwood and willow trees and dense underbrush. North of the river the land is broken by mountain ranges, most relatively small, with large open grasslands or desert scrub between and around them. Water is scarce and springs could not always be counted on. Weather conditions are also extreme, with summer temperatures in the 90’s and often over 100 degrees. Summer brings strong monsoon storms to the desert southwest which can destroy an encampment in a matter of minutes with torrential rain and hurricane-strength winds. Winter temperatures can often drop below freezing, accompanied by cold rains, sleet, and snow – storms which can appear suddenly. To soldiers on the march, these can quickly become dangerous. These conditions were not isolated to Texas; the 9th would continue serving in the same environment upon their move to New Mexico. Culturally the borderlands were a land of extremes, as well. Peter Steinhart writes:

Both Spain and the United States had cultural heritages that valued forest, water, shade, and the changing seasons. Both saw this landscape as desert. They held a cultural…view of the desert. It was, like the desert of the Bible, a moral landscape rather than a geographical one. It was a place without law, without custom, without human succor.

Steinhart’s work is on the biological diversity of the borderlands, but he touches the human conditions the 9th found in the region. Robert and Shirley Leckie expand this somewhat, adding the 9th “…faced the formidable task of guarding hundreds of miles of raw frontier populated by former Confederates who harbored antipathy toward black soldiers.” Not only former Confederates called the land home, but disenchanted former soldiers missing the excitement the Civil War brought to their lives found themselves in the region, as did Mexican bandits and traders who often provided arms, ammunition, and alcohol to those in the region the 9th were called on to pursue.

Historian Robert Utley quotes General Sherman on the condition of frontier posts, appropriate for some of the locations into which the 9th would move:

“Some of what are called military posts…are mere collections of huts made of logs, adobes, or mere holes in the ground and are about as much forts as prairie dog villages might be called forts.” This condition resulted from laws and regulations decreeing that virtually all frontier posts be erected by the troops themselves from whatever materials could be obtained in the vicinities.

“Landscape photo taken from the hillside southwest of Fort Stanton,” 1886. Photo from the Fort Stanton Historic Site.

Such was the situation in which the 9th found themselves after moving to Forts Stockton and Davis. The men immediately set to cutting wood, making adobe bricks, and building the necessary structures such as a livery stable and corrals, as well as barracks, to make the posts livable. Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt hired civilian labor for construction, but was overruled by the Quartermaster Department, stating the cost was too high. Men with trade and construction skills were highly sought after for enlistments.

Using soldiers as labor was not without its faults, and in 1878 a group of soldiers petitioned Congress in complaint:

We first enlisted with the usual ideas of the life of a soldier…but we find in service that we are obliged to perform all kinds of labor, such as all the operations of building quarters, stables, storehouses, bridges, roads, and telegraph lines; involving logging, lumbering, quarrying, adobe and brick making, lime-burning, mason-work, plastering, carpentering, painting, &c., blacksmithing, and sometimes wood-chopping and hay-making. This is in addition to guard duty, care of horses, arms, and equipments, cooking, baking, police of quarters and stables, moving stores, etc., as well as drilling, and frequently to the exclusion of the latter.

Telegraph lines in New Mexico were constantly being damaged and disrupted by natural causes as well as deliberate actions by Apaches. The deliberate destruction of the lines would result in a soldier or small detachment responding to track own the source of the disruption and walking into an attack. Through this method, the Apache sometimes gain mounts, arms, and ammunition without engaging a large force.

Terrible food was the usual for men at frontier posts. Typical Army rations of bread or flour, coffee, sugar, beans and beef were normally supplemented with sugar or molasses, salt and pepper, potatoes and other foodstuffs that could be obtained locally. Many posts had large vegetable gardens so the men could at least grow the produce they needed, but in places such as Fort Davis rain could not be counted on and the garden failed more often than not.

Their first year along the southwest border the 9th saw their first engagement with the Kickapoo, suffering the deaths of Corporal Emanuel Wright and Private E. T. Jones of D Troop. The southern band of the Mescalero Apache ranged through New Mexico’s Guadalupe Mountains south through the Davis Mountains and into the small ranges and desert west toward El Paso; this included the route of the San Antonio – El Paso route. In December 1867, over 100 Mescalero attacked the eastbound stage, killing Private Nathan Johnson. They continued chasing the stage almost to Eagle Spring Station, where Captain Henry Carroll and F Troop chased them away.

Numerous instances of racial hostilities marked the 9th’s Texas tenure. In June, 1869, Private Boston Henry of F Troop was shot and killed by John “Humpy” Jackson. Private William Ecles was a black infantryman in a detachment of soldiers who had been sent to Menard, near Ft. McKavett, to operate a sawmill. “Entranced” by Jackson’s daughter, Narcissus, he sent her a letter expressing his feelings. Her father, enraged by this simple act, killed the first black soldier he could – Private Henry – murdering him from an ambush.

McKavett’s commanding officer, Ranald Mackenzie “had earned the hatred of racists by his energetic and often arbitrary retaliations for transgressions against his troops. Since military Reconstruction was still in force, he was empowered to dispense justice through military commissions.” Mackenzie, however, was unable to bring justice for the killing of Henry because of racial prejudices in the area – prejudices which placed the troops in more danger than they encountered from Indians. Patrols left from both Ft. McKavett and Ft. Concho to search for Jackson, with Captain Henry Carroll sending Lieutenant John Bullis and six enlisted men out on the hunt – they returned with nothing. Lieutenant George Albee later led a 400 mile scouting mission, searching throughout Llano County – again, with no result.

Not until early 1870 would Jackson be found – by accident – when Carroll was investigating suspected cattle rustling near Mason. Knocked from his horse and captured, Jackson was “stunned by the fall, hump-backed, deceptively frail looking, and perhaps feigning injury,” and apparently was able to convince Carroll and Concho’s post surgeon, William Notson, that he should remain, under guard, with his family. Corporal Alfred Marshall and Privates Charles Murray and David Brown were assigned to guard Jackson, taking turns watching over him, his wife, and two daughters at their cabin in Menard.

News of the capture made the rounds of the town and a group was soon formed to “rescue” Jackson and his family, arriving and demanding that the guard be removed. Following his orders, Corporal Marshall refused. What happened next is clouded in lies, exaggeration, and limited fact, but Private Brown survived a shootout in which his fellow soldiers were killed – one possibly by Elizabeth Jackson, who had been concealing a pistol in her dress. All involved soon fled, and Mackenzie was furious over the incident. Jackson’s family and two others were arrested and held, with Jackson himself evading capture through the help of citizens in the area. Unfortunately, conditions at Ft. McKavett didn’t allow for a long or deliberate search for the killers and after a month all were released.

Stephen Cavaness, one of those responsible for the attack and murders of the two soldiers, was later found and killed while trying to elude Lieutenant Bullis and his nine soldiers, tasked by Carroll to scout for Indians southwest of Ft. McKavett. Jackson escaped again, but in April 1871, with the restoration of civil government, he posted bond in Menard and stood trial – knowing he would not be convicted. He later became something of a legend in Texas folklore. Unfortunately, the men of the 9th faced hostile racism throughout their entire time in Texas.

Although they protected many towns in the Lone Star State, the Buffalo Soldiers often faced the hostility of the very settlers they protected. For example, Jacksboro, Texas, had 27 saloons for its 200 white residents. The townspeople included tough cowpunchers and prostitutes who lured the blacks on leave from their posts. One citizen murdered a black trooper and, later, killed two other black soldiers sent to arrest the killer. Needless to say, the killer was found innocent by an all-white jury.

Not all citizens in the area had the same view and in 1870 several citizens “openly expressed their gratitude to Mackenzie and the Buffalo Soldiers.”  One such letter stated that more soldiers of the caliber of the Ranald Mackenzie and the Buffalo Soldiers were needed. Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry faced three enemies during their time in Texas – the Indians they were sent out to locate, marauders on both sides of the Mexican border, and the townspeople under their protection. The move to New Mexico in 1876 would see the same, though the threat from the Apache would dramatically increase.

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