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Fort Mason, TX
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
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.
sketch of an encampment on the Leona
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.

1847 map of Mexico and Texas
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.
emigrants rushing westward
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
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 material—Edwards 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.
drilling at Ft. Davis
Drill on parade ground, Fort Davis. Tasks of the soldiers ranged from tedious routine—guard duty, fatigue duty, and drills—to the sometimes less monotonous field assignments—patrolling, 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 their abandonment.

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) followed thereafter.

Gen. Persifor Smith
General Persifor Smith oversaw construction of eight Texas forts during the 1850s. Courtesy National Archives.
soldiers building a Texas fort
Soldiers at the Texas forts did much of the building, saving on construction costs. Click for more detail. Painting courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Fort Phantom Hill
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.
Ft. Lancaster
Fort Lancaster 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.
map of Texas during the Civil War
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 soldiers
Black soldiers—most of them newly freed slaves—joined 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 system.

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 north—Forts 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.

Gen. Philip Sheridan
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.
Forts in 1866
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 and west.
marching cavalry
Tracking 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.
combat table
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.
graph of composition of US army
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.
graph of the total strength of the US army
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 Ft. McKavett
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 army doctrine.

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
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.
stagecoach in the mud
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.
army encampment
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 possible.

Travelers at Ft. Concho
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 Frontier Forts Supporters and Contributors). Maps and graphics, unless otherwise noted, were composed by Clayton Drescher.

Print Sources

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, Austin.

1999   The U. S. Army and the Texas Frontier Economy, 1845-1900. Texas A&M University Press, College Station.

Utley, Robert
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 History, Washington.

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.

Wooster, Robert
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, College Station.