Fort Lancaster: Texas Frontier Sentinel [NOOK Book]


Today Fort Lancaster sits as a ghostly ruin in west Texas, far removed from any major highway. However, this frontier post once played a major role in the protection of the primary southern route to California after the discovery of gold. Built along Live Oak Creek near the junction with the Pecos, Fort Lancaster was established in 1855 as one of a chain of posts along the Military Road from San Antonio to El Paso. Until the establishment of Fort Stockton by troops from Fort Lancaster, this was the only garrison...
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Fort Lancaster: Texas Frontier Sentinel

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Today Fort Lancaster sits as a ghostly ruin in west Texas, far removed from any major highway. However, this frontier post once played a major role in the protection of the primary southern route to California after the discovery of gold. Built along Live Oak Creek near the junction with the Pecos, Fort Lancaster was established in 1855 as one of a chain of posts along the Military Road from San Antonio to El Paso. Until the establishment of Fort Stockton by troops from Fort Lancaster, this was the only garrison between Fort Clark and Fort Davis.

Manned by only one of two companies of the First Infantry, Fort Lancaster was one of the most isolated posts in Texas. The only civilian presence was a sutler and a stage stop for the overland mail. Maintaining the post, patrolling and protecting the road and occasional contact with Indians made up most of the routine. Official inspections, the arrival of the camel expedition, the passage of the Regiment of Mounted Rifles, and several pitched fights with Apaches added spice to an otherwise predictable existence.

The history of Fort Lancaster is not one of great men or great events. It is the story of the commonplace life of soldiers on the isolated American frontier during a time when communications relied upon horse and wagon, and the road they guarded was the vital link to California. Remote, poorly constructed, and inadequately garrisoned, Fort Lancaster stands as an excellent example of the typical frontier post in the pre-Civil War era.

Today Fort Lancaster is operated by Texas Parks and Wildlife as a State Historic Park. As isolated today as it was when active, the atmospheric ruins of Fort Lancaster are a stark reminder of Army life on the Texas frontier.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781625110183
  • Publisher: Texas State Historical Assn Press
  • Publication date: 1/30/2014
  • Series: Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series, #13
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 76
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

LAWRENCE JOHN FRANCELL is a museum services consultant and lives in Fort Davis. He is a volunteer at Fort Davis National Historic Site and is an Adjunct Lecturer in the Museum Studies Department of Baylor University.
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Read an Excerpt

Fort Lancaster

Texas Frontier Sentinel

By Lawrence John Francell

Texas State Historical Association

Copyright © 1999 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62511-018-3



THE END OF THE MEXICAN WAR and the discovery of gold in California created an overwhelming need for communication with the West. The primary means of transportation and communication, burdensomely slow, were by wagon road. Travel was time consuming, and subject to the vicissitudes of weather. Roads were potentially dangerous, especially where they disrupted the lives and routines of the Native Americans living or hunting in the area. The United States Army was not equipped to deal with the vast area under its jurisdiction. There were not adequate resources to provide even minimal protection for the various established routes west. By establishing posts such as Fort Lancaster at strategic locations, the army attempted to fulfill its assigned mission with limited means.

Fought for the cause of Manifest Destiny, the Mexican War, 1846–1848, together with the Gadsden Purchase, 1853, filled in the southwestern boundaries of the American nation. Before the Mexican War, the United States Army consisted of approximately six thousand men. Charged with protecting the Atlantic Coast, the Great Lakes, and a frontier just west of the Mississippi, this force of regulars consisted primarily of units of infantry and artillery for coastal defense. An invasion force advancing on four major fronts, the army during the Mexican War grew to over forty-seven thousand.

The crucible that would form leaders for both armies in the Civil War, these men were volunteers, mostly, and they quickly mustered out once the conflict ended. However, the postwar mission of the army had changed greatly. With its strength reduced to ten thousand, the army now had to defend a frontier that ranged from the mountains of the Pacific Northwest to the deserts of the Southwest. Of the 166 companies that made up the U.S. Army, the West received 126. While this represented the bulk of available strength, it fell far short of what was actually needed.

The true strength of these various companies was always below that mandated by army regulations. Desertion, discharge, and death produced an annual turnover of 28 percent. This, coupled with the haphazard methods of recruitment, meant that the actual strength of the army consistently fell as much as 18 percent below that authorized by Congress. In 1850, as an attempt to remedy the manpower problem, an Executive Order increased the authorized strength of companies. Enhanced recruitment brought an additional three thousand men into the ranks, but real numbers did not increase significantly beyond ten thousand until 1855. In that year, the demands of frontier defense won out. With the addition of two new infantry and two new cavalry regiments, the army was increased, by Act of Congress, to over fifteen thousand. Even so, company strength fluctuated constantly. The monthly Post Returns for Fort Lancaster illustrate the situation. In January 1856 both companies manning the post mustered only eighty-nine soldiers between them, but by February strength was up to seventy apiece.

Fort Lancaster illustrated another major weakness of the U.S. Army in this period. For the duration of its existence, infantry garrisoned the fort. The military leadership understood that the most effective way to patrol the roads and fight the nomadic Indian tribes was with mounted troops. However, only Congress had the authority to establish the composition of the army, and cavalry cost more than infantry. Consequently the greater number of regiments were infantry. J. D. B. Stillman, a civilian doctor serving under contract at Fort Lancaster in 1855, clearly described the problem: "what can be expected when an officer is sent with a company of riflemen, when they are sent with a long train of wagons, which can ... barely carry forage for their own mules' consumption, thundering over the road, encumbered with hen coops and milch cows, tents, heavy bedding and all the paraphernalia of the camps of a regular army, and their progress announced with a flourish of trumpets."

On the national level there was no coherent Indian policy. Various administrations approached the problem differently, leaving the army without clear direction. Even without a policy, there was no lack of national debate. There were three general concepts regularly argued: subjugation, removal to reservations, and acculturation. With no consistent direction and large numbers of people moving west, the army developed a network of small posts protecting strategic areas.

The Quartermaster Department estimated that it cost between $250,000 and $300,000 per year to maintain an infantry regiment in garrison; the estimate for mounted units was twice as high. To keep cavalry in the field for a year was estimated to cost $1,500,000. And these figures did not include the initial costs of forming the regiment and supplying it with horses. These costs discouraged Congress from allocating the funds for the necessary mounted units, so it fell largely to the infantry to protect the frontier from highly mobile Indians. Thus, with the bulk of the army being infantry, and inadequate to the task at hand, experiments in mounting foot soldiers were conducted. They were only partially successful for, as Gen. Winfield Scott wrote, mounting foot soldiers "can only result in disorganizing the infantry, and converting them into extremely indifferent horsemen."

Fundamentally, the army was underfunded and ill-used. Part of this was a result of its own disorganization, and the lack of an effective command structure. Seldom was policy or strategy initiated in the War Department or U.S. Army Headquarters in Washington. Headquarters was often limited to ratifying decisions made by commanders in the field, and its time was largely spent in the unending task of procuring men and supplies and shipping them to the points of greatest need on the frontier.

Power and authority within the War Department and U.S. Army was diffused and decentralized. The secretary of war held most of the power, while the general in chief was primarily a figurehead. The heads of the staff departments, the adjutant general, quartermaster general, surgeon general, and chief engineer, did not report to the army commander. All reported directly to the secretary of war. As a result, each operated independently, with the strongest department being the adjutant general, the keeper ofrecords and the dispenser of orders. This situation often brought the commanding general into conflict with the secretary of war. Gen. Winfield Scott, the army commander through the 1850s, was in constant conflict with the secretary of war, Jefferson Davis.

The general in chief also suffered from being too far removed from the field, and was unable to exert effective control over his line officers. Without direction from Washington, the commanders of the various geographic departments shaped frontier defense policy. At the time Fort Lancaster was established, the Department of Texas was under the command of Bvt. Maj. Gen. Persifor F. Smith, who was responsible for the defense of the region.

While the adjutant general was the most powerful, the Quartermaster Department had the greatest influence on the men in the field. In 1848 this department primarily supplied eastern garrisons, most of which were readily accessible, but by 1855 there were more than fifty forts scattered over two million square miles. The Quartermaster Department had to contract with civilian freighters, and see to it that the troops in the field were supplied with an unending procession of salt beef, salt pork, bread, coffee, and a variety of other necessities. This often proved to be an impossible task.

With a decentralized command structure, much depended upon the quality of the officers in the field. It was from these ranks that both the North and the South would draw their military leadership during the Civil War, and the success and fame of some of these men attest to the overall quality of officers. However, the officers corps demonstrated contrasts ranging from energy, competence, and youth, to lethargy, incompetence, and age. The two greatest internal problems were slow promotion and low pay, both of which prompted many resignations. Pay ranged from twenty-five dollars per month for lieutenants to seventy-five dollars per month for colonels. Even considering allowances for rations, quarters, servants, fuel, and forage, this was far below what could be earned as a civilian. In 1857 Congress did raise the base pay by twenty dollars per month.

For many the promotion rate was more discouraging than the low pay. Officers advanced strictly by seniority—through captain in the regiment, through colonel in the infantry or artillery corps, and through the higher ranks in the army at large. There was no retirement list, which made promotion agonizingly slow, as officers were often kept on the rolls long after their effectiveness was gone. Junior officers were kept from the field grades until past their prime, taking twenty to thirty years to reach the rank of major. J. D. B. Stillman, writing from Fort Lancaster in 1855, describes the plight of junior officers as follows, "during the lone night while he listens to the sentry's call, and the wolf's answer from the hill, what has he to think of but the chances of his promotion, or orders to some new post, which he hopes will at least afford him a change, if it does not improve his situation. He has superiors." He then adds, "I do not know that I would not read the announcement of the demise of old Maj. Longwind, whereby I add a new bar to my shoulder-strap, with more unacknowledged satisfaction than I would of sorrow at the death of my junior officer."

Compounding the problem was the use of brevet promotion to reward battlefield achievement. Indian fights did not qualify, but most of the veteran officers of the Mexican War held one or more brevets. Many lieutenants and captains held brevets of major or colonel, while more than half of the colonels in the army held brevets of brigadier or major general. If these awards had been only honorary, there would have been no problem. However, under certain circumstances, they took effect in both rank and pay. Brevet ranks applied in commands composed of different corps, in detachments constituted of different corps, on courts-martial, and by designation of the president. This resulted in endless confusion.

The officer corps was anything but a tight band of professional soldiers. Factions were constantly quarreling: infantry against cavalry, staff against line, and—the sectionalism of the day being reflected strongly in the military—North against South. By the 1850s, 70 percent of officers possessed a West Point education, though there was no guarantee in this that a man would be a good officer. The Academy functioned primarily as an engineering college, but did serve to instill a sense of pride in its graduates; when it came to the challenges of protecting the frontier and fighting hostile Indians, however, even those educated at West Point were on their own.

In the field the army was organized into regiments of ten companies each. The artillery was divided into twelve companies, but ten of these functioned as infantry. After the reorganization of 1855, there were ten regiments of infantry, four of artillery, and five of mounted troops. The five mounted regiments were of three types: two of cavalry, two of dragoons, and one of mounted rifles, the latter being essentially a regiment of mounted infantry.

Each regimental company was under the command of a captain, assisted by a first and a second lieutenant and an orderly sergeant. Each company consisted of four squads with a sergeant and a corporal. The regimental field and staff consisted of a colonel, a lieutenant colonel, two majors and an adjutant. A quartermaster was detailed from the line officers. A sergeant major, quartermaster sergeant, and musician composed the noncommissioned staff. A regiment theoretically numbered nine hundred, but in reality one or two officers and forty men per company was the average. The monthly Post Returns from Fort Lancaster show company strength fluctuating from forty to eighty men.

The fort was the central institution of the frontier army. All forts conformed to a basic pattern; most were isolated far from settlements, and were built with the materials at hand. In the Southwest this meant a liberal use of earth for construction. Where available, thatch, canvas, stone, and wood were also relied upon. Construction was a continuing process as a post progressed from rude temporary structures to permanent buildings. The first shelters at Camp Lancaster were of the most temporary construction, but by the time of abandonment the garrison had erected permanent stone and adobe buildings.

The fort was a self-contained community with its own official and social life based upon military rank and routine. There were families at even the most isolated posts. At the top of a strict hierarchy were the commanding officer and his wife, while at the bottom were the enlisted families. Between the officers and enlisted personnel there was little interaction, but each group managed to create its own social life. The post adjutant and sergeant majorwere the administrative agents of the commanding officer. The post quartermaster was responsible for supplying and housing the garrison, and the commissary officer was responsible for feeding it. A surgeon, often a civilian under government contract, operated the hospital and watched over the sanitary conditions of the post. Company officers and noncommissioned officers supervised their units, and, working at their respective tasks, were the enlisted specialists: blacksmith, carpenter, cobbler, and baker. Drum or bugle calls regulated the routine of the day.

Garrison duty was the main occupation on the frontier. This consisted of a monotonous routine of drill, guard duty, and the unending construction and repair of the fort, called "fatigue duty." There were escorts and scout patrols to break the routine, and there was leisure time, but few ways to enjoy it. The soldier was forced to create his own forms of amusement, and he produced a wide variety. Reading was important to many, and at posts such as Fort Lancaster hunting and fishing were popular diversions that added variety to the common fare of the mess hall. However, the main entertainment was often drinking and gambling. Gambling was officially prohibited, but most soldiers readily participated and freely parted with their pay. The army attempted to control the use of alcohol, but it was never eliminated. At Fort Lancaster the two main sources of alcohol were the civilian sutler and travelers along the road.

For an enlisted man the army offered little. A recruit joined for five years and after 1854, when there was a pay raise, he earned eleven dollars a month in the infantry and artillery and twelve dollars a month in the mounted regiments. If a man made sergeant he could look forward to seventeen dollars a month, but even this was less than a civilian laborer could make. To encourage re-enlistment there was an additional two dollars a month for the second hitch, and one dollar a month for each thereafter. The paymaster was to visit each post every two months, but it was not unusual for an isolated garrison to go without pay for as long as six months. Army life mostly involved common labor rather than the pursuit of hostile Indians. The lack of civilian labor at most frontier locations, and the need to economize meant that the enlisted soldier had to do the work of construction and maintenance. Still, the army did manage to attract recruits despite the hardship, isolation, and low pay. Many were immigrants unable to find other work, while some were men lured west for adventure. Many were running from the law. The ideal recruit, as far as the army was concerned, was the stereotypical American farm boy, but not many of these joined the ranks. Immigrants, mostly Irish and German, filled out the enlisted ranks.

When a recruit joined the army he received his uniform, rations, and weapons, and was provided with quarters. The daily ration varied as little as the daily routine. At many locations, in order to vary the diet, a post garden was maintained. The inspector general of the army, Col. Joseph Mansfield, in his inspection of Fort Lancaster in 1860, wrote that the commanding officer, Capt. Robert Granger, "has repeatedly made efforts for a post garden; and the past season by great labor, has succeeded in supplying his men with mellons, and Summer vegetables to a considerable extent. But all the plants have to be watered by hand."


Excerpted from Fort Lancaster by Lawrence John Francell. Copyright © 1999 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Excerpted by permission of Texas State Historical Association.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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