Fort Davis National Historic Site

Fort Davis National Historic Site



African Americans in the Frontier Army


   It was opposed by many, considered only an experiment by others, but the Act of 1866 to increase the size of the Regular Army changed the course of military history, and afforded African Americans a permanent place in the Armed Forces of the United States.
   The legislation stipulated that of the new regiments created, two cavalry and four infantry “shall be composed of colored men.”  For the first time in the history of the United States soldiers of African-American descent could serve in the peacetime army.
   Exemplary service in the Civil War had paved the way for the authorization of the “colored” units.  Designated the Ninth and Tenth United States Cavalry regiments, and the Thirty-eighth, Thirty-ninth, Fortieth, and Forty-first United States Infantry regiments, they were organized under white officers between the summers of 1866 and 1867.


   Formation of the Ninth Cavalry initially took place in Louisiana with its first recruits enlisting in August 1866.  Seven months later, when the regiment marched into Texas, it numbered 885 enlisted men.
    On June 29, 1867 four companies of the Ninth, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt, reoccupied the abandoned post at Fort Davis.  The Ninth and Merritt had a sizeable job ahead of them.  In addition to helping to construct a new post, they had to contend with the Apache and Comanche Indians. 
   The protection of travelers and the mail on the San Antonio-El Paso Road was their primary concern.  Small detachments of men were placed at a number of stage stops, while other troops scouted and patrolled the vast Trans-Pecos region of western Texas.  In September 1875, the Ninth transferred to New Mexico.  During the years spent at Fort Davis, the regiment helped build the post into one of the largest in the state.
   The mid-to-late 1880s saw units of the regiment in Wyoming, Utah, Nebraska, and Kansas.  In the spring of 1890, seven Ninth Cavalry troops were sent to the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations during the last uprising of the Sioux Nation.


   Organization of the Tenth Cavalry proceeded at a slower pace than the other African American regiments due in part to the lack of officers and the insistence of its commander, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, to enlist only men who met his very high standards.
   Undaunted though, the small regiment in the summer of 1867, became quickly involved in a series of fights with the Cheyenne as they guarded Kansas Pacific Railroad work crews.  Soon the regiment saw duty in Colorado and Oklahoma and engaged in skirmishes with the Kiowa and Comanche.
    In 1873, five companies of the regiment arrived in Texas and two years later Company H was ordered to Fort Davis.  For the next ten years units of the Tenth served at the post, which became headquarters for the regiment in 1882. 
   A major campaign involving the Tenth occurred in 1879-1880 when the Apache leader Victorio and a number of followers fled the Fort Stanton reservation in New Mexico and began raiding in western Texas and northern Mexico.
   The campaign called for the largest concentration of soldiers ever assembled in the Trans-Pecos area.  Six companies of the Tenth Cavalry and one company of the Twenty-fourth Infantry guarded water holes and patrolled the region.  Major confrontations occurred at Tinaja de las Palmas (a waterhole south of Sierra Blanca) and at Rattlesnake Springs (north of Van Horn).
   These two engagements halted Victorio and forced him to retreat to Mexico where he and many of his kinsmen were killed by Mexican troops in October 1880.
   In April 1885, the Tenth Cavalry moved to the Department of Arizona where it spent much of its time in the field during the Geronimo Campaign.


   In 1869, the army consolidated the infantry regiments.  The Thirty-eighth and Forty-first became the Twenty-fourth, while the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth combined to form the Twenty-fifth.


   Companies of the new Twenty-fourth Infantry served at Fort Davis from 1869 to 1872 and again in 1880.  Guarding stage stations and constructing roads and telegraph lines throughout western Texas and southeastern New Mexico became routine for these foot soldiers.  They also spent time chasing the illusive Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa.  Although rarely seeing action, Company H was involved in the Battle of Rattlesnake Springs that ultimately forced the Apaches under Victorio to retreat to Mexico in the summer of 1880.  
   After serving in Texas, the Twenty-fourth transferred to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) with headquarters at Fort Sill. Here its duties included overseeing the thousands of Indians held on reservations and keeping settlers out of the territory.  The regiment moved to New Mexico and Arizona in 1888 where it again found itself in the role of a sentinel guarding Apaches and protecting settlers.


   The Twenty-fifth Infantry began its existence in Louisiana and Mississippi performing usual garrison duties.  Within a short period, it received orders to proceed to Texas where its companies found themselves scattered far and wide to posts in the western part of the state.  Scouting, escort and guard details, and road building soon became regular assignments. 
   Companies of the Twenty-fifth arrived at Fort Davis in July 1870 and served at the post until July 1880.  One of their most important tasks involved construction of ninety-one and one-half miles of telegraph line from Fort Davis to Eagle Springs (near present-day Sierra Blanca, Texas).  The line served as the vital communications link used by Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, Tenth U. S. Cavalry, during the Victorio Campaign.
   In 1880, the regiment transferred to the Dakota Territory where its duties initially were similar to those performed at Fort Davis.  Soon the regiment settled into performing routine garrison tasks, however, this tranquil state was jarred when the regiment was sent to Montana in 1888.  Ordered into the field, it participated in the Pine Ridge Campaign of 1890-91. 
   The early 1890s saw the men of the Twenty-fifth restoring peace in a mining district in Idaho where labor unions had declared open war on mine owners.  The regiment, along with the Tenth Cavalry, then spent time guarding trains on the Northern Pacific Railroad after labor troubles erupted in 1894.


   The men who enlisted in the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts proved to be some of the toughest to serve in the frontier army.  Descendants of African American people who had intermarried with the Seminole Indians in Florida, the Scouts had escaped slavery in the United States and were living in Mexico when they were recruited in 1870.
   The Scouts operated primarily out of Forts Clark and Duncan and saw combat in extremely rugged conditions on both sides of the border.  During twenty-six expeditions, the Scouts engaged in twelve battles without losing a single man in combat. They never numbered more than fifty men at a time, yet four of the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts were awarded the Medal of Honor.  They continued to serve in the army until 1914.


   Their mission was the same - to protect the mail and travel routes, control Indian movements and gain knowledge of the terrain.  Surmounting obstacles of harsh living conditions, difficult duty, and racial prejudice, the men who served in the African American regiments and in the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts, gained a reputation of dedication and bravery.  Stationed continuously on the frontier from the 1860s to the 1890s, they played a major role in the peaceful settlement and development of the American West.
   African American regiments later served in the Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, Mexican Punitive Expedition, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.  In the mid-1950s, the last of the African American units was finally desegregated.


Second Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper


On February 19, 1999 President William J. Clinton posthumously pardoned Second Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper. The event came 59 years after his death and 117 years after the young lieutenant had been dismissed from the United States Army. A short statement penned by President Chester Arthur in June of 1882, upholding the court-martial sentence of dismissal, had signaled the end to his military career.

At age 21, Flipper became the first African American graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. His assignment in July 1877 to the Tenth U. S. Cavalry, one of two African American cavalry regiments organized after the Civil War, was the realization of a personal dream.

In the fall of 1881, Lieutenant Flipper was court-martialed for embezzlement of commissary funds in violation of the 60th Article of War, and for “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman” under Article 61. Flipper pleaded not guilty to both charges. Although found not guilty of embezzlement, he was convicted of the second charge for making a false statement, for signing financial records he knew to be incorrect, and for writing a check on a nonexistent bank account. By regulations, this conviction carried an automatic sentence of dismissal from the army.

Early Schooling

Born into slavery at Thomasville, Georgia on March 21, 1856, Flipper later attended schools operated by the American Missionary Association and entered Atlanta University when it was established in 1869.

Military Career

The future cavalry officer’s military journey began in January of 1873 when he wrote to James Freeman, newly-elected Georgia congressman, asking to be appointed to West Point. Freeman responded that he would recommend Flipper if he proved "worthy and qualified." A series of letters exchanged between the two, ultimately resulted in Freeman nominating Flipper to the Academy. Flipper passed the required examinations and officially entered West Point on July 1, 1873.

Flipper’s four years as a cadet were characterized by above average grades earned in an environment of almost total social isolation from his classmates. When he graduated in 1877, he ranked 50th in a class of 76. He was assigned, along with four other graduates, to the Tenth Cavalry and soon found himself stationed on the frontier with Company A at Fort Sill, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

Early in 1879, Flipper’s company transferred to Fort Elliott, Texas. In November, the unit returned to Fort Sill where Flipper served briefly as the commander of Company G. While at Fort Sill, Flipper was detailed as the post's engineer and ordered to survey and supervise the construction of a drainage system to eliminate a number of stagnant ponds blamed for causing malaria. His efforts were successful, and in 1977, what became known as "Flipper's Ditch" was designated a Black Military Heritage Site.

In May, 1880 Company A left Fort Sill taking station at Fort Concho, Texas on June 17th. Two weeks later, the company was one of several in the field pursuing the elusive Apache leader, Victorio, and his small band of warriors who were raiding on both sides of the Rio Grande.

 Flipper arrived at Fort Davis on November 29, 1880 and soon was assigned the duties of Acting Assistant Quartermaster and Acting Commissary of Subsistence. He temporarily served as quartermaster until the regimental headquarters of the First U. S. Infantry, with its commander Colonel William R. Shafter, arrived in March 1881.

All seemed to be going well for the only African American officer in the army, until some commissary funds he was responsible for turned up missing. Stalling for time and fearing Colonel Shafter, who had the reputation of being a strict disciplinarian, Flipper tried to conceal the loss. These actions resulted in the court-martial. The trial was held in the post chapel at Fort Davis. Flipper was ably defended by Captain Merritt Barber, 16th Infantry, who volunteered to serve as counsel. In reviewing the trial the Judge Advocate General, the army’s chief legal officer, recommended a punishment other than dismissal. President Arthur, however, approved the court’s sentence.

Civilian Accomplishments

 After leaving the army, Flipper attained recognition and respect as a surveyor and in 1887 established a civil engineering office in Nogales, Arizona.

From 1893 to 1901, he worked for the U. S. Department of Justice as a special agent for the Court of Private Land Claims. In addition to his primary job of translating Spanish documents, he also surveyed land grants and often appeared as a government witness in court cases.

Flipper next was employed as a resident engineer with a mining company in Mexico. When the company ordered its employees out of the country following the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1912, Flipper moved to El Paso. While in El Paso, he served as the local representative of the Sierra Consolidated Mines Company.

Flipper became an interpreter and translator in 1919 for a Senate subcommittee on foreign relations, and in 1921, he was hired as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior working in the Alaskan Engineering Commission.

In 1923, William F. Buckley hired Flipper as an engineer for his newly formed Pantepec Oil Company in Venezuela. He remained in that capacity until July 1930 when he sailed for New York.

During the years following his dismissal from the army, Flipper maintained his innocence. He sought to clear his name through the only avenue open to him – the passage of a bill by Congress.

His first attempt to restore his former army rank and status occurred in 1898. His final effort resulted in legislation introduced into the Senate in 1924. None of the bills gained enough support or interest; all died quietly in committees. Henry Flipper died in 1940 at the age of 84, never knowing that his rank would someday be restored.

The Court-Martial: Another Look

It was the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and a concerted effort by historians to tell the story of all Americans that brought attention to the circumstances surrounding Flipper’s dismissal.

In late 1976, the case was reviewed by the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. While acknowledging that Flipper had falsified reports and lied to his commanding officer, the board concluded that “the continuance of the stigma from a dismissal, which characterizes his entire service as dishonorable, is unduly harsh, and therefore unjust.”

The board, therefore, recommended that all Flipper’s army records “be corrected to show that he was separated from the Army of the United States on a Certificate of Honorable Discharge on 30 June 1882.”

In the 1999 Executive Grant of Clemency, President Clinton granted “a full and unconditional pardon to Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper.”




First Fort Davis: 1854-1862

On October 23, 1854, General Persifor F. Smith, in command of the Department of Texas, issued the order officially establishing Fort Davis. Smith, who had personally selected the site, named it in honor of the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Washington Seawell, the fort was manned by companies of the Eighth U. S. Infantry, which served at the fort from 1854 until April of 1861.  The site for the first Fort Davis was believed to be on land owned by the State of Texas, which could either be leased or purchased for use by the U. S. Army. Soon after the location was selected, however, it was learned the land was owned by a San Antonio surveyor named John James. Immediately, the army took steps to lease the land from James. 

In October 1855, Second Lieutenant Zenas R. Bliss, Eighth U. S. Infantry, arrived at Fort Davis seventeen days after boarding the westbound stage in San Antonio. "The Post was the most beautifully situated of any that I have ever seen. It was in a narrow canyon with perpendicular sides, the walls of which were about 200 feet in height," the young officer later wrote. The necessity for the post, located some 400 miles from San Antonio and 200 miles from Franklin (present-day El Paso), stemmed from demands for protection on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. A major link along the most southern route to California, the road experienced an upsurge of travel in the early 1850s following the discovery of gold in California. As travel along the road increased, so did Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache raids into Mexico. Emigrants, mail carriers and merchants journeyed in constant fear of the raiding warriors who traveled between Mexico and their homelands to the north. Despite its picturesque terrain, the buildings were uncomfortable and difficult to keep warm. "I remember once in a snow storm the snow blew under my bed . . . and it stayed there several days without melting," wrote Lieutenant Bliss. In 1856, six stone barracks with thatched roofs and flagstone floors replaced inadequate enlisted men’s quarters. Along with the bakery, blacksmith shop, and a warehouse, they were the only substantial structures of the first fort.

In 1855-1856, Fort Davis boasted over 400 enlisted men and officers. At the time, it was deemed one of the largest posts on the frontier. Yet, in spite of its size, the task of insuring the safety of those traveling on the San Antonio-El Paso Road proved an almost insurmountable task for the infantrymen. Troops from the post engaged in numerous scouting patrols and expeditions, but encounters with Comanches and Apaches were rare. The ever-increasing traffic on the road proved to be inviting prey for the elusive Indians, and the foot soldiers had little success in exerting control over them.

According to Lieutenant Bliss, life at Fort Davis in 1855 was exceedingly dull. The post was home to six companies of the Eighth Infantry, the regimental band, a number of officers, but only three officers’ wives. "There were no parties or entertainments of any kind," Bliss wrote, and "not a house within one hundred miles" of the post. The young lieutenant remarked that although hunting in the area was good, "the Indians were so bad that no one ever thought of going more than three or four miles from the Post." By 1856, conditions improved. A bass-filled lake, discovered some thirty miles north of the post, proved a delight to all. If a large enough number of men went to the lake, they felt they were in little danger of attack. The enlisted men built a theatre and put on plays for the entertainment of the entire garrison. They also laid out a racecourse, and horse races became weekly events. Soldiers planted a garden, and according to Bliss, "we had cabbages that weighed 35 pounds" and celery "four feet long." 

In attempting to adequately supply Fort Davis and other southwestern posts, the army in 1855 embarked on an unusual experiment involving the importation of camels from the Middle East. Within the year, seventy-four camels were brought to Texas. Initially, a third of this number were outfitted to accompany Lieutenant Edward Beale as he surveyed a wagon road to Arizona. Beale and the camels passed through Fort Davis in the summer of 1857. Other camel expeditions followed in 1859 and 1860, with Fort Davis serving as a base of operations.The camels proved to be superior ‘beasts of burden’ as they were able to carry heavier loads than horses, mules, or oxen, and they required less water and food. The ‘camel experiments,’ which were championed by Jefferson Davis, however, were short-lived. Although successful, they were ultimately forgotten with the onset of the Civil War.

Following the outbreak of the Civil War in the Spring of 1861, federal troops withdrew from Fort Davis, and companies of the Second Texas Mounted Rifles became its new occupants. Confederates served at the post for a little over a year while it functioned as a crucial supply depot for General Henry H. Sibley's New Mexico Campaign. In August of 1862, Union forces regained control of the post but did not occupy it. Fort Davis remained abandoned from September of 1862 until June of 1867. When federal troops reestablished the post, they chose to move the location to the flat area east of the canyon. This is the site of the second and present fort and where Lieutenant Colonel Seawell wanted the first fort constructed.

The first Fort Davis served as a retreat for thousands of emigrants, freighters, and travelers during the decade preceding the Civil War. It provided protection for the U. S. Mail and saw the establishment of a number of stage stations and military posts in the region, including Fort Stockton and Fort Quitman. It was also an influencing factor in 1859 for the Butterfield Overland Mail to change its route to El Paso. The new route came through Fort Davis instead of following the road through the Guadalupe Mountains. Although the post did little to reduce Indian activity in western Texas, its presence encouraged travel on the San Antonio-El Paso Road and settlement in the Trans-Pecos region.

Second Fort Davis: 1867-1891

In the mid-1800s, thousands of pioneers, freight wagons, and mail carriers began traveling through the Trans-Pecos region of western Texas - many on their way to the gold fields of California. Because of the presence of Comanches and Apaches, the U. S. Army undertook to build a number of forts to protect their routes of travel. Fort Davis, established in 1854, was one of these posts. This “first” Fort Davis remained active until early in the Civil War, being abandoned in 1862.

After the Civil War, travel continued on the San Antonio-El Paso Road and so did raiding by Comanches and Apaches, which resulted in the army re-establishing Fort Davis. In June 1867, Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt arrived with four companies of the Ninth U. S. Cavalry, composed of black soldiers that later became known as Buffalo Soldiers, to rebuild the fort. Over 200 civilians were also hired to help construct the post. The fort was near Limpia Creek, a source of water, and in an area with stone and trees that could be used for building and heating, and where grass was plentiful for the animals.

Like most other western frontier army forts, no walls surrounded Fort Davis. The presence of the soldiers was enough to discourage Indian attacks. Although avoiding the fort itself, the Indians persisted in assaulting not only travelers and stage coaches on the road, but mail stations and new settlements. Warriors came from the mountains of New Mexico and the plains of Oklahoma to steal horses, cattle, guns and other goods. They were mobile and good at avoiding the soldiers.

From 1867 to 1881, scouting trips into the Guadalupe Mountains and to the Big Bend took up much of the soldiers’ time. Their presence gave warning to the Indians that they no longer had a safe hiding place. The army believed that extensive scouting - even if the soldiers did not encounter the Indians - helped lessen the number of attacks. By the late 1870s, Fort Davis troops had also built new roads and had strung 91 miles of telegraph wire to connect the post with other forts. Now the army could communicate long distances by telegraph, and not have to send messengers or use signal flags.

During the 1870s, the U. S. Government made a conscious effort to place the Comanches and Apaches who were raiding in western Texas on reservations. Most Indians, however, did not want to live on reservations and some, like the Apache leader Victorio, fled. In order to help track these “runaways” and provide more protection to travelers, the army began setting up sub-post or small camps. In a little over a year, troops from Fort Davis and its sub-posts traveled a total of 6,724 miles on scouting trips. Soldiers from Fort Davis and other forts fought the Apaches in the summer of 1880 and drove them into Mexico. There, Mexican troops killed Victorio and many of his followers in October 1880. Within a few months of Victorio’s death, the Indian Wars in Texas came to a close and life at Fort Davis became routine.

At any one time, there were from 100 to 400 enlisted men plus officers and families at the fort. The presence of such a large force encouraged the growth of the town adjacent to the post. The fort hired civilians as laborers, clerks, and laundresses. It purchased local supplies such as building materials, hay, fresh beef, wheat, and fresh fruits and vegetables. In 1884, the town of Fort Davis boasted of having a dairy, lumber yard, bakery, furniture store, and several hotels, mercantile stores, and saloons.

It was peaceful during the last ten years (1881-1891) the fort was in existence. Soldiers from the fort still patrolled the western frontier, but they were more involved in surveying or repairing roads and telegraph lines. The fort, however, continued to grow. By the late 1880s, it had gas lightening, running water, and an ice machine. It had over one hundred buildings, and its excellent hospital treated people from all around the area – not just people who lived at the fort.

The post, nevertheless, was isolated. Located twenty miles from the nearest railroad station, it was built on land the government did not own. Raiding by Comanches or Apaches was over. By June of 1891, the army had judged Fort Davis to have “outlived its usefulness” and ordered it - one of the largest and most prominent frontier military posts in the American Southwest - to be abandoned.