Book Review: Commander and Builder of Western Forts, by Jack Stokes Ballard

By HistoryNet Staff
6/1/2012 • Wild West Reviews

Commander and Builder of Western Forts: The Life and Times of Major General Henry C. Merriam 1862–1901, by Jack Stokes Ballard, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 2012, $35

For every U.S. Army officer whose acts of derring-do in the West electrified newspaper readers in the East, there were scores of others who consolidated the victories in more mundane but ultimately more substantial ways. Author Ballard, a career U.S. Air Force officer and historian at the USAF Academy, has researched the records and kept the personal letters of one such officer, Henry Clay Merriam, whose 38-year career encompassed a sizable cross section of the settlement period on the American frontier.

Hailing from Houlton, Maine, and educated at Colby College, Merriam began his career, like so many of his colleagues, in the Civil War, joining the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry at age 24 in 1862. After distinguishing himself in the East and rising to captain, he was transferred to the Department of the Gulf and put in charge of a succession of U.S. Colored Troop regiments, climaxing with his command of the 73rd USCT at Fort Blakeley, outside Mobile, Ala., where on April 9, 1865, he led a daylight advance that breached its defenses to secure the fort—earning Lt. Col. Merriam the Medal of Honor.

Merriam continued his career through Reconstruction and into the West, where he served in numerous posts from Texas to the Pacific Northwest. “The narrative of his life, particularly in the West,” Ballard writes, “offers insights into the harsh realities of life for an army officer’s family.” Arguably the greatest tragedy of his life came at the hands of the elements, when a thunderstorm caused a sudden flooding of the Concho River that swept away his wife, Lucy, and infant daughter, Mamie, on the night of April 24, 1870. Merriam’s writings express the profound grief that might have overcome him had it not been for the support of his remaining “family,” his Army comrades. He carried on with his duties and eventually remarried. “His wives,” Ballard writes, “truly personified his grit and determination.”

Merriam’s participation on the periphery of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and the 1899 Coeur d’Alene mining riots exemplified as much his diplomatic skills as his use of force. The outcomes, while lacking in the stuff of legend, might better be measured by the intangible factor of the greater carnage they prevented. It is by that standard Ballard believes Merriam’s contribution should be appraised as a major force in shaping the time in which he lived.

Merriam himself believed he had carved himself a place in the advancement of Western civilization, which is why he carefully preserved his papers for posterity. In compiling a biography from them, the author may likewise convince the reader that Merriam indeed played “a most exemplary role…thereby revealing both what the West was like at the time, and how it was changing.”

—Jon Guttman

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