Frontier Crossroads: Fort Davis and the West

by Robert Wooster, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 2006, $24.95.

When reading about isolated but intriguing 19th-century west Texas, where the mail was carried on the San Antonio–El Paso Road and Mescalaro Apaches and buffalo soldiers roamed, Fort Davis inevitably gets mentioned a time or two. To an Easterner who has never visited the historic site, Fort Davis is one of those frontier military outposts that sounds familiar (but not as much as, say, Fort Laramie or Fort Union) and that you know was erected on dangerous, lawless ground (after all, it was west of the Pecos) but that you can’t quite get a handle on. Well, that’s all changed now, thanks to Robert Wooster’s 210-page book. Frontier Crossroads chronicles the fort in such fine fashion that any reader will get a clear picture of the military garrison, of the settlement that rose around it and of the frontier experience.

Established in 1854 near the Davis Mountains, the fort was said by one observer to be surrounded by the best scenery in the Lone Star State. Wooster sums up its importance: “Located astride communication lines linking San Antonio, El Paso, Presidio, and Chihuahua City, Fort Davis commanded a strategic position at a military, cultural, and economic crossroads.” A trans-Pecos site was chosen for frontier defense by Brevet Maj. Gen. Persifor F. Smith, and the fort was named in honor of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Camels made their presence felt at Fort Davis just before the Civil War, and they proved hardier than mules. But they were not good when the ground was slippery, and the soldiers, according to Wooster, “detested the beasts’ acute halitosis, bad odor, and voluminous sneezing.”

In any case, the Army’s experimental use of camels ended with indifference, and the fort fell into Confederate hands early in the Civil War. The next year, Federal troops from California found the place abandoned. Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt oversaw the reoccupation of Fort Davis in June 1867, now with a black garrison. In the years to come, the black soldiers spent much of their time building a better fort, scouting a wide range of territory and campaigning against Plains Indians.

Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point, had his most distressful Army experiences at Fort Davis in 1881, and a court-martial dismissed him from the service. After Merritt, there were several other notable post commanders, especially William (Pecos Bill) Shafter and Benjamin Grierson. The presence of outlaws in the area also convinced the state to station a company of Rangers at Fort Davis. At its peak in 1882, the garrison included 646 men. By 1891 the fort had outlived its usefulness as a military station, but the settlement of Fort Davis (which had some 800 civilians in 1890) did not die. The Fort Davis National Historic Site was created in 1961. Texas history buffs will surely appreciate Frontier Crossroads, and Wooster’s interesting fort portrayal will inspire a west Texas visit or two.

 

Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here