On Dec. 27, 1856, a howling blizzard greeted the famed 2nd Cavalry upon its arrival at Fort Belknap, and by morning many of the horse soldiers’ mounts had frozen to death in the subzero weather.
Fort Belknap was established six summers earlier, as the northern link in the chain of frontier defense extending from the Rio Grande to the Red River. William Goldsmith Belknap, the brevet brigadier general who picked the site at present-day Newcastle in Young County, named the outpost in his own honor.
The commander of Fort Graham questioned Belknap’s judgment in a report to their mutual superiors. “I could discover nothing to recommend the place,” wrote Capt. H.H. Sibley, future leader of the ill-fated Confederate invasion of New Mexico. “The site selected and the whole region for twelve miles around is most arid and unproductive.”
Belknap refused to reconsider his choice, despite the admitted lack of water. However, during his absence in November 1850, Capt. C.L. Stevenson moved the fort two miles to a bluff overlooking the Brazos. Belknap’s sudden death on the trail spared the stubborn founder the embarrassment of having been second-guessed by his second-in-command.
Even by the primitive standards of the day, Fort Belknap was an inhospitable eyesore. An officer said flatly he would not leave his horse overnight in the enlisted men’s quarters, and the post physician complained the infirmary provided practically no shelter from the wind, rain and cold.
Drinking, the scourge of lonely soldiers, took the usual toll at Fort Belknap. Besides the two recorded murders resulting from drunken brawls, alcoholism was rampant in the ranks. A proposal to restrict consumption to the post premises brought this criticism from an officer: “I do not believe that increasing the facilities for drunkenness will prove a remedy for it, or that furnishing men with intoxicating beverages or allowing them to get it daily and regularly will induce temperate habits.”
The arrival in December 1856 of the elite 2nd Cavalry gave the obscure post much-needed luster. The renowned regiment would contribute an astounding 17 generals, including Robert E. Lee, to the Civil War, and the colonel in charge during the detachment’s stay was none other than Albert Sidney Johnston, the revered Texan destined for death at the Battle of Shiloh.
In the spring of 1858, the 2nd Cavalry hit the saddle in response to a massacre in Jack County. Ten members of two pioneer families were slain by renegades, who were long gone by the time the bluecoats reached the scene of the crime.
From their federally protected sanctuaries in the Indian Territory, raiding parties repeatedly ravaged isolated farms and hamlets in northwestern Texas throughout 1858. Striking with impunity along the sparsely settled frontier, they scampered back across the Red River well ahead of pursuing patrols.
The rules of the game were finally changed in late 1858. Four companies of the 2nd Cavalry from Fort Belknap supported by 125 red allies led by Lawrence Sullivan Ross, future governor and president of Texas A&M, surprised a large band of Comanches deep inside the Indian Territory. The raiders were routed with the loss of 56 warriors and more than 300 ponies.
As the threat from the South Plains tribes diminished, civilization caught up with the western ring of army installations. Roads connected Fort Belknap and the town that shared its name with every point on the compass, and the thriving locale earned a stop on the Southern Overland Mail route.
The War Between the States brought this progress to a screeching halt. In anticipation of the sectional strife, Fort Belknap was shut down in February 1859 and not reactivated until April 1867.
After eight years of neglect, “desolation reigned supreme” according to the poetic impressions of the derelict written by a trooper. “Sand, sand everywhere. Dead buffalo lying on the parade ground, a few ancient rats and bats looked on us with an evil eye for disturbing their repose, and my first night’s rest in the old commissary was broken by visions of old infantry sentinels stalking ghost-like on their beats and the wind howling through the broken roof.”
Critical shortages of fresh water and manpower reduced Fort Belknap’s new lease on life to a mere five months. The nearby Brazos River had turned salty and “tasted like brine from a pork barrel.” The two springs and a well, which had quenched the thirst of the previous garrisons, had gone almost completely dry.
The unprecedented concentration of hostile Indians, an estimated 5,000 on the northwestern frontier, in the end sealed the fort’s fate. Belknap closed for good in September 1867, and the barebones complement of 194 officers and men joined their comrades at Fort Griffin.
I want to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas! You deserve it after the kind of year we’ve had.