On state highway 104 north out of Tucumcari, New Mexico, there is a roadside sign marking the location of “Fort Bascom”. Looking across the countryside, there seems to be nothing to indicate the existence of a frontier fort. Maybe a lumpy rise or two, but Fort Bascom, made mostly out of adobe bricks, always had leaky roofs, walls, and windows, and, after it was abandoned, slowly melted back into the earth from which it had sprung. Pictures from the early 1900s show crumbling wall segments standing in the rugged landscape like a set of broken teeth, but even those are no more.
It is unfortunate. Fort Bascom is surprisingly important to the history of the Southwest, more to Texas than to New Mexico, but it served both well through its major period, 1863-1870, and a few years afterwards.
I have written about Colonel Kit Carson leaving Fort Bascom with an expedition of soldiers along an ancient wagon road that eventually led him to the site of the old Adobe Walls trading post, on the Canadian River a few miles northeast of my home town. The ensuing battle with the Kiowas was Carson’s largest Indian fight and ended with his immediate retreat (Carson had a few hundred men fighting a few thousand Indians). He told his officers that they would regroup and return to the battle, but he correctly realized that his men’s horses and mules were in too bad a condition to resume the fight. He continued westward and returned to Fort Bascom.
Carson had been in the country some years before and knew that he could find sufficient water (almost always by streams or springs, not by way of the Canadian River, which was sometimes undrinkable), and enough forage for the animals. On the other hand, he chose to make his expedition travel during the winter, hoping to find the Kiowa and Comanche tribes settled in their winter camps. If he could fight battles, it would be good, but it was as important to destroy the Indian villages, their goods and stored food, and, in particular, their horses.
Carson’s expedition had barely made the two hundred miles to Adobe Walls (it took a couple of weeks) before he had to immediately go into battle. He had traveled a long, hard, barely-capable road; didn’t have enough rest time for the animals to recuperate from their efforts; had found sufficient water, but not enough time to drink as much as needed (he had about 500 horses, mules, and cattle that needed to drink every day, as well as 400 or more men); had found the winter grass and other field foods at a low; and struggled against the savage winter weather.
He had expected and planned for the degradation of his military capabilities, but was still surprised that his army was so worn-out. If he had not turned around when he did, history would be describing his massacre.
The book, Fort Bascom, by James Bailey Blackshear, describes Kit Carson’s expedition and the other military campaigns involving soldiers from Fort Bascom from 1863, when it was built, to 1875, after the Red River War was finished.
In his descriptions, I was amazed at the shear volume of stuff needed by the U.S. Army to wage war against the Southern Indian tribes (mainly Kiowa and Comanche) that inhabited the Panhandle of Texas and the western edge of Indian Territory, later called Oklahoma. There were military forts scattered around the perimeter of the area, but none were located within the Comancheria, meaning that any military campaigns to engage the tribes involved traveling hundreds of miles.
Based on Kit Carson’s experience in the First Battle of Adobe Walls, later Army commanders chose to take along the forage needed by their animals – hay, oats, corn, other grains – as well as the food, weapons, ammunition, and supplies required by the soldiers and non-military contractors (teamsters, packers, ox drivers, farriers, butchers, etc). That meant wagons – lots of wagons. And they expected to be in the field for weeks or months, which demanded the establishment of supply lines, with people dedicated to maintaining and protecting those supply lines.
For example, four years after Carson’s expedition, during General Sheridan’s 1868 Winter Campaign, Major Evans, from Fort Bascom, took 442 enlisted men, 10 officers, 72 civilians, 9 scouts, 47 supply wagons, 3 ambulances, a herd of 329 extra horses, 27 mules, 20 packers, and four mountain howitzers with a squad of twenty gunners to operate them. He also took a herd of 300 cattle.
At the last minute, he added two ten-wagon ox trains, carrying 93,000 pounds of corn and 64,600 pounds of oats. He established a supply depot close to the Canadian River (several miles farther east from Adobe Walls) as a base for the smaller expeditions that would be sent out to pursue their adversaries. Once the depot was operating, empty wagons and ox trains returned to Fort Bascom to be reloaded and driven back.
Sheridan’s Campaign included a similar force under the command of Major Eugene Carr from Fort Lyon, Colorado, while a third force from Camp Supply was commanded by an experienced cavalry officer named Colonel George Armstrong Custer. The three forces were to be coordinated between the commanders, but it did not significantly materialize.
Another example is when Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie, from Fort Concho, led an expedition to find the camps of the Comanches and Kiowas in June of 1872. He established a supply base at Blanco Canyon (close to present-day Crosbyton, Texas). He had about 500 soldiers, 12 six-mule wagon teams and pack animals from Fort Richardson; 8 six-mule wagon teams and pack animals from Fort Griffin; and 5 six-mule wagon teams from Fort Concho, all of which hauled forage, food, and supplies. They were driven by civilian teamsters. Additionally, there was a herd of cattle, two butchers, and an ambulance.
In August of 1872, Colonel Gregg, from Fort Bascom, led an expedition into Texas, with 214 Eighth Cavalry soldiers, 11 officers, 38 supply wagons, and a large herd of cattle.
In the second half of 1874, General Sheridan launched the Red River War. It was the largest military campaign in the region and was intended to be the final effort to either destroy the Indian tribes or to force them onto reservations in Indian Territory. He devised a five-pronged campaign to eventually destroy the resources of the tribes and put them into a position where their continued survival would mean surrender.
From Fort Bascom, Major Redwood Price led an expedition with 225 soldiers, 20 mule-drawn wagons provided by the army, 24 mule-drawn wagons provided by contractors, and 30 pack mules, plus a herd of cattle. They created a supply depot on the Canadian River at Adobe Walls.
Major General Nelson Miles, leaving from Camp Supply in northwest Indian Territory, had similar numbers of men, horses, mules, wagons, and cattle, as did Colonel Mackenzie from Fort Concho, Lt. Colonel George Buell from Fort Richardson, and Lt. Colonel John Davidson from Fort Sill. They established supply depots where needed.
In terms of performance, Sheridan’s plan worked well enough: each prong killed few warriors but destroyed camps, shelters, food supplies, ammunition, and, most importantly, horses. By winter, General Sheridan achieved his goals: the tribal chiefs found themselves unable to defeat starvation, lack of mobility, and the weather. They began moving to the reservations.
I had previously read about the Red River War, but never comprehended the scale of the operation. The challenge of the logistics, the timing, the management of men, animals, and resources, not to mention herds of cattle, and the shear audacity it took to move just one of the forces is hard to imagine.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.