With Barack Obama set to become the first American president of African-American descent, 3,000 or so of the 19th century Army veterans who served at Fort Davis must be high-fiving each other somewhere in the beyond. The remote post in a high, dry valley in West Texas was home to about that many Buffalo Soldiers
— black troops who safeguarded the 600-mile-long road between San Antonio and El Paso from Apache and Comanche raids for more than 20 years.
Fort Davis was established in 1854 and abandoned in 1862, a time period now referred to as “the first fort
.” Ironically, given the events that followed its beginnings, it was named after Jefferson Davis. In 1854, West Point graduate Davis served in President Franklin Pierce’s cabinet as Secretary of War. Eight years later, he was president of the Confederate States of America – and there lies the irony.
In 1967, the Army sent Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Merritt, who was white, to rebuild Fort Davis (“the second fort”) and to command hundreds of largely black troops. Exhibits in the small, compelling museum depict those times, This Fort Davis National Historic Site is an important stop for people interested in African-American history, as well as military history, and with the presidency of Barack Obama, should become even more so.
In the post-Civil War era, about 20 percent of the military in the West were black, but at Fort Davis, the combination of Union veterans and former slaves amounted to about 50 percent. In addition to protecting emigrants, settlers, mail coaches and freight wagons during the subsequent Indian Wars, the Buffalo Soldiers explored and mapped large areas of the Southwest. They strung telegraph lines to connect frontier outposts that they were also instrumental in building. After the Texas frontier quieted down, the government decommissioned the fort for good in 1891.
Meanwhile, in 1877, Second Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African-American West Point graduate, had been assigned to Fort Davis. He was an officer in the Tenth U. S. Cavalry, one of two African American-cavalry regiments. Four years later, he was court-martialed in the post chapel (ruins and interpretive sign, below) for embezzlement of commissary funds and for “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.”
He pleaded not guilty and was acquitted on the embezzlement charge but convicted for making a false statement, signing financial records he knew to be incorrect and for writing a check on a nonexistent bank account. The conviction, which historians studying the court martial records much later recognized as bias-based, carried an automatic sentence of dismissal from the army. In 1999 President Bill Clinton posthumously pardoned him.
To Chuck Hunt, superintendent of the Fort Davis National Historic Site, it is a civil rights landmark as well as a military outpost. “The Army was the first federal job for many African-Americans. It was an important transitional role for men who went from slave to soldier to citizen.” What a fitting waypost to the present time with an African-American poised to become the First Citizen of the United States of America.
Like many Western posts, Fort Davis was never walled. The Army presence was enough to deter most Indian raiders. At its peak, the post comprised enlisted men’s barracks and officers’ quarters facing each other across the parade ground. On the periphery were storehouses, stables (after all, it was a cavalry fort), the post chapel, the post hospital and other outbuildings.
The fort, which had fallen into disrepair, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and became a unit of the National Park System the following year. Park Service policy is to restore more intact buildings (below) and stabilize others, to that today, 24 four restored historic buildings, five furnished to the style of the 1880s and more 100 ruins and foundations are found on the 474-acre site.
work is continuing on several buildings, notably the post hospital (below)
, which received a ave Our American Treasures
grant. Students from the University of Vermont have coming to Fort Davis on summer restoration workshops to stabilize the structure. When the building’s restoration is completed, the North Ward and the surgeon’s quarters will be furnished too.
The past comes to life through a seasonal interpretive program by rangers and volunteers in period costumes. And the past is being honored with the protection of its historic viewshed. The fort sits on a flat parcel at the mouth of Hospital Canyon. The cliffs of Davis Mountains State Park
and Sleeping Lion Mountain form the backdrop for the site. Thirty-seven acres visible from the fort were at one point threatened with a real estate development. An unnamed angel purchased the land and is holding it until the government can take possession of it – a process that literally requires an act of Congress. Write to your Senators and Representative to ask them to support such legislation.
Along Highway 17 (near the junction with Highway 118) just outside of Fort Davis, Tex. The closest airports are in El Paso about 220 miles (4 hours) and Midland/Odessa 175 miles (2½ hours). Amtrak and Greyhound serve Alpine (22 miles).
Open: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday.
$3 for ages 16 and older, free for 15 and under. All National Parks Passes are valid.
The closest accommodations are in Davis Mountains State Park
, P. O. Box 1707, Fort Davis, TX 79734; 432-426-3337. There are sites with and without RV water, electricity and sewer hookups – and even cable TV, plus primitive campsites for backpackers and equestrians. Within the park is Indian Lodge
, a historic adobe inn built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and recently expanded and restored; 432-426-3254.
Hotels, motels, B&Bs and campgrounds can also be found in Fort Davis (Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 378; Fort Davis, TX. 79734; 800-524-3015 or 432-426-3015) and Alpine (Alpine Visitor Bureau, 106 North Third Street, Alpine, TX 79830; 800-561-3735 or 432-837-2326).
Fort Davis National Historic Site, P.O. Box 1379, Fort Davis, TX 79734.