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 1867, 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 designated 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 was black, but at Fort Davis, the combination of black Union veterans and former slaves amounted to about 50 percent of the troops. 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.
Before that happened, though, Second Lieutenant Henry Ossian Flipper, the first African-American West Point graduate, in 1877 was assigned to Fort Davis as an officer in the Tenth U. S. Cavalry, one of two African American-cavalry regiments. Four years later, he was court-martialed 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, the fort 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,” he says.
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 of a deterrent to keep most Indian raiders away. 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.
Although the fort fell into disrepair, enough was left to merit National Historic Landmark designation in 1960 and addition into the National Park System the following year. National Park Service policy is to restore the most complete buildings and stabilize others. Today, the 474-acre site contains 24 four restored buildings, (five of which are furnished to the style of the 1880s) and more than 100 ruins and foundations. Between the decommissioning of the fort and its restoration, the remains of soldiers buried in the post cemetery were disinterred and moved to the San Antonio National Cemetery.
Restoration work is continuing on several buildings, notably the post hospital, which received a Save Our American Treasures grant. Students from the University of Vermont have been 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 has purchased the land and is holding it until the government can take possession of it – a process that literally requires an act of Congress.