Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Review of Blackshear - "FORT BASCOM: Soldiers, Comancheros, and Indians in the Canadian River Valley"

[Fort Bascom: Soldiers, Comancheros, and Indians in the Canadian River Valley by James Bailey Blackshear (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:210/272. ISBN:9780806152097. $29.95]

In recent years, North American borderlands have been a popular topic of study for scholars of the antebellum and Civil War eras. The border regions under consideration have included both the internal transitional zone between North and South and the settled fringes of a continually expanding United States. For the latter, fort building was one of the most common means of claiming sovereignty over contested borderlands. Situated atop a low shelf above a sweeping bend in the Canadian River just west of the Texas-New Mexico border, Fort Bascom inserted the United States military into an alien frontier environment settled for centuries by Hispanic New Mexicans and numerous native tribes like the Navajo, Apache, Utes, and the increasingly powerful Comanche and Kiowa of the Southern Plains. The 1860s and 1870s history of the fort is the subject of James Bailey Blackshear's excellent new study Fort Bascom: Soldiers, Comancheros, and Indians in the Canadian River Valley.

In the beginning of the book, Blackshear does a great job of presenting to the reader a brief natural history of the arid region where Fort Bascom would later be situated. In addition to enlightening discussions of regional geology and hydrology, he also delves into the area's flora and fauna. While newcomers to this part of the Canadian River Valley would find survival tough going, the New Mexicans and especially the tribal groups that lived and thrived there for generations were already well adapted to the harsh environment.

As the study amply demonstrates, the valley was a place where differing cultures clashed, but it was also one where mutually beneficial exchange occurred. Integral to this societal interconnectedness was the Comanchero trading system, whereby New Mexicans and Pueblo Indians traded finished goods, raw materials, food, livestock, and slaves with the Southern Plains Indians. In their efforts to defeat powerful raiding tribes like the Comanche and Kiowa, volunteer and regular U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Bascom would find this deeply entrenched economic system (in both its legal and illegal forms) very difficult to interdict and impossible to quash.

The disastrous Confederate defeat suffered during the 1861-62 New Mexico Campaign seemingly ended the threat to U.S.-held territory in the Southwest, but rumors of renewed enemy offensives kept Union authorities on edge for the balance of the Civil War. The original reason for the establishment of Fort Bascom in 1863 was to monitor and deter any further incursion by Texas Confederate forces into New Mexico. However, these fears never materialized and the garrison's primary purpose quickly evolved into fighting hostile Indians, intercepting dissident groups escaping the confines of the Bosque Redondo reservation, and attempting to block the Comancheros from supplying the weapons, goods, and information the Southern Plains Indians might use to resist the army. Many western fort studies, even for those installations established during 1861-65, tend to quickly gloss over the Civil War years before moving on to the great Indian Wars of the following decades. Not so Blackshear's Fort Bascom, which devotes at least half its length to the 1863-66 period, when U.S. volunteers were primarily responsible for patrolling and defending the Far West. The author discusses at great length not only the struggle to build, physically maintain, and supply the isolated fort but also the difficulties the army experienced when attempting to impose its will on what would be a three-way clash of cultures. One of the book's best sections is Blackshear's exploration of army life at the post. The many military expeditions launched either in full or in part from Fort Bascom are also detailed in the text. These include the campaign that would culminate in the 1864 Battle of Adobe Walls.

After the Civil War ended, regular troops (white and black) returned to Fort Bascom. During the war, the volunteers had done little to diminish the Comanchero trade, though not through lack of effort. As the book shows, the new crop of regulars would also be largely unsuccessful, with some current and ex-soldiers even participating in the illegal trading themselves. Like the author perceptively notes, history tells us that extensive and very lucrative black markets tend to emerge in the borderlands between diametrically different cultures in conflict, and the Comanche and Kiowa would certainly use the proceeds of the Comanchero trade to great effect both during and after the Civil War. Far from being quashed by the volunteers, the Comanchero trade flourished with renewed vigor during the late 1860s and early 1870s. In 1870, Fort Bascom was officially closed by a parsimonious military, but it remained a temporary base and waypoint for occasional operations aimed at arresting Comancheros and destroying their goods. Raiding from the Southern Plains Indians also fairly exploded in scale after the controversial closing of the fort, with depredation claims from the Texas Panhandle for just a two-year period in the early 1870s totaling almost $45 million. However, manpower and resources were scarce in the slimmed-down U.S. Army and the numerous Comanchero trails continued to be plied by traders over a huge area between northern Mexico and the Kansas plains.

During the decade following the end of the Civil War, Fort Bascom would be connected to a pair of important Indian Wars campaigns. The book discusses at some length the fort's contribution to Philip Sheridan's famous winter campaign of 1868, when a column led by Major Andrew Evans destroyed a huge Comanche winter camp and all its supplies, a largely bloodless accomplishment the author persuasively views as unjustifiably overshadowed by George Armstrong Custer's controversial battlefield victory on the Washita. Blackshear also recounts the involvement of Fort Bascom in the Red River War of 1874 and the salutary effect constant patrolling from the fort had on the eventual wearing down of tribal raiders and their support network by 1875.

In Fort Bascom, author James Blackshear develops a strong argument that the generally forgotten New Mexico fort deserves far more recognition than history has heretofore awarded it for its deep role in reshaping the American Southwest by bringing the powerful Southern Plains Indians under government control and securing the Texas Panhandle. Along the way, Blackshear's study successfully blends military, cultural, environmental, and economic history. It's also one of the finest of the recent works examining the Indian conflicts of the Civil War period.

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