This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
William Wilson and his fellow cavalrymen were a week out of Fort Concho on Sep. 27, 1872 and just two days from an historic clash with the Comanches that would earn the sergeant his second Medal of Honor in six months.
In its 149-year history, the coveted citation has been bestowed upon almost 3,500 service personnel, but only 19 had been so honored on two different occasions. Seven marines, seven sailors and five soldiers make up that elite group.
The name of the first double recipient was Custer — not George Armstrong Custer, the glory-hunting general with the golden locks, but his younger brother Tom, who earned his pair three days apart in the last month of the Civil War. Tom Custer died alongside his famous sibling in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
Sgt. William Wilson was so unsung that neither his birthday nor the date of his death were recorded for posterity. Little is known about the Philadelphia native before or after he served under the renowned Gen. Ranald S. Mackenzie on the hazardous Lone Star frontier.
Home for Wilson and his handful of horse soldiers was Fort Concho, an isolated outpost near present-day San Angelo. From a string of such forts, the undermanned military stood guard against the Plains tribes, especially the Comanches who were fiercely determined to roll back the tide of westward expansion.
Career soldiers like the grizzled sergeant grudgingly respected the Comanches because they fought to preserve a way of life doomed to extinction. But unscrupulous traders known as Comancheros, who kept the warriors in guns and ammunition, were beneath contempt. More than anything, the army wanted to stamp out those merchants of death.
A breathless settler showed up at Fort Concho in March 1872 with an eyewitness report of a raid on a nearby ranch. Sgt. Wilson immediately ordered his corporal and 20 privates into the saddle and quickly picked up the trail.
Allowing his men only two hours sleep, Wilson pushed on until the next morning when he suddenly spied his quarry on the banks of the Colorado. The raiders were swapping stolen cattle for contraband, when the troopers crashed the party.
Even though the cavalrymen had the element of surprise on their side, the Indians and their Comanchero suppliers successfully scattered. All the disappointed sergeant had to show for his trouble were four dead braves and a teenaged Mexican captive.
But the frightened boy turned out to be a prize prisoner. Spilling the beans on his Comanchero employer, he described in detail the secret routes and rendezvous points the New Mexico-based smugglers used to provision the Texas tribes. For this intelligence coup rather than the inconsequential skirmish, Wilson received his initial Medal of Honor.
Quite rightly, the sergeant’s superiors felt the achievement deserved recognition, and back in those days the brass had but one medal to give. Not until 1918 would an act of congress reserve for courageous deeds above and beyond the call of duty the decoration which bears that body’s name.
In fact, between the American Revolution and the Civil War, the United States armed forces did not decorate its heroes at all. Medals, ribbons and the like smacked of European pomp, a practice detested by a new nation dedicated to democracy. Even as late as 1862, the creation of the Medal of Honor provoked a storm of public protest.
If, by modern standards, Sgt. Wilson slipped in the back door for his first medal, he unequivocally qualified for the second six months later.
Intent on driving a die-hard band of Comanches onto the reservation, Gen. Mackenzie mobilized 222 troops for a strike into the Texas Panhandle. The ninth day out of Fort Concho, the column came upon a gut-tightening sight.
In a quiet valley adjoining the North Fork of the Red River lay the largest Comanche encampment any of the saddlesore soldiers had ever seen. In one village alone Mackenzie counted 260 lodges, which by his reckoning contained at least 500 warriors. The odds definitely did not favor the outnumbered cavalry.
At four o’clock on that September afternoon in 1872, the troopers charged. The confused Comanches swiftly regrouped and stubbornly stood their ground in close-quarter combat. When Wilson’s commanding officer went down, Mackenzie put the seasoned sergeant in charge and ordered him to attack a second village.
Dismounting on the edge of the objective, Wilson fought his way through the heavily defended camp. By sunset the sergeant and seven comrades had earned the Medal of Honor.
The engagement proved decisive in breaking the back of Comanche resistance in western Texas. Far more devastating than the loss of 100 or so warriors was the seizure of 3,000 ponies and the Comanches’ winter provisions. When the first blue norther blew in, the Indians had no place to go but the reservation.
Commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial with “Secession & Civil War” from the “Best of This Week in Texas History” collection. Order today at twith.com or mail a check for $14.20 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.Email | Print