This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
After standing vacant for nearly two years, the no-name army post at the western tip of Texas resumed the role of frontier guardian on Jan. 11, 1854.
The godforsaken sentinel was christened Fort Bliss, which surely must have been somebody’s idea of a joke. A more suitable name for the regularly abandoned bastion would have been Fort Phoenix. In spite of repeated attempts to permanently close the installation on the Rio Grande, Fort Bliss always sprang back to life.
Early in 1849, six companies of the 3rd Infantry stationed at San Antonio were instructed to proceed posthaste to El Paso for the purpose of securing that portion of the vast territory surrendered by Mexico after the recent war. Adding to the urgency was the fact that the southern route to California, which ran right through Texas’ westernmost town, would soon be crawling with gold-seekers in need of protection.
The cumbersome expedition, complete with 275 supply wagons and 2,500 head of livestock, set out from the Alamo City in the heat of the summer. The 675-mile journey across the burning wasteland took more than three miserable months.
After their marathon march through the West Texas hell, the soldiers dreamed of the comforts of civilization. Imagine their disappointment when they discovered that their destination was a dusty crossroads boasting a grand total of three dilapidated buildings.
Much to the relief of the original inhabitants, the army elected to evacuate the sorry
sentry in September 1851. The soldiers’ departure did not go unnoticed by local Indians, and an alarming increase in renegade raids resulted in the 1854 reoccupation of the empty stockade.
The forlorn fort was dubbed Bliss, not in sarcastic tribute to the austere conditions but in honor of an obscure hero of the Mexican War. Uninformed recruits, whose hopes were raised by the ironic name, quickly learned bliss was in short supply on the inhospitable border.
During the 1850’s, a number of future notables in America’s next armed conflict endured a tour of duty at Fort Bliss. While James Longstreet, George Pickett and J.E.B. Stuart chased Mescalero Apaches in the Guadalupe Mountains, John Magruder stayed close to home as a company commander.
Probably because they were happy to go, Union forces gave up Fort Bliss to the Confederacy without a fight in March 1861. Later that year, Gen. H.H. Sibley took charge and made preparations for the invasion of the neighboring northern stronghold.
After a major victory at Valverde, Sibley had the Yankees on the run and all of New Mexico in his grasp. But the promising campaign bogged down in the snow at Glorieta Pass, where the Texas Confederates were mauled in a battle known as “The Gettysburg of the West.”
The retreating Rebs stopped at El Paso only long enough to set fire to Fort Bliss. One look at the pile of ashes convinced the triumphant Unionists to pitch camp elsewhere for the rest of the war.
Since the Rio Grande was relentlessly eroding the site of the ruins, the army constructed a new fort on higher ground. Camp Concordia was officially opened in March 1868.
Tradition eventually won out and the fort was renamed Bliss, but peacetime cutbacks threatened its existence. When operations against the Indians shifted to Arizona, the army shut down the seemingly superfluous facility for the second time in January 1877.
With the soldiers went law and order in El Paso, where outlaw gangs and vigilantes fought for control of the boomtown. By the end of that bloody year, the army was back to stay and Fort Bliss was back in business.
From the reservation revolt of Victorio in 1879 to Geronimo’s capitulation in 1886, the final phase of futile red resistance kept the garrison hopping. As if to mark the end of the epic era, the aging fort gave way to modern accommodations in 1893.
However, Bliss again appeared to be on the road to oblivion as the size of the detachment steadily shrank. At one point the entire staff consisted of a lieutenant, chaplain, doctor and five enlisted men.
But the Mexican Revolution gave the fort a new lease on life. As the home base for the 1916 punitive expedition against Pancho Villa after his attack on Columbus, New Mexico, Bliss was overrun by the 60,000-man posse that failed to find the culprit.
The fort remained a cavalry post throughout the First World War, but during the Second its cloudless sky and natural firing range attracted the artillery. Missiles replaced field pieces in 1946, and the first test of an American rocket was held on the base proving grounds.
Like its tough pioneer neighbors, old Fort Bliss tenaciously clung to life. On the unforgiving frontier of Far West Texas, only the strong survived.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.
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