The Life of a Soldier at Fort Griffin

Whether you served in the cavalry or the infantry, life as a soldier at Fort Griffin during the 1870s was typically monotonous and routine. As one soldier observed: “life at the fort was always the same—drill, reveille, mounting guard, retreat, calling tattoo and taps, hoisting the flag at sunrise and taking it down again at sunset.” Life in the field was often preferred, but when it became overwhelming and the soldiers were tired and worn out, they were happy to return to the mundane life at the post.

Use the following links to read more about different aspects of a soldier’s experience:

The Daily Grind

Soldier plays the bugle.Each day at Fort Griffin started with the bugle call of reveille, followed immediately by stable call if you were a cavalryman. If you were in the infantry, you had a few extra minutes to tend to personal matters. At 6:45 a.m. came sick call, followed by calls for breakfast at 7 and drills at 7:30. An hour later, the bugle called the soldiers for fatigue duty (routine labor). At 9:30 came guard mounting, and at 11:15 was water call. Orderly call came next, followed by the 11:45 recall from fatigue. The soldiers then had 15 minutes to put away their equipment and get cleaned up for the noon bugle call signaling lunch. After the noon meal, the bugle calls continued throughout the day: fatigue at 1, recall from fatigue at 4, stable call at 4:30, and finally retreat at sundown. Call for supper took place after retreat.

Fatigue Duty

Routine labor for the soldiers included working on buildings, maintaining fort roads, hauling water, gathering firewood, tending the post garden, and bringing lumber up to the fort from the steam-powered sawmill on Mill Creek. The hardest fatigue duty at Fort Griffin was the task of operating the steam sawmill. In 1867, J.D.C. Lee, depot quartermaster in San Antonio, had a steam sawmill shipped to Fort Griffin along with window sashes, door frames, and tools for constructing post buildings. By 1868, soldiers operating the sawmill had felled 1,025 oak, elm, and cottonwood logs and sawed more than 83,264 linear feet of lumber. This green lumber was then used to construct the post buildings, which later dried and warped, contributing to the dilapidated condition of the fort. This inevitably led to more work for the soldiers as they tried to keep up with the warped and cracked wood buildings.

Extra Duties

If the day’s fatigue duties weren’t enough, then extra duties were often assigned. This extra duty usually lasted for 30 days.

Kitchen and Hospital Help 

Coffee pot

Some soldiers were assigned to the kitchen. The soldier could be a cook or mess hand, which was a waiter of sorts, bringing bread, coffee, and meat to each table and then cleaning up after the soldiers were finished eating. Though accounts from soldiers who served as mess hands at Fort Griffin are lacking, one such account from Corporal E.A. Bode about his kitchen duties while at Fort Sill, Oklahoma Territory illustrates the tasks involved. Corporal Bode wrote, “Duties were not very inviting for the majority of the men. At three o’clock in the morning they were awakened by the guard [to] boil the coffee [and] get the meat prepared for breakfast. At reveille the kitchen police put in his appearance, assisting the cooks, washing the dishes and pots, scrubbing the table and floors, chopping wood for the kitchen, also for the dinner room in winter, in general the roustabout in the kitchen.”

Another extra duty was working as a hospital orderly. This involved helping the post surgeon care for sick and invalid soldiers and often included cleaning bed pans, feeding soldiers, changing bed sheets, chopping wood for heating stoves, fetching buckets of water, or any other necessary task.

The Dreaded Sinks

Sometimes extra duty was assigned as a punitive action from the first sergeant or commanding officer, and this task often consisted of cleaning the post sinks. At Fort Griffin, the latrines and outhouses, or sinks as they were called, had the standard wooden seat with a removable metal box below. This box had holes drilled in it that allowed the liquids to pass through, but caught the solids. Below the box the earth would absorb the liquid waste, but the boxes had to be removed and cleaned out daily and the solids hauled far away from the post. The men detested the job of cleaning and maintaining the sinks, but it was necessary to keep the post sanitary and free of an overpowering stench. The soil under the sinks had to be removed on a regular basis and replaced with fresh soil. It was a constant challenge to get the soldiers to do latrine duty as the post surgeon at Ringgold Barracks reported on January 31, 1875, writing, “It seems to be impossible to drive into the heads of men that the capacity of earth for absorption, is like that of a small cup, which when filled will run over.”

Not only did the soldiers dislike maintaining the sinks, but they also hated using them. When Colonel W.H. Woods was in command at Fort Griffin from February 1871 through November 1872, some of the soldiers on duty chose to use a mesquite thicket on the northeast slope of the fort as their bathroom rather than walk the extra hundred yards to the privy. After the odor became overpowering, Col. Wood ordered the men to cut and clear the mesquite thicket, thus removing their tree cover.

Life off the Post

Soldier on a horse.Many soldiers liked duties off the post as it gave them the chance to break their monotonous routines. One soldier, upon receiving his orders to return to post, commented, “Unhappily we were ordered back to the fort before our thirty days were up, exchanging our happy camp life for the drudgery of fort life.” For cavalrymen, activities off the post most likely meant going on patrol, scouting for Indians, and in some cases, pursuing outlaws or war parties.

Indian Patrols and Pursuits

One pursuit occurred on October 13, 1867. Sergeant W.A.T Ahrberg, along with 45 men and 22 Tonkawa scouts, departed Camp Wilson (Camp Wilson was renamed Fort Griffin on February 6, 1868, to honor the Fifth Military District Commander, Colonel Charles Griffin) and traveled 160 miles through Shackelford, Stephens, and Palo Pinto counties searching for a Comanche war party that had attacked and killed five settlers and stole their horses. When the soldiers caught up to the Comanche, the soldiers killed three warriors, captured one Indian woman, and retrieved 19 horses and one mule.

Another cavalry mission was launched on March 5, 1867, when Captain Adna R. Chaffee was ordered to pursue a band of Comanche raiders that attacked a wagon train bringing lumber from Mill Creek and captured several mules. Captain Chafee and 62 enlisted men of the Sixth Cavalry and seven Tonkawa scouts quickly departed Fort Griffin and pursued the Comanches for three days. The soldiers traveled more than 130 miles to the Ledbetter’s Salt Works north of the fort, then northward to Dead Man’s Creek, then crossing the Clear Fork of the Brazos River just below Phantom Hill, and on through Jones and Haskell counties. Finally, on the morning of the third day, the Tonkawa Scouts found the raiding party camped on the Wichita River where Captain Chaffee and his troopers attacked, killing seven Comanche warriors and wounding several others.

One of the largest campaigns against hostile Indians came in 1874. Earlier that year, Native American activity was so heavy that Lt. Colonel George P. Buell, commanding officer at Fort Griffin, maintained regular scouting missions in the vicinity of the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River and in the area west of Fort Griffin. The Comanche had threatened to attack and kill all Tonkawa scouts located in the town of Fort Griffin, thus keeping the troops at Fort Griffin in a high state of alert. That summer, a major military offensive campaign was launched by the U.S. Army against the Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes in an effort to permanently remove the Indians from the region. Officially called the Indian Campaign of 1874, it later became known as the Red River War. Lt. Colonel Buell took command of one of five columns that would converge on the vicinity of the Texas Panhandle. Buell’s column consisted of companies in the 2nd, 9th, and 10th Cavalries, 11th Infantry, and Tonkawa Indian Scouts who departed Fort Griffin on September 1, 1874, and spent the next four months in the field near Fort Sill, the North Fork of the Red River, the Staked Plains, and the Canadian River. When Buell returned to Fort Griffin on December 23, 1874, the Indian threat had been nearly eliminated.

Supply Camps

Soldier holds a gun sitting at a tent.For more distant scouting missions, commanding officers found that establishing supply camps was needed to increase the troop’s mobility. This enabled the troops to strike farther and pursue Indians longer because supplies were within the reach. But this also meant that someone had to haul rations, ammunition, and forage. This could take up to 20 to 30 wagons, and then someone had to guard the supplies at the camps. This task usually fell upon the infantrymen. Corporal E.A. Bode described his experience with field camps as follows, “While companies are stationed at a certain fort they were frequently ordered in the field, establishing a temporary camp for a month or two during the summer, thirty to three hundred miles from their station. The cavalry companies might be absent for months or longer at a time—according to the feelings of the Indians and their disposition to go on the warpath, or the state the country was kept in by horse thieves and lawless characters.”

One such camp was established by Colonel Mackenzie in early October 1871 to assist with his expedition against the Comanche on the Llano Estacado. From this camp, troopers from the 4th Cavalry could quickly load pack mules for mobility and move in any direction. This camp was on Duck Creek near the southeastern corner of present-day Crosby County. It was usually referred to as the camp on the Fresh Water Fork of the Brazos. Here, Lt. Henry Lawton, 4th Cavalry, took command with the 11th Infantry to guard the supply wagons. Lawton worked out of this camp for the next five weeks, hauling rations, forage, and ammunition for Colonel Mackenzie’s troops from Fort Griffin. The trip covered almost 140 miles, one way, and became known as the Mackenzie Trail.

Fort Griffin Sub-posts and Picket Stations

Stagecoach at Fort Griffin.

Infantrymen didn’t find life off post as exciting as did the cavalrymen, and were often assigned to sub-posts such as Phantom Hill or Mountain Pass. Tasks at these two sub-posts included guarding mail stations, stagecoaches, military wagon trains, and travelers.

Phantom Hill

In the summer of 1869, five privates and one corporal were ordered to occupy Phantom Hill and guard the mail station. Phantom Hill was the location of the old military post called Fort Phantom. Life was difficult at this sub-post since its buildings were burned to the ground in 1854 when the post was abandoned, thus leaving the new occupants living in tents. The men reported poor conditions, loneliness, bad water, and boredom. The monotony of life was briefly broken in 1869, when Native Americans attacked a stagecoach just a few miles from the sub-post. The excited soldiers mounted an attack and attempted to confront the attackers, but in the end, no Indians were captured.

In June 1871, Captain Lynde Catlin and Company F, 11th Infantry, along with six enlisted cavalrymen, took command of Phantom Hill with orders to patrol from Phantom Hill through Mountain Pass to Fort Chadbourne. This patrol was to happen at least once a month. However, just one month later, the troops abandoned Phantom Hill and joined Colonel Mackenzie in his patrols against the Kiowas and Comanches on the Staked Plains. This interlude turned out to be brief and the sub-post was reoccupied the following January, only to be abandoned again on August 26, 1872, when the mail line moved the route. Later, during the Red River War, Phantom Hill was again reoccupied and used as a temporary supply depot.

Mountain Pass Picket Station

Soldiers' tents at dusk.Active for three years, Mountain Pass Picket Station guarded the mail route as it passed from Phantom Hill through Abercrombie Pass and on south to Fort Chadbourne. Captain Robert Carter described Mountain Pass as “a narrow gorge or break about a mile in length…here the Indians had been frequently in the habit of ambushing parties and attacking the mail stage. It has precipitous sides, covered with a dense growth of bushes and scrub trees. Just the place for an ambuscade…”

Life at Mountain Pass was uncomfortable and for the first two years the soldiers lived in tents. By 1872, a one-room picket building was constructed but the mud/hay roof leaked and the structure was drafty and cold in the winter. Still, some of the men would rather be at Mountain Pass than at Fort Griffin; at least at Mountain Pass there was frequent excitement from Indian attacks or raids, as on February 15, 1870, when 75 Comanches and Kiowas attacked the mail station. After an hour, the Indians broke off their attack after losing three of their own to rifle fire from the soldiers. The attackers’ only gain was five mules and one horse belonging to the stage company.

The next incident was May 1870, when Indians attacked the mail station’s stock, running off all the animals. The most interesting attack came in July 1870, when Lt. Gilbert E. Overton, 6th Cavalry, and 40 recruits, were traveling from Fort Concho to Fort Griffin and camped at the foot of a bluff, a quarter-mile from Mountain Pass Picket Station. Since the men were recruits, they were only carrying six old breech-loading rifles when more than 50 Indians attacked trying to steal the soldiers’ horses and mules. At the time, Private John Charlton was in charge; he immediately passed out the six rifles and then ordered the rest of the men to grab large sticks approximately the size of a rifle. When the Indians began their attack, the men with the six loaded rifles discharged their weapons as the rest of the men jumped up brandishing their sticks. The Indians, thinking they were out manned and out gunned, quickly retreated. As with Phantom Hill, Mountain Pass was abandoned on August 26, 1872, when the mail line changed routes.

Other Off-Post Duties

Carrying mail was another duty assigned to soldiers. In 1867 at Fort Richardson, a cavalry patrol had the task of carrying weekly mail from Weatherford to the fort, where it was further distributed to Buffalo Springs and Fort Belknap. By 1871, Fort Richardson was receiving mail twice a week via mail coach on the Fort Smith–El Paso mail line. From there, a contractor carried the mail to Fort Griffin and Fort Concho. One soldier from the 6th Cavalry assigned to mail escort duty commented on the constant loss of letters by saying “it was an accident” if a newspaper should actually reach the fort.

Other duties that took soldiers off post included escorting survey crews from the Texas Pacific railroad and assisting with construction of telegraph lines. Sometimes so many men were assigned to these tasks that there were no soldiers left on post to complete regularly assigned duties. Lt. Colonel Buell, commanding officer at Fort Griffin, complained that between 1874 through 1875, Fort Griffin provided so many escort duties that the fort was left a virtual ghost town.



Medical History of the Post Fort Griffin

Fort Griffin on the Texas Frontier, by Carl Coke Rister

A Dose of Frontier Soldiering: The Memoirs of Corporal E.A. Bode, Frontier Regular Infantry, 1877 – 1882, by E.A. Bode

Soldiers, Sutlers, and Settlers, by Robert Wooster

Ringgold Barracks, Jan. 31, 1875

A Texas Frontier: The Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1849-1887, by Ty Cashion

Standing in the Gap, by Loyd M. Uglow

The Old Army in Texas, by Thomas T. Smith

The Army in Texas During Reconstruction 1865-1870, by William L. Richter

Battles of the Red River War: Archeological Perspectives on the Indian Campaign of 1874, by J. Brett Cruse

A History of Fort Griffin, by Martha Doty Freeman

Sentinel of the Southern Plains; Fort Richardson and the Northwest Texas Frontier 1866-1878, by Allen Lee Hamilton

On the Border with Mackenzie, by Robert G. Carter