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Life On The Texas Frontier: Fort Martin Scott
Situated between the winding Pedernales River and the small Texas Hill Country town of Fredericksburg lie a few oddly shaped shanties. Hiding its historical importance, trees block the view and only a few of the decrepit buildings are seen from the bustling highway. The entrance sign is small yet welcoming, and the entrance road is difficult to find. The nearby fields of grass are often browned and wilted by the summer sun. Only a self walking tour is available as funds have dried up to keep this historical site in repair. Lined up in a perfect row are a few crumbling foundations and a couple of old style log cabins. However, as soon as one begins to explore the grounds, one quickly realizes the importance of Fort Martin Scott.
Activated in 1848, this fort was one of many frontier forts in Texas designed to protect travelers and settlers from Native Americans. As immigrants from throughout Europe and the eastern United States began to move westward, confrontation with the Indians was inevitable. The United States Army responded to these confrontations by building small, temporary forts where mobile infantry could ride the trails and roam the wild country to protect both settlers and trade routes. As more and more pioneers migrated westward, the army generally followed, abandoning their posts and building anew, wherever it was deemed necessary and strategically wise. A general frontier line ran from Fort Worth southward to Fort Duncan on the Rio Grande river, studded in between with forts.
This small complex situated on Barons Creek eventually consisted of twenty-one buildings. Soldiers patrolled the Fredericksburg San Antonio road and surrounding areas. Fredericksburg was the last stop for the Austin or San Antonio to El Paso trail, making Fort Scott very important. Gathering supplies for the long haul to El Paso was necessary, as many travelers and settlers did not survive the trip. Thirty-five miles south, Fort Camp Verde tried a unique experiment using camels to make the arid trek possible. Other than fighting the native Americans, Fort Scott served settlers by what can be best described as a "forage depot."
At first named Camp Houston, the fort changed its name in 1849. Named for Major Martin Scott who was killed at the Battle of Molino del Rey during the Mexican American War in 1847, both infantry and dragoons were stationed there. While infantry are ground troops, dragoons are technically mounted infantry. Essentially using the French nomenclature for military units, most infantry at Fort Martin Scott had their own horses and were used both as mounted dragoons and dismounted infantry.
The camp was laid out like a large, upside down letter "U." Two rows of buildings faced each other over a fifty-yard wide parade ground. Approximately 100 yards long. There were a few smaller buildings situated on a small section behind the officers quarters. These buildings held the bakery and a laundry. The guardhouse connected the two lines of barracks and "Officers Row."
During the construction of the fort, one of the first buildings built was a bakery. An oven was made from local limestone which was cut into blocks and mortared together. A laundry building was also built and the army hired a laundress. The women who worked at laundresses were usually noncommissioned officers’ wives or camp followers. Their day began before most soldiers were stirring and they gathered water out of Baron’s Creek and started the fire. They would then use steam, boiling water, and lye soap to clean any dirty linens and clothes from the soldiers. As the clothes dried, the laundress mended clothes. Paid at an established rate, she was subject to military law and drew daily rations just like the male soldiers.
The only original building left today is the guardhouse with its 18 inch walls built out of native limestone. Here, soldiers convicted and jailed for crimes served their punishments. Discipline was strict and severe. Lashes, hard labor, dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank, wearing a barrel, forfeiture of pay and confinement in the guardhouse all played a part in keeping soldiers in line.
Many of the commanders of Fort Martin Scott fought in the American Civil War.
William R. Montgomery, West Point class of 1825. Commanded the First Regiment of the New Jersey Volunteers
Eugene Beaumont, West Point class of 1856. At the battle of Harpeth River in Tennessee on December 17, 1864 he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. After the war he was stationed at Fort Martin Scott.
Theodore Fink. A German immigrant, Fink worked his way up from enlistee to captain, He organized the First Michigan Regiment of Volunteers. He died in 1861 before he saw combat.
Edward D. Blake, West Point class of 1847. Captain Blake of the 8th Infantry abandoned Fort Davis as a Federalist, and he cut down the flag post as his last act of defiance. As a native of South Carolina he subsequently joined the Confederacy where he was promoted by 1863 to Lieutenant-Colonel.
William Steele, West Point class of 1836. During the War Between the States he was appointed a colonel in the 7th Texas Cavalry during the New Mexico campaign. He also fought with distinction in the Western Theater and participated in the Red River Campaign.
James Longstreet, West Point class of 1842. Known as General Lee’s "Old War Horse" Longstreet is well-known today as one of the best corps commanders on either side of the war.
Soldiers lived a rough, desolate life in Texas forts. The frontier was unforgiving and army life combined with harsh surroundings offered few amenities. As an officer, luxuries such as private quarters and private outhouses were relished. On Fort Martin Scott, six buildings were constructed solely for officers. Made mostly of adobe or logs, they stood on the north side of the parade ground and were opposite of the enlisted mens’ barracks. Bachelor officers shared single rooms with one another while married officers lived with their families. Furniture was crude and hastily built from local oak or mesquite. Officers were expected to train the troops in horsemanship and fighting tactics, lead patrols, deal with the local demands of the citizenry, inspect the troops and enforce discipline.
Opposite the officers quarters were the enlisted men’s quarters. Uniquely built by the German settlers, they benefitted from German engineering. Instead of one long building housing separate rooms, Texas Hill Country style log cabins had small rooms separated by a gap, typically two or three, all connected by one roof. This gave these homes an appearance of hollow tunnels. However, advantages over conventional log built homes were enormous. Wind cooled the area during the hot summer months, and soldiers milled around between the buildings, protected by the roof. During the winter months, small fires in pot-bellied stoves kept the smaller rooms warmer than traditional, larger cabins. Rather than having to heat an entire house, only small rooms required the stoves, which were not up to the task of heating the larger houses. There were three such "dogtrot" barracks at the fort, and each had three rooms and normally housed a company of men, approximately forty-two privates, and four corporals and sergeants each. A fourth, unique barracks at the fort was a Jacal hut, of Mexican origin with a thatched roof. The walls were made from smaller logs placed perpendicular to the floor and then smeared with mud until smooth.
Generally, Army life started at 5:30, when reveille was sounded. Soldiers policed the grounds, checked the stables, collected wood and water and tended the garden. Often individual soldiers had cooking duties, or were repairing any needed buildings. Both the soldiers and many of the Fredericksburg citizens relied on Barons Creek for their water. The water was the life line of the community, as it was used for drinking and preparing meals, washing clothes, watering the garden and for mortar for the buildings.
Many soldiers identified with recently arrived German immigrants who had difficulty dealing with the harshness of the Texas wilderness. Although there were language barriers, the soldiers and residents of Fredericksburg needed one another. During the first years of settlement, as the town was still being built, the residents of Fredericksburg suffered terribly from poverty, hunger and disease. The army base proved to be an economic boon that the county sorely needed. The fort hired teamsters who hauled wagon loads of freight from San Antonio or Austin back to Fredericksburg. Masons, carpenters and handymen constructed the buildings and some furniture. Hunters sold extra meat. Soon, Fredericksburg expanded and prospered.
At the height of activity at Fort Martin Scott, the post accommodated almost 300 soldiers. Of all the buildings none was more important than the sutler’s store. Akin to a frontier mercantile shop, the sutler was a civilian merchant who was licensed by the Army to legally sell goods on government property. With a limited stock of food supplies, a soldier’s diet was monotonous. Therefore, the mercantile store was an excellent place to supplement the bland army diet with ham, bacon, coffee, flour, salt, vinegar, molasses, tobacco, sugar, beans, eggs, and sometimes fresh butter. A soldier’s diet was bland and repetitive. Mostly the soldiers ate hardtack, beans, bacon and coffee. To help add to their diet, they tended a garden and cultivated some squash, green beans, corn and peppers. Fresh meat in the form of venison, wild hog, turkey and squirrels were often bought or traded from the local inhabitants, most often sold at the sutler’s store. The store served as a local gathering spot. Soldiers relaxed, talked and gleaned information from the citizens, The citizens, in turn, could gather information on the latest Indian incursions throughout the United States, or ask questions about soldiers’ other stations. Quite frequently local Comanches or other smaller tribes traded hides or bear grease. Bear grease was a very important commodity as it was used in cooking, for lamp oil, and for greasing wagon wheels. Little other substitutes existed in the frontier. In addition, the sutler sold some uniform items to soldiers, including boots, which once again assisted the tailors of Fredericksburg.
The Meusebach Commanche Treaty
Founded by German immigrant John Meusebach, the Fredericksburg settlers negotiated a private treaty with the Comanche Indians in early 1847. Due to the treaty, peace remained throughout the region and neither the soldiers nor the townspeople ever fought a battle with the Indians in the area around Fredericksburg. In fact, the German settlers and the native Americans often worked together and traded together. The town of Fredericksburg still celebrates this treaty as the only United States treaty never to be broken.
When the German immigrants arrived and settled Fredericksburg in 1846, the Comanche Indians were the undisputed rulers of the area. However, Indians regularly visited Fort Martin Scott. In the spring months, they were often seen setting up their buffalo hide lodges. Buffalos provided almost everything for the Indians, and the Comanche built teepees and made clothing out of buffalo hides. Whenever the native Americans were around, they were able to trade with soldiers and townspeople.
By 1853 the frontier line had shifted farther west. The Comanches were generally placated in the region and the fort was finally and permanently abandoned by United States troops in December of 1853. When the Civil War broke out, the fort was not strategically located to assist the Confederacy. Nonetheless, a notable event did occur involving Unionists. Generally the fort was abandoned except for use as an occasional mustering station and camp to threaten the pro-Union citizens of Fredericksburg and the surrounding Hill Country counties. The fort was used as an early meeting place for many of the Unionists, most of whom were newly Americanized German immigrants. Before meeting up in the summer of 1862 with other Unionists in Kerr county, Fredericksburg loyalists met at the camp for security and camped a few nights near the fort on Baron’s Creek. After gathering all the known Unionists, they headed out on their ill-fated trip to Mexico, only to be caught by Confederate soldiers. Ambushed in a night attack, most of the Germans were gunned down. A monument is erected in nearby Comfort, dedicated to their loyalty.
Today, little remains of this once importance frontier fort. But a quick walking tour of the grounds gives us a great historical reminder of frontier life in Texas.