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by Matthew A. Sterner
Fort McRae served an important function as a frontier military outpost during the period of Indian unrest in the New Mexico Territory. From its inception in 1863, Fort McRae served as an important outpost in quelling unrest in the region. Placed along a strategic corridor that linked the Jornada del Muerto to the Rio Grande, a corridor favored by Apache for running stolen livestock, the fort served both a physical and symbolic role in maintaining order in the area. With no other military posts within 30 miles (Fort Craig was 23 miles north, Fort Selden was 60 miles south), the fort provided much-needed protection to small communities established along the lush river basin.
In operation for 13 years, from 1863 until 1876, Fort McRae served travelers along the treacherous Jornada del Muerto as well as those early settlers living in communities along the lush river bottoms of the Rio Grande. In constant peril from Apache depredation, the post protected a wide area otherwise vulnerable to frequent Indian raiding. The Jornada del Muerto served as a key transportation corridor in the development of the Territory and protection of the travelers along that corridor was paramount. William Keleher (1942:41) described the Jornada as, “the name of the Jornada del Muerto, ‘Journey of the Dead,’ was given to this road as it drew away from Doña Ana, and extended over country adjacent to the San Diego, Caballo and Fra Cristobal Mountains. The dangers lurking on this road were widely known and greatly feared.” The establishment of the fort at the Ojo del Muerto, the only reliable water source along the Jornada, and the presence of the military personnel to protect travelers, provided a much higher degree of safety along the travel route than had been previously realized. This, in turn, expedited travel along the route for both military and civilian parties, expediting development throughout the region.
Fort McRae was, for many years, the final resting place of Cpl. Frank Bratling, C Troop, 8th Calvary, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Corporal Bratling was stationed at Fort Selden under the command of Capt. George W. Chilson when they were called to track and engage an unknown number of Indians who had stolen livestock from a local ranch. Following a pursuit that covered approximately 465 miles, the Indians were trapped in a canyon and gunfire ensued. As described in Captain Chilson’s report (July 16, 1873), “at this point one of my men Corpl Frank Brattling [sic], ‘C’ Troop, 8th Cav, while kneeling to take more deliberate aim, and in open ground within 20 paces of the Indians was shot through the heart and killed instantly.” The encounter took place in the vicinity of Fort McRae, so it was logical that the Captain made for the fort the morning after the engagement. It was at Fort McRae that Corporal Bratling was pronounced dead, July 14, 1873, and buried in the post cemetery by 4 p.m. that day. The following day, Captain Chilson returned to Fort Selden with his remaining men and the stolen livestock.
Captain Chilson’s spirited report of the pursuit and encounter with the Apache was received with great favor by the Adjutant General’s Office. A general order (No. 9) issued by the Assistant Adjutant General’s Office (Figure 10) on August 5, 1873, stated, “The names of the enlisted men who have thus distinguished themselves will be forwarded to the War Department, with the recommendation that medals of honor may be conferred upon them.”
Until 2001, Corporal Bratling’s remains were presumed to remain interred at the fort. In November 2001, a document was identified at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., that ordered the relocation of the Fort McRae cemetery to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The order was signed by President Grant in 1886. Bratling’s Medal of Honor was one of only 18 earned in the Territory/State of New Mexico.
In addition to the importance of having had a Medal of Honor recipient buried at the site, a broader theme to be investigated under this criterion is the fact that the fort was, for much of its operation, garrisoned by companies of African-American infantry (38th and 125th) and cavalry (9th). The important efforts of these pioneer soldiers has become legendary, as they have come to be referred to as “Buffalo Soldiers.”
Headquarters Military Division of the Missouri. Outline Descriptions of the Posts in the Military Division of the Missouri, Commanded by Lieutenant General P. H. Sheridan. Headquarters Military Division of the Missouri, Chicago. 1969  facsimile ed. Old Army Press, Bellevue, Nebraska.
"A Month at Fort McRae," Journal of America’s Military Past IV:1(1972 ):8–12.
Keleher, William A. Fabulous Frontier: Twelve New Mexico Items. Rydal Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1942.
U.S. War Department, Surgeon-General’s Office. A Report on the Hygiene of the United States Army, with Descriptions of Military Posts. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1875.
Essay taken from "Fort McRae", New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties, July 2002.