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Fort Stanton

Fort Stanton, Lincoln County

National Register of Historic Places, SRCP #60
Statehood period of significance: c.1855-1912
Associated themes: Military; Federal Government; American Indian; Civil War

Remotely situated in a small valley along the swift Rio Bonito in Lincoln County, Fort Stanton was established in 1855 as a redoubt to subdue the Mescalero Apaches. Aside from a brief hiatus during the Civil War, it would play this role, sometimes with terror, for nearly 40 years. It saw action during the Lincoln County War, but by the time of statehood, the frontier military post had outlived its usefulness.


Fort Stanton was a beautiful post, with the best quarters in the army at that time, but it was like being buried alive to stay there. Lydia Lane, wife of Lieutenant William B. Lane, 1893.

The focus of Fort Stanton, as with any frontier fort, is its parade ground — a grassy square divided into quarters by uniform walkways. Placed around the parade ground are buildings of the forts army period (1855 to 1896) and a few of the Merchant Marine Hospital era, starting in 1899.

The original buildings are for the most part painted white with contrasting green trim; they display various pitched roofs covered with shingles in a variety of materials and patterns and are fashioned of undressed stone. Typical of the fort era is a line of Officers’ Quarters along the north end of the east and west sides of the parade ground. Arranged almost like townhouses, they started as simple one-story, rectangular stone buildings sheltered by side-gabled shingled roofs. Over the years, wings were added to the rear, large bay windows installed along the front, and the second story and characteristic dormer windows added. Other fort era buildings, including the Junior Officers’ Quarters, which now holds Fort Stanton State Monument’s museum and gift shop, characterize the period.

Named for Captain Henry W. Stanton, a Fort Fillmore officer killed in the Sacramento Mountains on January 19, 1855 during pursuit of Mescalero Apaches suspected of stealing sheep, the garrison was established to protect Anglo and Hispanic settlers from Indian predations. As stated in the nomination, “conflicts with the Mescaleros in southern New Mexico escalated in the 1850s as they found their traditional hunting range greatly restricted and rations from the government inadequate or nonexistent.”

Established on May 4, 1855, the fort initially contained more than 400 men, but by August had reduced to 172. The fort developed over the summer with the completion of quarters for eight officers, a company of enlisted men, a commissary, a guardhouse and quartermaster storerooms.

Lydia Lane, wife of Lieutenant William B. Lane, who spent time at the fort during this earlier period, later wrote of her uneasiness with the Apaches: “The Mescalero Apaches were in camp that winter near the post and came and went as they pleased, walking into our houses and sitting on our porches without the least hesitation…. I never could become accustomed to the Indians staring at me through the window when I was sewing or reading.”

With the outbreak of the Civil War, the fort took on a new purpose: to push back the Texas Confederates. Led by Colonel John R. Baylor, a frontier lawyer, the Texans were on a “buffalo hunt” up the Rio Grande, sacking Union forts along the way. Baylor easily took Fort Fillmore, 150 miles to the south, when its commander, Major Isaac Lynde, readily surrendered.

According to historian Howard R. Lamar, “Lynde’s surrender sent a chain reaction of fear and confusion through the ill-organized Union forces of New Mexico.” Hearing of the defeat, Lt. Colonel B. H. Roberts abandoned Fort Stanton, torching the buildings, before retreating to Santa Fe. On the night of the retreat, a monsoon doused the flames, saving much of the fort and its infrastructure. The Confederates later occupied the half-burned fort, staying for less than month.

With the Confederates in retreat, General James H. Carleton — now a Brigadier General — ordered Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson to reoccupy Fort Stanton to continue the work of subduing the Apaches. Carson arrived with five companies of New Mexico Volunteers, erecting temporary log roofs over the burned-out buildings.

But their real work was Indian subjugation, or, as orders given by Carleton suggest, near extermination: “The men are to be slain whenever and wherever they can be found. The women and children may be taken…, they are not to be killed.”

Carleton’s strategy involved employing “columns” of volunteers and regulars to converge from the three directions on the Mescalero camps. After one these campaigns, led by Captain William McCleave, defeated a Mescalero band near Alamogordo, most of the tribe gave up, fleeing over the mountains to surrender to Carson at Fort Stanton.

“You’ve driven us from our last and best stronghold, and we have no more heart. Do with us as may seem good to you, but do not forget we are braves and men” is what Chief Cadette reportedly said at the surrendering. After five months of sustained attack, the Mescalero Apaches had been, as Carleton reported to the Adjutant General of the Army, “completely subdued.” The subdued Indians were soon deported to future Fort Sumner, the site of a disastrous agricultural concentration camp. With Fort Sumner established, Carson turned his attention to the Navajos.

With Carson gone, a series of lesser commanders came and went through the post. As in its earlier years, scouting expeditions went into the Sacramento, White and Guadalupe mountains to control Indians.
At the garrison, the day-in-and-day-out tasks of Army life were performed with drudgery. Non-officers were quartered in stone barracks furnished with double bunks arranged in single tiers; each man given 1,000 cubic feet to call home. The mess hall at the rear of the barrack contained the kitchen and the mess room. No water was supplied and heat came from a single fireplace. Each soldier was expected to tend to the garden. Booze was available, but only outside the garrison, a short walk up the river to a contraband store. The nearest supply depot sat some 200 miles away at Fort Union.

The somnolence of t routine changed in 1873, when the Mescalero Apache reservation was established south of the fort. At this point the soldier’s duties expanded to rushing squatters off Indian lands, stopping the sale of illicit liquor, chasing Indians who ventured beyond the restrictive boundaries of the new reservation, pursuing cattle rustlers — both Indian and Anglo — and hunting down horse thieves.
A few years later, the fort became involved with bigger disturbances: first the El Paso Salt War —not really a war, but a prolonged Texas feud over the title of salt deposits near the base of the Guadalupe Mountains — and the Lincoln County War, a backyard skirmish that centered on two warring factions fighting over who controlled the Lincoln County’s dry goods trade.

The “war” resulted in murder, terrorist-like violence and involved a host of New Mexico figures including Billy the Kid, Sheriff Pat Garrett, John Chisum, Alexander McSween, Paul Dowlin, and Lawrence Murphy. The fort’s assistance to the sheriff was cut short when it came to attention of the illegality of using federal troops to quash a civil disturbance. But when an unarmed post soldier got wounded near McSween’s home, Lt. Colonel N. A. M. Dudley, the fort commander, saw no issue in marching into town a contingent of 60 cavalry men, sundry officers, a Gatling gun and a howitzer to arrest McSween.

The fort saw its last active use in the 1880s, when troops garrisoned at the post took part in the campaign to capture Victorio, Nana and Geronimo. With the surrender of Geronimo in 1886 came the end of decades of violence and Army pursuit. The last hurrah, perhaps, came with the arrival of Second Lieutenant John J. Pershing in 1887, fresh from West Point. With his small command of enlisted men, Pershing pursued a “raiding party,” finally capturing the marauders after a 26-hour march of 110 miles. Following this, Fort Stanton had outlived its purpose, and in 1895 it was abandoned.