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Spare, frail, and plagued by old wounds, Ranald Mackenzie was still “the finest Indian-fighting cavalryman of them all”
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
On the morning of January 20, 1889, the New York Sunday Times carried an account of the elaborate preparations for the Yale Junior Promenade. On other pages were discussions of the prospects of the Harvard and Cornell crews for the coming rowing season. The balance of the paper bore foreign and domestic news of no startling importance. But tucked away in the obituary column there was a brief notice: [Died] M ACKENZIE —At New Brighton, Staten Island, on the 19th January. Brig.-Gen. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, United States Army, in the 48th year of his age.
This was all the attention given to the death of a man who was one of our greatest Indian fighters and about whose Civil War services U. S. Grant had written: “I regard Mackenzie as the most promising young officer in the Army. Graduating at West Point, as he did, during the second year of the war, he had won his way up to the command of a corps before its close. This he did upon his own merit and without influence.”
Renown is often won by fickle and devious fortune. George Armstrong Custer gained immortality by spectacular failure, for his sudden and violent departure for Valhalla with all his men has made him, next to Grant and Lee, probably the best known of all our army officers of the nineteenth century.
How different is the fame of Mackenzie, a cavalry contemporary of Custer’s, who fought many more Indian actions and never suffered defeat. Custer graduated from West Point at the bottom of his class in 1861 and Mackenzie at the top of the class of 1862. Both men became major generals of volunteers during the Civil War before they reached the age of 25. Custer was brevetted five times for gallantry and wounded once; Mackenzie, with a year less of service, was brevetted seven times for the same reason and wounded sis times; later he received another wound from the Indians which made his life a daily agony. Custer met disaster and death in his second major Indian engagement, but Mackenzie had five major encounters and many skirmishes with the same enemies. After the Custer debacle it was Mackenzie who gave the victorious and formidable Cheyennes such a thrashing that they soon afterward surrendered, and it was Mackenzie who crushed the fierce Comanches and other marauding Indians in west Texas and finally brought peace to that bloodiest of frontiers. In failure Custer won immortality, while Mackenzie, a conspicuous success, died unwept and unsung except by the informed few. It seems about time for Ranald Slidell Mackenzie to receive just recognition.
He came of unusual stock. His father was Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, whose real name was Slidell but who had taken his wife’s family name of Mackenzie. He was a veteran naval officer and the author of many well-known books, among them A Year in Spain , which had an influence on the writings of his friend Washington Irving. In 1842, however, Mackenzie found himself the center of a national controversy, when, as commander of the U.S. brig Somers , he put down some childish folly he pleased to call a “imi tiny” and hanged Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, son of the secretary of war, after a strange trial at sea. The suspicious disciplinarian was court-martialed but acquitted.
The Commander’s brother was John Slidell, the Confederate commissioner to France who was involved in the famous Mason-Slidell incident which nearly brought on a war with Great Britain in the autumn of 1862. Another brother, Thomas, a Yale graduate, was chief justice of Louisiana. His sister, Jane Slidell, married Afatthew Calbraith Perry, the naval officer who opened Japan to the Western world in 1853, and their daughter married August Kelmont of New York. The Commander’s son, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Jr., younger by two years than his brother Ranald, was a lieutenant commander in the Navy who was killed in 1867 while leading a charge against the natives on the island of Formosa.
Altogether they were an impetuous and daring breed, and Ranald led the clan. He was born in New York City on July 27, 18^0, and grew up near Tarrytown on the Hudson River and later in Morristown, New Jersey. He entered Williams College with the class of 1859, but at the end of his junior year he trasferred to west Point and was graduated in 1862.
His Civil War service in itself would 611 a book. A typical sample was his four months’ duty as colonel of a Connecticut volunteer regiment, a rather easygoing outfit on which Mackenzie descended like a tornado on an orphan asylum. He became a greater terror than Rebel shot and shell, and his men plotted to dispose of him in the next battle, but when that came, at Winchester in September, 1864, the plot evaporated in the face of Mackenzie’s audacious courage. Seeming to court destruction, he galloped along the front of his men, waving his hat on the end of his saber, braving a hail of Confederate lead; when his horse was cut in two by a shell, Mackenzie was spilled and wounded, but he refused to go to the rear, even at the request of his commanding general, Philip Sheridan. Within three weeks he was back to duty and from then on the regiment, to the last man, would have followed him into the gates of Hell.