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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
At 24 Mackenzie was a major general of volunteers. He was a spare, frail-looking young man, five feet nine inches tall and weighing not more than 145 pounds, with an air of quiet reserve. In a time when most men wore heavy beards, he was clean-shaven, except for sideburns to the curve of his jaws, and this accentuated his youth. At the end of the war he had reached the highest rank of any man in his class at West Point.
After the war Ranald Mackenzie reverted to his permanent rank of captain in the Corps of Engineers and was stationed lor a while at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Then, upon the reorganization of the army, he was appointed colonel in March, 1867, and took over the 41st Infantry, a colored regiment stationed in Texas. He was the second youngest colonel in the service. Upon enlistment, men of the 41st had been ignorant field hands; but during the next two years, at varions posts on the Texas frontier, Mackenzie by discipline and training made them an efficient fighting force.
A fury of Indian attacks and outrages had put Texas in worse shape than any other section of the country. The Confederates had taken over the frontier posts when the state seceded in 1861 but had provided no more than a token protection against the Indians; each year the raids had steadily intensified; during and after the Civil War they assumed such proportions that terror reigned. In the North roamed the Southern Cheyennes and Arapahoes; the Comanchcs and their close allies, the Kiowas, together with the Mescalero Apaches, Kickapoos, and Lipans, actually controlled western Texas and eastern New Mexico and ravaged freely and constantly from north of the Canadian River deep into Mexican territory. The Cheyennes and Arapahoes, when pursued, lied to their reservations in the Indian Territory; the Comanches and Kiowas, to hidden retreats in the Staked Plains of the Panhandle; the Kickapoos, Lipans, and Mescaleros scampered across the Rio Grande to hide-outs in the Mexican state of Coahuila. The Mexican authorities seemed to have no control over these Indians; in any event, they made no effort to end the raids.
The powers in Washington decided that young Colonel Mackenzie was the man to clean up this dreadful mess. In the spring of 1870 he was assigned again to his real love, the cavalry, and became colonel of the 4th Cavalry, a regiment that before the Civil War, as the old 1st, had counted among its officers Joseph E. Johnston, George B. McClellan, Edwin Vose Sunnier, John Sedgwick, and many others who rose to prominence in the Union and Confederate armies. During the war this veteran regiment hail been in action 76 times, but it was on the frontiers under Mackenzie that it was to make its finest record.
Mackenzie decided that the only way to subdue the rampaging and murderous Indians would be to discover and destroy their hideouts. Accordingly, in the summer and autumn of 1871, he led a force of 600 men into the almost unknown Staked Plains. He soon met those “Lords of the Plains,” the Comanches, and they drew first blood by driving off seventy of his horses in a night stampede. The fiery Mackenzie was furious and pursued the marauders into a canyon; but Chief Quanah Parker, the famous half-breed leader and the son of the captured Texas girl Cynthia Parker [A MERICAN H ERITAGE , April, 1956], eluded him. A cold norther, blowing up suddenly, ended the chase. Mackenzie considered this expidition a failure, since he had not defeated any large band of Indians. He had, however, gained valuable experience and a knowledge of the country which would be of the greatest value to him later on. During a skirmish in this campaign Mackenzie rode out to direct the movements of a daring young officer who had taken his men out ahead of the column. Mackenzie was shot in the leg by an arrow; it was his seventh wound.
The following year, 1872, the indefatigable colonel went after the Comanches again. In March, at the head of a force from Fort Concho at San Angelo, he chased a band of thieving Indians all the way west to Alamogordo, New Mexico. Although the marauders escaped by dispersing in all directions, no previous American officer had ever hung on their trail so tenaciously the spirit of these heretofore invincible raiders. (The Alamogordo expedition also brought valuable information, for Mackenzie found the grass better along the thieves’ path of flight than on the old Pecos Trail. The route came into general use as the Mackenzie Trail. On his return Mackenzie explored the spectacular Palo Duro Canyon, just south of the present city of Amarillo, in which lay the main source of the Red River. This knowledge, too, was to prove useful to him.)
In September he made a successful surprise attack on a Comanche village of 262 lodges on McClellan’s Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Red River, in what is now the Texas Panhandle. He killed 20 warriors and captured 130 prisoners, mostly women and children, along with a herd of some three thousand horses. His own casualties were only one killed and three wounded. The victory was tempered by the resourceful Comanches, who recaptured their own horses and made off with a few others belonging to the troopers; and after that costly lesson Mackenzie usually destroyed any horses he captured from the Indians. But for this action Mackenzie and his command were congratulated in general orders from the War Department.