- Historic Sites
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
While Mackenzie was attacking the Comanches to the north and west, the Lipans, Mescalero Apaches, and Kickapoos, from their Mexican sanctuary, were lacerating the southern Texas frontier. After a bloody raid they would drive their stolen herds of livestock southward across the Rio Grande, where international law protected them from reprisals by the United States Army. These atrocities had become intolerable; by 1873 it was estimated that they had inflicted damages of about fifty million dollars, to say nothing of the murders and kidnapings which accompanied the raids.
The situation was so bad that in April, 1873, Secretary of War William Worth Belknap and General Philip Sheridan, traveling in a mule-drawn ambulance, personally appeared at Fort Clark, the lonely frontier post about 140 miles west of San Antonio, to confer with Colonel Mackenzie. Sheridan told Mackenzie to enter Mexican territory and destroy a nest of raiding Kickapoos, Lipans, and Apaches on the San Rodrigo River, beyond the village of Remolino. When Mackenzie asked for written orders to protect himself in this gross breach of Mexican sovereignty, Sheridan pounded the table and shouted:
“Damn the orders! Damn the authority! You are to go ahead on your own plan of action, and your authority and backing shall be General Grant [then President] and myself. With us behind you in whatever you do to clean up this situation, you can rest assured of the fullest support. You must assume the risk. We will assume the final responsibility should any result.”
It was a difficult and dangerous order for Mackenzie to obey. Even if he succeeded, he still had no written authorization for his bold action; failure might mean death for himself and his men. But he decided to go ahead. The greatest secrecy was necessary and Mackenzie confided his plans only to his acting adjutant, Lieutenant Roheit G. Carter. Years later Carter described the whole affair in a book called On The Border With Mackenzie . At once the tough-fibered colonel initiated a rigid course of training. All his odicers and men believed they were preparing for another Comanchc hunt in west Texas. It never occurred to them that their bristling, scrappy leader would dare to invade Mexico illegally.
But suddenly, and without previous warning, at dusk on the evening of May 17, 1873. Mackenzie led the regiment across the Rio Grande. Jn the van rode the impatient and irascible commander, with his guides and a detachment of Seminole scouts under Lieutenant fohn Lapham Bullis. Behind, in a column of fours, rode the blue-clad troopers. They were a hard-bitten lot. At Fort Clark, a particularly lonely and rough post, about a quarter of them had consistently landed in the guardhouse on pay days under charges ranging from drunkenness to attempted rape and murder. Many of the enlisted men and all the officers above the rank of second lieutenant were veterans of the Civil War. Every officer (including Mackenzie) had taken a drastic reduction in rank from his wartime status and there were some former officers in the ranks, most of them because of drink. But in the field they were magnificent.
On this particular night all were tensely sober, for nobody knew what perils lurked ahead in the mysterious darkness of old Mexico. All that night they rode toward the southwest, pounding up and down the frequent steep arroyos in suffocating clouds of dust. The lights in lonely Mexican huts went out at once when the terrified inhabitants heard the drumming of hundreds of hoofs. Around midnight the heavily laden pack mules began to lag behind, and when Lieutenant Carter reported this to his commander, Mackenzie, snapping the stumps of two fingers shot off in the Civil War (a nervous habit which always betrayed his anger), profanely barked out an order to cut loose the packs.
“Tell the men to fill their pockets with hard bread,” he said. Time was precious and this delay, coupled with another caused by the guides losing the way in the darkness, prevented the dawn attack that Mackenzie had planned.
It was broad daylight when the Indian villages on the banks of the San Rodrigo River were sighted. Mackenzie at once led his tired men in a hell-for-leather charge into their midst, taking the Indians completely by surprise. When the dust, powder smoke, and confusion finally settled and ceased, nineteen braves were dead in the settlements and many more were believed to have been killed in the brush and along the river. A Lipan chief, some forty women and children (mostly Kickapoos), and about sixty-five horses (many with Texas brands) were captured. The American casualties were one killed and two wounded.
The return to U.S. soil was a nightmare. The hostile countryside had been aroused for miles around, and Mexican garrisons in the nearby towns, reinforced by rancheros and Indians, poured forth like angry wasps to harass the flanks and rear of the plodding column. A straggler would have been killed without mercy, probably by torture. But at four the next morning, after fifteen hours of crawling torment, the column finally reached the Rio Grande and splashed across to safety. Mackenzie had gambled and won.
As Lieutenant Carter remembered it: “Some of the men were fast asleep low down on their saddles with their arms tightly clasped about their horses’ necks.… The condition of the prisoners … was pitiful in the extreme. They had been riding, lashed on the captured ponies, doubled up arid by threes.… All faces wore that dull, ashy, death-like appearance, indicative of overworked nature and the approach of exhaustion and physical collapse.”