The Forty-Day Scout

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In the early summer of 1872, Kiowa or Comanche Indians killed and scalped two white ranchers to steal their sixteen-shot Henry rifles. The Indians spared one man’s Mexican wife and a servant boy, and the survivors reported the murders to the authorities at Fort Bascom, New Mexico. The U.S. Army, including the 8th Cavalry, Colonel John Irvin Gregg commanding, was bugled off on a punitive expedition into the Staked Plains of West Texas, the homeland of the warlike tribesmen.

Colonel Gregg’s impressive Civil War record, for which he had received brevet promotions to brigadier general, U.S.A., and major general, U.S. Volunteers, had ended with his capture by weary Confederates only three days before Appomattox. His subsequent knack for getting lost is reflected in the journal kept by William Edward Matthews, one of his troopers, and a rather jaundiced observer of military life.

Eddie Matthews had joined the Army three years before, at nineteen, after a friend promised him a job if he ever came to Cincinnati and then reneged when he actually showed up, penniless, to ask for work. During five years of cavalry service he wrote steadily to his father, John Matthews, a Civil War veteran born in Cornwall, England, who had left the Army as a gray-haired forty-four-year-old lieutenant in 1865. For five years, Eddie Matthews also chased Indians and rustlers, joined all sorts of bizarre social clubs, observed the frontier Southwest—and counted the years, months, weeks, and days until his enlistment would expire and he could rejoin his family in Maryland.

Eddie Matthews’ extensive correspondence—a look at frontier soldiering with the coating of nostalgic romanticism not yet congealed on it—lay buried in a dusty attic trunk for over a century. His granddaughter, Mrs. Ora Matthews Bublitz, discovered the three-foot stack of letters while cleaning up her attic after her own retirement as a municipal clerk in Teaneck, New Jersey. She remembered her grandfather as a stooped, white-haired old codger who gave each grandchild a dime when they came home from school during the Depression. Her memory didn’t jibe with the description Matthews wrote of himself a few days before setting out to chase Kiowas and Comanches:

“I … only weigh 138 3/4 Ibs., am 5ft. 9in. tall, and going on 23 years old, black eyes, black hair, what there is of it (had it cut short for the occasion) dark complexion (am very badly sun-burned) but taken all in all am a pretty fair piece of human nature. …”

Here is a slightly abridged version of the longest of those letters, an account of nineteenth-century Indian warfare as the soldier knew it .

J.K.

Fort Bascom, New Mexico August 6th, 1872

“To the loved ones at Home”

We leave this Post tomorrow on a forty day Scout and as it will be impossible for me to communicate with you during that time I have concluded to keep a small “Journal” of events. I know it will partly make amends for the long silence.

August 7th, 1872 —Our Command numbering about three hundred men of our Regiment, composed of B., D., L., and M., Troops with forty days rations, left Bascom at 10 o’clock A.M. As General Gregg (our Colonel), was not ready to leave at that time, he gave Capt Bankhead (Senior Captain) Orders to move the Command, and he would join us soon as he could complete his business at the Post.

We moved off marching in an eastern direction over the prairie (not on any road) until about 2 o’clock when came to a road. Close by found wood and water and went into Camp. Pitched the Officer’s tents and was preparing supper, when Genl Gregg came up and gave orders to move forward. Tents had to be taken down, wagons repacked, horses caught and saddled. After an hour’s work, with no end to growling, we were all ready to resume the day’s march. Only marched four miles farther, when went into Camp, found plenty of water, but very little wood. Distance marched 12 miles.

August 8th, 1872 —Left Camp at 7 A.M. still marching over the prairie. Learned that we were taking a short cut to get on the old Fort Smith road, which runs from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Santa Fe, N.M. It was “L” Troop’s turn to fall in rear of the wagon train to act as rear guard. Whenever more than one troop marches together the troop starting out in advance falls in the rear next day. In this way each troop takes its share of what is considered the disagreeable duty of marches viz: guarding the wagon train. …