The first Fort Bliss: The post opposite El Paso

Fort Bliss, US Army
Thursday, August 22, 2013 - 10:33pm

Fort Bliss now occupies the sixth location in its long history. Among all of the Army’s posts, Fort Bliss is one of the most relocated. All of its previous locations were in or around what is now the city of El Paso.

The new establishment east of the old post, housing the 1st Armored Division, could almost be said to be the seventh location. Each location was based on the need for troops in the area, and generally signaled change or transition at the beginning or end of a conflict.

The first location for Fort Bliss was in the area that is now downtown El Paso, near the city’s entertainment district. If you visit the Abraham Chavez Theater and the Judson Williams Convention Center, it is hard to visualize what the area looked like in 1849. There were a few buildings and corrals, buildings erected by the first Americans to settle in the El Paso area. The town of El Paso del Norte, now Cíudad Juárez, was across the river.

At the end of the Mexican-American War, all American troops in Mexico were withdrawn. The treaty confirmed the Texas border with Mexico at the Rio Grande River, and ceded about one-half of the territory of Mexico to the United States. This included what are now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California.

With the return of troops to United States territory, the government needed to establish a military presence in the new territories to protect United States interests, citizens, property and the new border with Mexico when it was surveyed.

The Army withdrew the 3rd Infantry Regiment from Mexico via Vera Cruz. This is the same regiment that now forms the Army’s ceremonial unit, the Old Guard in Washington, D.C. Half of the Regiment went to New Orleans, and the other half went to Camp Salado near San Antonio.

Those whose enlistments had expired went home, while the remainder stayed in the Army. The units at Camp Salado included the Regimental staff; companies A, B, C, E, I, and K; and the regimental howitzer battery. The commander was Capt. (Brevet Major) Jefferson Van Horne, a West Point graduate and veteran of two years of combat in Mexico. Although his permanent rank was captain, he had received a brevet promotion for gallantry in the Mexican-American War.

On Nov. 7, 1848, the War Department ordered Van Horne to take his headquarters and the six companies of infantry to establish a “post opposite El Paso,” as soon as the “necessary reconnaissance could be made.” Today, the trip from San Antonio takes about 7.5 hours by automobile. In 1848, there were no roads except for dirt tracks, and even those were not well-defined. So, Van Horne dispatched two reconnaissance parties. One traveled what came to be known as the Upper Route.

It followed a trail through what is now San Angelo, Texas, across the Pecos River at Horsehead Crossing, and through the pass at the southern end of the Guadalupe Mountains. The southern trail went west to the Rio Grande near what is now Del Rio, and then followed the Rio Grande via what is now Presidio to the El Paso area. It was rough traveling for wagons. On the return, this expedition retraced its route along the river for about 100 miles, and then turned east. This southern route was to be used for future travelers, including Van Horne’s troops.

On June 1, 1849, Maj. Van Horne led his contingent out of Camp Salado. The expedition included all six companies, the howitzer battery, some civilian guides and livestock herders, and a party of “Forty-Niners” headed for the California goldfields.

The total strength of this expedition was almost 400: eight officers, 177 Soldiers, 200 civilian teamsters and wagon mechanics, and 15 other souls. The convoy included 275 wagons, 1,500 oxen, and assorted horses and mules. The troops were all infantry Soldiers, so they would make the entire trip of 673 miles on foot. Led by their officers, they marched out in full dress wool uniforms.

The party soon broke up into company-sized units traveling about a day apart. Van Horne did this to conserve water at the known watering holes, given the large supply train and the amount of livestock on the hoof. Leading the advance party was Capt. (Brevet Colonel) Joseph E. Johnston, the expedition’s topographical engineer. Johnston’s job was to clear the way for the wagons, constructing roads and river crossings as required. Johnston would later serve as a Confederate general in the Civil War.

The many wagons carried enough provisions for the troops for one year. This included rifles, pistols, gunpowder, uniforms, shoes, wagon parts, and horse tackle. Foodstuffs included regular Army rations of flour, cornmeal, whole-bean coffee, salt, brown sugar, bacon and salt pork. Fresh beef was live, herded on the hoof.

The infantry companies had no cooks assigned. Privates in each infantry squad would each take turns cooking. Water came from rivers, streams, and waterholes along the way. Soldiers risked dysentery, typhoid, and other diseases from drinking untreated water. Boiling water for coffee helped somewhat.

The expedition covered about 12 miles per day at a marching pace. It took three days to cross the Nueces River using hand-made rafts, and they did not lose a man or beast. On June 30, they reached what is now Del Rio, Texas.

Moving on, the expedition crossed the Pecos River near what is now Langtry. Temperatures reached into the 100’s. By Aug. 30, they reached what is now the eastern boundary of El Paso County. On Sept. 1, Van Horne arrived at San Elizario, an old established Spanish community.

There he found an old adobe fort or presidio, with a walled enclosure, barracks, officers’ quarters, stables, and a large mission chapel. This looked inviting, as the presidio seemed ready-made for occupation after a fair amount of renovation and upgrading. But, Van Horne’s orders directed him to establish a post opposite El Paso del Norte. He therefore moved out to cover the remaining 22 miles of the journey. He arrived with the main body at his final destination on Saturday, Sept. 8. He and his troops had covered 673 miles in the heat of summer, completing the entire journey in about 100 days.

Van Horne found no quarters, corrals, or other establishments suitable for a military post. There were several American settlers in the area, though, including James W. Magoffin, Simeon Hart, Benjamin Franklin Coons and Hugh Stevenson.

These men owned parcels of ranch and farm land. Van Horne could not purchase land, so he signed a lease with Benjamin Coons for a few acres for $250 per month, increasing to $350 per month when Coons had made improvements to the property. In today’s dollars, that would be more than $10,000 per month, so this rent was expensive.

By October 31, 1849, the post was in place. Buildings were made of adobe, with wooden branch ceilings filled in with mud and dirt floors. One set of buildings had squad rooms, wood sheds, and two adjoining corrals. The other set of buildings were officers’ quarters and storerooms. Heat in winter came from built-in wood fireplaces.

In summer there was no means to cool the rooms other than natural convection. Van Horne occupied the post with his staff, Companies A, B, C, and E, and the howitzer battery. He sent companies I and K back to San Elizario to establish an Army presence there. The post was officially called the Post Opposite El Paso, the name Fort Bliss being years away.

Van Horne immediately set about meeting the locals. These included the aforementioned settlers, plus the Mexican authorities across the river. James Magoffin opened his home to entertaining when this was appropriate, providing Van Horne with a meeting place that was better than his primitive quarters.

Van Horne’s superiors were in Santa Fe, N.M., many days to the north. Communication was by express rider or wagon train, there being no other way to pass information.

In 1850, the American Boundary Commissioners arrived to survey the new border with Mexico from El Paso to the west. The commission’s leader, James Russell Bartlett, made contact with Van Horne, who provided him with temporary quarters, livestock and supplies.

Van Horne also escorted Bartlett to meet the local Mexican authorities across the river. Significantly, local Native Americans made off with 40 mules from the Magoffin ranch on Jan. 8, 1851. Infantry being unable to effectively catch the mounted Native Americans, Bartlett’s commission party organized a mounted pursuit.

They followed the trail east to the Hueco Mountains, just east of what is now Fort Bliss. They did not catch the Native Americans, and abandoned the chase after two days. Native Americans plagued the locals and the post with more stock thefts, and the infantry was unable to catch the perpetrators.

During 1850, the Army ordered one of two inspectors-general, Maj. George McCall, to conduct a detailed inspection of the New Mexico Territory. McCall spent most of the year traveling between the primitive posts in the territory, including the Post Opposite El Paso. At El Paso, McCall found the post in reasonably good shape, with $10,000 in quartermaster funds, $20,000 in commissary subsistence funds and three howitzers with plenty of ammunition.

The cost to maintain the post was considered excessive, however. Therefore, the Army considered abandoning the post except for a small detachment to maintain the stores at the Coons’ Ranch site. In 1851, the Army replaced Maj. Van Horne at the post with Maj. Electus Backus of the 3rd Infantry. Maj. Backus considered the site too expensive to maintain, without considering the mission to protect people and property on the American side of the Rio Grande.

Although James Magoffin offered generous terms to rent land on his ranch to the Army, the Army wanted free land. Thus, the Army moved most of the troops from the Coons’ Ranch site to a new post named Fort Fillmore, south of Las Cruces, N.M.

By September 1851, the troops were at Fort Fillmore, and the remaining stores at Coons’ Ranch were being disposed of. Most of the foodstuffs were in an advanced stage of spoilage.

So, the first Army post in the El Paso region was abandoned in 1851. The Army would return to establish a new post in 1853, when Native Americans depredations in the El Paso area got out of hand. It was then that the first true Fort Bliss was established. 

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