Ranald S. Mackenzie on the Texas Frontier

A Book Review

I’ve always loved history. The past is filled with remarkable stories both triumphant and tragic. When I was in my early 20s, I wanted to be a Classical Languages teacher. Something kind of weird for West Texas, I know. But I loved Greek and Roman history (still do). Texas history, on the other hand, did not interest me at all. The history seemed too full of patriotic stereotypes of the great American way filled with hot air and tall tales. One day with nothing to do and no money to do anything with anyway, we left the Texas Tech campus and went to Mackenzie State Park there in Lubbock. There are only two things I remember about the park (well, it was 40 years ago): one, they had a prairie dog village, and two, at the prairie dog village there was a historical marker. You know, the kind of historical markers found on the side of roads all over Texas. Anyway, the marker had a very short biography of Ranald Slidell Mackenzie. It was the first time I had ever heard of any cavalry officer other than Custer, Jeb Stuart, and George Patton.

Texas Frontier
Cover of the 1993 Texas A&M edition

“Ranald S. Mackenzie on the Texas Frontier” was written by Ernest Wallace and first published in 1964. Dr. Wallace was a Horn Professor at Texas Tech University. He retired while I was at Tech. He had a long career at Tech and wrote eleven books on the history of Texas and the Southwest. He is perhaps best known for co-authoring “The Comanches, Lords of the South Plains” with E. Adamson Hoebel.

Not Your Usual Biography

There isn’t a lot in the book about Mackenzie’s childhood or family history. What is interesting is that family and friends felt that he would fail at the military academy. He in fact finished first in his class when he graduated in 1862. He was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant of Engineers and his first assignment was building pontoon bridges. In 1864, he was appointed colonel in the 2nd Connecticut Volunteers, Heavy Artillery, which was serving as infantry since they had no heavy guns. By 1865, he was a brigadier general in command of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, 6th Army Corps. At the end of the war, at the age of 24, he was a Brevet Major General, U.S. Volunteers. It becomes very obvious that Custer was not the only “boy general” in the Union Army. He was promoted 7 times and received 6 wounds during the Civil War. At the end of the war, he was returned to the rank of Captain.

Wanting to continue to command “fighting men”, Mackenzie was promoted to colonel and took command of the 41st Infantry. The 41st was assigned to the Rio Grande border in Texas. The Army was somewhat lackadaisical in combating the Indians and Mackenzie’s regiment spent much of its time in garrison duties and repairing forts that had fallen into ruin during the Civil War. In December of 1870, Mackenzie was given command of the 4th Cavalry Regiment.

A Cavalry Regiment in the Field

The rest of the book is a fascinating look into the operations of a cavalry regiment in the field. And the 4th Cavalry was in the field for several months at a time. In 1871, the regiment trailed the Kiowa band responsible for the Warren wagon train massacre, escorted the captured chiefs to Texas to stand trial, tracked Kickingbird’s Kiowa band and engaged the Comanche at Blanco Canyon. Ten companies of the 4th Cavalry were in the field for four months and some companies almost six months. The regiment was in the field 7 months during 1872 on the trail of Comancheros and Comanche. The first accurate map of the staked plains was made on this campaign which cris-crossed West Texas, Eastern New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle. The major accomplishment of this campaign was the Battle of the North Fork of the Red River where the 4th Cavalry took 115 Comanche prisoners.

Further campaigns against the Comanche had to be put on hold. In 1873, Mackenzie’s 4th Cavalry was transferred to the Rio Grande to deal with the Kickapoo and Lipan Apache. After a month of secret preparations and constant drill, Mackenzie struck the main Kickappo and Lipan villages in Mexico. He increased patrols on the border and gave orders that patrols were to pursue Indians across the border. He mounted a second raid into Mexico to punish Indian cattle raiders, but broke it off when he discovered the thieves were Mexican and not Indians.

Indian raids began increasing again in 1874 leading to war when Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Arapaho left their reservations. The government ordered five columns of troops into the field to force the Indians to return to the reservations and exterminate those who would not. The Indian Campaign of 1874 is often called the Red River War by historians. It was the 4th Cavalry which delivered the final blow to the Indians with the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon.

After Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn, Mackenzie and his 4th Cavalry were ordered to the Dakotas where the same relentless tactics were instrumental in the surrender of Dull Knife’s Cheyenne and Crazy Horse’s band. 1878 saw the 4th Cavalry back on the Rio Grande and another expedition into Mexico to punish the Lipan Apache. In 1879, the 4th Cavalry was sent to Colorado to handle resistance from the Utes as they were resettled to a new reservation. The 4th Cavalry by this time had such a reputation of being “relentless”, “elite”, and “crack regiment”, that often just showing up would defuse many situations. 1880 saw Mackenzie in command of all military operations in Arizona for a brief period before he and the 4th were sent to New Mexico to handle Indian uprisings in New Mexico. His handling of the Indians in New Mexico won the admiration of the citizens of the territory. In 1882, Mackenzie was promoted to the rank of General with no particular assignment.

Ranald Mackenzie circa 1876
Ranald Mackenzie circa 1876

As the book goes through the deployments of the 4th Cavalry, the author gives little glimpses of life in the regiment. Though the regiment spent many months in the field, Mackenzie preceded each campaign season with four to six weeks of drill. In an age without cartridge belts, Mackenzie ordered troopers to carry cartridges in their pockets in case they became separated from their horses. Speed mattered. The regiment moved and struck hard and quick. He had good logistical officers and kept his wagon trains constantly on the move bringing forage and food for the regiment. He was a stickler for the uniform and held courts martial while in the field.

So How Come No One Has Heard of This Guy?

Ranald S. Mackenzie was perhaps the most successful American Army Officer in the 19th Century. Yet, few have heard of him. There are no national monuments dedicated to him, no current army posts named after him, no Mackenzie battle tanks or helicopters, and very few mentions of him in history books. There is a little state park named for him in Lubbock, a small lake and a small mountain are named for him near Tule canyon in Texas. There is a Veterans hospital named after him, and this is where we come to the main reason most people don’t know anything about the man.

Ranald Mackenzie endured a hard life. He had been wounded six times in the Civil War and once in the Indian Wars. He suffered a fall from a carriage in 1875, landed on his head and was in a coma for three days. Some doctors believed that accident was the start. He became more irritable and short with people. The stress and strain of constant service caught up to him. He was planning on retiring to a ranch north of San Antonio and he was engaged to be married. In December of 1883, the General who never drank intoxicants, became drunk and caused an uproar by getting into an altercation where he had to be beaten senseless and tied. On December 22nd, the General’s condition had become such that he was diagnosed as insane and relieved of duty. He died in 1889 to “general paresis” at only 48 years of age.

Hollywood learned long ago that money is made on stereotypes. Generals either died heroic deaths or quietly after going into politics. There is a real stigma in our country attached to mental illness. John Wayne once cautioned Kirk Douglas that he would possibly ruin his career if he played the part of Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life.” If you don’t fall for the stereotypes, life is a series of triumphs and tragedies. The tragedy of mental illness shouldn’t obscure a life of service. Mackenzie was not only admired and respected by his men, he was also respected by the Indians who fond him to be fair and vocal as to their needs. The legislatures of two states, New Mexico and Texas passed resolutions thanking Ranald Mackenzie for his service on the American frontier.

This is a good book to read to get a look at a man who redefined the use of cavalry in the Indian Wars. It is also a good glimpse into the life of the 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment.

3 comments

  1. I have read this book and agree with Elaine that this guy was better than his peers and does not get the recognition he deserves.

    And by extension the Southern Plains tribes do not get the recognition they deserve Just look at Dances With Wolves. In the book Dunbar is adopted by Comanches

  2. Fascinating! Thanks for highlighting this book and Mackenzie’s career. It’s especially interesting to me that the Indians found him to be fair. Respect of your adversary is no small thing. Your remarks about mental illness and stereotypes are spot on and something that is still very much in evidence today.

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