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Border Warrior

May 2024
18min read

Spare, frail, and plagued by old wounds, Ranald Mackenzie was still “the finest Indian-fighting cavalryman of them all”

On the morning of January 20, 1889, the New York Sunday Times carried an account of the elaborate preparations for the Yale Junior Promenade. On other pages were discussions of the prospects of the Harvard and Cornell crews for the coming rowing season. The balance of the paper bore foreign and domestic news of no startling importance. But tucked away in the obituary column there was a brief notice: [Died] M ACKENZIE —At New Brighton, Staten Island, on the 19th January. Brig.-Gen. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, United States Army, in the 48th year of his age.

This was all the attention given to the death of a man who was one of our greatest Indian fighters and about whose Civil War services U. S. Grant had written: “I regard Mackenzie as the most promising young officer in the Army. Graduating at West Point, as he did, during the second year of the war, he had won his way up to the command of a corps before its close. This he did upon his own merit and without influence.”


Renown is often won by fickle and devious fortune. George Armstrong Custer gained immortality by spectacular failure, for his sudden and violent departure for Valhalla with all his men has made him, next to Grant and Lee, probably the best known of all our army officers of the nineteenth century.

How different is the fame of Mackenzie, a cavalry contemporary of Custer’s, who fought many more Indian actions and never suffered defeat. Custer graduated from West Point at the bottom of his class in 1861 and Mackenzie at the top of the class of 1862. Both men became major generals of volunteers during the Civil War before they reached the age of 25. Custer was brevetted five times for gallantry and wounded once; Mackenzie, with a year less of service, was brevetted seven times for the same reason and wounded sis times; later he received another wound from the Indians which made his life a daily agony. Custer met disaster and death in his second major Indian engagement, but Mackenzie had five major encounters and many skirmishes with the same enemies. After the Custer debacle it was Mackenzie who gave the victorious and formidable Cheyennes such a thrashing that they soon afterward surrendered, and it was Mackenzie who crushed the fierce Comanches and other marauding Indians in west Texas and finally brought peace to that bloodiest of frontiers. In failure Custer won immortality, while Mackenzie, a conspicuous success, died unwept and unsung except by the informed few. It seems about time for Ranald Slidell Mackenzie to receive just recognition.

He came of unusual stock. His father was Commander Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, whose real name was Slidell but who had taken his wife’s family name of Mackenzie. He was a veteran naval officer and the author of many well-known books, among them A Year in Spain , which had an influence on the writings of his friend Washington Irving. In 1842, however, Mackenzie found himself the center of a national controversy, when, as commander of the U.S. brig Somers , he put down some childish folly he pleased to call a “imi tiny” and hanged Acting Midshipman Philip Spencer, son of the secretary of war, after a strange trial at sea. The suspicious disciplinarian was court-martialed but acquitted.

The Commander’s brother was John Slidell, the Confederate commissioner to France who was involved in the famous Mason-Slidell incident which nearly brought on a war with Great Britain in the autumn of 1862. Another brother, Thomas, a Yale graduate, was chief justice of Louisiana. His sister, Jane Slidell, married Afatthew Calbraith Perry, the naval officer who opened Japan to the Western world in 1853, and their daughter married August Kelmont of New York. The Commander’s son, Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Jr., younger by two years than his brother Ranald, was a lieutenant commander in the Navy who was killed in 1867 while leading a charge against the natives on the island of Formosa.

Altogether they were an impetuous and daring breed, and Ranald led the clan. He was born in New York City on July 27, 18^0, and grew up near Tarrytown on the Hudson River and later in Morristown, New Jersey. He entered Williams College with the class of 1859, but at the end of his junior year he trasferred to west Point and was graduated in 1862.


His Civil War service in itself would 611 a book. A typical sample was his four months’ duty as colonel of a Connecticut volunteer regiment, a rather easygoing outfit on which Mackenzie descended like a tornado on an orphan asylum. He became a greater terror than Rebel shot and shell, and his men plotted to dispose of him in the next battle, but when that came, at Winchester in September, 1864, the plot evaporated in the face of Mackenzie’s audacious courage. Seeming to court destruction, he galloped along the front of his men, waving his hat on the end of his saber, braving a hail of Confederate lead; when his horse was cut in two by a shell, Mackenzie was spilled and wounded, but he refused to go to the rear, even at the request of his commanding general, Philip Sheridan. Within three weeks he was back to duty and from then on the regiment, to the last man, would have followed him into the gates of Hell.

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.

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.”

Carter estimated they had ridden 160 miles in 33 hours, a good part of the time in sweltering heat and always in suffocating clouds of dust. All had gone without sleep for two, and some for three, nights, subsisting on nothing but bread and water. It was an extraordinary feat of arms.

The Mexican government vigorously protested the raid, but Phil Sheridan kept his word and Mackenzie suffered no disciplinary action. The Indian raids in that particular area noticeably diminished thereafter, but Mackenzie and Bullis’ scouts had to cross the Rio Grande several times more until the Indian menace completely ceased.

The next year, in 1874, many Comanches, Arapahoes, Kiowas, and Southern Cheyennes became restless and left their reservations in the Indian Territory to join their wild brethren in the Staked Plains, whence they rode forth to ravage the frontier settlements. Several converging columns were ordered out to punish them, and Mackenzie headed the troops sent from Texas. His command had a sharp skirmish with a war party of Southern Cheyennes during the night and morning of September 26–27, but when the Indians sought to lead him off on a false trail to the south, Mackenzie’s previous explorations of this country paid off. He knew the Indian camps must be in the bottom of the deep and steep-walled PaIo Duro Canyon, and so, on the twenty-seventh, while daylight lasted, he leisurely followed the retreating Indians southward. As soon as it was dark he reversed his direction, led his troops on a fast night march to the north, and at dawn was looking down from the south rim of the canyon on the Indian encampments far below. Until now these hide-outs had been unknown to the white man, and the Indians could always retreat here when pursued.

A narrow, zigzag trail leading downward was found, and each soldier dismounted and led his horse, sliding and stumbling, toward the bottom. But suddenly they were spotted by an early-rising Indian assigned to herd horses, who fired his gun to give the alarm. The troopers hastened their descent, but before they could reach the floor of the canyon the Indians poured forth from their lodges and, abandoning everything except their rifles, mounted ponies and fled up the canyon or scrambled on foot up its sides to hide behind immense piles of boulders. From these vantage points they kept up a hot fire as the troopers formed ranks and charged up the canyon. But the fleeing Indians had too much of a head start and the troopers soon returned, their only captives a large herd of horses. Mackenzie decided further pursuit was useless, and that it would be too costly to dislodge the Indians firing from behind the rocks. He burned all the deserted lodges and abandoned property and drove the captured horses up the steep zigzag trail. Once out of the canyon he picked out a few horses for his men and then ordered the rest, about 1,400, to be shot. For years afterward a heap of glistening bones marked the spot. The destruction of these supplies and horses was a mortal blow to the Indians’ spirit; they straggled back to their reservations for the winter. The next year Mackenzie and the 4th Cavalry moved on to Fort Sill, where his firmness prevented any further outbreaks by the restless braves on the reservations, and there in June, 1875, he received the surrender of the last wandering band of Comanches.

After Custer’s debacle at the Little Big Horn in Montana the following June, Mackenzie was rushed north with most of the 4th Cavalry to join Major General George Crook against the victorious Sioux and Northern Cheyennes. They made a good team. Crook (known as the Gray Fox) was cool, silent, and calculating; while Mackenzie had courage, dash, and quickness of apprehension. But his seven wounds, the hardships of years of campaigning, and his heavy responsibilities had naturally told on Mackenzie’s frail physique and high-strung temperament. Moreover he suffered ceaseless pain. At Fort Sill in 1875 he had been thrown on his head from a wagon and remained dazed for days afterward; his mind had not entirely cleared for several months. As Captain Robert G. Carter described him:


“He was fretful, irritable, oftentimes irascible and pretty hard to serve with. This was due largely to his failing to take care of himself and his wounds received during the Civil War. He kept late hours, ate but little and slept less than anybody in the regiment. But he was not a martinet and was always just to all the officers and men.… The wound through his lung was always a most serious drawback to his physical comfort and action on campaigns and it probably, with his other wounds, added to his irritability at times. He could not ride more than 25 to 30 miles without being in great pain and yet he rode 160 miles in 32 hours when we crossed the Rio Grande in 1873, without, so far as I can recall, a single murmur or sign of exhaustion.… Mackenzie hung on like a bull dog until the Indians begged him to let go. He had more brains than Custer, better judgment, and he carefully planned his attacks.…”

In the campaign against Ouster’s conquerors, Mackenzie first went to the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail agencies in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. Red Cloud and his Oglala Sioux braves, veterans of the Fetterman massacre and the Wagon-Box fight near Fort Phil Kearny in 1866 and 1867, were suspected of having taken part in the Custer massacre. By September 1 Colonel Mackenzie had counted only 4,706 Indians—about half the number reported by the resident agent. Red Cloud defiantly refused to move his camp closer to the agency until Mackenzie’s troopers surrounded his lodge at night and captured him. He was deposed as chief and held in confinement. Again Mackenzie had taken swift and decisive action.

In October of that year, Mackenzie led a cavalry column with Indian auxiliaries against Chief Dull Knife and his band of Northern Cheyennes who had been lurking near the Powder River since defeating Custer in June. In a surprise attack at dawn, his men destroyed the village, killed about forty Indians, and captured some six hundred ponies. In the village they found many relics of the Custer Massacre and of the Cheyennes’ recent victory over the Shoshones: scalps, silk guidons, and letters taken from the bodies of Custer’s officers and men; Shoshone scalps, the arm and hand of a Shoshone squaw, a necklace made of human fingers, and the right hands of twelve Shoshone children. It was understandable that Mackenzie’s Shoshone auxiliaries gave no quarter in the attack.

Many Cheyennes who escaped by flight without supplies, including eleven babies, froze to death in a temperature of 30 degrees below zero. The survivors surrendered and the troubles in the North ended. Crook wired the War Department:

“I can’t commend too highly [Mackenzie’s] brilliant achievements and the gallantry of the troops of his command. This will be a terrible blow to the hostiles, as those Cheyennes were not only their bravest warriors but have been the head and front of most all the raids and deviltry committed in this country.”

Mackenzie returned south that autumn and was placed in command of the Department of the Nueces with headquarters at his old stamping ground, Fort Clark at Bracketville, Texas. In May of 1878 he again crossed the Rio Grande, leading eleven companies of cavalry in pursuit of raiding Kickapoos and cattle thieves. There is reason to believe that the Hayes Administration in Washington was not adverse to a war with Mexico, for it would bring the Tilden Democrats, who still bitterly resented Hayes’s close victory in the 1876 election, into a common cause. Perhaps Mackenzie again had verbal orders to disregard Mexican sovereignty. Other U.S. officers, particularly Lieutenant John L. Bullis with his handful of Seminole scouts, had been constantly crossing the river on the trail of marauding Indians during the five years since the great raid on Remolino. But Bullis’ band was so small and he was so careful to keep away from Mexican settlements while chasing the common enemy that the Mexican authorities seemed to wink at his violations of their country’s sovereignty.

At any rate, on this particular raid Mackenzie was forced to give up the chase when his guide fell ill and the water ran low. Returning toward the Rio Grande, he found his way blocked by a body of Mexican troops under a General Winkler, who ordered him to avoid the town of Piedras Negras and return the way he came. Mackenzie replied that he was going to cross the Rio Grande by the nearest ford and that he would fight his way through if necessary. He formed his troops into line of battle and advanced directly at Winkler’s men. Fortunately for peace between the two countries, the Mexicans gave way. Soon afterward Mexico agreed to police the border, and the resulting co-operation between General E. O. C. Ord, commanding at San Antonio, and his Mexican son-in-law, General Jeronimo Treviño, in Coahuila, practically ended the Indian troubles on the Texas border.

Mackenzie’s next campaign took him to Colorado, where in September of 1879, the White River Utes had gone on the warpath. They had ambushed a force of soldiers under Major Thomas T. Thornburgh, killed the young major and several of his men, and then murdered the well-meaning Indian agent, Nathan C. Meeker, and all his employees [A MERICAN H ERITAGE , October, 1957]. All told the Utes had killed 30 whites and wounded 44 more. They had also kidnaped Meeker’s wife, his attractive daughter, and another young white girl with her two children, had held them prisoners for some twenty-odd days, and had raped the women, although the victims would not at first publicly admit it. Mackenzie rushed to the spot and soon had the rampaging Utes under control.

The resulting hue and cry against them in Colorado brought about an order for their expulsion westward into Utah territory. The Utes, however, refused to move and swore they would die fighting to resist eviction from their homeland. Again Mackenzie was called upon and in 1881 achieved what he considered his greatest success with the Indians. Unarmed, he personally delivered an ultimatum to some twenty truculent chiefs; they must decide at once, he said, whether to go or fight. The chiefs, used to the shilly-shallying of Indian agents, were dumfounded; in less than ten minutes they agreed to go. It was an intensely dramatic scene, dominated by Mackenzie’s force of character. If the chiefs had decided to fight, Mackenzie would have been the first to die.

By now Mackenzie was getting a reputation as the army’s prime trouble shooter. In the summer of 1881 there were Apache outbreaks in Arizona, and General William T. Sherman placed him in command of all forces in the field with headquarters at Fort Apache. Mackenzie used the agency police to make a few arrest and soon quelled the troubles. From there he was ordered to Santa Fe, in command of the district of New Mexico. In October, 1882, upon the strong recommendation of U. S. Grant, he was promoted to brigadier general in the Regular Army. Promotion was extremely slow in those post-Civil War days, and the competition was keen. Nelson A. Miles had received this same promotion in 1880, and there had been keen rivalry between these two Indian-fighting colonels. There was a story of an old and privileged sergeant who noticed Mackenzie one night on the plains gazing thoughtfully at the heavens and said, “Colonel, there’s Miles between you and that star.”

In November, 1883, General Mackenzie was placed in command of the Department of Texas with headquarters at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He had remained a bachelor, but now he again met the love of his younger days. Years before he had often visited the San Antonio home of Warwick Tunstall, making the round trip of 280 miles from Fort Clark. He had become deeply attached to his host’s daughter, Florida, but circumstances had prevented a strong mutual attraction from developing further, and in 1869, as Mackenzie moved on to the hardships of frontier warfare, Florida Tunstall had married an army doctor, Redford Sharpe.

Now, when Mackenzie returned at the apex of his career, he found Florida Sharpe a widow. They became engaged and he bought a ranch in the nearby town of Boerne as their future home. But this sudden happiness must have been too much for him. A number of factors—his old wounds, the extreme rigors and hardships of all his years of campaigning, the accident at Fort Sill, and his grave and constant responsibilities—all these had begun to take their cumulative toll on Mackenzie’s high-strung temperament and frail physique. The unexpected joy of his engagement must have opened the floodgates. His friends noticed that he was becoming increasingly irrational. Hoping it was only a temporary condition, they tried to keep him secluded and under watch. But his actions became more erratic and violent, and finally, in December of 1883, he had to be sent east to an asylum in New York. The following spring, retired for disability contracted in the line of duty, he went to live with his sister in New Brighton, Staten Island, and there five years later he died. He was buried at West Point.

So died unnoticed a splendid soldier who had rid Texas of the Indian scourge and who, though he had always shunned publicity, had been the finest Indianfighting cavalryman of them all.

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