- Book Reviews
Virtually every fort with a name has at least one book written about it. Unfortunately, few of these studies are of utility to anything but serious students of military history, as they tend to be written by buffs who get bogged down in the minutiae of who wore what uniforms and carried what weapons on what day. Writers of this ilk know precious little about how a fort and its garrison might fit into a larger social, political, and historical context. Robert Wooster's Frontier Crossroads: Fort Davis and the West flies in the face of this older style of military history. It should serve as a model of how a good military history should be written. Writing in the same style that won him critical acclaim for Nelson A. Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army (University of Nebraska Press, 1993), as well as Soldiers, Sutlers and Settlers: Garrison Life on the Texas Frontier (Texas A&M University Press, 1987), the distinguished professor of history at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi builds upon nearly two decades of his own scholarship on Fort Davis, creating a masterful account of a post which served as a place of "encounter, conquest and community" (p. ix).
Established in an area tucked into a rock canyon nearly five hundred miles west of San Antonio in 1854, Fort Davis helped facilitate the conquest of the trans-Pecos region of Texas. Between 1854 and 1861, the garrison found itself protecting immigrants, freighters, mail coaches, and travelers on the San Antonio–El Paso Road, vainly engaged in efforts to maintain peace in a region dominated by Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache Indians. Although the Civil War caused the evacuation of the post, the end of the conflict brought a return of Union blue that would last until the post's closure in 1891. During the ensuing quarter century, soldiers both black and white dramatically expanded the size and influence of the post as the United States tried to reassert its dominion over the region. Challenged by Comanche and Apache raiders like the elusive Victorio, Fort Davis's troops were, Wooster argues, less than successful in all their efforts to maintain peace. Able to inflict considerable casualties and damage upon marauding tribes prior to 1870, Col. Benjamin Grierson's operations in the 1880s met with fewer victories. Ultimately, it was only Indian confinement on reservations that brought peace to the region. [End Page 409]
Wooster explains that relationships within the garrison were not as peaceful. The discovery of precious minerals and subsequent feuds over mineral rights, coupled with tension between West Point–trained officers and those who were promoted from the ranks during the Civil War shattered notions of the army as "one happy family" (p. 115). Regardless of these problems, Fort Davis served its purpose, fueling settlement and economic growth that was part of a "frontier empire," though the author is more effective in explaining how area residents used "frontier" than he is with explaining his use of "empire." Even with the growth of a nearby community, the post's future was in jeopardy. By 1890 illness, flooding, and the decision to locate railroads elsewhere doomed the long-term viability of the post, and within a year, Fort Davis was closed, to be reopened only as a national historic site in 1961.
Many have tried to write effective histories of military posts, and most confine their analysis to what takes place within the rhetorical walls of their chosen cantonment. Wooster's analysis, just like Fort Davis, lacks these restrictive features. Placing the post, its garrison, and the surrounding population into a larger historical context, he has crafted a work that serves as an example of what good military history ought to be.