Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Narrative History of
Bullis's Medal of Honor Fight at the Pecos River
Val Verde County, Texas

by
Bill Haenn

"As for my men - they are brave and trustworthy, and each worthy of a medal..." Straightforward language written by 1st Lieutenant John L. Bullis, 24th Infantry, in his report of a fight with Comanches at the mouth of the Pecos River, April 25, 1875, where three of his faithful Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts had, "...just saved my hair..." For their gallantry the scouts were awarded Medals of Honor and Bullis was commended by the Department Commander as an officer, "...who means business." The engagement was effectively the last of any consequence between hostile Indians and the U.S. Army in Texas. As time passed the episode faded into relative obscurity and took its place among the little known events of Texas frontier history. "Today, travelers on U.S. Highway 90 cross the Pecos River with little effort, on the highest highway bridge in Texas, not realizing the history they are passing through or the heroic efforts that made their crossing possible.: (Haenn, 64)

The Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts were invaluable allies to the U.S. Army in its campaigns after the Civil War to conquer the Apache, Comanche, and Cheyenne bands that roamed over the Southern Plains and the U.S.-Mexico border region. Soldiering and scouting came naturally to these men whose quiet pride, dependable performance, and habitual courage made them perhaps the most distinguished auxilieary unit in U.S. Army history. The Seminole-Negro Indian Scout Detachment was formed on August 16, 1870, at Fort Duncan in Maverick County, from the repatriated Black Seminole clans who had returned to the United States from Mexico following the eradication of slavery at the end of the Civil War (Mulroy, 114). In subsequent years their numbers swelled to over fifty men as the Army gained a greater appreciation for the Scouts' value as trackers, fighters, and translators and the Seminole Negroes who had remained in Mexico learned of the opportunities for employment with the Army in western Texas. Throughout the 1870s, detachments of Seminole Scouts operated all along the Rio Grande frontier, from Ringgold Barracks at the Rio Grande City to the Big Bend region in far west Texas. But their primary postings were at Fort Duncan at Eagle Pass, and, more importantly, at Fort Clark, adjacent to the community of Brackettville, in Kinney County, where the U.S. Army established a reservation, known locally as "the camp," on the fort grounds for the Scouts and their families.

John Lapnam Bullis, a native New Yorker, entered the service of his country as a corporal in Company H, 126th New York Infantry on August 8, 1862. By the end of the Civil War he was a Captain in the 118th U.S. Colored Infantry, his first experience in command of Black soldiers. After the war he headed west and following several failed business enterprises reentered the Army in September of 1867 as a 2nd Lieut in the 41st Infantry, one of the newly formed Black regiments. The 41st Infantry arrived at Fort Clark in 1868 with Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie in command and William R. Shafter as his Lieutenant Colonel. In November 1869 the 41st was combined with the 38th Infantry to form the 24th Infantry (one of the four famed Buffalo Soldier regiments). Bullis took command of the Seminole-Negro Indian Scout Detachment on March 6, 1873 when the scouts and their families moved to Fort Clark from Fort Duncan (Mulroy, 117). His exploits as commander of the scouts are the stuff of legend. Bullis and the Scouts were the vanguard for Mackenzie's Remilino Raid in 1873 and participated in subsequent raids into Mexico with "Pecos Bill" Shafter and S.B.M. Young throughout the 1870's. Bullis spoke Spanish, as did the Scouts, and he quickly gained the respect and devotion of his new command as he shared their hardships on campaign. The Seminoles recognized in Bullis a warrior spirit and a man who appreciated their worth as soldiers while respecting them as men (Wallace).

On April 16, 1875 Bullis and three of his Scouts:  Sergeant John Ward; Private Pompey Factor; and Trumpeter Isaac Payne left Fort Clark, at present-day Brackettville, Texas, to investigate reports that a large band of Indians was raiding in the area of the lower Pecos River and along the Rio Grande. Over the course of the next six days they accompanied the supply train of "A" Company, 25th Infantry enroute to Fort Stockton. After a march of about one hundred miles, they reached Beaver Lake, where the scouting party left the infantry column and struck west towards the Pecos River. That day, after marching fifty miles, they ran across the tracks of Indians who were headed for Johnson's Run, a dry arroyo that emptied into the Pecos River from the east. As night fell the Scouts made camp at a small spring near the head of the arroyo. The next day, April 23, they continued following the tracks to teh southwest towards the Pecos River. After marching forty miles they camped at the mouth of the Howard's Creek. They resumed their march at 3:30 A.M. the next morning, traveling westward for forty miles towards the Rio Grande, then changing direction and marching southwest for fifteen miles, going into camp after dark near the Rio Grande (Bullis).

Up at 4 A.M. the morning of April 25th, they marched south for eighteen miles until they reached the deep canyon of the Pecos River. They crossed the stream about a mile above its mouth at a well-known Indian crossing and marched southeast for about six miles. They found only old signs of Indian activity, nearly all of which led to a shallow crossing of the Rio Grande called Eagle Nest Crossing. They left Seminole Spring, in present day Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, at 1 P.M. and marched east for three miles when they came upon a fresh trail coming from the direction of the settlements around Del Rio and going off towards the northwest. Bullis and the scouts took to the trail and followed it over the broken canyon country. After riding about an hour, they again came upon the canyon of the Pecos River where they observed a group of twenty-five to thirty Indians, whom Bullis believed to be Comanches from Mexico, who were attempting to cross a herd of about seventy-five horses to the west bank.

The four Scouts tied their horses in the brush and then unearthed a bush, which they used to camouflage their movements as they inched slowly down the ridgeline towards the canyon floor. They crept to within seventy-five yards of the enemy, who were still unaware of the Scouts' presence, before unleashing a volley from their Spencer carbines on the startled Comanches (Woodhull, 122).

The Scouts managed managed to keep their foes pinned down at the banks of the river for about forty-five minutes. Three Comanches were killed and a fourth was wounded. Twice the Comanches; herd was nearly dispersed. But slowly the tide of the battle began to turn after the Comanches sized up their attackers' position and numbers. The Comanches spread out and counterattacked towards the Scouts' flank, keeping up a steady fire with their Winchester rifles. Unable to hold their position against the Comanche advance, and in danger of getting cut off from their horses to their rear, the Scouts began a withdrawal back up the ridgeline. Finally, the four men reached their horses, and Ward, Factor, and Payne mounted and began to ride away. But Bullis's horse bolted before he could mount and he was left alone to face the oncoming attackers (Neal, 236).

When the Seminoles realized Bullis had not escaped with them and that he was trapped back in the canyon, the three turned around and hastened to rescue their commander. Factor and Payne quickly reestablished a position among the rocks and boulders and laid down an effective covering fire on the swarming Comanches. Under the protection of his comrades' fire, Ward galloped forward to Bullis. Although the Comanches were nearly upon him, Bullis was able to leap onto the back of Ward's horse and the two men made a mad dash for safety, bullets whizzing past them in both directions. The fire was so furious at the moment of rescue that a ball just missed its mark and instead shattered Ward's carbine stock and another bullet went clean through his carbine sling. Their lieutenant was saved and all four men escaped to fight another day.

Determined to put good distance between themselves and the Comanches, they rode twelve miles to Paint Creek, where they knew there was good grass and water for a camp. They had traveled a total of fifty-six miles that day and engaged the Comanches in a furious fight. Outnumbered and outgunned they had survivied. The next morning, April 26, they left camp at sunrise, joined the main road, and arrived back at Fort Clark by mid-afternoon (Bullis).

Bullis praised his three Seminole Scouts in his report, calling them "brave and trustworthy, and each worthy of a medal." Brigadier General Ord, the Department Commander, agreed, publishing Bullis's report to the command as General Order Number 10, with his endorsement, "Word commendatory of the energy, gallantry, and good judgement displayed by Lieutenant Bullis, and the courageous and soldierly conduct of the three Scouts who composed his party are not needed. The simple narrative given by himself explains fully the difficulties and dangers of his expedition. His own conduct, as well as that of his men, is well worthy of imitation, and shows what an officer can do who means business." In an uncommon example of military expediency, the three Scouts were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, less then three weeks later on May 28, 1875, for the valor they displayed in the rescue of Lieutenant Bullis in the fight at the Pecos River (Neal, 237).

Sergeant John Ward, Private Pompey Factor, and Trumpeter Isaac Payne, the three Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts under the command of Lieutenant John Bullis, were each awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroic roles in the fight near the mouth of the Pecos River on April 25, 1875. The citation for each reads, "With 3 other men, he participated in a charge against 25 hostiles while on a scouting patrol. Noted historian of the Seminole Scouts, Kenneth Wiggins Porter, claimed the battle their "most distinguished and best remembered exploit. (Porter, 193)

In 1877 Bullis and his Scouts returned to the site of their most valiant action to established the first road into and out of the Pecos river canyon, making a wagon crossing practical and opening the country west of the Pecos. Bullis was drawn to the harsh country of the Trans-Pecos and filed claims on thousands of acres of land he had explored while on scouting expeditions. He became a rich man selling right-of-way to the Southern Pacific Railroad. Bullis relinquished command of the Scouts in July of 1881. His singularly heroic service was recognized by gifts from the citizens of west Texas and of Kinney County of gold plated and engraved presentation swords now held by the Witte Museum. Bullis retired from active service as a Major and was promoted to Brigadier General on the retired list just prior to his death at Ft Sam Houston in 1911 (Haenn, 65) (Bullis's rescuer, Scout John Ward, died in March of that same year in Brackettville).

Violent confrontations with Apache and Comanche bands were already becoming obsolete even before Bullis' departure from command of the Seminole Scouts. By the end of the 1870s, the Scouts were enduring frequent acts of discrimination from the growing local populations around the military forts along the river. Their stature as "black Indians" threatened their use of Army land set aside for them on Fort Clark. The need for Army Scouts on the Rio Grande frontier in time faded away and the last detachment of Seminole Scouts was mustered out of service in September 30, 1914. Many of their descendants still live in Kinney and Val Verde counties, while others are scattered throughout west Texas and the rest of the U.S.

In their history of service to the U.S. Army, the Seminole Scouts were noteworthy partners in the settlement of west Texas. Despite their participation in numerous battles and skirmishes, the Seminole-Negro Indian Scout Detachment never lost a man in battle, nor was any scout ever wounded. The graves of the four Seminole Scout Medal of Honor recipients, including Adam Paine who won the medal for his role in a skirmish at Palo Duro Canyon under the command of Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie in the Red River War, can be visited today at the Seminole Indian Scout Cemetery near Brackettville.

Unlike the more notable battlefields of the Indian Wars, such as the Little Big Horn, no monument as yet marks the site of the Bullis fight. Nonetheless, as part of this marker project, the study team reviewed and analyed the documentary and cartographic evidence, conducted field surveys and terrian analysis of the area, and consulted with a multidisciplinary collection of military and civilian specialists of the Lower Pecos area. Limited archeological investigations at the most likely location of the fight have offered inconclusive results. However, the ground fits the movements and tactics described by Bullis in his eyewitness account. The conclusion, based on the evidence available, is that the fight almost certainly took place in close proximity to the prominent east-west ridgeline which leads to the traditional crossing near the mouth of the Pecos River. The main battleground is therefore located in the Amistad National Recreation Area, and the proposed site of the commemorative marker overlooks the battle site from the picnic area owned by the Texas Highway Department.

Lieutenant Bullis's official report remains the only first-hand account of the engagement known to exist. The study team relied on Bullis's account to authenticate that terrain features and distances agree with the sequence of events leading up to the battle. Although his report contains some ambiguities, Bullis's relibablity as an accurate informant is difficult to challenge. He knew the area well, was a skilled and experienced campaigner, and three of the best Scouts and trackers in the western U.S. accompanied him. With this in mind, Bullis's description of the movements of his Scouts on the fateful day of the fight is not questioned. The critical section of his report for April 25 is:

We...crossed the Pecos about a mile above the mouth, at an Indian crossing; we then marched southeast for about six miles and went into the country between the Pecos and the Rio Grande, we did not see any fresh signs, but plenty of old, nearly all of which went toward the shallow crossing of the Rio Grande, known as Eagle Nest Crossing. We left the spring at 1 o'clock p.m. and marched east about three miles and struck a fresh trail coming northwest towards Eagle Nest Crossing. The trail was quite large and came from the direction of the settlements, and was made, I judge, by seventy-five head, or more, of horses. We immediately took the trail and followed it briskly for about an hour, and came upon a party of Indians unobserved, attempting to cross the Pecos to the west side (Bullis).

As late as 1938 the well-worn Indian crossing one mile above the mouth of the Pecos could still be seen [photo attached]. The terrain to southeast of the crossing, between the Pecos and the Rio Grande, is rugged broken canyon country characterized by long vistas and deep almost inaccessible limestone canyons. The mention of "Eagle Next Crossing" has caused confusion and is mistakenly used by several authors in their version of the event to locate the battle site. However, "Eagle Next Crossing" is clearly stated by Bullis to be a shallow crossing of the Rio Grande, not the Pecos. Bullis's reference to the spring (as opposed to a spring) almost certainly refers to "Seminole Spring" a waterhole and nearby natural rock shelter well-known to the Scouts and suitably located in the area being scouted. Marching three miles east from the spring, towards Comstock, puts the Scouts six miles from the Pecos crossing. The fresh trail they find has been made by nearly one hundred horses. Following the trail "briskly" for an hours covers the ground six miles back to the Pecos. Once on the ridgeline, above the Pecos canyon, which leads to the crossing, Bullis knows his quarry is attempting [to] cross the river. A small party can easily move unobserved, particularly dismounted, to the very end of the ridgeline and overlook the steep narrow trail which leads to the canyon floor and the river.

In December of 2003 the officers of the 2d Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division, from Fort Hood, Texas visited the battle site to conduct a "staff ride" for the officers of the battalion in preparation for their deployment to Iraq. A "staff ride" is an analysis of an historical event as a training experience to increase the officer's technical and tactical proficiency. The officers were provided a copy of Bullis's official report and maps of the area. A battle analysis and after action review was conducted from the proposed marker location overlooking the canyon of the Lower Pecos River. Again, in the judgement of these modern day cavalrymen, the conclusions of the marker study team were reinforced. It is time to share this knowledge with the general public.

  

WORKS CITED

Bullis, John L. General Orders No. 10, May 12, 1875. National Archives Record Group 94, M666, 217/359-61, Adjutant General Orders.

Haenn, William F. Fort Clark and Brackettville, Land of Heroes. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2002.

Mulroy, Kevin. Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 1993, 124-25.

Neal, Charles M. Jr. Valor Across the Lone Star: The Congressional Medal of Honor in Frontier Texas. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 2002.

Porter, Kenneth W. The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People, revised and edited by Alcione M. Amos and Thomas F. Senter. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996, 193-94.

Wallace, Edward S. General John Lapham Bullis, The Thunderbolt of the West Texas Frontier. Southwestern Historical Quarterly (54, 55 (April and July, 1951)).

Woodhull, Frost. Seminole Indian Scouts on the Border. Frontier Times, 1937.