FORT SELDEN, 1865-1891
The Birth, Life, and Death of a Frontier Fort in New Mexico
Fort Selden was a frontier post built in the Territory of New Mexico in 1865 and occupied until 1891 by the United States Army in its battle against the general lawlessness of the region and the hostile Native Americans of southern New Mexico. It was named for Colonel Henry R. Selden, 1st New Mexico Infantry Regiment, who as a captain in the regular army fought in the Civil War battles of Valverde and Glorietta in New Mexico. He was promoted to brevet major in 1863, but resigned his regular commission and accepted the rank of colonel of volunteers in the 1st New Mexico Infantry. His first task was to recruit a regiment of New Mexican volunteers for General James H. Carleton, Commander of the Department of New Mexico. After the regiment was organized in 1864, he was given command of Fort Union, where he died 2 February 1865. Carleton, then in his memory, designated the new fort to be built near Las Cruces as Fort Selden.
As a young boy when I wandered through the decaying walls of Fort Selden, hiding behind them to shoot at imaginary cattle rustlers, horse thieves, and raiders, the excitement was almost too much to bear. Envisioning the troopers leaving the post through the sally port at a gallop with their flags flying was a glorious exercise, and made real by the Saturday afternoon westerns and cavalry movies of the 1940s and 1950s. Yet, after serving the United States Army for almost 30 years in posts across the United States and other parts of the world, I can now see how dreary, monotonous, and boring the daily life must have been for the soldiers stationed at Fort Selden. My research into their daily routines has deepened the respect I hold for these men and their efforts to protect the southern part of New Mexico.
A simple epitaph for Fort Selden would read, “It was built, accomplished its mission, and was abandoned.” But this fails to show the tremendous impact that the fort had on the surrounding area. Two Fort Selden researchers, Timothy Cohrs and Hugh M. Milton, have concentrated on the commanders, units, battles, and patrols of the men of the fort and for the most part have ignored its effects on and relationships with the local communities. Whereas historians Robert Frazer, Francis Prucha, Darlis Miller, and others have shown that the United States Army through its building and supplying the small forts of the frontier contributed greatly to the economic growth and development of communities in the vicinity of the forts. This, too, was the case of Fort Selden. Throughout the fort's history, not only did the post provide for local security, but it also contributed dramatically to the economic and social growth of the region.
Detachments of the 1st California Cavalry Regiment, the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and the 1st California Veteran Infantry Regiment began constructing Fort Selden on 8 May 1865. Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Nelson H. Davis, the Inspector General of the Department of New Mexico, had selected and surveyed a site for the fort about eighteen miles north of Las Cruces. The post, similar to other small southwestern posts of the time, was designed to accommodate one troop of cavalry and one company of infantry. Throughout the post's early history (1865 – 1878), its complement was two companies, although for a time both companies were cavalry. Fort Selden was temporarily abandoned during Victorio's War (1878 – 1880) because of the requirement for troops in the field. Then in the 1880s the soldiers came back to Fort Selden, when the crews of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (AT&SF) railroad, who were laying track south across the Jornada del Muerto, needed protection from raiders. The post was again occupied on 25 December 1880, but during the final phase of Fort Selden's history, 1881 – 1891, the normal contingent was only one company of infantry.
The post was constructed of adobe bricks and it required an immense amount of maintenance to keep it livable. There are conflicting reports on the overall appearance of the post. Lydia Spencer Lane, wife of the Post Commander in 1869, stated in her book, I Married a Soldier, "Our new station was a quiet rather unattractive place.” In contrast to her rather denigrating comment, a Las Cruces newspaper, the Borderer, reported on 14 February 1872, "Fort Selden is considered one of the most pleasant military posts on the whole Southwestern frontier." Captain Arthur MacArthur, commander of the post from 1884 to 1886, stated in a report to his headquarters that the post was well situated and presented the best appearance of any that he had seen in New Mexico.
Fort Selden was established as a base camp; it was not a fighting fortress such as Fort Ticonderoga. It was essentially a base camp for the soldiers who were required to patrol or scout the region from the Florida Mountains on the west, to the Sacramento and Guadalupe mountains on the east, north to Cañada Alamosa, and south to the Mexican border (Figure 1). This was an area of approximately 15,000 square miles, an overwhelming amount of territory to cover with only a hundred or so men
The soldiers assigned to Fort Selden had many varied missions. They defended against hostile Native Americans; chased stock raiders; corralled outlaws; escorted the mail; protected travelers and wagon trains; and provided relief support to the local citizenry during floods and epidemics. As the Apache threat slowly dwindled and the railroad system developed to the point where troops could be centralized and moved quickly by rail to the place of need, the small, inefficient, and uneconomical forts of the Southwest were abandoned and the soldiers were gathered at regimental posts. Fort Selden was considered as one of the regimental headquarters, but not selected.
The competition for the regional regimental post of southern New Mexico and west Texas was intense and close. President Chester A. Arthur had asked Congress on 3 March 1882, for funds to increase Fort Selden to a regimental post of twelve companies. However, the Commander of the Army, General William T. Sherman, after completing his reconnaissance of the area in the spring of 1882, was convinced that Fort Bliss near the town of El Paso, Texas was a better suited due to the number of railroads serving El Paso, so Fort Selden lost its most important battle. The last detachment of the 24th Infantry Regiment departed Fort Selden in January 1891, and the post was left to the eroding effects of time and weather.
The Department of the Interior had considered establishing an Indian school at Fort Selden. However, this idea faded and the land reverted to public domain. The land then passed through several owners, and the last was Harry H. Bailey who obtained the land in 1944. On his death in 1962 his son gave the land to the state, and now the State Monuments Bureau of the Museum of New Mexico is preserving the ruins.
For many years Fort Selden’s ruins have been one of the historic attractions of the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico. Sign posts along I-25 and state road 185, tourist guidebooks, and the local people proudly point the way to the remains of the fort. Several times a year the Friends of Fort Selden and other re-enactment companies hold enactment camps at the fort, proud to show how life in a frontier may have been. The staff at the fort has a historic and cultural center near the ruins where artifacts from Fort Selden unearthed by several archeological digs by New Mexico State University are displayed. A film can be seen as you begin your tour of the fort.
Darlis Miller and I were asked to share our knowledge of the life and times of a frontier fort in the making of that film. Rather Darlis was asked and she dragged me along as she was my advisor on my master’s thesis, entitled Fort Selden. This book is the larger story of the fort and an expansion of that thesis. I hope that in some way this book contributes to the understanding of the hardships suffered by and the successes of the soldiers who served at the fort, and the impact that this fort had on the economic and social development of southern New Mexico.
For ease of reading I have left off the word regiment in most cases. When you see the numbered infantry or cavalry unit, the word regiment is implied, 13th Infantry, should be read as 13th Infantry Regiment. I also recognize that the U.S. Army did not begin calling the cavalry company a troop until 1883, but in order not to confuse the reader by switching in mid stream, I have referred to the infantry unit as a company and the cavalry unit as a troop throughout the book.
Allan J. Holmes