Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Soldiers along the Comanche Trace

Jack Hays
If you could live as long as the oldest tree along the trail known today as the Comanche Trace, you would have seen a lot of interesting military figures passing to and from Camp Verde and Kerrville in your time.
The "Comanche Trace," was an actual trail, and was blazed by the area's Native American tribes, including groups preceding the Comanche, would later be used by the Spanish; those same paths would later be used by Mexican soldiers; eventually by Texians, and early settlers of our area; later still, many of those earliest trails became the route of today's highways.
So, over time, those ancient footpaths became modern highways.
There is some evidence the trail connecting Bandera Pass and the confluence of the Guadalupe River and Town Creek in modern-day Kerrville has been in continuous use for thousands of years.  That confluence of the creek and river can be found behind today's Riverside Nature Center on Francisco Lemos Street.
And so, if you had the lifespan of the oldest tree along the trail, you would have seen some very interesting military travelers over the years.
No one knows how many generations of Native American warriors passed this way, but an archeological site on the southern side of Bandera Pass suggests there was a camp there at least 3,000 years ago.  If you use 25 years as a rough estimate of a single generation, people have been traveling along this trail for more than 120 generations.
When the Comanches arrived in this part of Texas, they used routes established by earlier tribes, including the trail between Bandera Pass and the crossing near downtown Kerrville.
Albert S. Johnston
Later, when the Spanish built their missions and presidios in Texas, the route saw soldiers and priests traveling from San Antonio to missions in the northern hill country, including Mission San Saba, which was near present-day Menard.  A common name for this route was "The Old Spanish Trail," a name later used by those promoting a cross-country highway from Florida to California, a route which eventually passed through Kerrville, though the highway and the earlier trail had very little in common.
In 1732 a battle between Spanish forces and Lipan Apaches occurred at Bandera Pass.  In the three-day battle the Spanish were victorious, which resulted in a brief period of peace between the Spanish colonists and the Apache tribes.
When Texas was a part of Mexico, the trail would have been used by Mexican soldiers.
And when Texas gained its independence from Mexico, the trail saw use by both settlers and groups of Texas Rangers.
One group of Rangers, it is said, fought a battle at Bandera Pass.  John Coffee "Jack" Hays, one of the most colorful Texas Ranger captains, often figures in stories about the battle.  Though the various accounts of the battle seem to conflict with each other -- including the actual date of the battle, whether the Ranger's newly acquired Colt Paterson revolvers played a role in the encounter, and even if the battle ever occured -- it is likely more than one skirmish between the various local tribes and Texas Rangers occurred near the site in the 1840s when Hays and his rangers were active here.
Bandera Pass saw its oddest military group in August 1856, when a herd of forty camels, their handlers and U. S. troops, traveling from the Middle East, walked the last few miles of their journey to their destination at Camp Verde.
Camp Verde was established a year earlier, in 1855.  The famous camel experiment was a project of the U. S. Secretary of War at the time, Jefferson Davis.  The idea was simple: given the long stretches of arid country from Kerrville west to sites like Fort Davis and El Paso, perhaps camels would serve better than horses or mules for transport across the desert.  When the camel herd arrived, the experiment began.
Two factors proved troublesome in this experiment, however.  First, the soldiers were unaccustomed to camels and seemingly reluctant to learn more about them and the advantages they might offer, though in several expeditions they proved quite valuable.
The second factor, of course, was the interruption of the experiment by the Civil War.
Robert E. Lee
During the Civil War Camp Verde, along with around 80 camels, was surrendered to Confederate forces.  Union forces regained the fort in 1865.  Four short years later Camp Verde was abandoned.  The remaining camels were sold after the war, though there are stories of some of the camels being turned out into the wild.  For years rumors told of camels being sighted among the rugged hills around Camp Verde.
Some of the famous military figures passing through Camp Verde include Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston, and likely some of the officers connected with Fort Mason in Mason County, since Camp Verde was between Camp Mason and San Antonio, such as John Bell Hood, George H. Thomas, and Fitzhugh Lee (who was Robert E. Lee's nephew, and who later served as governor of Virginia).
It was near Camp Verde that a young Charles Schreiner, along with his brother in law Caspar Real, opened his first store; from that humble beginning a great business career began.
During its brief existence after the Civil War, Camp Verde served as a base of operations against several Native American tribes, including the Kickapoo, who raided the hill country from their home in Mexico, and became especially troublesome after 1865.
Even though so many famous Civil War era soldiers traveled along the trail, there is perhaps one military figure who had an even greater impact on the world than they.
Though he was born in Fredericksburg, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz moved to Kerrville as a child and attended Kerrville public schools.  His family operated the St. Charles Hotel at the corner of Water and Sidney Baker streets, where, until recently, the Sid Peterson Memorial Hospital stood.
As a teenager, Chester Nimitz first wanted to go to West Point.  According to one story, a chance encounter with two West Point graduates on leave here in Kerrville kindled within Nimitz the ambition to apply for a congressional appointment to West Point.  James L. Slayden, who represented Kerr County in congress at the time, told Nimitz no appointments were available to West Point, but suggested he apply for an appointment to Annapolis.  Nimitz's application efforts were successful, and he was appointed to the U. S. Naval Academy in 1901.  Nimitz was fifteen when accepted, and had not yet completed high school.
His career in the navy was extremely successful.  After graduating from Annapolis in 1905, he served on the USS Ohio.  His first command was the USS Panay, a gunboat.
In 1909, Nimitz joined the First Submarine Flotilla, and was a pioneer in the Navy's submarine service and became known as an expert on submarines and submarine warfare.
A variety of assignments followed, including appointment as Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.
Ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor Chester Nimitz was selected as Commander in Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet.  Though the U. S. fleet suffered heavy losses in that attack, Nimitz developed the plans which halted the Japanese naval advance.  In 1942 he was named Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas, which gave him command of all Allied air, land, and sea units in the Pacific war.
In 1944 Nimitz was named Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy, the Navy's highest grade.
So, during the height of the Pacific War, Nimitz commanded more than two million fighting men and over 1,000 ships.
Chester Nimitz
When peace with Japan finally came, it was Nimitz who served as the United States signatory to the surrender terms on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
It is speculation on my part, of course, that Nimitz ever traveled between Kerrville and Bandera, though I find many references to Bandera Pass as a popular day trip and picnic site during the time he lived here.  Odds are good he traveled along the old Spanish trail more than once during his time here, and almost certain he traveled on at least part of what was known as the "Old Spanish Trail."
After World War II ended, Kerrville welcomed Fleet Admiral Nimitz home with a parade.  Thousands flocked to see the hill country boy, many remembering him when he was just a cotton-headed youth.  Bands played, speeches were made, and people cheered.
And when Nimitz was on the small stage erected in front of the Kerr County courthouse, officials from the Kerrville Independent School District handed him a Tivy diploma, since he'd left Kerrville before completing high school, and making him the only Tivy graduate in history to receive his diploma while also carrying the rank of Fleet Admiral.
Our friends in Fredericksburg celebrate Nimitz's life with the fabulous National Museum of the Pacific War and a historical marker noting the place of his birth. But we in Kerrville celebrate the fact that Chester Nimitz was a fighting Tivy Antler.
Many hundreds of Kerr County men and women have served their country in the armed forces, and to each of them we owe a debt of gratitude.  Had we the lifespan of one of the old live oaks along the Comanche Trace, we would have had the opportunity to see a great number of them pass by on their way to and from the old Bandera Pass and Kerrville, one of the most historic routes in Texas.
This article originally appeared in the Comanche Trace Lifestyle magazine in October, 2012.
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