Battle of Blanco Canyon
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The Battle of Blanco Canyon was the decisive battle of Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie's initial campaign against the Comanche in West Texas, and marked the first time the Comanches had been attacked in the heart of their homeland. It was also the first time a large military force explored the heart of Comancheria. On 12 August 1871 Mackenzie and Colonel Benjamin Grierson were asked by Indian Agent Lawrie Tatum to begin an expedition against the Kotsoteka and Quahadi Comanche bands, both of whom had refused to relocate onto a reservation after the Warren Wagon Train Raid.:158 Col. Mackenzie assembled a powerful force consisting of eight companies of the Fourth United States Cavalry, two companies of the Eleventh Infantry, and a group of twenty Tonkawa scouts.:158
Onset of the Campaign
The force assembled at the site of old Camp Cooper, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River on 19 September 1871.:157 The force set out in a northwesterly direction on 30 September 1871, hoping to find the Quahadi village, which housed the warriors led by Quanah Parker.:159 This village was believed to be encamped in Blanco Canyon near the headwaters of the Freshwater Fork of the Brazos River, southeast of the site of present Crosbyton, Texas. On the fourth night of the march, the expedition established a base camp at the junction of the Salt Fork of the Brazos and Duck Creek, near the site of present Spur, Texas. The following day, Col. Mackenzie made the decision to leave his infantry to fortify the base camp, and set out for Blanco Canyon with his cavalry, hoping to catch the Comanche by surprise, and strike a blow at them in their heartland.
In the afternoon of October 9, 1871, the cavalry force reached the White River and Blanco Canyon, the first non-Comanche military force to enter Blanco Canyon since the rise of the Comanche as a power on the plains. Near midnight, Quanah Parker personally led a small Comanche force which stampeded through the cavalry camp, driving off about seventy horses and mules.:165, 167 As the pursuing cavalry reached the top of a hill on the top of the canyon, they found a much larger party of Indians, who were waiting in ambush.:170 The cavalry fought their way clear, but suffered the loss of one cavalryman,:177 the sole Army fatality of the entire campaign. Lt. Robert Goldthwaite Carter and a detail of five men mounted a rear guard action against the Comanches, and the remainder of the unit retreated.:174 This action on 10 October 1871, won Lt. Carter the Medal of Honor.:213
Mackenzie's main column and the Tonkawa scouts, hearing the gunfire, advanced and probably saved the detachment from slaughter, as more Comanche had managed to surround the retreating unit.:179 With the arrival of the main cavalry column, Quanah Parker and his warriors retreated.:177 The Comanches fought their way up the walls of Blanco Canyon, sniping at the oncoming troopers and taunting their Tonkawa enemies before disappearing from the Army’s sight as they went over the Caprock Escarpment, and onto the Llano Estacado, Carter lacerating his leg against a boulder in the process.:181
The remainder of the expedition
Col. Mackenzie pursued the Indians over the next few days, forcing them to abandon lodge poles, buffalo hides, tools, and most of their possessions as they fled.:192 These were the necessities of life for the Comanche, and meant the coming winter would be unusually bleak, without shelter or accumulated food. The Army was able to catch up with the fleeing warriors, slowed by their families, in the late afternoon of October 12, 1871.:188 Mackenzie was unable to attack them due to the arrival of an unseasonable "blue norther", (a winter storm from the Great Plains).:192 High winds, blinding snow, hail and sleet halted the cavalry advance, and allowed the Comanche to again retreat safely.:195 The cavalry force continued the pursuit the following morning, but the weather and conditions allowed the Comanche to disappear into the storm.:196 Mackenzie ordered his troops to follow what the scouts believed was the Comanche trail for about forty miles, nearly to the vicinity of present-day Plainview, Texas.:196 Given the deteriorating state of his men and horses, and low rations, Mackenzie reluctantly turned back.:196
Re-Entering Blanco Canyon
On October 15, 1871, the cavalry re-entered Blanco Canyon and Army scouts saw two Comanches spying on the troops on the walls of the Canyon.:197 In the brief fight that followed their discovery, the two Comanches were killed, while Mackenzie himself, along with another soldier, were wounded.:198 Despite his wound, Mackenzie and his force continued to the mouth of Blanco Canyon, where they rested for a week, awaiting supplies from Henry Ware Lawton.:202 On October 24, 1871, Mackenzie decided to continue the campaign, and began marching towards the headwaters of the Pease River.:202 However, his wound became too painful, he placed Major Clarence Mauck in command, and Mackenzie stayed with the other disabled and dismounted troops at Duck Creek.:202 On November 6, in the midst of a snow storm, Major Mauck's expedition returned.:205-206 On November 12, 1871, Mackenzie's force made it to Fort Griffin and Fort Richardson on 17 Nov.:206
Result of the Expedition
Col. Mackenzie regarded the entire expedition as unsuccessful. The command had marched 509 miles, lost one life, and many horses. He considered that they had accomplished nothing but frighten one hostile Comanche band. However, he had marched to the heart of the Comancheria (and mapped the region in the process), penetrated into an area of the Llano Estacado no Americans except Comancheros had ever seen, destroyed the winter equipment of the Comanche he encountered, and temporarily driven them from their homeland. The lessons he learned about Plains Indian warfare as a result of the battle of Blanco Canyon and this expedition would stand him in good stead during the Red River War, and resulted a few years later in the surrender of the last free Comanche.
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