Col. Ranald MacKenzie
"Bad Hand"

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

The "American Wild West" is considered by most to have begun with the end of the Civil War and the inevitable drive westward. Cowboys and Indians, cattle drives, outlaws and lawmen, gunmen and gamblers, saloons and brothels – these are what colors most folks vision.

Actually, the "Wild West" began almost 40 years earlier – in Texas. That enormous land was still part of Mexico and was in fact the domain of the powerful Comanche nation, the largest and most warlike of the Native American tribes. Their presence was one of the reasons the newly created Mexican government in 1821 commissioned Steven Austin to broker land deals with immigrants from the east, hoping to populate the region with frontiersmen with the grit and the means to hold the very mobile and dangerous Comanches at bay.

And the Americans did come, as did many Europeans. Small frontier settlements began to appear further and further west, small forts with walls and guard towers. And the Comanche responded with more and more violent raids, murdering, kidnapping, burning buildings and crops, killing and driving away livestock. It was here that young Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped from her family's pitiful little stockade.

It quickly became evident that individual settlers were no match for the mounted warriors who appeared as though from thin air in the middle of the night. An organized force was required just for survival, leading to the organization of a "ranger force" to pursue and subdue the Comanche. It is legitimate to date the beginning of the "wild west" with the organization of the Texas Rangers in 1822.

From the mid-1820s until the mid-1860s, the "settling" of the west happened in bits and starts, a settlement here and there, some more successful than others, remote ranches living on the fringe of life and death, skirmishes between Indians and Rangers, retaliations and outrages, lives torn by torment and hatred.

The movement for Texas' independence – which included American, European and Mexican citizens – from the corruption and oppression of the Mexican government and culminated in the battles at the Alamo and San Jacinto, intensified the determination to develop the frontier into a new nation. Texas was born.

The 1840s witnessed increasing migration across the continent to California. The few hundred mountain men became thousands of families in long trains of white-topped wagons. The Plains tribes resented the intrusion and perhaps foresaw the coming danger to their way of life. The resulting conflicts instilled mutual hatred and fear on both sides. The California Gold Rush only intensified the numbers of wagons wearing long scars in the sacred lands of the buffalo and the warlike people who relied on them for their very sustenance.

So for forty years the "wild west" smoldered, grew slowly and painfully, and remained for all intents and purposes, a "race war" of brown and white against red, raging north from the Rio Grande for a thousand miles, creating with a colorful history of memorable battles and heroic deeds by men whose names still color our history books.

With the Civil war, the Confederacy's needs trumped the concerns of the frontier. Even the Rangers were drawn away from their posts; farmers and ranchers answered the call to arms. Homes and settlements were suddenly bereft of defenders and the frontier retreated under renewed Comanche offensives. By the end of the Civil War the frontier had retreated hundreds of bloody miles to the east.

It took half a decade following the war for life to be sorted out, for the hideous war to be shaken off and the future to come into focus. For an increasing number, the future became the frontier and renewing the "wild west."

Aside from the carnage of the Civil War, the 1870s was one of the bloodiest decades in American history. The U. S. Army, now a shadow of its wartime strength, was given a new mission for which it was ill prepared – the developing West and the depredations between red men and white. Now began the determined and government supported movement to take over the vast lands covering two thirds of the present United States, overcoming the Indian resistance and domesticating the lawless men who moved into the void. vThe "Indian Wars" were to rage across half the continent for another 20 years of bitter, brutal struggle between the desperate Stone-Age culture of the Native-American Indian and the technically advanced Euro-American culture fully intent on continuing its conquest of a continent that had begun over two centuries earlier.

Decimated by budget cuts, armed with worn-out, obsolete arms and equipment, commanded by officers unprepared for the new mission and clad in inappropriate uniforms, it is remarkable that the army was ever successful in fulfilling its new mission. It cost them dearly, but they did it. A new list of names was added to the history of the "wild west": George Cook, Nelson Miles, Charles Gatewood, George A. Custer, Ranald MacKenzie.

MacKenzie was to be the final, tragic victor. He was called "Bad Hand," a driven, relentless man, disliked but respected by both his fellow officers and the men under his command and feared by his foes. It seemed his only goal in life was to totally destroy any foe to which he had been directed and it made him the most effective officer in the Indian Wars.

MacKenzie should have been a Navy man, born into a family of admirals and diplomats. His father, Commander Alexander Slidell MacKenzie, was a noted naval historian and author whose military record had been darkened by the "Somers Affair" in which he had executed three mutinous sailors without proper courts martial while on assignment in the Mediterranean. Another brother was an admiral. His uncle, John Slidell, was the American Ambassador to Mexico and the Confederate Ambassador to France whose illegal seizure from the British ship Trent caused a significant political tiff with England during the Civil War. His sister, Jane Slidell, was married to Admiral Matthew Perry, the same Admiral Perry who opened Japan to the world.

Coming from such an illustrious family, Ranald MacKenzie had a lot to prove. His stubborn, independent streak showed itself when he turned away from the Naval Academy, possibly due to his father's reputation, and enrolled in West Point. He graduated first in his class right in the middle of the Civil War.

He was to be quickly tested and hardened, commanding units in the engineers, artillery and cavalry. He was considered by no less than General William Sherman to be "the most promising young officer in the army."

Within two years he had been in eight major battles and been brevetted to colonel. Within three years he had commanded troops in five more battles and was wounded six times, including the loss of two fingers, thus "Bad Hand." He was brevetted major general at the Appomattox surrender, where he was charged with custody of seized Confederate military property, an enormous assignment which he carried out with typical efficiency.

For all that, MacKenzie’s career was just beginning. With the war over, the nation turned once more to the business of Manifest Destiny.

After a series of assignments at various posts in the mid-west, Mackenzie was given command of the 4th United States Cavalry, an all-black unit of "Buffalo Soldier" fame, to rid Texas of the scourge of the brutal Comanche. It was here that MacKenzie, now Colonel MacKenzie, would achieve his greatest fame. Though he was unpopular with his troops – they called him the "Perpetual Punisher" for his harsh discipline, he quickly turned the 4th Cavalry into the most effective Indian fighters in the U. S. Army. His aide described him as "fretful, irritable, oftentimes irascible, and pretty hard to serve with." It was as though all the years of battle, the pain of his injuries and the driving need to prove himself to his navy family were focused on the destruction of his new enemies and that is what he set out to do. vThe Comanche nation was actually five different sub-tribes ranging at will over most of what is now Texas and New Mexico. With their Kiowa allies, they ruled absolutely the vast "llano estacado," a flat, featureless 37,000 square mile plateau with well-defined borders of 300 foot high bluffs – the "staked plains" that had defeated Coronado some 200 years earlier. It includes most of eastern New Mexico and northwest Texas. Now it was the empire – the Comancheria – of the Quahadi, the most vicious and warlike of the Comanche tribes. From here the highly mobile Quahadi, considered to be "the finest light cavalry in the world" by professional soldiers, struck the advancing white settlements at will and retreated in safety. Where northern Plains tribes counted their wealth in horses in the hundreds, it was not unusual for a Comanche war chief to count his horses in thousands. It was here that MacKenzie took the 4th Cavalry to fight the Comanche on his own turf.

Of all the great chiefs of the Native-Americans, none, not Sitting Bull, not Crazy Horse, not Geronimo, none is more notable than Quanah Parker, son of the kidnapped Cynthia Ann Parker. As war chief of the Quahadi, he was a worthy foe of MacKenzie, matching the latter’s driven dedication with extreme intelligence, cunning and courage. Theirs was to be one of the most epic conflicts of the Indian Wars.

Where others pursued and lost the foe and retreated, MacKenzie pursued and did not retreat. On October 1, 1873, with 600 troopers and twenty Tonkawa scouts, the 4th Cavalry broke camp on the Brazos River and snaked westward in a long column. It was to be the beginning of the final campaign to wrench the west from the stubborn hands of those who had occupied it for hundreds of years. The pursuit of the wily Quanah would lead to frustrating glimpses of a fleeting foe, sometimes an entire village of women, children and old men, sometimes a band of warriors disappearing into a maze of ravines, never to be seen again – until their next meeting.

And there were successes, defeats for the Comanche from which they could not recover. MacKenzie was ruthless and unrelenting in his destructive craze; every article of captured supplies was destroyed: food, clothing, shelter, horses. The latter was particularly disastrous to the Comanche, for the horse was more than just transportation; it was their wealth and power and could not be easily replaced under MacKenzie’s relentless press. This is the reason that there are so few artifacts of the Comanche culture remaining today.

There were battles worthy of an entire story (and there will be some), including the most disastrous one at Palo Duro Canyon. This deep gash in the land south of present day Amarillo, Texas was one of the last and strongest Comanche strongholds. Thousands of horses could be hidden there. And they were trapped there when MacKenzie discovered the canyon. Though the Comanche managed to lead most of his people up the canyon's walls and out of the battle, they lost most of their herd and all of their food and shelter. Of the 1,500 horses captured, MacKenzie selected about 300 of the best – and slaughtered the rest on the spot. The carcasses were left to rot and the bones littered the canyon floor for decades. Old timers will tell you that on a dark night in the canyon you can still hear the thunder of the hoofs of the ghosts of a thousand ponies in the distance.

The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon broke the power of the Comanches, a defeat from which they could not recover. Quanah Parker surrendered shortly after and became one of the most famous and respected of his race as he quickly adopted the "white man’s road" and led his people into the brave new world.

For MacKenzie, life took a far more bitter turn. Perhaps he had suffered from some form of mental illness all along; surely his superior officers and his men thought so, given his almost demented ruthlessness. Following the defeat of the Comanches, he was posted to fight the Cheyenne and successfully ended the Black Hills War in the Dakotas. In 1883, he was promoted to Brigadier General and assigned to the Department of Texas. He bought a small Texas ranch and was even engaged to be married, but the years of rage and obvious physical pain from his battered body caught up with him. Some think it was hastened by a fall from a wagon at Fort Sill, but the old soldier began to exhibit signs of odd behavior and in 1884 was retired from the army for "general paresis of the insane." One wonders what modern psychiatry might make of MacKenzie’s illness. He died shortly afterward at his sister's home on Staten Island and is buried in the West Point National Cemetery.

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Faust, Patricia, L. (ed.); Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War; Harper Perennial. 1991

Gwynne, S. C.; Empire of the Summer Moon; Scribner. 2010

Pierce, Michael D.; The Most Promising Young Officer: A Life of Ranald Slidell Mackenzie; University of Oklahoma Press. 1993.

Robinson III, Charles M.; Bad Hand: A Biography of General Ranald S. MacKenzie; State House Press. 1993