Ellsworth County, Kansas
by Larry & Carolyn Mix
General Orders No. 22 issued on November 17, 1866, by General Winfield S. Hancock, commander of the Division of the Missouri, directed the Name of Fort Ellsworth be changed to Fort Harker, in honor of General Charles Garrison Harker. Harker was born in New Jersey on December 2, 1835. General Harker died on June 27, 1864, from wounds received in an abortive offensive action during the Battle of Kenesaw Mountain.
By December of 1866, a site for the new post of Fort Harker had been selected approximately one mile northeast of the old Fort Ellsworth. The Fort Ellsworth post office was discontinued on December 3, 1866. It was moved to the new site and reopened as the Fort Harker post office. Vincent B. Osborne, the post sutler, served as the first post master of this new post office.
Records of the new post indicate that construction of the new fort may have started as many as five months earlier in July of 1866. However, the presence of a master carpenter, a master mason, five carpenters, and fourteen masons at the fort in September 1866 strongly suggests actual construction was underway.
In an article in the Army and Navy Journal additional evidence that construction was under way at the new site of Fort Harker in the winter of 1866/67 can be found.
There have been no drills here the past Winter, the soldiers being all occupied in building quarters. Isn’t it a mistake on the part of the Government to require enlisted men to work as common laborers, with no opportunity to perfect themselves in drill? An officer cannot have proper discipline in his command under such circumstances. The men, too labor somehow under silent protest, desertions are more then frequent. February 16, 1867.
The large numbers of civilian construction workers no longer appeared on the post returns after June of 1867. This is a good indication that the majority of the fort structures were completed by the early summer. However the surgeon’s records continued to list numbers of civilian employees at sick call through January of 1868.
On December 21, 1866, an order that an inspection of the new post and troops at Fort Harker was to be conducted. Post returns indicate that a Colonel Elmer Otis, 1st U.S. Cavalry, was at the post from January 4 to 12 1867. the inspection was completed on January 10, 1867. The Special Inspector Otis focused on all aspects of the fort including the site selected, construction activities, building finished, in progress, and planned, living conditions, competence and appearance of officers and enlisted men, Quartermaster and Commissary departments, book and record keeping, quality and care of livestock, the post sutler, and other topics.
Well to make a long report short, Otis found very little that impressed him about the new Fort Harker. Everything from the site location, construction of the post, additional laborers needed, no hospital had been built, no guard house, no warehouses, living conditions of the few officers at the new post, cleanliness and sanitary conditions of the enlisted barracks were generally poor, the quarters of the 3rd U.S. Infantry company were described as unclean, with floors dirty and wet, slop and dirt thrown about the quarters indiscriminately. Poor police or sanitation was a problem that Inspector Otis noted for the post in general.
The inspector noted that under the management of General Alfred Gibbs, 7th U.S. Cavalry, who arrived at the fort on January 5, the situation appeared to be improving. Otis believed Gibbs would do the best possible for the comfort of the Troops. Later on things seemed to improve for the better. Otis generally was favorably impressed with the commissioned officers and noncommissioned officers serving at Fort Harker. Otis, inspection report of January 10, 1867.
The move into the new post was made as soon as the buildings were ready. Many men and officers continued to live at old Fort Ellsworth while working at the new fort, “until their new quarters were ready for occupation.”
Soon the quarters were finished, and we emerged from our dug-outs and log huts into our respective homes. We soon were settled and felt as if living in palace compared to our former abodes. But not for long did we enjoy our comforts. In June of 1867 the buildings remaining at the old Fort Ellsworth were ordered torn down.
The Union Pacific Railroad, Eastern Division, was completed to Fort Harker on July 10, establishing rail communication with the East. The railroad ran through the military reservation approximately three hundred yards north of the parade ground. The depot was situated one third mile northeast of the post. Quartermaster’s and Commissary departments was established at the post, and two large storehouses were erected close to the railroad track for their use. From these depots, during the greater part of the years 1867/68, all the posts on the Arkansas and many in Colorado and New Mexico were supplied.
The Union Pacific Railway, Eastern Division continued to build to the west from Fort Harker to Fort Wallace during the summer of 1867. The Indians of the area increased their resistance to this encroachment. But nothing was to compare with the problem that was about to rear it’s head at Fort Harker.
As the busy season of routine patrols, escort duty, and Indian attacks were getting underway, a different kind of problem arose at Fort Harker, this being Asiatic Cholera! The disease appeared at the fort soon after the arrival of four companies of the 38th U.S. Infantry in June of 1867. It was suggested that they may have brought the disease with them from Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis where cholera had broken out during their stay, but conditions at Fort Harker also may have been to blame. The first case at Fort Harker occurred on June 28. A civilian who was employed by the beef contractor, and lived on the Smoky Hill River about a mile from the fort, was stricken and died. Later that same day Private George Groom, a black soldier from Company H, 38th U.S. Infantry, in route to New Mexico, was sent to the post hospital, where he died the next day. Cholera soon spread to other troops stationed at the fort, the quartermaster’s employees, civilians traveling through, and settlers in the vicinity.
Post returns from Fort Harker for the summer of 1867 make several references to the cholera epidemic. Captain John N. Craig made the following comment about the progress of the disease in the July post return, “Epidemic cholera which has prevailed at this post through the month is decreasing.” The Post Quarter Master reported that 58 citizens were buried during the month. In the August post return, Captain C. C. Parsons reported that “a strict Sanitary Police” had been enforced during the month, the result being fewer cases of cholera reported.
During late June through December of 1867, 392 cases with 24 deaths were reported among the white troops at Fort Harker and 500 cases with 22 deaths among the black troops at this post. Many of these soldiers were encamped at or near the fort but were not part of the command assigned to Fort Harker. At least 36 additional black troopers from the 38th U.S. Infantry died after leaving Fort Harker on assignment.
After a relatively quiet winter, the soldiers made preparations during the spring and early summer of 1868 for a continuation of encounters with hostile Indian parties. During the fall of 1868, General Sheridan removed his headquarters from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Harker. Major Inman claimed that plans for Sheridan’s campaign during the winter of 1868/69 against allied hostile tribes were designed in the officers quarters at Fort Harker, with contributions from Sheridan, General Forsyth, Colonel Andrew J. McGonnigal, and Major Inman. Rumors spread during 1869 that General Custer would be assigned to Fort Harker to command two companies of the 7th U.S. Cavalry. Instead however, on August 25 Brevet Colonel Joseph G. Tilford was sent to Fort Harker. General Miles was in command of Fort Harker at this time. Troops D and K, 7th U.S. Cavalry, wintered at Fort Harker, but without Custer. These two cavalry troops left Fort Harker on February 22, 1870, to confront roaming hostile bands of Indians.
Between May 3 and 15, 1870, Custer and four troops, F, I, L, and M of the 7th U.S. Cavalry left Fort Leavenworth and arrived at Fort Harker. After receiving and forwarding reports of Indian attacks on a train near Willow Springs and Lake Stanton, Custer and his troops continued west to Fort Hays, Kansas. Major General John Pope, commander of the Department of the Missouri, placed General Custer in charge of protecting the Kansas frontier during the summer of 1870. He instructed the commanding officers at Fort Harker and Fort Hays to provide Custer with troops as needed, and he also placed 7th U.S. Cavalry forces under Brevet Lieutenant Colonel J. G. Tilford under Custer’s command.
In June 1871 the post commander ordered a board to “examine and report upon the condition of the two sets of log Company Quarters here.” Surgeon Fryer was the board’s senior member. The report of the board indicated that the log barracks were unsafe and unfit for occupancy. The board’s report was forwarded to Department Headquarters, with positive results. By October work was underway repairing the log barracks. Roofs were repaired and new floors were laid.
In anticipation of Fort Harker’ closing, Surgeon Fryer was relieved as Post Surgeon on March 27, 1872, by Acting Assistant Surgeon C. C. Arms. Fryer, who had been at the post for several years, was sent to Fort Union with the 15th U.S. Infantry. Orders for the abandonment of the post were received at Fort harker on April 28, 1872. With the exception of some items to be sold, Medical Department property was sent to Fort Hays, and Medical records were sent to the Office of the Surgeon General. Most of Companies D, E, and F of the 5th U.S. Infantry had already left the fort on April 26. A small detachment of Infantry, consisting of one commissioned officer, a sergeant, and five enlisted men, was left to garrison the post. Company C of the 5th U.S. Cavalry left Fort Harker on May 7. Post returns for June/September 1872 were filed by 1st Lieutenant E. L Randall, who commanded a detachment of five-six enlisted men remaining at the post. Surgeon J. W. Brewer made his last monthly entry in October, indicating that he left the post on October 5, 1872.
Much of what is known about the layout and appearance of Fort Harker comes from just a few sources. Military plans, daily reports, and other records provide a good indication of the types, number, and locations of the buildings, corrals, privies, wells, springs, and trash dumps. The best single description of Fort Harker was written by post surgeon Dr. Blencoe E. Fryer. His handwritten report, bearing the date of May 1870, is some what longer and more detailed than the printed version that appears in a repost on Barracks and Hospitals with Descriptions of Military Posts, from the U. S. Surgeon General’s Office dated December 5, 1870.
At Fort Harker more of the distinguished generals of the war have slept or been entertained than any other post in the U.S. Some of the well known were; Generals Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Terry, Howard, Schofield, Marcy, Grierson, Custer, A. J. Smith, Sully (son of the celebrated American Artist who painted Queen Victoria in her youth) and others have camped there. It’s commanders were Custer, Gibbs, Sully, A.J. Smith and Miles.
Today four of the original stone buildings from the fort era are being restored to be used by the Ellsworth County Historical Society as part of their museum complex.
The museum for Fort Ellsworth/Harker in the town of Kanopolis, Kansas is located in the old “Guardhouse” from Fort Harker days.
East of the Guardhouse Museum about two block there are two of the junior officers quarters on the north side of the street.
The commanding officer’s quarters sits on the south side of the street at this location. These are small reminders of what was once a large military complex and for a brief time, in the 1860’s, one of the busiest military posts on the Kansas frontier. No great battles are associated with Fort Harker, and no major incidents occurred there. It performed its mission well, including supply depot, command headquarters, and active military post.
An in depth study by Leo E. Oliva on Fort Harker can be found in his book “Fort Harker, Defending the Journey West” The book can be ordered through the “Last Chance Store” along with many other great book by this author.
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