Texas Forts: Phantom Hill, Part 2
Fort Phantom Hill was the wayward step-child of Texas forts. It was built at the wrong location, it never had an official name, it was short-lived, and it could barely support human life for very long. Add to that, it mysteriously burned soon after it was abandoned. And it is purported to be haunted. After annexation of Texas to the US and pleading by the state's representatives, an act was decreed (1848) to establish a chain of forts between the Red and Rio Grande Rivers in advance of Anglo settlers moving westward. Within a year the first line of forts were established: Forts Worth, Graham, Gates, Croghan and Scott. But in less than two years, settlers had passed west of the first line and, now with goldseekers flooding through to California, the legislature appealed to the federal government for a second line of forts. The only source providing any guidance and experience in that unknown territory was Captain Randolph Marcy. In 1849 Marcy was ordered by the federals to escort a group of emigrants from Fort Smith (Arkansas) to Santa Fe, NM. On his return he scouted and marked a trail that crossed Texas from NM into the Comancheria, the heart of the Southern Plains Indians, crossed the Red River near Gainsville, and then north up to Fort Smith. Later he changed the route in a more southerly direction, to El Paso, to avoid the deep Comancheria country. One of several Marcy Trails, this one would guide future military roads, forts and stage coach routes. Major General Scott issued orders in spring of 1851 for the 5th Infantry to establish two or more new forts on or near Capt. Marcy's Fort Smith-El Paso route. Four points along the route were suggested including one "at a point near the crossing of the Main Brazos." However, the number and locations of the new posts would be fixed after a close examination of the country along Marcy's route. Brigadier General Belknap was instructed to take two or more companies to examine the Texas route and select sites for new posts. In his July report, Belknap selected the first site: ten miles below Marcy's crossing of the Brazos and ten miles above the Clear Fork and Red Fork junction of the Brazos. It was the most western point where timber and other materials could be found to build the barracks. This would become Fort Belknap. General Belknap planned to examine further south to choose exact sites for two additional new forts, specifically Pecan Bayou and the Concho River. The night before the general was to start south, word arrived from Fort Smith of the death of his superior, Brig. Gen. Arbuckle. Belknap returned to the fort from where he ordered Capt. Stevenson to command the camp at the camp near the Brazos and dig for water. Belknap later returned to the camp, but fell ill with dysentery. General Persifor Smith arrived at the camp in November after a quick and precursory reconnaissance of the heads of both rivers and found Gen. Belknap delirious. The camp physician decided to transport the general to better facilities in a northern fort, but the general died on the way to Preston. General Smith now holding the reins changed General Belknap's decision to locate the next fort on the Pecan Bayou. Instead, as stated in a report to headquarters, he chose a site on the Clear Fork of the Brazos "at or in the immediate vicinity of, a point known as Phantom Hill - they are hereby established as military posts". It all went downhill from there. Obeying orders, Lieutenant Colonel Abercrombie arrived at Phantom Hill with five companies of the Fifth Infantry in November, 1851. On the way, one soldier froze to death and was buried in a creek bank. A wet snowstorm killed one teamster and 20 horses, mules and ox froze to death. Abercrombie's troops found that the site had neither water or timber. Though he sent a dire report of the poor conditions, orders remained the same. Although the men found good stone two miles from the fort, timbers had to be hauled in by oxen from 40 miles away and good water from 2-4 miles. Nearby Elm Creek water was seasonal and brackish. Dug wells provided 'gyp' water (salty) and dried up in the summers. Cisterns were dug but little rain fell. The vegetable garden dried up and the men had scurvy. The physician recommended adding pickles to their diet and which had to be brought in from Austin in barrels. Fuel for fires had to be hauled in five miles or more away. In winters, carts came and went throughout the day to supply fuel to cook and drive off the cold. The owner of the land was not known during fort occupation, so no lease or agreement was ever signed. Although it was known and referred to as Fort Phantom Hill, officially it was referred to as 'Post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos.' Ironically, no one can claim with any authority how it was named. There are only legends. Then again, the entire hill seems to be enshrouded with legends and mysteries. A few buildings of the fort were constructed all of stone: the magazine, guardhouse, commissary and post headquarters. The officers and soldiers lived in pole huts with thatched roofs, but they all had stone chimneys. The hospital was no better. During an inspection in 1853, the conditions reported were deplorable. Many recruits even had no weapons. The inspector wrote, "The aspect of the place is uninviting. No post visited, except Fort Ewell, presented so few attractions." Finally, in 1854 officials decided that the deficiencies - mostly water and proper food rations - could be more easily supplied elsewhere. Orders were given to evacuate Fort Phantom Hill. Yet later, and even now, it is considered the prettiest post on the fort lines.
Labels: forts, Texas