The origin of Fort Dodge, now the Kansas Soldiers Home on Highway 400, just east of Dodge City, Kansas dates back to 1847, when Fort Mann was established at the Cimarron Crossing on the Santa Fe Trail a few miles west of the present Fort Dodge.
Col. Gilpin's volunteers were garrisoned at Fort Mann to protect Santa Fe Trail traffic from Indian attacks. His recommendation for several adobe posts along the course of the Trail were well received by the War Department and led to the establishment of Fort Dodge, Kansas at the close of the Civil War.
The importance of posts such as Fort Dodge in ensuring peaceful passage along the trail and eventual settling of the area and establishment of cities, such as Dodge City, has never been adequately recognized. Intensity of Indian assaults along the routes had resulted in suspension of mail service and lost travel by 1864.
Major General Grenville Dodge was placed in command of the 11th and 16th Kansas Calvary Regiments and began work during the harsh winter of 1865, to repair telegraph lines and reopen travel routes. The Indians usually refrained from combat in winter months.
The new post was ordered built on March 17, 1865, between two fordable crossings, The Mulberry 17 miles to the east, and the Cimarron 22 miles to the west. This was on the established Santa Fe Trail route called The Wet Route. About one mile to the east of the new Fort Dodge The Dry Route of the Santa Fe Trail merged with The Wet Route. The post rested in a narrow pasture off the river bank, overlooked by a limestone bluff to the north. This bluff extended into open plain where ravines proved handy to Indians approaching the fort, usually to steal horses and livestock.
Initial fortifications were crude earth dugouts excavated along the north bank of the Arkansas. Many men first stationed there were Confederates who preferred a fight with the Indians to lauguishing, perhaps dying, in northern prisons.
The soldiers had no lumber or hardware, so they had to use the available materials, grass and earth, to create the 70 sod dugouts. These were 10 X 12 feet in circumference and seven feet deep. A door to the south faced the river and a hole in the roof admitted air and light. Banks of earth were bunks for the soddies that slept from two to four men. Sanitation was poor and spring rains flooded the dugouts.
Pneumonia, dysentery, diarrhea and malaria were common that first year in the isolated fort. The General decided the soldiers named the dismal fort "Dodge" in its unpromising start to get even with him for bringing them there. The War Department made it official.
First shipments of lumber arrived in the summer of 1866 and officer's quarters and a temporary hospital were erected, still sod with wooden bunks. Supply houses and a horse corral were the first permanent building of lumber. A field oven was the first piece of army equipment that improved the soldiers' lot at the post. In early fort times a sutler's store was built and immediately the Sutler took advantage of the soldier's with pay in their pockets. When they began quarrying stone five to twelve miles to the North, desertion became on acute problem. It was a choice between hard work with the stone or facing the Indians.
A 43,000 acre military reservation was established. A cemetery, and guardhouse were built, along with a supply store for destitute civilians off the barren plains, who were sometimes victims of Indian raids. During the next two years, permanent facilities built of limestone were erected, including two barracks, a hospital, quartermaster buildings, a headquarters building and commanding officer's quarters. Several of these buildings still stand and are in use today, including the commanding officer's quarters, now the residence of the Superintendent of the Kansas Soldier's Home.
Both civilians and soldiers quarried the stone utilizing 60 teamsters and 200 mules to haul it. Lt. George A Hesselberger directed the construction. He demonstated a taste for durability and subtle beauty that is still apparent in those buildings still in use at the Fort.
Stones used were of varying length, but were cut to 18 inches in height and two foot thickness. Each barracks held 50 men and was equipped with a kitchen, mess room, 2nd dormitory. Latrines were erected behind the barracks. The hospital had a ward room, adequate for the sick of four companies, as well as an administration section and kitchen.
The Commanding Officer's quarters was the only two story structure on the post. The bottom floor had administrative rooms where the Commanding Officer could host fellow officers or hold court martials. The second floor, provided with rifle ports, was for family use. There were blacksmith shops to keep horses shod and sixty wagons in repair. Two large corrals of sod for the quartermaster and cavalry with four feet thick walls kept the Indians from raiding the supply of mounts and also protected horses and herds from the severe winters of those first years.
Negro troops that made up a large part of the population of the post after the Civil War were segregated and were housed in a 20 X 40 foot structure, part of which served as storage. They were also segregated at the hospital in a small separate frame structure. All buildings were placed in a circle facing inward to form the parade grounds.
Skilled craftsmen made from $85 to $199 a month, and unskilled laborers made $35, however, there was always a shortage of men and materials. Lumber and hardware were delivered from eastern Kansas or Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a thousand feet of board could be delivered for only $30.
Many problems encountered during the construction were local in origin, including frequent Indian attacks on the Fort, and shortages of supply wagons, and work details. Few workers could be enticed to work at hard, dirty labor for $35 a month, with the possibility of a scalping thrown in for good measure.
The men at the Fort received criticism from headquarters for their seeming lack of control of the Indians. General Marcy came out to investigate and his wagon train was attacked enroute. Once there, he sent back a critical report of the newly erected buildings, saying "quarters are so magnificent and smoothly dressed that they appeared to be designed for the National Capitol." The director of the building, Lt. Hesselberger, was singled out for criticism. His feat was rewarded with a court martial and his name on the dedication stone was covered over with a buffalo robe during subsequent ceremony's.
A barracks used once for cholera victims was converted to a recreation room. The chaplain, Major White, complained that the spiritual and cultural life of the men was neglected, while their less noble interests were catered to. As a result, church services were held in the building on Sunday, although the chaplain complained frequently of having to conduct his worship rites from a pool table.
Life was hard on the plains, and desertions were frequent. Dr. Tremaine, the post surgeon, was an advocate of better treatment and reduction of unnecessary hardships for the troopers.
In addition to providing protection for commercial trade routes, Fort Dodge also provided safeguards for frontier communities, including Dodge City, Kansas. The Fort distributed food and water to civilians during th esevere winter of 1874, just two years after the establishmennt of Dodge City. It also contributed a column to the Dodge City newspaper on military and social activities at the post.
The Sutler's store was a very popular spot on the reservation. Whiskey could be served from 6:30 to 9:00 p.m. each evening, with three drinks allowed per man. However, it appeared the count was not always accurate, since drunkenness was a common offense. The guard house, an 18 by 28 foot structure, was always full, even though reserved for the worst offenders.
Fort Dodge's cemetery held the bodies of many of Dodge City's early day residents, as well as those of the post inhabitants. One of these is Edward Masterson, brother of Bat, who was buried after being shot by a drunken gunfighter. The saying then was "The rich are buried at the Fort and the cowhands and poor are buried on Boot Hill and gone to hell."
As civilization advanced, the Indians found no sanctuary from the white man's army. General William T. Sherman, a typical example of the military mind set then, was sure that all attempts at civilization of the Indian was ricdiculous. Extermination or reduction of their status to that of paupers with complete dependence on the government was his idea for their fate. Many easterners were shocked at the treatment of the Indian. The men on the frontier had reason to complain of the Easterners lack of comprehension of the savagery of the Indian.
With the coming of the railroad to Dodge City in 1872, and the threat of extinction of the buffalo, the Indians conducted a final outburst of violence in an attempt to preserve their livelihood. At that time, buffalo hides were selling for $3.50 each and plenty of hunters were on the scene to benefit from the price. By 1873, most of the buffalo had been anihilated, even to the south of the Arkansas river where the Medicine Lodge supposedly protected the buffalo and Indian's rights. In 1874 the army renewed engagements against the Indians, for asserting their rights by attacks to the north of the Arkansas River. General Nelson Miles kept up these attacks until the spirit of the Plains Indians was broken, and their wild and Independent culture had virtually disappeared
Between 1870 and 1875, more new buildings went up at Fort Dodge. Eleven sets of officer and family quarters were erected, as well as buildings for civilian employees. A new guardhouse replaced the old, overcrowded original structure. A grainery for storing one million pounds of grain was also erected. Between 1874 and 1882 military life on the post was fairly stable. Most excitement came out of Dodge City where trail herds waited to be sold. Longhorns strayed onto the reservation, sometimes tearing down laundry and threatening soldiers and their families.
In 1878 there were 100,000 cattle driven to Dodge City. Poor relations existed between the cowboys and the soldiers. A uniformed man could not enter town without being harassed by a cowman, often aided by a local lawman. The drinking establishments often took advantage of the soldiers.
At one time in 1877 Col. William Lewis took a detachment and marched on the city. The town judge hoisted a white flag and arbitration ensued. Dodge City's famed "Peace Commission" was formed during the Saloon Wars of 1883, with the help of Col. Richard Dodge, who was furious when his personal servant, a young black, was shot and left to die in the street. The Commission had on its roster such famed names as Wyatt Earp, W. H. Harris, W. F. Petillon, Luke Short, Charlie Bassett, Frank McLain, Neal Brown and Bat Masterson.
The last of the Indian scares was an attempted migration by the Cheyennes under Dull Knife, from El Reno, Oklahoma to their former home in South Dakota. during the Indian's march through Kansas, several dozen settler's were killed. Although several Indians were brought back to Topeka for trial, with Ford County Attorney Michael Sutton as prosecuting attorney, the natives were acquitted for lack of evidence.
In December 1880, some of Fort Dodge's reserved Lands were opened to homesteaders. The first 75 homesteaders were claimed by Dodge City residents that included gamblers, saloon keepers, prostitutes, and a few actual homesteaders. In 1889, the rest of the area was opened, creating a real land rush.
On April 5, 1882 the Fort was abandoned by the U.S. Army. The last of the troops marched southward to Camp Supply when the flag was lowered on October 2, 1882. Fort Dodge, Guardian of the commercial frontier, the cattleman and homesteader, had fulfilled its purpose.
For the next eight years the land and Fort were managed by a Department of Interior custodian. One of these, Dodge City entrepreneur Robert Wright, managed to exploit the facilities by housing drovers who awaited the sale of their cattle, and by purchasing land surrounding the Fort with money he earned selling whiskey and buffalo hides. In January 1890, Fort Dodge was deeded to the State of Kansas for use as a Soldiers Home.
Old troopers began arriving. Most of them were Civil War veterans. Others were veterans of the Mexican and Indian Wars, many of whom had served with great honor in the Army. Records show these early residents did not always retire peacefully. Many were dismissed from the Soldiers' Home for quarrelsomeness, drunkenness, and the like. Even croquet had to be abandoned as a form of recreation when the mallets proved to be to handy a weapon to settle quarrels among the oldsters.
Eventually, dependents and relatives of Kansas veterans were admitted along with Confederate and Negro veterans.
The Kansas Soldiers Home now includes a library/museum, a modern intensive nursing home, a recreation center, five residence halls, and 60 cottages. Names of the streets and buildings honor great American Presidents and military heros, including Eisenhower, Nimitz, Sheridan, Garfield, Custer, Lincoln, Dewey and Walt. Veterans of the Mexican, Civil, Indian, Spanish-American, Philippines, Boxer Rebellion, World War I, and II, Korean and Vietnam Wars have all been occupants.
The peaceful park, quiet shaded tree lined walks, dignified buildings, both old and new, and other markers seem a far cry from the dugouts and forsaken soldiers barely existing on the Arkansas River bank in 1865.
Fort Dodge has a new cemetery which was opened in 2002 called the
Kansas Veterans' Cemetery
"Visit The Gift Shop At Fort Dodge, Kansas"
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