Commander and Builder of Western Forts: The Life and Times of Major General Henry C. Merriam, 1862-1901

Commander and Builder of Western Forts: The Life and Times of Major General Henry C. Merriam, 1862-1901

by Jack Stokes Ballard


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details



During his thirty-eight-year career as a military officer, Henry Clay Merriam received the Medal of Honor for his service in the Civil War, rose to prominence in the Western army, and exerted significant influence on the American West by establishing military posts, protecting rail lines, and maintaining an uneasy peace between settlers and Indians.
Historian Jack Stokes Ballard’s new study of Merriam’s life and career sheds light on the experience of the western fort builders, whose impact on the US westward expansion, though less dramatic, was just as lasting as that of Indian fighters such as Custer and Sheridan. Further, Merriam’s lengthy period in command of black troops offers a study in leadership and important understandings about the conditions under which African Americans served on the Western frontier.
During the course of his service, Merriam crisscrossed the country, from Brownsville, Texas, to the Pacific Northwest and Vancouver Barracks, serving in eastern Washington, California, and Denver.
Drawing extensively on the many letters and records associated with Merriam’s long army career, Ballard presents his service in a wide range of settings, many of which have become the stuff of Western history: from conflict with Mexican revolutionaries on the Rio Grande to the miners’ riots in Coeur d’Alene.
Ballard’s careful research provides a vivid picture of the military’s role in the westward expansion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603442602
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 01/19/2012
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

JACK STOKES BALLARD, of Centennial, Colorado, is a career Air Force officer and a former history instructor at the United States Air Force Academy. He has written several aviation histories, including

War Bird Ace: The Great War Exploits of Capt. Field E. Kindley

(Texas A & M University Press, 2007).


Read an Excerpt

Commander and Builder of Western Forts

The Life and Times of Major General Henry C. Merriam, 1862â"1901

By Jack Stokes Ballard

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2012 Jack Stokes Ballard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-633-4


Medal of Honor

Lieutenant Colonel Henry C. Merriam volunteered to attack the enemy's works in advance of orders, and, upon permission given, made a most gallant assault.


In the morning of April 9, 1865, Lt. Col. Henry Clay Merriam, commander of the 73rd US Colored Troops (USCT), received disturbing news that the Confederate garrison of Spanish Fort, one of several guarding the approaches to the city of Mobile, Alabama, had escaped the Union siege during the night. "The effect upon us all was very depressing," he soberly reflected, "for the failure to capture that garrison after spending half a month digging them out meant these troops had abandoned a position no longer tenable, only to fall back to stronger fortifications covering Mobile, there to be again besieged, probably under conditions less favorable to us." Merriam's unit was part of a force besieging Fort Blakeley, also a key defensive position for Mobile. The Union troops had spent many an agonizing day advancing on the Confederate defenses.

Fearing that the Fort Blakeley garrison might also find a way to escape, Merriam believed that some decisive action was imperative—perhaps a daring daylight assault. Ominously, he noted an "unusual quiet on the front of the enemy" since about 9:00 a.m. His first consideration went to gaining support from the commanding colonel of the 86th USCT on his right flank. Merriam proposed that the two commanders seek permission from their brigade commander, Brig. Gen. William A. Pile, to capture the enemy's advanced line of works at once (it was then just after noon) instead of customarily waiting for cover of darkness. The 86th Regiment's commander, Lt. Col. George E. Yarrington, disapproved, so Merriam started alone to Pile's headquarters. Before reaching the general, however, Maj. Lewis P. Mudgett of the 86th, a fellow officer from the state of Maine who had overheard Merriam's proposal, asked if he could join in the appeal. Merriam eagerly welcomed this unexpected but highly appreciated offer, duly noting Mudgett's courage to go around his commander's position. General Pile listened to the two officers and gave permission for Merriam's dangerous and bold assault, ignoring Yarrington's objection.

General Pile may have been more receptive to Merriam's idea of a daylight attack because his Fort Blakeley siege preparations had reached a final stage. In addition, he had good intelligence indicating that the Union troops now numbered over 15,000 while the defending garrison barely exceeded 4,000 men. During the preceding night and throughout the morning of April 9, Pile had directed the First Brigade's skirmish line to move forward and had ordered a new line of rifle pits "one hundred and forty yards" in advance of Yarrington's unit on his right and "one hundred yards in advance of General Andrews's line on his left." Brig. Gen. Christopher C. Andrews was commander of a division of white troops. Pushing the skirmishers forward would work to Merriam's advantage as the battle unfolded.

The decision to launch a daylight attack had to be weighed carefully, however. The Fort Blakeley defenses were formidable. They consisted of well-constructed earthworks and strong redoubts connected by heavy parapets. There were ditches, abatis, wire entanglements, and scattered "torpedoes" (shells buried as anti-personnel mines). In front of these works were two lines of rifle pits filled with sharpshooters, also screened by abatis and torpedoes. Heavy timber slashings covered the whole front, further impeding troops in formation.

With General Pile's approval in hand, Merriam returned to his regiment and began final preparations for the assault. He now methodically organized and primed his men for the forthcoming charge on the enemy's line. He was so sure that his whole regiment would be needed that he quietly formed it in the advanced parallel trench, "ready for instant call." Although Merriam did not record his thoughts about his black troops at this point, he conveyed confidence that they would act with courage and discipline. After all, in what was to be a Merriam characteristic, he had drilled and drilled his men over many months to instill cohesion and instant response to command. Nevertheless, he must have had some concern since they had not really been battle tested. Furthermore, this would be a charge into the face of withering Confederate fire from well-protected emplacements. What could happen in fierce battle was never certain even with seasoned troops, as Merriam likely knew from his previous Civil War experience.

Merriam designated Company G, commanded by Capt. J. C. Brown, to lead the charge. Capt. Howard Morton, in charge of Company D, was on the left front with orders to "keep a shower of bullets on the enemy's rifle pits on some higher ground." Merriam was aware that these Confederate positions could enfilade his advancing troops unless suppressed with heavy covering fire.

At approximately three o'clock, General Pile, accompanied by Maj. Gen. Peter J. Osterhaus, chief of staff for Maj. Gen. Edward R. S. Canby, arrived at the front to observe the assault. "At near 5 p.m." Merriam received orders to "send forward skirmishers to capture and hold a line of rifle pits which were about three hundred yards distant, filled with [the] enemy's sharpshooters and covered by a strong line [of] abatis." Merriam selected twenty men to engage some troubling enemy sharpshooters in pits on some high ground to his left. As planned, Captain Brown of the 73rd Regiment and elements of the 86th Regiment (part of Major Mudgett's unit) led the way as the troops raced from their parallel trenches and pits to the enemy's fortifications. The capture of the outer line took only a few minutes, despite a "galling fire of musketry and artillery from the three lines of rifle pits and from the main fortifications." But intense artillery and infantry fire on the advancing front, coming from both flanks, threatened to slow or stop the attack. Merriam observed the gathering of enemy reinforcements on his center front and ordered Companies B, I, and A forward in support in rapid succession. Company A's men carried spades, by order of General Pile, to reverse the captured rifle pits. At this point, with his regiment totally involved, Merriam joined the advance. Nearby Major Mudgett fell, shot through the head; Captain Brown had fallen mortally wounded; and Capt. Louis A. Snaer, commanding Company B, collapsed at Merriam's feet with a severe wound. Joined by his only remaining company commander, Merriam took over command of Companies B, G, and I and rushed the enemy's second line of defense. He reported, "The fire from the fort and remaining pits was still unabated, the grape and shell from the heavy guns making havoc over all the ground." In addition, Merriam feared a Confederate counterattack.

Now other Fort Blakeley besieging units became aware of the fury of the First Brigade's assault. Other brigades of Brig. Gen. John T. Hawkins's Colored Division, mostly to the right front, began storming the enemy rifle pits in their sectors and tried to conform their lines with the advancing 73rd and 86th Regiments.

"Having obtained information of the character of the ground beyond the first line of pits," with his "skirmishers having advanced so far as to be able to act effectively upon the gunners of the enemy," and having largely silenced the troublesome artillery fire from the enemy's Redoubt No. 2, Merriam appealed to General Osterhaus for permission to assault the enemy's main works with his whole regiment. According to Merriam's later candid report, Osterhaus refused, saying, "I will go and order the white troops up." Merriam thereupon once again appealed to General Pile, stressing, "We have already fought the battle, unless we get over the main works we will not get the credit." Pile replied: "You are right, Colonel. When you see Andrews's Division start to advance, charge the main works with your regiment and I will follow you with the rest of the brigade."

Merriam gave the signal, and his regiment charged forward with "deafening yells." The regimental skirmishers rejoined the ranks, and the men overcame Redoubt No. 2. Merriam, in his "after-action report," said that he led his men "directly over the remaining lines of pits and then over the main parapet, with small loss and without discharging a musket, planting my regimental flag on the parapet at least two hundred yards in advance of every regiment on this part of the line." He later recalled, "My colored sergeant [Edward Simon] went over the works at my elbow a few steps in front of the line, and was, at my request, promptly commended in department orders for his bravery." In his Civil War diary, Merriam proudly recorded on Sunday, April 9: "My regt first placed its flag on the parapet. It has been a day of laurels ... was enthusiastically cheered for reaching parapet first and warmly congratulated by Genls. Pile and Hawkins."

With the main defense line breached and other lines crumbling, the Confederates began running in disorder. Merriam and General Pile believed the Rebels were fleeing to the Federals' right in order to escape capture by the First Brigade's black troops. Merriam reported, however, that he captured nine pieces of artillery (including three heavy siege guns and two mortars), several hundred small arms, a large quantity of ammunition. The 234 captured officers and men were placed under guard by the 73rd for the night. Merriam noted as his troops bivouacked following the battle, "Men and officers very much fatigued from the great efforts of the day." There was good reason, as Merriam summarized the action: "Thus we charged over six hundred yards of uneven ground, covered with dense fallen timber, with three regular lines of rifle pits, covered by strong abatis and torpedoes, under a heavy fire from the fort and left flank, and captured a work in itself strong and well manned." Merriam counted his unit's human cost as eighteen men killed and wounded. This small loss he attributed "to the great rapidity with which my movement was executed."

By nightfall, Union forces had captured Fort Blakeley, with its 4,000-man garrison and forty heavy guns. As Merriam would later observe, this assault on and capture of the fort on April 9, 1865, would be overshadowed by the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox that same day.

The Confederate commander at Mobile, Maj. Gen. Dabney Maury, had little choice but to give up the defense of the city. His remaining beleaguered and dispirited 5,000 men retreated northward to Meridian, Mississippi. The leading part of General Canby's Union forces occupied Mobile and its extensive defensive works on April 12. That same day Merriam noted in his diary: "rode to the fort and examined the works we had captured. The wonder is how we whipped them so quickly."

These April 1865 events, deep in southern Alabama, led to the recommendation that Lt. Col. Henry C. Merriam be awarded the Medal of Honor. The accompanying, ever-so-brief comment read, "Distinguished gallantry at the assault and capture of Fort Blakeley, Ala." These few words hardly reflected the heroic actions of the day. Later, General Pile said of Merriam's regiment and of the colonel's leadership: "The regiment was one of the best in the service, took a conspicuous part in the siege and capture of the Fort—first breaking the en-emy's lines and crossing their works—the colonel requesting permission to advance before the order was given. For personal merit, and strict attention to duty, he had not a superior in my command." General Hawkins, Merriam's division commander, stated: "In the assault of Fort Blakeley his regiment bore a conspicuous part, and was the first of all the regiments, white or black, to enter the enemy's works."

Hawkins further praised Merriam, saying: "Colonel Merriam is a gentleman of good moral character, of excellent education, well read in the military profession, and judicious and zealous in all things pertaining to his duties. His regiment was always in good condition, and he had natural talent for a good soldier." Merriam clearly showed his pride in the courageous performance of his black troops when he publicized a report from the captured Confederate commander at Fort Blakeley, who stated, "I had placed the very best troops of my garrison to oppose the colored troops, yet they were the first to break my lines and first on my parapet." Merriam always remained defensive in wanting to ensure his regiment and his black soldiers received the credit for their actions at the Battle of Fort Blakeley.

The Medal of Honor awarded to Merriam at the end of the Civil War added his name to a distinguished and celebrated list of American heroes. It gave him fame as a military commander. It also mightily influenced and shaped his remaining years. He wore the medal proudly. In his subsequent long military career, with its many interesting twists and turns, Merriam would always bask in the medal's prestige, and it gained him favorable considerations in military and even political matters.


Civil War Experience

This is a hell of a regiment.


Henry C. Merriam's Civil War experience began in the summer of 1862. Merriam, age twenty-four and moving into his junior year at Maine's Colby College (formerly Waterville College), had returned to his hometown of Houlton, Maine, in August during a summer college break. In July Pres. Abraham Lincoln had issued a call for 300,000 additional volunteers to fight for restoring the Union. This also meant that there was an increasing likelihood of ending slavery. Although war fever in this far northeastern part of the country had somewhat subsided since the initial excitement of 1861, Lincoln's plea for more volunteers had again rekindled patriotic fervor. This time Henry Clay and younger brother Lewis became volunteers.

The Merriam family had already been touched by the war in 1861, when Henry's older brother Leonard had joined the volunteer ranks. Leonard was a horn player in Houlton's Coronet Band, and in those first months of the Civil War, the group went to war as the 1st Maine Cavalry Band. But Leonard's service ended abruptly on August 26, 1862, for reasons unknown. What effect, if any, Leonard's wartime experience had on his younger brother remains unclear.

Just as Henry and Lewis Merriam volunteered, other young men eagerly responded, and these 1862 volunteers would form a new regiment, the 20th Maine Infantry. Henry was instrumental in encouraging other men in the Houlton area to enlist, and the number proved sufficient to form a company. Quickly marked as a leader, largely because of his college experience, Henry's fellow enlistees elected him company commander. Later he became commissioned as captain of Company H, 20th Maine and thus began a lifetime of military command. Brother Lewis became a sergeant at the time, but he, unlike Henry, would not make a career of the military.

Henry Merriam never indicated what had motivated him to drop his college studies in 1862 and volunteer for war duty. Perhaps he had strong feelings about maintaining the Union. Perhaps he wanted to rid America of the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Perhaps he became caught up in the new outburst of patriotism, however ill defined, as did so many others. Interestingly, he never recorded his true emotions and precise thinking on why he fought in the Civil War.

Several factors may have had some influence on Merriam's volunteer decision. There had been some antislavery activity at Colby College. In 1833 a college literary fraternity had debated the question, "Ought Congress to interfere in the abolition of slavery?" That summer abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison came to speak. As a result, the Anti-Slavery Society of Waterville College was established. Years later, when news came that Fort Sumter had fallen, students quickly formed their own cadre and began to drill along campus walkways. On April 18, 1861, senior Frank Hesseltine stood on the steps of Recitation Hall and yelled, "President Lincoln has called for 75,000 volunteers to save the nation. I am going to be one of them. Who else?" Merriam no doubt was much aware of antislavery sentiment, and he must have felt considerable peer pressure realizing that many of his classmates had already joined the Union ranks.

In an undated text of a speech given after the war, probably to a group in Maine, Merriam offered a collective reasoning of why New Englanders went to war. He began by saying, "Half a century ago our fathers had watched the black cloud of Calhounism and disunion darkening our southern sky, and were filled with sorrow and misgiving." He mentioned Maine-born Elijah P. Lovejoy and his involvement and martyrdom in antislavery activities on the "banks of the Mississippi," first at St. Louis and later at Alton, Illinois. He added, "In our cradles we heard our fathers, with trembling voices, read the stormy debates of Congress" about slavery. All of this conflict, Merriam stated, "was too much even for the sluggish Puritan blood of New England, and we had to confess to a feeling of resentment.... Such was the atmosphere which pervaded the home, the school, the colleges and the churches. Such was the atmosphere in which had grown up that men, were destined, in the providence of God, to defend the Constitution of our fathers, and maintain the integrity of the Union." These comments came the closest to explaining his personal decision to volunteer for the army.


Excerpted from Commander and Builder of Western Forts by Jack Stokes Ballard. Copyright © 2012 Jack Stokes Ballard. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword W. Bart Berger vii

Preface ix

1 Medal of Honor 1

2 Civil War Experience 7

3 Department of the Gulf: Command of Black Troops 19

4 Post-Civil War: The Occupation Army 36

5 On to the Rio Grande 49

6 A New Wife and Troubles on the Rio Grande 65

7 To the Pacific Northwest 86

8 Fort Laramie 111

9 Fort Logan, Colorado 130

10 Department of the Columbia: Vancouver Barracks and Alaska 155

11 The Spanish-American War 167

12 Department of the Colorado and the Idaho Mining Riots 174

13 Toward Retirement 193

14 Who Was Maj. Gen. Henry C. Merriam? 200

Appendix 207

Notes 211

Bibliography 231

Index 239


Centennial, CO

Customer Reviews