Photos and article by Mary Alice Murphy
Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society President Douglas Dinwiddie gives a brief history of the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Bayard
Harry Jenks center right, Nancy Grayson and Bill Ellsworth check out the reading material, as one of the founders of the Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society Cecilia Bell, at left,talks about some of the books and pamphlets available to history buffs
A good crowd watches a movie at the historic Fort Bayard Theater.
The Fort Bayard Theater hosted the fort's 157th birthday party on Aug. 19, 2023. The official date of founding is Aug. 21, 1866.
Fort Bayard Historic Preservation Society (FBHPS) President Douglas Dinwiddie gave the welcome and an overview of the Buffalo Soldiers from the 125th Colored Infantry, who constructed the first buildings at the site.
Before giving the history, he announced a raffle that would take place after the showing of the movie "Fighting on Two Fronts: The Buffalo Soldiers" produced by the Public Broadcasting System.
The item to be raffled was a small statue of Roy Rogers, autographed by Roy Rogers, and donated to the organization, as a fundraiser, by Karl and Barbara Giese.
Dinwiddie also talked about FBPHS supporting the efforts of the National History Day program at Silver High School. "We will honor William Kupke, one of our founding members, who gives walking tours on the military history at Fort Bayard, by naming the William Kupke Award to be presented to a participant in National History Day (NHD) each year, beginning in 2024. Bill is very knowledgeable about Fort Bayard history, and he is a stickler for accuracy."
"Our local National History Day students continue to excel at the state level, as well as at the national level," Dinwiddie continued. "Several place every year at the national level. I've judged at the National History Day competition, and the level of excellence is outstanding. So, it is really something for our local students to place nationally."
He also noted the table in the rear of the room, where founding member Cecilia Bell oversaw and promoted the publications the organization sells to raise money for the organization. The publications are also available at the FBPHS Museum, housed in the commanding officers' quarters, one of the historic buildings on the campus.
One of the announcements addressed the continuing film series the organization sponsors each year. The new season will begin on Aug. 31, at the Santa Clara Armory. Doors open at 6 p.m. for film showings beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Dinwiddie began his history talk. Fort Bayard served as a military base from 1866-1899, when it became a tuberculosis hospital. After that it was a state hospital, until its closure and replacement by a new Fort Bayard Medical Center in 2010. The old hospital was subsequently demolished.
Behind Dinwiddie, a photo of a young black soldier, showed on the screen. Dinwiddie said the man was an unidentified soldier from Company B of the 125th Colored Infantry, which built the first structures at Fort Bayard. "Is it possible he marched here? It's possible, but not likely." He noted that later in the program, he would read the names of all of Company B, which included names of the ones who traveled to Fort Bayard, but other than the commanding, officer, 1st Lt. James M. Kerr, the other names were not identified as having come to Fort Bayard.
"Who were they?" he asked. "The infantry was not organized until 1865, during the last year of the Civil War. They were recruited in Kentucky, primarily around the area of Louisville and Bowling Green. Many were former slaves who had been recently freed by the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. The proclamation applied only to slaves in the seceded states, but Kentucky did not secede. How did they get fellows to join the Union Army? Many were freed by their owners who signed their permission to join the army. Most had guard and garrison duty, so they missed the bloodbath. They were posted as far away as Wisconsin. In March 1866, they were told they were going to the New Mexico Territory. Some changed their mind to go and a few deserted."
From southern Illinois, they embarked by steamboats toward Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. "The rest of the journey was on foot by way of the Santa Fe Trail. It was 700 miles to Fort Union, which was a big supply fort for New Mexico. Today Fort Union is a national monument. The soldiers were then sent to different places on different missions. Some went to Fort Selden, some to Fort Bascom. Company B came to set up a new fort in southwest New Mexico near the Gila river. They were looking for a suitable site. The first fort was put where Fort Webster is, and another one on the Mimbres. Fort Floyd and Fort McClain were others. They failed for several reasons. Reasons often included not enough water. They chose this spot for Fort Bayard because of the 19 fresh water springs between here and the Pinos Altos Mountains. Because they were higher up, the water flowed down by gravity."
Dinwiddie said Company B was commanded by 1st Lt. James M. Kerr. "We're still looking for more information on him. Kerr arrived with his command on Aug. 21, 1866. Recently we received CDs with the post report of Fort Bayard. I pulled the documents out and they were signed by Kerr and written by an adjutant. The adjutant had beautiful handwriting."
Dinwiddie read the full report, which gave the names of surveyor Lt. Col Nelson H. Davis, who was accompanied by Robert Mitchell, the civilian Governor of NM Territory, at the time when the site for the fort was chosen.
He noted the report stated Fort Bayard was "beautifully situated 40 miles from Fort Cummings and eight miles south of Pinos Altos, as well as one-and-a-half miles from the road to Pinos Altos. We have seen no Indians yet, but we have communications direct to Fort Cummings."
Dinwiddie said Kerr provided a summary of how many people were able for duty, those available for special duty, those sick and "his numbers don't add up, but it was about 70 men."
The 125th Colored Infantry was only at Fort Bayard for a couple of months. They were retired by the white 3rd Cavalry and another unit.
"The Buffalo soldiers constructed the first structures here," Dinwiddie said. "Nothing remains. What remains are buildings from when the fort became a medical facility in 1899. The early construction wasn't great. Soldiers loved the place, but the buildings were terrible, constructed of planks and stacked rocks, with dirt roofs."
It was five years before the army decided Fort Bayard would close in 1871. There were 18 graves that needed to be moved to Fort Cummings. They were moved. Then the army changed its mind and closed Fort Cummings and moved the graves to Fort Leavenworth. "They lost the paperwork, so although we have the markers here for the 18, we have no remains."
He noted that many publications have been written about what happened at Fort Bayard after its founding.
"I don't think the soldiers responsible for the founding of Fort Bayard have ever been recognized," Dinwiddie said.
He then played the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" on his phone as he read off the names of Company B. "We don't know which ones were here and which ones went elsewhere."
To a question, Dinwiddie agreed that all officers were white, but the soldiers at Fort Bayard were all black, except for Kerr.
After the movie, the society served cake and refreshments and announced the raffle drawing winner.
[Editor's note: This author did not stay for the movie, refreshments or the drawing.]