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Plains Women

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Plains Women
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Author(s): Lydia Spencer Lane & Lodisa Frizzell
Date Published: 2010/10
Page Count: 192
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-199-7
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-200-0

The accounts of two women of the West in the 1850s

The Great Plains evoke the very essence of the wild American frontier. In reality, beyond the ‘settled and civilised’ eastern seaboard lay a great wilderness—a barrier to be traversed if the ‘Manifest Destiny’ of the American people to populate the entire North American continent was to come to fruition. During the nineteenth century many men and women embarked upon this perilous endeavour. All had to brave every element that Nature could throw against them, within terrain as varied as any on Earth and often harassed by outlaws and Indian tribes who sought to maintain control of their own ancestral lands. Some who came were pioneers, settlers whose aim was to carve a new life for themselves and some were those whose task it was to protect them—soldiers and peace keepers—so that a new nation would be born. Whilst history tends to concentrate on men, women had no less of a vital role in this great task, for without them none of it would have been possible. This book contains the accounts of two of these resolute ladies and their struggles during the early years of westward expansion. Lydia Spencer became the wife of young Lieutenant William Lane of the U. S Mounted Rifles and she recounts her story from the perspective of an army wife. Lodisa Frizzell, another early traveller across the Plains, was a pioneer in company with her husband and children setting out for a new start in California from their old home in Illinois. These two memorable accounts are joined together here for value and this book is available in softcover or hardback with dust jacket.

About one a.m. the report was brought to Lieutenant Lane that the mules were giving out, so we halted and camped just where we were, beside the road.<br>
No sign of the enemy yet, and I began to breathe again and took some rest. As soon as the animals were refreshed and had grazed a little,—there was no water for them,—they were harnessed up, and we were off, hoping soon to meet Gibbs. When a cloud of dust in the distance heralded his approach, I was greatly relieved; and as help was in front and no sign of an enemy in the rear, I began to feel bold, and tried to convince myself I was not so very badly frightened after all, but I think any woman under the circumstances would have been quite as much alarmed as I was. I could not run away, lest I should meet a foe far worse than the Texans. The Indians were always somewhere in the neighbourhood, so that it would have been safer to stay where we were than to fall into their clutches.<br>
Lieutenant Lane tried to induce Captain Gibbs not to go on to Fillmore, but he decided to obey orders, taking a roundabout way to reach the post, and so avoid, he hoped, the expected enemy. That something had happened to prevent the intended attack on the wagons was evident, for, had the Texans started at the time set, they could have overtaken us hours before we met Captain Gibbs, and we heard how it was some days later.<br>
Suspicion fell on the wagon-master for detaining us. It was thought that he knew of the proposed capture of the train, and had delayed it on that account, that we should not get too far away to be caught. I do not know that the charges were ever proved, but appearances were strongly against him. We continued on to Fort Craig without accident or hindrance, to my great joy. Doctor Steck and those who left Mesilla with him hurried through to Santa Fé.<br>
One morning, a few days after our arrival, we were startled by the appearance of a sergeant and two soldiers of the Rifles, whom we had left at Fort Fillmore. They had escaped capture, and made their way to Fort Craig, coming immediately to report to Lieutenant Lane, and from them we learned what took place after our departure.<br>
What they told us of the fight at Mesilla, Major Lynde’s disgraceful retreat from Fort Fillmore towards Fort Stanton, the capture and surrender of his whole command to the Texans, has passed into history; but, later, I will quote a little from Doctor McKee on the subject.<br>
We also learned that the talked-of raid on the wagon-train, news of which was brought by Doctor Steck, was no idle rumour. It was well planned, and everything ready, when some Southern men whom we knew well, and with whom we had been friendly, implored those in command not to attempt it, “for God’s sake; that there were women and children with the train!” So we were unmolested, and the Texans turned their attentions to the troops at Fort Fillmore.<br>
Possibly the vicinity of the veterans at that post had more to do with the abandonment of the raid than any feelings of humanity there may have been for a handful of women and children.<br>
I was writing home on the day we heard all the news from Fort Fillmore, and when my letter reached Carlisle, Pennsylvania, a month later, Colonel Andrew Porter, Mounted Rifles, was there. He was given the contents of it, and he telegraphed the news of Lynde’s surrender to Washington, which was the first intimation they had at the War Department of what had taken place in New Mexico.<br>
To quote from Doctor McKee’s pamphlet, quite a large body of Confederates came up from Fort Bliss on the 24th of July, the day we left Fillmore, and it was some of these troops who were to attack the train of wagons.<br>
Doctor McKee says:<br>
On the night of the 24th of July, the garrison, men, women, and children, slept peacefully, with no more than the customary sentinels in time of peace, no pickets out in any direction, no precautions whatever taken to prevent surprise from the approaching enemy. Everybody seemed inert and paralyzed; yet they were all brave men, and would have done their duty, had they had a competent commander.<br>
The Texans, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Baylor, to the number of four hundred men, . . . were quietly encamped within six hundred yards of the fort, intending to surprise us at daylight on the morning of the twenty-fifth, kill or capture the officers in their quarters, and then take the men prisoners in their barracks. Luckily for us, one of the Confederate pickets, composed of two old discharged soldiers, came in and alarmed the garrison, otherwise their success would have been complete, as they intended storming the place at break of day. Drums beat the long roll, the command turned out, and we were saved for the time.<br>
The Texans crossed the Rio Grande and went into Mesilla, where they found many friends. The command at Fillmore was ordered out, and only a guard left for protection. There were between four and five hundred United States troops in all, who marched to Mesilla July 25, hoping to attack the enemy, but no attack was made. The adjutant, in the name of the commanding officer of the United States troops, demanded “an unconditional surrender of the forces and the town.”<br>
The answer was, “If he wished the town, to come and take it.” A few shots were fired by the Texans, which killed and wounded some of our soldiers. Then Major Lynde ordered a retreat, and Doctor McKee says, “Had any of the senior officers present at this time stepped forward, put Lynde in arrest, and taken command, his fortune would have been made.”<br>
The United States troops returned to Fort Fillmore at ten p.m., July 25, crestfallen and indignant at the part they were forced to play.<br>
On the 26th Major Lynde ordered a great deal of public property destroyed, which was done, preparatory to a hasty retreat in the direction of Fort Stanton, New Mexico. The officers and families lost everything they owned, as they could not take their property with them, beyond a change of clothes. The Mexicans in the neighbourhood reaped a harvest after the soldiers left the post that night. The Texans followed up the troops, and on the 27th the whole command was surrendered, notwithstanding the protests of the officers. No one seemed bold enough to place Lynde in arrest and take command. The doctor says, “Blind, unreasonable obedience to orders (creditable always in a well-disciplined force) was the ruin of our command.”<br>
On July 28 the Texans with their prisoners of war marched to Las Cruces and encamped. Later they were all paroled and ordered to Fort Union, New Mexico, preparatory to leaving for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.<br>
Captain Gibbs and his company, in making a detour, fell in with the Texans and were surrendered with the other troops. It seemed hard that while obeying orders he should have been so unfortunate. We were truly thankful to have escaped from Fillmore before these events took place, and distressed that our many friends there had suffered such humiliation. Some of the officers and men later on had opportunities to show of what stuff they were made, and to prove their loyalty to the government, righting with desperation born of their sufferings, brought about by their ignominious surrender so early in the war.