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When Captain George E. Head of the 3rd U.S. Infantry assumed command of Fort Larned in July 1871 from Maj. Dodge it was obvious that the frontier post was at a crossroads in terms of its mission. Capt. Head had only 93 men under his command at that time, however, the fort’s records show there was not much to occupy the men’s time. As was the case under Maj. Dodge’s tenure as post commander, the garrison dealt with mostly routine matters on a daily basis with a few out of the ordinary events thrown in to keep things lively.
The main concern for the Army at this time was dealing with deserters and Fort Larned was no exception to this problem. During the month of July Corporal William Kelso was detailed to take two 6th Infantry deserters back to Fort Hays, while Sergeant Timothy McCarthy took four privates to the mail crossing at the Smoky Hill River to take any deserters they encountered there into custody. They actually captured two privates who deserted from Fort Larned and brought them back to their respective units for prosecution.
One day prisoners were working at the post woodpile without shackles, which were being altered to make them more comfortable per the recommendation of the post surgeon. The prisoners made a run for freedom at sunset and escaped across the creek despite being fired upon by the sentry on duty at the time. Search parties failed to find them so the prisoners were able to make a clean getaway. Capt. Head suspected the sentry on duty at the time helped them escape but since he had no evidence, other than his suspicions, he could not arrest him. He also thought that some local sympathetic ranchers might be hiding the runaways.
Capt. Head was originally from Massachusetts and joined the Army during the Civil War in May of 1861 as a 1st Lieutenant in the 11thMass. Infantry. He served as regimental adjutant from October 1, 1862 to April 24, 1863 and was promoted to captain on July 12, 1864. He received a brevet promotion to major on August 1, 1864 for gallant service during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.
Like many volunteer Army officers he decided to make the Army a career after the Civil War. Although he had a distinguished Army record throughout the war he seems to have run into a bit of trouble afterwards. By April of 1869 his record indicated that he was unassigned; an examination of some correspondence indicates why that was the case. In March of 1869 Brevet Captain J. H. Hays made a complaint against Brevet Major Head. It seems that Maj. Head owed Capt. Hays the sum of $32.50, which he had repeatedly promised to repay and had then failed to do so. This offence, as well as charges of “intemperance,” were listed as reasons for his referral to a retiring board in St. Louis, MO during the summer of 1869.
Fortunately for Capt. Head, the officer who recommended him for the retiring board, Brig. Gen. E. D. Townsend, decided to withdraw his objections to having him serve in the Army. The retiring board was dissolved before it could hear Maj. Head’s case, which left him in the limbo of “awaiting orders”. In a letter dated August 31, 1870 and written in Washington, D.C., Gen. Townsend explains that his change of heart was due to the reports of several “reliable persons that Capt. Head had eschewed the habit of drinking entirely”. He also personally observed Capt. Head, who came with him to D.C. and said the he believed him to be “a reformed man.” Capt. Head himself submitted copies of a letter written by F. M. Cooley (a former Civil War army commander) to his mother-in-law in which Cooley assures her that he will recommend Capt. Head for a brevet promotion based on his performance at the Battle of the Wilderness. Cooley goes on to state that “it is perfectly just and safe to recommend Major Head for gallantry in any action that he participated in….I always regarded Major Head and Capt. Ellsworth the two most reliable officers in the regiment.” By December 31, 1870 Capt. Head was assigned to the 3rd U.S. Infantry, apparently with a new lease on his Army career.
The summer of 1871 at Fort Larned saw very little Indian activity around the post. In fact, the tribes around the fort were so peaceful that only two or three men with just a few rounds of ammunition in a mule-drawn wagon could easily, and safely, go to Fort Hays and back to pick up supplies for the fort. The garrison’s services as escorts for wagon trains along the Santa Fe Trail were also not requested that summer. The fort did provide escorts for railroad surveying parties, or for prisoners going between posts and prisons, as well as taking supplies from train depots to remote camps.
In October of 1871 the post chaplain opened a school for the children of the military personnel stationed at the post. It was located on the north end of the “additional commissary warehouse”. The Quartermaster’s Department provided a detail of men to furnish the requisite number of benches and desks for the students.
Also during the month of October, Major James P. Roy of the 6th U.S. Infantry arrived to assume command of the post. Capt. Head resumed his duties as company commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry troops stationed at Fort Larned. On April 20, 1886, he received a promotion to Major in the regular army. By May 19, 1891 he was promoted to Lt. Col of the 14th U.S. Infantry before retiring on July 10th of the same year.
During Capt. Head’s relatively short tenure as Fort Larned’s commander, events at the post were mostly quiet and routine. The Indian threat had so diminished by the summer and fall of 1871 that mail carriers who used to take their lives in their hands every time they went out could now safely take wagonloads of letters and dispatches between posts without incident. As an example, Corporal A.J. Carr was able to deliver a wagonload of mail to Fort Hays by himself, camping at Walnut Creek both ways. Considering that Indian opposition to the mail station at Walnut Creek was the impetus for sending Army troops to the area in the first place it seems that Corp. Carr’s solo mail delivery journey presaged the close of Fort Larned’s usefulness in that regard.
Last updated: May 22, 2019