In October of 1870 Captain Verling Kersey Hart took over command of Fort Larned from Capt. Dangerfield Parker. Capt. Hart was an Indiana man who, like so many of the Indian Wars Era Army officers, began his career during the Civil War. He started out as a captain in the 19th Indiana Infantry and received a brevet promotion to major for gallantry and meritorious service during the Battle of Chickamauga. He later received a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel for gallantry and meritorious service throughout the war. He also spent fourteen months as a Confederate prisoner of war in Columbia, South Carolina.
In 1866 Capt. Hart was transferred to the 21st U.S. Infantry and then to the 3rd U.S. Infantry in 1869. He married Juliet Watson Taylor on August 14, 1867 at Christ Church in Detroit. The Episcopal Bishop of Michigan performed the ceremony and William G. Lovett gave the bride away. The Harts had three children, two sons and a daughter, all of whom were born at frontier posts with Army doctors in attendance at each birth.
Capt. Hart arrived at Fort Larned as the commander of Co. B, Third Infantry, sent to replace Co. K, which had been transferred to Fort Leavenworth. Capt. Hart and his men had come from Fort Supply in Indian Territory and joined Co. C, which was still stationed at Fort Larned. A few days after Capt. Hart assumed command Lt. Frank Baldwin returned with 50 new recruits to join the fort garrison, who were divided between the two companies. At this time the Army did not have recruitment centers or basic training facilities so officers often had to go out and recruit the new soldiers who replaced the ones who either left after their enlistments ended, or died in the line of duty.
By the time Capt. Hart assumed command in the fall of 1871 Fort Larned was in a transitional period. The Indian threat had been greatly reduced in this area of Kansas and the Indian Agency previously set up at the fort had been moved south to Indian Territory in 1868. Even traffic on the Santa Fe Trail had begun to slow down since the Kansas Pacific railroad 50 miles to the north had taken much of the commercial traffic that used to travel that route to Santa Fe. There weren’t even many settlers yet in the Arkansas River valley so the post activities at Fort Larned during the fall and winter of 1870 to 1871 were limited to the daily mundane tasks of garrison duty, punctuated by a few exciting events.
The normally dry oxbow filled with water when the Pawnee River overflowed its banks, threatening to carry the post latrine downriver, while actually submerging the old post cemetery. Once the waters receded the post quartermaster officer, Lt. Charles E. Campbell, requested permission to move the bodies from the first post cemetery on the oxbow to the new one about an eighth of a mile northwest of the fort. He also requested permission to enclose it since the lack of a fence meant that the graves were trampled by cattle, buffalo and other wild animals.
The ordnance officer at the fort apparently wanted to make sure that all the soldiers at the fort were carrying the same small arms because he requested any soldier with 1865 and 1866 model Springfield rifles turn them in to get a newer 1868 model.
The post surgeon, James Laing, was kept busy in November with the victim of an accidental gunshot wound. His unfortunate patient was Sergeant David Gordon from Co. M of the 7th Cavalry. The incident occurred when Sergeant Gordon and some of his men were escorting the paymaster, Maj. Deaver, from Fort Hays to Fort Larned. Sgt. Gordon accidentally shot himself in the knee after telling his men how dangerous it was to carry a loaded rifle in a wheeled vehicle. Although his wound initially seemed to be healing well it eventually became infected. Dr. Laing did all he could for him, even calling in his fellow surgeon from Fort Dodge to assist with amputating Sgt. Gordon’s lower leg when it was obvious it couldn’t be saved. In spite of the doctors’ efforts, though, Sgt. Gordon died 50 hours after the operation.
Dr. Laing was also preoccupied with a fatal case of diarrhea brought on by a heavy bout of drinking what the doctor called “the stuff sold as whiskey.” Many men went on drinking sprees whenever they were paid, and since the paydays only occurred every two months these men apparently wanted to make up for lost time. Binge drinking caused quite a few alcohol related injuries and illness around payday. Dr. Laing thought that paying the men every month might help cut down on these problems since the men would have less money coming to them at one time, and also less time to wait for the money with which to buy alcohol.
December brought sub-zero temperatures that caused several cases of frostbite among some of the men whose job it was to be out in the cold for long periods of time, such as mail couriers and those on guard duty. Dr. Laing put out placards to warn these men of the hazards of prolonged exposure to the cold weather. Though bad news for anybody who had to be outside, the extremely cold temperature did ensure a good supply of ice. The men were able to gather so much ice in fact that it filled the existing icehouse and plans were made to build another one.
On December 10th, 1870, Henry Booth was appointed post trader at Fort Larned. Also in December, Sgt. John R. Leary took a detail of men to Walnut Creek to build a shelter for the mail couriers who camped there on their trips between Pawnee Fork and Hays.
By January of 1871 Larned’s commissary officer had to ask the commander at Fort Hays about supplies for Pawnee Fork. That’s because the commissary shelves at Fort Larned were getting bare and if the post didn’t get supplies soon the men might go hungry. Capt. Hart was also anxious to get the lumber from Fort Hays for the construction of the new ice house.
In January Capt. Hart was transferred to the Seventh Cavalry and went to Fort Harker in February to join his new unit. Capt. James A. Snyder, who had previously commanded the fort, took over as the post commander. Capt. Hart would eventually be promoted to a major of cavalry in December of 1875. He died on February 17, 1883. His cause of death was initially listed as “intemperance”, or consuming too much alcohol, but was later determined to be inflammation of the stomach.
The period of time that Capt. Hart commanded Fort Larned was one of inactivity and boredom for the post garrison due to the fort’s changing role. With the Indian threat greatly diminished, and traffic slowing down on the Santa Fe Trail, there wasn’t much for the soldiers stationed at Fort Larned to do. Although it might not have been immediately apparent to the commanders and men at the post, it seems that Fort Larned’s days as an active military post were numbered.
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