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Ranald McKenzie: The Frontier Enforcer (CEC)

Colonel R. S. McKenzie

Ranald Slidell McKenzie was already a seasoned–and battle scarred–veteran by the time he came to Texas.  Born in 1840 into a navy family from Westchester County, New York, the young McKenzie decided against a career at sea and attended Williams College before transferring to the United States Military Academy at West Point.  He graduated at the head of his class in 1862 and entered the Union army fighting against the Confederacy.  Assigned as an engineering officer, he was on hand with the Army of the Potomac for the Battles of Second Bull Run where he received a slight wound, Antietam, and Gettysburg where he once again endured a battlefield injury.

The following spring, McKenzie served in the Overland Campaign, earning promotion to the rank lieutenant colonel of regulars.  That summer, the 24 year-old accepted promotion to colonel and command of a heavy artillery regiment converted to infantry to replace the bruising losses inflicted on the Union army.  According one historian, this unit was “a rather easygoing outfit on which Mackenzie descended like a tornado in an orphan asylum.” McKenzie’s command, the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, had already been roughed up in the Battle of Cold Harbor, and on June 21-22 received another pounding at the Battle of the Jerusalem Plank Road south of Petersburg, Virginia.  McKenzie, at the head of his regiment, received yet another wound, this time losing the index and middle fingers from his right hand.

As part of the Union VI Corps, the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery moved into the defenses of Washington, defending the capital city against Confederates under Jubal Early.  When the Rebels withdrew into the Shenandoah, McKenzie’s regiment was in the army that pursued them.  On September 18, the bold colonel received yet another light wound, this time at the Battle of Opequon.  One observer noted

“McKenzie seemed to court destruction, he galloped along the front of his men, waving his coat on the end of his saber, braving a hail of confederate lead; when his horse was cut in two by a shell, Mackenzie was spilled and wounded, but refused to go to the rear, even at the request of his commanding general, Philip Sheridan. Within three weeks he was back to duty and from then on the regiment, to the last man, would have followed him into the gates of hell.”

Promoted to command his brigade, McKenzie took another hit on October 19 at the Battle of Cedar Creek, this time a serious gunshot through the lung.  Even so, his battlefield bravery earned the wounded officer the star of a brigadier general of volunteers; he was clearly a rising talent in the army. McKenzie recovered quickly and took over the command of the cavalry division of the Army of the James.  When the Confederate lines collapsed around Petersburg and Richmond, he led his horsemen and other formations in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia, fighting at the Battle of Five Forks and, ultimately, Appomattox Courthouse.

Mackenzie was known for his harsh discipline and was not well liked by troops serving under him, who called him the “Perpetual Punisher.” General Ulysses S. Grant, the commander of the Union army, thought otherwise.  “I regarded Mackenzie as the most promising young officer in the army,” Grant wrote.  “Graduating at West Point, as he did, during the second year of the war, he had won his way up to the command of a corps before its close. This he did upon his own merit and without influence.”  He was just 25 years-old at war’s end.

As the Union army deflated at the closing of hostilities, McKenzie found himself a an officer without an army.  He mustered out of volunteer service–as a major general–in early 1866.  He remained in the regular army, though, and his superiors tapped him to lead the 41st Infantry, one of the black regiments added to the regular armies that year.  McKenzie joined his regiment as its colonel at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and almost immediately headed into Texas for duty on the frontier.

He regiment performed well and earned a reputation for efficiency and discipline. Her retained command when this regiment folded in with the 38th Infantry to form the “new” 24th Infantry in 1867, with his infantry distributed between between forts Brown, Clark, and McKavett. McKenzie also earned a reputation among the Indians he encountered–”Bad Hand,” they called him, for his maimed digits.

On February 25, 1871, McKenzie assumed command of the 4th Cavalry.  On May 18, when Kiowa and Comanche warriors ambushed and destroyed a wagon train on the Salt Creek Prairie in North Texas, McKenzie moved his headquarters to Fort Richardson in Jacksboro and prepared for active campaigning.

For US Indian policy in Texas, the 31 year-old officer was in the right man at the right place at the right time.  One of his staff officers found service with the colonel to be tough duty, but he admired the man:

He was fretful, irritable, oftentimes irascible and pretty hard to serve with. This was due largely to his failing to take care of himself and his wounds received during the Civil War. He kept late hours, ate but little, and slept less than anyone in the regiment. But he was not a martinet and he was always just to all the men and officers. The wound through his lung was always a most serious drawback to his physical comfort and action on campaigns and it probably, with his other wounds, added to his irritability at times. He could not ride more than 25 to 30 miles without being in great pain and yet [on one occasion] rode 162 miles in 32 hours . . . without, so far as I can recall, a single murmur or sign of exhaustion.  Mackenzie hung on like a bull dog until the Indians begged him to let go. He had more brains than Custer, [and] better judgment . . . he carefully planned his attacks.