Midnight Battle at Fort Lancaster

During the Civil War, several attempts were made by Union forces to invade Texas. One such attempt occurred near Fort Lancaster when, in March 1864, information reached Confederate headquarters in Texas that a considerable force of Union soldiers from California, estimated at 500 men, were in camp on the Pecos River near Fort Lancaster. Maj. J.M. Hunter was instructed to organize an expedition to stop the invasion.

Maj. Hunter issued instructions for approximately 550 rangers to assemble at D’Hanis, on the San Antonio–Eagle Pass Road in early April 1864. At daybreak on April 8, the command started westward on the 300-mile ride to the fort. They covered approximately 30 miles a day and arrived on April 17 at their camping place, a small, clear running stream 20 miles from Fort Lancaster. Not knowing the exact size of the Union force, the rangers were all heavily armed and anxious for a fight.

Maj. Hunter and three of his best scouts set off to locate the enemy position. Returning the next day, he reported that the Californians had gone so long without seeing the enemy that they had grown careless. "The trumps are in our hands, boys," he said. "And the game’s as good as finished – if only we work it carefully and some darned fool doesn’t scare them. Now for a good sleep, and have the command ready to march an hour after sundown. And see to all the rifles and six shooters in the meantime."

A full moon appeared in the sky on the evening they reached old Fort Lancaster. Maj. Hunter had resolved to make the most difficult and dangerous of all movements — a night assault. He and his 100 men moved to the right, and he ordered Captain R.H. Williams with approximately 250 infantry and 150 cavalry to move left. One of the horses of the Californians neighed, and the Texans held their breath and clenched their teeth as the Union troopers came pushing through the brush. But at that instant a single pistol shot — the signal to open fire — rang out from the hilltop, where Maj. Hunter’s rangers had arrived, and the next moment their 100 rifles roared into action.

Captain Williams ordered the mounted men, who had been stationed on the left of the line, to pass to the left as soon as they cleared the brush and get around the Union horses. This space was between the hill and the horses, so they knew the Californians would try to cross it. As a mob of panic-stricken men — who sought only to get to their horses and escape — came into the space, Williams discharged his pistol and his 250 men fired a volley into the mass.

In the end, the Texans had four men dead and ten wounded. The Californians suffered 35 dead and approximately 75 wounded. About 250 mounts were recovered; the rest escaped. Four of the wounded Texans later died at Fort Clark, making eight casualties in all.

Adapted from: Frontier Times, Volume 21, No. 9, June 1944; “Midnight Battle at Fort Lancaster,” by J. Marvin Hunter, pp. 366–370.

See also, R.H. Williams, With the Border Ruffians: Memories of the Far West, 1852–1868, with historical notes by Arthur J. Mayer & Joseph W. Snell (pp. 363-372). Edited by E.W. Williams. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln.1982.