Earlier this year, while raveling through rocky hills of remote southwestern New Mexico, I was surprised to encounter a place with a familiar Delaware name: Fort Bayard. Living in Wilmington, where the statue of Senator Thomas Bayard in Rockford Park is a familiar sight, I wondered who was the namesake of this lonely outpost. A little research informed me that it was named for Union Army General George Dashiell Bayard. (Dashiell Hammett, the creator of The Maltese Falcon and other detective novels, was his distant relative.)
But first, a little information about the fort itself. It was built in 1866 as a (African American) Buffalo Soldier outpost to protect the nearby gold and silver mines from Indian raids. Corporal Clinton Greaves was its most highly-decorated resident; he was a Buffalo Soldier who ‘fought like a cornered lion’ in an engagement against the Apaches in 1877 and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1879. There’s a statue of him at the fort’s parade ground to honor Greaves’ service and that of all Buffalo Soldiers.
The fort was also the first post for a newly commissioned second lieutenant (later, WWI Major General) John J. Pershing, after his graduation from West Point.
In 1899 Fort Bayard was converted to a military sanatorium, as dry, sunny New Mexico was a popular destination for tuberculosis sufferers. The buildings on site date mostly from this period. The site was later transferred to the Veterans Administration, which, in turn, transferred it to the state of New Mexico.
The fort contains an active national cemetery for veterans and has a scenic overlook of the Pinos Altos Mountains and the Gila National Forest. It’s located about 150 miles northwest of El Paso and 230 miles southwest of Albuquerque, near the town of Silver City – a magnet for artists and boho boomers who can’t afford Santa Fe’s high rents.
As for the fort’s namesake, George Bayard was a West Point graduate (when Robert E. Lee was the commandant) and a career cavalry officer who had seen frontier service prior to the Civil War, was rapidly promoted during the Civil War, and died at the Battle of Fredericksburg (VA) in 1862, only four days shy of his 27th birthday.
George Bayard was the great-grandson of Revolutionary War Colonel John Bayard of Philadelphia and New Jersey (born in Cecil County, Maryland). (Delaware’s Bayard branch descends from Senator James Bayard, the son of Col. John’s twin brother, Dr. James.)
By the standards of that era, George had an unsettled youth. His father (Samuel John Bayard), a Princeton graduate and sometime lawyer, moved from New Jersey to Seneca Falls, NY, where George was born in 1835. In 1843 Samuel moved his family to the Western frontier, but en route, Samuel enrolled George in a military boarding school in St. Louis, MO. A few years later, George returned to his family, where Samuel had settled them in Iowa.
In 1849, Samuel moved his family back East, where they moved constantly over the next three years, finally settling in Morristown, NJ. Samuel petitioned the Congressman from Morristown to grant George one of his two appointments to West Point, but the Congressman refused. Samuel then turned to Senator Richard Stockton, who asked President Millard Fillmore to appoint George as a ‘cadet at large’, which he did. Interestingly, the Congressman’s two appointments flunked out after a few months. George graduated in 1856, was made a second lieutenant in the cavalry, and posted to Ft. Leavenworth, KS, where he served with J.E.B. Stuart (who later became a Confederate general). In 1860, while on frontier maneuvers with Stuart, George was shot in the face with an arrow, putting him on the sick list for a year, until his appointment as an instructor at West Point.
That appointment was cut short in 1861 by the Civil War, which in the space of a few months transformed Lt. Bayard into Colonel Bayard of the First Pennsylvania Cavalry. One reason for Bayard’s rapid promotion was the mass resignations of officers from the Southern states. In April 1862, as a reward for his success in numerous battles in Virginia, George became a Brigadier General, but he was wounded and died in December. The New Mexico fort was named for him in honor of his frontier and Civil War service.
If you’re wandering through the Southwest, take time to check out the arts scene in Silver City and enjoy the stunning mountain views of old Fort Bayard. You’ll know more about its namesake than the locals, I promise!