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Fort Kirby

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
In the spring of 1946, an Army major assigned to desk duty at the Pentagon had his sergeant call the War Records Office at the National Archives to ask if they had any information on an old military post in South Texas called Fort Kirby.

Why a nuclear-era officer had an interest in a long-vanished frontier military garrison is not descernable from the three-paragraph letter the major received from the National Archives, but that document sets forth all that could then be learned about the ante-bellum infantry base:

“Fort Kirby was established by General Orders No. 63, Hd. 8th Dept. July 23, 1851, which provided that Bvt. Major Gabriel R. Paul, 7th Inft. Should with 2 companies of his regt. then stationed at Corpus Christi; establish a post to be called Fort Kirby, on the Charo Grande de Aqua Dulce. According to a note found amont the records of the Adj. General’s office the fort was named for Col. Edmund Kirby.”

And that was it, other than another sentence reporting that no post returns from Fort Kirby had been located.

Though the U.S. military left quite a footprint in Texas during the 19th century, establishing and later abandoning scores of camps and forts along what was then the state’s western frontier and the Rio Grande, Fort Kirby may be the least known. No historical marker notes its existence, the encylopedic “Handbook of Texas” contains no mention of the fort, and no one else seems to have written about it. Indeed, the place appears to have fallen through the proverbial cracks of history.

The lack of post returns, the monthly reports that had to be filed from each of the military’s installations, indicates Fort Kirby was short-lived, an outpost hardly deserving of such a formidable sounding noun as “fort.”

Fort Kirby was established on Aqua Dulce Creek in western Nueces County during the time the Army’s 8th Military District had its headquarters at Corpus Christi. Its strategic importance came from being on or near the wagon road that connected the mid coast with Laredo, but for whatever reason, the military brass soon thought better of the idea and moved the two companies of foot soliders elsewhere.

While an internet search turns up hardly anything on Fort Kirby, a bit of googling did bring to light some interesting information on the outpost’s namesake and the officer who occupied it for a time.

Edmund Kirby, whose father had been an officer in the colonial Army during the American Revolution, received a commission as a lieutenant in 1812 and served with distinction through the Mexican War. He left the Army in 1848 and returned to his home in Brownsville, N.Y. where he died of disease on Aug. 20, 1849.

Gabriel Paul, the officer who established Fort Kirby, also devoted his career to the Army, serving from 1834 to 1865. Born in St. Louis, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy 18th in his class of 36. His saw his first combat during the Seminole Wars in Florida and even more during the Mexican War.

Wounded in the battle of Cerro Gordo, he regained his health in time to take part in the capture of Mexico City. When U.S. troops stormed Chapultepec Castle, Paul headed the unit that seized the Mexican flag. In fact, his gallantry in that incident is what got him promoted to major.

After the war, Paul spent some time in Texas with his long-time outfit, the 7th Infantry. That’s when he got orders to garrison Fort Kirby.

When the Civil War broke out, Paul led an infantry brigade at Fort Union, N.M., then a territory. As a brigadier general, he commanded a brigade during the Battle of Chancellorsville and headed another brigade during the pivotal clash at Gettysburg in the mid-summer of 1863.

At Gettysburg, in defending Oak Ridge against four times his number, a rebel musket ball hit his right temple, tearing through his skull and exiting his left eye. The wound knocked Paul unconscious and he was left for dead. Stretcher bearers collecting bodies later discovered he was still alive and carried him to a nearby house, where a Union doctor treated him.

Amazingly, given the state of the medical art back then, the general survived. But the wound had blinded him and severely impacted his ability to hear or smell. The Army kept him on light duty until February 1865, when he was retired. He lived another 21 years.

In 1900, the Army honored the Kirby name again, designating a coastal artillery installation overlooking California’s San Francisco Bay as Battery Kirby. But this time, the military was recognizing Lt. Edmund Kirby – the son of Fort Kirby’s namesake – a young artillery officer who died of wounds at Chancellorsville.

Battery Kirby helped protect the Golden Gate Bridge until 1941, when the last of its two big guns was dismantled and shipped to the Philippines.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
December 30, 2010 column
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