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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

Lt. John Lapham Bullis
the Seminole Negro Scouts

by C. F. Eckhardt

One of the least-known heroes of the Texas frontier was a man known to his followers as ‘The Whirlwind’ and to his enemies as ‘The Thunderbolt.’ His name was John Lapham Bullis, and he was a Lieutenant in the US Army.

John Lapham Bullis
John Lapham Bullis
Photo Courtesy National Park Service

Bullis enlisted as a private in a New York volunteer infantry regiment in 1861. He was promoted to corporal, wounded and captured at Gettysburg, and exchanged. He was appointed a captain in the 118th United States Colored Infantry, a volunteer regiment made up entirely of Black enlisted men and white officers. In 1866, like many other volunteer officers, he was mustered out of the army. For a year he ran a wood business on the Mississippi, supplying steamboats with fuel.

In 1867 the Regular Army was reorganized into the largest peacetime establishment it had ever had-or would ever have again until the onset of the Cold War following WW II. The cavalry was expanded from 6 regiments to 10, the infantry from 19 regiments to 45. Two cavalry regiments, the 9th and 10th, and four infantry regiments, the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st, were composed of Black enlisted men with white officers. The army was also authorized up to 1,000 Indians as scouts, to be recruited as needed. At that point the Regular Army was larger and better suited for the purpose for which it existed than it ever had been in the history of the United States—or ever would be again until the latter half of the 20th century.

John L. Bullis, like many other volunteer officers who'd served with 'colored' troops during the war, was offered a Regular Army commission to return as an officer in one of the new 'colored' regiments. 'Regular' Regular Army officers-West Pointers-tended to shun the 'colored' regiments as social, political, and promotional graveyards. George A. Custer turned down a full colonelcy in 1867 in favor of a captaincy in the 7th Cavalry because, as a colonel, he would command a 'colored' Cavalry regiment. Bullis accepted a commission as a Lieutenant in the 41st Infantry.

In 1869 the army was reorganized yet again, into the structure it would hold for the remainder of the Indian wars. The Cavalry was left pretty much untouched, though the number of privates in a cavalry company, which by law could be anywhere from 50 to 100, was fixed at 64.

The Artillery was left at 5 regiments, but these, for the most part, were assigned to coastal defense forts. The Infantry was reduced from 45 regiments to 25, with the 4 'colored' regiments consolidated into 2. The 38th and 39th became the 24th Infantry, while the 40th and 41st became the 25th Infantry. The 42nd, 43rd, 44th, and 45th Infantry regiments, the 'Veterans' Reserve Corps,' made up of wounded and overage veterans, were disbanded entirely.

The 1869 reorganization also eliminated some 900 officer slots, forcing many officers to resign. Had this served to eliminate the deadwood-over age in grade and incompetent-it might have considerably improved the army's combat efficiency, but unfortunately that's not what happened. Many of the men eliminated were, instead, highly qualified combat officers with considerable Indian-war experience who were removed because they lacked the social connections or political influence that pervaded promotion in the 19th century Regular Army. About the only non-socially connected, non-politically connected officers who were allowed to remain were those willing to serve in the 9th and 10th Cavalry or the 24th and 25th Infantry—or those who volunteered for frontier duty. John Bullis had served his entire commissioned career with Black troops. He also had no objection to going west.

From 1869 until 1873 Bullis served with the 25th Infantry on the frontier. Then, about 1872, something began to happen in southern and western Texas. Indian raids from inside Mexico-not to mention bandit raids from the same source-were devastating the border. The one thing the army lacked was scouts-really competent trackers who could follow the faint trails of the Comanche, Lipan, Kickapoo, and Kiowa.

Living south of the border in the Santa Rosa Mountains of Mexico was a very peculiar group of people. They were—and are—called Seminole Negroes. They are the descendants of escaped slaves from Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida who fled into the swamps of Florida and southern Georgia, joined with—and intermarried with—the Seminole tribe, and considered themselves part of the Seminoles.

When the Seminoles, along with the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Shawnees, were removed to the new Indian Territory along what those peoples still call 'The Trail Of Tears,' the Seminole Negroes went along. It didn't take them long to realize that what is now Oklahoma would never be a home to them. While the Seminoles—and to some extent the Cherokees—accepted them completely, almost no other tribe did. A large band of them packed up and removed themselves entirely from the United States, to settle in the Santa Rosa Mountains of northern Mexico.

Though many of their descendants live there to this day, their new home was an uneasy one. They were distrusted by the Mexicans and disliked by the local Indians, who decided—on more than one occasion—to see if these strange-looking newcomers knew how to fight. The Seminoles remain the only tribe never to have signed a treaty of peace with the United States, and the only tribe that had to be run down and captured, one by one, rather than ever voluntarily entering a reservation. The Seminoles—and the Seminole Negroes—were plenty tough customers. The warlike Indians of northern Mexico quickly learned to leave them strictly alone.

Part of the distrust in Mexico seems to have arisen over religion. Mexico was—and to a large extent still is—Roman Catholic. The Seminole Negroes were Baptists—but very peculiar Baptists. Most of their church ritual seems to have been brought by their Black ancestors and interpreted by their Indian forebears. Among other things, at Communion neither wine nor grape juice is served. The Seminole Negroes use, to this day, iced tea. It seems the Indian side of the family couldn't regard wine, which any white man would sell you, or grape juice, which you could squeeze out of the grapes growing wild in the forest, as sacred. They were just too commonplace.

Tea, on the other hand, was expensive and hard to get, and ice was almost impossible to come by. Something as rare as iced tea simply had to be far more sacred than wine or grape juice and therefore more suitable for the Lord's Supper.

In 1872 the United States finally admitted that it took Indians to trail Indians. Right south of the border were the Seminole Negroes, still nominally US Indians—and they could track a lizard across rock. Agents were sent to them, promising them land of their own, permanent enlistment in the army, food for themselves and their families, and a chance to strike back at the Indians who'd harassed them when they first moved to Mexico. A good many trekked north of the border and formed a company of scouts being raised at Fort Clark, Texas.

Trouble was, however, the army now had a company of some of the best scouts money could buy—and nobody to command them. While there was some glamor-later on-associated with commanding Indian scout companies, the Seminole Negroes didn't look like Indians. They looked like Black folks. Regular Army officers fought shy of commands involving Black troops, and the Seminole Negroes were no exception. A call went out for an officer who wanted to serve on the frontier, who had experience commanding Black troops, and who didn't mind continuing the experience. 1st Lieutenant John Lapham Bullis, fresh from the 25th Infantry, volunteered.

The man and the job met at Fort Clark in 1873, and never was a soldier more perfectly suited to a job than the man the Seminole Negroes nicknamed 'The Whirlwind.' Militarily, the function of a scout or a group of scouts is to find the enemy's forces, identify their location, then contact the combat troops and lead them to the enemy. John L. Bullis didn't agree with that definition. To his way of thinking, the function of the Seminole Negro scouts was to find the enemy, identify his location, fall upon him like the wrath of God, leave nothing but corpses and ashes behind, and then tell the 'combat troops' what you'd done.

Of LT Bullis one of the Scouts, Joseph Phillips, said: "That feller suffer just like we did out in the woods. He was a good man. He was a Injun fighter. He was tough. He didn't care how big a bunch they was, he went into 'em every time, but he look after his men. His men was on equality, too. He didn't stand back and say 'go yonder,' he say 'come on boys, let's go get 'em."

April, 1875. LT Bullis and three Seminole Negro scouts—SGT John Ward, Trumpeter Isaac Payne, and PVT Pompey Factor—struck a trail of about 75 horses, some shod, being driven by riders on unshod horses. That meant exactly one thing. Those were stolen horses headed for Mexico with Indians driving them. Though Bullis and his men had already ridden some 70 miles and were actually headed for home, they took up the trail. They followed it for eight days.

Early on the afternoon of April 26, several miles above Eagle's Nest Crossing on the Rio Grande, they cut into the trail where it was fresh. At the crossing itself they came up on the thieves. Four men-Bullis and the three scouts-attacked some 25 to 30 Lipans. The shock of the attack was effective at first. Bullis and his men recaptured the horses. Unfortunately, the shock wore off. They lost the horses to the Lipans, then recaptured them in about 45 minutes of non-stop shooting. Finally Bullis' horse was shot out from under him and, with the scouts and the LT almost out of ammunition and on the verge of being captured by the Lipans, they were forced to retreat. Much to Bullis' regret, they had to abandon the recovered horses to save themselves.

Bullis was on the ground. SGT Ward picked him up 'on the fly' as they retreated. On May 28, 1875, SGT Ward, Trumpeter Payne, and PVT Factor were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor for their courage above and beyond the call of duty at Eagle's Nest Crossing. Ward's carbine had to be turned in for repair after the fight. A bullet had shattered the stock just behind the breech.

June 20, 1876. LT Bullis and scouts were returning to Fort Clark from a long ride into the Davis Mountains far to the north. They struck a fresh trail-stolen horses, headed for Mexico. Bullis, of course, turned to follow it. It led to the Rio Grande, then across into Mexico. US troops weren't supposed to cross the border. How long Bullis hesitated we don't know, but on topographical maps of the Big Bend country you'll find what's known as Bullis's Crossing. For three days the Seminole Negro scouts followed a band of Mescalero Apaches into Mexico. They weren't able to bring them to a fight, but they pressed them so hard they had to abandon the 36 horses they were driving—each of which bore a Texas brand. Bullis and his men drove them back across the Rio Grande. Then the LT, who'd been in the saddle for perhaps a week with little rest, saddled a fresh horse, rode 140 miles in 36 hours to Fort Clark, and reported what he'd done.

Less than a week later Bullis and 90 scouts were back in Mexico. They planned to attack a Lipan village not far from Saragosa, Coahuila, in retaliation for a Lipan raid in May that left 12 to 15 Texans dead. The village was empty-the Lipans had been warned. Bullis burned the lodges to the ground.

On July 29 Bullis, accompanied by 20 scouts and 20 troopers from the 24th Infantry, crossed the Rio Grand in the dark. Twenty-five hours later, just at dawn, they attacked a Lipan village of 23 lodges on the Rio San Antonio not far from Saragosa. Disciplined volley fire by the troopers of the 24th, plus highly accurate individual fire from the scouts, all but destroyed the Lipans. Caught completely off guard, they tried to counterattack, then broke and ran. Bullis counted 14 dead Lipan warriors on the field. Signs indicated that many more had been dragged away by survivors. The scouts and infantrymen captured 100 horses and mules, all wearing Texas brands, and 4 women.

Bullis burned the village to ashes and returned to the American side. There was trouble coming. Some of the Lipans who escaped contacted the Mexican authorities. A force of about 250 Mexican cavalry mounted up and gave pursuit, intending to annihilate Bullis and his small force on Mexican soil. Thirty miles from the Rio Grande, the Mexican cavalry caught up with Bullis and his 40 men. LT Bullis, 20 scouts, and 20 infantrymen turned to fight the 250 cavalrymen in what would surely be their last fight.

As it turned out, there wasn't a fight at all. In the finest tradition of Hollywood, bugles sounded to the east…everybody looked…and LTC William R. "Pecos Bill" Shafter and four companies of US cavalry-300 men-came riding over the ridge. There followed a long, tense, quiet standoff…and then the Mexican troops went home.

There were a lot of official protests over Bullis' incursion-including allegations that he had raided a peaceful village of farmers. This despite the fact that every horse and mule recovered wore a Texas brand, and property positively identified as having been taken from ranches and settlements in murderous raids was found in the lodges and brought back as proof.

It didn't discourage Bullis. It also didn't discourage Major General Edward O. C. Ord from issuing an order which said that in the event the raids continued, American troops would be allowed and even encouraged "...when in pursuit of a band of marauders and when…troops are either in sight of them or upon fresh trail, to follow them across the Rio Grande, and to overtake and punish them, as well as retake stolen property…." General Ord meant exactly what he said, and he had the quiet if not vocal support of the two most powerful men in the army, Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan.

To a Seminole Negro tracker, there was no such thing as a 'cold trail.' It eventually dawned on the hostile Indians of the lower border that they were in trouble. Between the man they called The Thunderbolt and an Eagle Chief (Colonel) they called Broken Hand or Three Fingers, Texas was no longer the easy pickings it had been when the bluecoats were more interested in chasing white men who'd been wearing gray coats than they were in chasing Indians. To the north the Comanches had another name for this Eagle Chief. They called him Pony Killer. His name was Ranald Slidell Mackenzie.

The pace of the raids began to slow down, but a great many of the raiders swore one thing. They would see The Thunderbolt's bones bleaching in Mexico and his scalp hanging in a lodge if he chased them across the Rio Grande again. Which, of course, is exactly what he did. All during 1877 and 1878, Bullis and his Seminole Negro scouts continued raiding in Mexico, attacking villages known to harbor or suspected of harboring raiders who'd raided Texas. The scouts were never wrong. Each raid returned to Texas horses and mules bearing Texas brands and property identifiable as stolen in Texas.

In October, 1877, Bullis' command struck an Apache trail, followed it more than 50 miles into Mexico, killed five braves, and returned with 60 Texas-branded horses and mules. In November a band of raiders got away. There were too many, and Bullis couldn't fight them with the troops he had. A week later he was back with a company of 8th Cavalry and the Seminoles. They attacked the same band in the same place. This time the soldiers rode away with 17 horses, 5 mules, and a burro, all with Texas brands, over a dozen saddles, all made in the US, 10 water kegs, 54 deer and buffalo hides, and nearly a quarter-ton of fresh and dried venison and horse meat. The kegs, hides, and meat Bullis soaked with lamp oil and burned. It would be a long, cold winter for one band of raiders.

By the early summer of 1878 the raiders were getting the word-and Mexican authorities were getting madder by the minute. Orders went out for Mexican forces to stop, fight, and if possible annihilate any US troops crossing the border in pursuit of hostiles. In June CPT S. M. B.Young and a half-company of cavalry, accompanied by Broken Hand Pony Killer himself, set out from a camp on the Devil's River in pursuit of a band of marauders who would unquestionably try to escape into Mexico. Less than half a day behind the small force came Pecos Bill Shafter, leadinga half-regiment (5 companies) of cavalry, a full regiment of infantry, and a battery of light artillery.

Young, Mackenzie & Co. were bait. Shafter was the trap.

At the village of Remolino on the Rio Rodriguez, Mackenzie's small force was met by some 200 Mexican troops under a General Valdez. Valdez told Mackenzie he was going to stop him. Mackenzie told him he was welcome to try. At 1:30 PM on June 19 Mackenzie's men began to move forward in skirmish formation toward Remolino. Valdez' men, who outnumbered them 4 to 1, prepared to receive them-when over the hill behind Mackenzie came Pecos Bill Shafter, with nearly 1500 men and six cannon. There were no shots fired. The Mexican army never again tried to interfere with US troops who were in pursuit of raiders.

January, 1879. A band of Lipan and Mescalero Apaches crossed the border into Texas. It wasn't raiding season, but Bullis and his scouts were out The crossing was found and 39 scouts, 15 cavalrymen, 3 Lipan scouts, and an ex-Comanchero set out in one of the strangest pursuits in the history of the Indian wars. The Indians committed no depredations that Bullis found, but they were followed until his command had them in sight. For 34 bitterly cold days, Bullis and his men dogged the Apaches' steps-never moving closer, never falling back, never losing contact. The pursuit ended with the Apaches rode onto the Fort Stanton Reservation in New Mexico Territory. After conferring with authorities at Fort Stanton, Bullis turned his men back for Fort Clark. They had been in the saddle 80 days and covered 1,266 miles.

By 1880 most of the hostiles south of the border realized that Texas—thanks largely to LT John Lapham Bullis and the Seminole Negro scouts—was too hot to hold them. Only a few raiders crossed the Rio Grande, most were driven back easily, and little was lost in the way of lives or property. On April 14, 1881 a band of Lipans, possibly under the influence of bad whiskey, crossed the river, rode all the way to the headwaters of the Frio, raided an isolated ranch, and killed a woman and a young boy. They looted the place and, before leaving, killed a horse, skinned it, and wrapped the hide around their horses' hooves to disguise their tracks. On April 26 the scouts were informed of the raid. The orders read "pursue and destroy."

On May 1, deep in the Sierra del Burro Mountains in Mexico, the scouts ran the Lipans to earth. At dawn the next morning The Thunderbolt struck. In less than 20 minutes over half the raiders were dead. The scouts recovered 21 horses and mules and an American woman and small boy no one knew were missing.

In 1881 US troops mounted 12 expeditions to search for signs of hostile Indians on Texas soil. They left from 12 different forts or camps and covered, by their own records, an aggregate of 3,662 miles horseback. None found any trace of Indians.

The people of West Texas presented LT John Lapham Bullis with a fine, engraved sword. It read: He has protected our homes-our homes are open to him. On April 7, 1882, the Texas Legislature, in a Joint Resolution, commended LT Bullis for his services "..in behalf of the people of the frontier of this State, in repelling the depredations of Indians and other enemies of the frontier of Texas."

John Bullis didn't do it all alone. He had a lot of help. The help, mostly, was the Seminole Negro scouts. What became of them?

The Seminoles had been recruited by a promise of permanent enlistment in the US Army, homes and food for their families, and land of their own. Those promises were made by the US Congress, not by the army. No sooner than the Indian threat ended than Congress ordered the discharge of the Seminole Negro scouts. There would be no permanent enlistment, no homes, and most important, no land they could call their own. Every promise was broken.

Predictably, the politicians didn't bother to tell the scouts themselves. Instead, they told the army to do it. MG Christopher C. Augur, who probably had more admiration for the scouts than any man in the army save Bullis himself, had to tell them that these promises, like so many others, wouldn't be kept. Some few remained at Fort Clark, hanging on to the 'good old days' and keeping themselves alive as best they could. Some of their descendants still live around Brackettville. Most simply saddled up and headed back to the Santa Rosas, chalking up one more bunch of broken promises to go with all the rest.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
July 26, 2006 column

Fort Clark

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