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Battle at Ft. Lancaster May 18, 1864

From Texas Historical Commission


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.



From Lone Star Ghost Towns

Battle of Fort Lancaster


Ray Theiss

March 26, 2014


 After the defeat of Confederate General Sibley in New Mexico in the early years of the war, most of the lands west of the Pecos River were held by Union soldiers. As early as 1862, Federal forces had re-captured forts Bliss (El Paso), Quitman (Hudspeth County), and Davis (Jeff Davis County). Most of these forts remained in Union hands for the duration of the war. In addition, there were also several battles between Texas State Troops and Federal soldiers along the Rio Grande, the last of these fights taking place south of Brownwsville after Robert E. Lee's surrender in Viriginia. 


One attempt by Federal forces to try and invade western Texas took place at Fort Lancaster in the spring of 1864. Fort Lancaster had been established in 1852 to protect the San Antonio-El Paso stage route and utlized by Confederate troops during the Sibley Campagin. However, by late 1862, the outpost on the Pecos River had fallen into disrepair and by 1864 it had been destroyed by Indians. In late March, 1864, word was recieved in San Antonio that a large force of California soldiers were encamped near Fort Lancaster and that it appeared that these troops were getting ready for an upcoming campaign. 


The commanding officers at San Antonio quickly sent a courier to Captain James Hunter of the Frontier Battalion, who was then serving in the northwestern frontier, with orders to proceed to D' Hanis, Texas (a small town west of San Antonio) and there assemble a force of Texas State Troops and volunteers to confront the Federals. Hunter was to gather 500 men and to proceed to Fort Lancaster and engage the Union troops in a proper fight. By mid-April, Captain Hunter had gathered about 550 men and proceeded towards the Pecos River. 


Upon arriving at the burned down ruins of Fort Lancaster, Hunter's scouts discovered the Union encampment on the summit of a plateau south of the fort. It was estimated that the Federals numbered around 400 infantry and cavalry but had gone so long unmolested by opponets that they had become poor soldiers. After spying on the camp, Hunter realized that the Yankee troops possesed superior rifles and if the Texans tried to engage the Federals in a proper battle, it would surely end in defeat for the Confederate forces. 


Captain Hunter, after making his observations of the Federal camp, devised a most promising plan of attack. He decided that the only way to defeat the Californians was by launching a night attack and taking them by complete surprise. During the early morning hours of April 17, 1864, Hunter cleverly manuevered his troops to both sides of the mesa. Luckily for the Texans, the Federal sentries were too busy playing a game of Monte to notice anything that would cause alarm. Around 5 am, Hunter signaled the attack. 


The Texans quickly took control of the Federal horses and the camp was rushed upon from the opposite direction and swiftly captured. It was a brief engagement that resulted in the death of 35 Union soldiers and 8 Texans, and by noon, the Federals had either been taken captive or fled towards the Pecos River. The prisoners were taken to Fort Clark, which was only a few days south of Lancaster, and Texas had been saved from another possible invasion. 


The Battle of Fort Lancaster was soon forgotten by history. Today, there is only one primary source that tells of the engagement and the story of the battle has yet to be completely uncovered. 


Sources Used

Wilson, R.H., With the Border Ruffians: Memories of the Far West, 1852-1868. John Murray, Albemarle Street W., London, England. 1908.




The above two articles reference this account by Robert H. Williams. .  Chapter 13  "With The Border Ruffians"

Since this was an unknown Battle that is just coming into light. I offer these facts I have found in researching the battle.

James M Hunter


Birth DECEMBER 1829 • North Carolina, USA

Death 31 AUG 1907 • Mason, Mason, Texas, United States

James M Hunter was born in December 1829 in North Carolina. He married Philippine Keller and they had 13 children together.  He died on August 31, 1907, in Mason, Texas, having lived a long life of 77 years, and was buried in Mason, Texas.  He served as a Texas Ranger,  Major in Frontier Battalion during War between the States, Justice of Peace in Edwards County, and served on the Texas State Legislature.

Robert Hamilton Williams


BIRTH 1830

U.S., Confederate Soldiers Compiled Service Records, 1861-1865

NameR H Williams

Birth Dateabt 1830


Enlistment Date1862

RH Williams writes about riding in the moonlight on April 17, 1864.  the Moon phases from the calendar validate his memoirs.  April 16-23. 1864 was the week of the Moon coming in.  If you have been out here even today in the moonlight you understand the brilliance of the Moon in this area.

April 17-18. 1864

The area where this battle occurred  is privately owned, and most likely near where Independence creek feeds into the Pecos River.  South of Ft. Lancaster and Sheffield, TX.  Today the Independence Creek Preserve - The Nature Conservancy is located here.     A good source for spring water, and a place where Ranchers in the area have found artifacts. 

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