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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 6, No. 4
December, 1928
THE RISKS OF ARMY DESERTION ON THE FRONTIER

JOSEPH B. THOBURN

Page 445

The punishment for desertion from the military service of the United States army has always been severe. In addition to the certainty of such punishment if apprehended, the soldier who deserted while on duty with troops in the field during a campaign against the Indians, faced a serious situation in case he happened to meet with hostile savages after making his get-away from the camp of his command. Moreover, in such situations, it was often dangerous for a small detachment to go in pursuit of deserters, so it frequently happened that no effort was made for the apprehension of such fugitives.

It is recorded that one soldier of the Nineteenth Kansas Volunteer Cavalry deserted while that regiment was encamped at Camp Wichita (now Fort Sill), as a part of the Washita Expedition, in 1869. His trail led northward and a small detachment of troopers, under the command of a non-commissioned officer, followed in an effort to overtake and capture him.

Riding rapidly, the detachment gained upon the deserter, who was mounted on a horse that was plainly giving out. Suddenly, a small band of hostile Indian warriors hove in sight. The frightened deserter saw them and vainly sought to escape by doubling back on the trail, but he was soon overtaken and shot down by the Indians, who were well mounted. The detachment witnessed this scene from afar and then, being unequal in strength to that of the band of Indians, retreated to the camp and reported.

Nearly a third of a century later, when the Kiowas and Comanche country was thrown open to settlement, a member of that detachment was numbered among the new settlers. One day, shortly after his arrival at Lawton, he related the story of this deserter and his fate to a company of people, several of whom were Indians.

His story was interpreted by one of the younger Indians to an aged warrior, concluding with the statement that a strong searching party which had been sent out had been unable to find the remains of the slain deserter. Thereupon, the old warrior responded that the body of the unfortunate white man had been concealed among some

Page 446

big rocks on a neighboring hillside. Later, he showed the exact spot and a careful search revealed a few fragments of half-decayed bone, a couple of tarnished blouse buttons and a rusty belt buckle, which were the only mementos of a wilderness tragedy.

Scarcely less tragic and much more dramatic is the story of the punishment meted out to three thievish deserters from the same regiment, which has just come to light in the publication of the diary of Private David L. Spotts, of Troop L, in a volume entitled “Campaigning with Custer and the Nineteenth Kansas Cavalry in the Washita Campaign, 1868-69,” recently issued by the Wetzel Publishing Company, of Los Angeles, California.

The entry in his journal for Tuesday, Feb. 9, 1869, briefly records the fact that three horses, belonging to as many officers of the regiment had been stolen the night before; also that, inasmuch as no men were missing, it was surmised that the thief or thieves had operated with the connivance of at least one of the camp guards and that the horses had been hidden out, to be picked up and run out of the country later.

The entry in the diary for the next day states that the horses belonged respectively to Capt. Allison J. Pliley of Company A, to Capt. David L. Payne of Company H, and to Lieut. Luther A. Thrasher, who was the regimental quartermaster.

The entry also states that three men who had been absent part of the previous night had disappeared and it was believed that they were thieves as well as deserters. It is interesting to note in this connection that Captain Pliley had been one of Forsythe’s scouts in the Battle of Beecher’s Island, on the Arickaree fork of the Republican river, only about five months before; also, that Captain Payne was none other than he who was destined to become the dauntless leader of the Oklahoma Boomers, less than a dozen years later.

Each of the three missing animals was much prized by its owner and Captain Pliley’s pony, “Blossom,” was a racing animal and a regimental favorite, so that popular indignation over her disappearance was very pronounced among the officers and men of the entire regiment. Captain Pliley

Page 447

and Captain Finch of Company L were granted permission to go in pursuit of the deserters and the missing horses. The assistance of Osage Indian scouts and trailers, who were attached to General Custer’s headquarters, was secured to locate the trail. Thereafter, the two officers proceeded without escort or other assistance, as the trail was plain after a recent rain. It led toward Red River. A projected regimental horse race was postponed until Captain Pliley could return with Blossom.

The two captains were gone for a week, with the prevalent opinion in the regiment that they would capture the deserters and recover the horses. The entry in the diary for Wednesday, February 17, records their return with the horses and with the guns of the deserters but without bringing in the latter as prisoners, as had been expected. They did not say what they had done with the culprits, though Captain Pliley said: “They were looking at the sun when we last saw them.” Captain Finch said that they did not kill the deserters, but beyond those brief statements no information was vouchsafed and both officers remained reticent concerning the matter until the end of their service with the regiment.

After the officers and men of the regiment had been mustered out and discharged from the service, Captain Finch related the story of the recovery of the horses, which was as follows: “As we followed the trail made by the stolen horses, Captain Pliley frequently swept the horizon ahead with a pair of powerful field-glasses. Finally, on the fourth day, they were discovered, far ahead. Warily following, their camp was located by the light of its fire. We came into their camp before daylight, and just as they were about to get up we walked up and told them to get up and hold up their hands. Their clothes were placed some distance away and they were marched to them and told to put them on. Then we faced them toward the rising sun and told them to march and not look back or we would take a shot at them. They obeyed our orders to the letter.”

What became of the three miscreants, unarmed and afoot in the wilderness, nearly if not quite a hundred miles from the nearest settlement in Texas, is not known. In

Page 448

any event, however, with rivers, wild beasts and possibly hostile Indians between them and such a destination, the punishment that was thus meted out to them by the two justly indignant officers was unusual to the point of extreme severity.

—JOSEPH B. THOBURN.

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