The Most Promising Young Officer
Unlike the flashy and self-promoting George Armstrong Custer, Civil War veteran and Indian fighter Ranald Slidell Mackenzie is not well known today. In the late nineteenth century, however, Mackenzie ranked among the best known and most effective of a group of young army colonels who led in the defeat of the Plains Indians and the opening of the West to white settlement, as Michael D. Pierce shows in this compelling and poignant biography.
A rather shy and sometimes distant personality, Mackenzie, following his graduation from West Point in 1862, showed early promise in Civil War service. After peace was won, he moved west to command the Fourth Cavalry.
Mackenzie lost no time in bringing the Fourth Cavalry to first rank among the frontier horse regiments, and the Fourth became troubleshooters for President Grant and Generals Sherman and Sheridan throughout Texas. Mackenzie was most notable for leading forays into Mexico to subdue border raiders and bandits and for his part in the defeat of the Comanches and Kiowas, particularly at the Battle of Palo Duro Canton. But he was also involved in the campaign against the Northern Plains Indians following Custer’s defeat, and in 1876 he achieved the only major victory against them.
Like many military leaders in the West, Mackenzie had a genuine respect for the Indians and learned to deal fairly with them on the reservations. While commander at Fort Sill, on the Comanche-Kiowa reservation, he worked to ensure the well-being of the Indians he had fought just a few years before. In Colorado in early 1880 his reputation and forcefulness convinced the Utes to move peacefully to their reservations in Utah.
In 1883, shortly after being promoted to brigadier general and being assigned to command the Department of Texas, Mackenzie suffered a mental breakdown, possibly triggered by syphilis. Retired immediately from military service, he required constant care and declined rapidly until his death in 1889. Unfortunately, his untimely illness and death prevented him from having direct influence on the last years of the Indian wars and the development of the twentieth-century army; nevertheless, in military capability and effectiveness, Ranald Slidell Mackenzie stands with the best of officers in the post–Civil War army.