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Fort Stanton and its past

By Phyllis Eileen Banks

Last updated on Sunday, December 29, 2002

Merchant Marine and U.S. Public Health Cemetery - Fort Stanton Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks
Merchant Marine and U.S. Public Health Cemetery - Fort Stanton
The Civil War forced abandonment of Ft. Stanton in 1861, when the Confederate forces came into New Mexico. Retreating U.S. forces tried to burn the Fort, but were not successful because a rainstorm put out the fire. The Confederates did not stay long, as five companies of New Mexico volunteers took control of the Fort again in 1862, with Colonel Kit Carson as commander. In a state of disrepair because of the looting following the Civil War skirmish, only the stone walls stood.

Opinions were divided over whether or not Fort Stanton was a necessary installation. The Secretary of War in 1869-1870 felt the Fort was totally unnecessary, but the settlers felt protected from marauding Indians and unscrupulous traders with the Fort nearby. It continued to exist as a military establishment and was considered a choice assignment in the 1890s because of its location in the high mountains and clear air. However, military wives, while enjoying the surrounding beauty, were lonely because it was so isolated.

In a book by Lydia Lane, I Married a Soldier, she relates the excitement when the once-monthly mail was expected, ". . .we dropped all work and fixed our eyes on a certain hill, 'round which the man with the mail, carried on a mule, was bound to appear after a while, if the Indians had not caught him.  Whoever spied him spread the news that the mail was coming. Then all was excitement until the post office was opened and each had his own letters and papers in his hands. . . ."

Soldiers from the Fort were called in to try to maintain peace in the Lincoln County War. Black soldiers, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, helped to capture Apache bands whose leaders were Victorio and Geronimo. Billy the Kid spent time in the Fort Stanton guardhouse, awaiting a hanging that didn't happen.

Ben Hur, written by Governor Lew Wallace, is rumored to have been partially written at the Fort, and General John G. "Black-Jack" Pershing spent two tours of duty there. By 1890, the Indian Wars were ending and the Fort personnel was reduced to 15 soldiers in 1893. In August of 1896, the post was officially closed.

However, the location was not abandoned as President William McKinley in 1899 established it as a Marine Hospital exclusively for the treatment of tuberculosis. The name was later changed to Public Health Service Hospital. A medical doctor in 1900 described it:  "This vast and salubrious stretch of country, which is sometimes sneeringly alluded to as 'a land of sand, sagebrush and cacti,' possesses in an almost illimitable degree those very elements which observation and experience have proven to be of the utmost value in the treatment of tuberculosis." With the patient load, it was necessary to add buildings and other amenities. One hundred two-bed tent houses were built in order to keep the patients in open air 24 hours a day regardless of the weather. Tent houses were required to have the awnings, front and sides, up. Only during violent dust, rain or wind storms could they be lowered. Food was important to the health of the patients and they were encouraged to eat three good meals a day. Underweight patients were urged to drink plenty of milk. The shopping list for patients and staff was sizeable in quantity and cost. In addition to the food list, often 12 or more coffins were requested, giving testimony to the seriousness of the disease. The nursing staff was not well trained, working 12 hour shifts for $35 a month. Many were arrested cases of tuberculosis. Marine patients came from all over the United States. Records show that some 10,000 patients were treated there.

During World War II, the Fort had a new role as an internee camp. The crew of the German luxury liner, the Columbus, scuttled her off the coast of Cuba in 1939. They did not want the ship to fall into the hands of the British. American ships rescued the Germans, and they were interned at Fort Stanton. At that time, the United States was not at war with Germany, so they were considered distressed seaman paroled from the German Embassy. Their captain found a deserted CCC barracks across from Fort Stanton and converted it to luxurious quarters for his crew. After the United States entered WWII, however, the men were guarded by Border Patrol officers and surrounded by barbed wire fences. The prisoners worked during the summer to cultivate sixty acres of irrigated land. Following the end of the war, the prisoners were repatriated to their homeland.

In 1953, drugs for the treatment of tuberculosis were available and Fort Stanton was transferred to the State of New Mexico, along with some 27,000 acres. The declining tuberculosis patient load by 1966 caused the facility to close as a hospital and become a branch of Los Lunas Hospital and Training School for the mentally disadvantaged, operating under the New Mexico Department of Health. The 200 students were taught self-help skills and participated in recreation and physical education programs. They also participated in work and farm training. That program ended at Fort Stanton in 1995, and the facility is now used as a minimum security location for women prisoners.

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