Learning the Long-Distance Raid: Comanche, Rangers and 2nd U.S. Cavalry on the Texas Frontier

The long-distance raid is a timeless tactical maneuver that cavalry formations have embraced since the dawn of mounted warfare. While the 20th and 21st centuries have seen naval and aerial components rise to share in deep strikes across combat theaters, in the 19th Century, the task remained the exclusive domain of armed horsemen. Often rising beyond the tactical and operational levels of war, this type of attack typically has combined the offensive fundamentals of surprise, concentration, tempo and audacity, as described by Field Manual (FM) 3-20.971, Reconnaissance and Cavalry Troop, with power projection at distance and expanded political, military, social and economic impact. In the U.S. Army’s storied history, this dynamic maneuver found particular relevance in the savage conflicts that raged across the vast expanses of the Texas Frontier.

This volatile landscape, encompassing the contested territories between the Red River and Rio Grande, presented a challenging operational environment to indigenous peoples and external colonizers for hundreds of years. When the U.S. Army assumed wide-area security responsibility upon the annexation of Texas in 1845, it was just the most recent in a long procession of invaders to attempt to dominate the region. For 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment, since reflagged as 5th Cavalry, assignment to the Lone Star State in 1855 consequently demanded the adoption of long-distance raiding methodology to combat, and eliminate, the most lethal cavalry society in North America: the fierce Comanche. To accomplish this evolution, occurring among terrain that made predictive interdiction problematic and demanded preventative attacks against enemy support areas, the American cavalrymen had to master a new kind of warfare.

Operational environment

The former territories of Spanish Tejas had long been the premier mounted-warfare arena in North America when 2nd Cavalry deployed to pacify the Western Frontier. The introduction of horses to the lower Great Plains in the late 16th Century created a distinctive military environment dominated by Native raiding cultures and Spanish presidios focused on projecting or preventing military strikes against isolated population centers. This noncontiguous setting stood in marked contrast with the densely populated nation-states that developed along the Atlantic Coast and in central Mexico. While the more sophisticated and urbanized Anglo and Hispanic spheres idealized Napoleonic conflicts that stressed combined-arms strategy for linear battlefields, warfare on the periphery of Western civilization remained completely asymmetric and mobile across contested expanses that lacked resources and infrastructure.

The constellation of Amerindian tribes that populated the lower Plains established the enduring context for warfare in northern Texas with the adoption of equine mobility. Arriving as nomadic buffalo hunters who used superlative horsemanship to enhance their lethality with bows, lances and muskets, these warrior peoples rapidly mastered raiding operations. They fought as fleet mounted raiders who could subsist on the march, and their rapid movements across restrictive and expansive terrain allowed complete surprise. Driven by martial cultures that prized lethal prowess above all, the Plains tribes seasonally launched attacks that leveraged audacity to allow sudden concentration of forces against isolated population centers.

The powerful Comanche emerged as the most powerful of the Amerindian societies that fought across Texas. Comprised of a federation of affiliated tribes, this warlike people dominated the lower Great Plains while terrorizing both Indian competitors and Spanish colonizers alike. Manuel de Mier y Teran, a Mexican officer who inspected the Tejas frontier in 1828, defined them a cavalry-centric people who were “expert horsemen” and said that “their mode of attack is generally by arranging the lances in front, the guns in the center and boys in the rear – their horses at full speed, accompanied with the fury and yellings of demons.” He then attested that they were “among the bravest and most warlike of the Mexican tribes.”1 These observations described a complex warrior society that had risen to prominence through expertise in mounted combat.

The success of the Comanche in long-distance, even strategic, raiding emanated in part from exceptional navigational abilities that allowed deep attacks far from their vulnerable villages. This capacity allowed a scope of operational reach unrivaled in North America – described in FM 3-0, Operations, as “the distance and duration across which a unit can successfully employ military capabilities.” Henry Dodge, commander of the U.S. Regiment of Dragoons in 1833, reported the unique Comanche capacity for maneuver over distance when a war party traveled from Brady’s Creek, Texas, to Monterey, Mexico. Using only natural landmarks and prior verbal instructions, the indigenous cavalrymen rode more than 350 miles through challenging terrain and debilitating climate conditions.2

The Spanish Empire was the first Euro-American society to seriously contest the Comanche for dominance of the Texas Frontier. Underestimating the need for rapid mobility north of the Rio Grande, the Tejas presidios maintained impractical troops of heavily armored and armed lancers to counter the mounted raiders. Nicolas de Lafora, a Spanish strategist who surveyed the frontier of New Spain in 1768, described the advantages that Amerindian horsemen held over his cavalry: “Naturally, a man whose weight, with that of offensive and defensive arms, comes to 14 arrobas, and who is leading five or six horses for remounts, can never run as fast nor for so long a time as an Indian, whose arms and equipment increase his weight very little.”3 This contrast between fleet warbands and cumbersome conventional forces prevented the Spanish soldiers from conducting both patrol interdiction and long-distance raids with any semblance of surprise and high tempo.

This military inferiority resulted in dire consequences. The Comanche, and also the Apache, unleashed devastating raids against Spanish ecclesiastical, ranching and farming enterprises that existed outside the presidio walls. In 1819, the governor of Tejas, Antonio Martinez, consequently warned, “Rarely a day passes that this capital is not attacked by the Indians … Comanches or Lipanes, disorganized or united, are attacking our fortifications almost every night.”

The official then predicted despondently the province would “be destroyed unwittingly by lack of inhabitants.” By 1830, just 25 years before the 2nd Cavalry’s arrival, French observer Jean Louis Berlandier concluded that the Comanche “war against the Creoles in Mexico spread terror among the settlers up and down the border.” He likewise lamented, “Their raids then became almost continuous and the garrisons were always besieged.”4

The Spanish, and then Mexican, inability to negotiate operational challenges in Tejas created a strategic opening for a new people to enter the fray: the Anglo-Americans. Under Mexico’s supervision, and then against its will, thousands of U.S. citizens immigrated to southeast Texas and immediately engaged in violent territorial competition with the tribes. Beginning with empresario Stephen Austin’s initial design to “keep 20 or 30 mounted men continually on the frontier as spies,” the Anglo-Texan settlements rapidly emulated Comanche practices and developed their own model of frontier light horse that could challenge the mounted warriors in their own combat domain.5

These Texan frontiersmen, who acquired hybrid horse breeds and innovative repeating firearms to counter Indian strengths while eschewing the Mexican predilection for armor and bureaucracy, became the early Texas Rangers. As the sword and shield of the Lone Star Republic from 1836 to 1845, they fought in dispersed companies that patrolled out of fort systems intended to separate hostile tribes from the expanding zones of Anglo settlement. Simultaneously, the more conventionally oriented Texas Cavalry briefly screened across south Texas in vaguely Napoleonic formations. The Texan Democrat subsequently appreciated that the versatile Texan horsemen could “ride like a Mexican, trail like an Indian, shoot like a Tennessean and fight like a devil.”6

Despite these advances, interdiction against Native surprise attacks remained difficult as Anglo settlements expanded west and north during the era of the Texas Republic and first years of Texan-American statehood. In response, Lone Star mounted forces developed capacity for operational reach similar to the Comanche that allowed reciprocal strikes into remote tribal support areas on the high plains. The Telegraph and Texas Register explicitly endorsed in 1842 that “by making expeditions directly to the Indian villages and destroying them, and driving the Indian families to a distance, more would be effected toward affording protection to the frontier than by any other means.”7 While undeniably brutal and even genocidal, these tactics revealed the full mastery of offensive fundamentals that allowed offensive operations on a strategic scale.

The U.S. Army and wide-area security

The annexation of Texas and victory in the Mexican War in 1848 compelled the United States to assume security responsibility for 18,000 miles of contested frontier. Similar to the former Texas Republic’s predilection for networks of forward outposts, the U.S. Army chose to establish fort networks along the borders of the Anglo population belts. Yet unlike the earlier Texan use of blockhouses to merely project patrols, the federal troops employed fortified stations as the centerpiece of their predominantly static defense. From north to south, the defensive system called the First Federal Line included the stations of Fort Worth near Dallas; Fort Graham on the upper Brazos River; Fort Gates to the south of Fort Graham; Fort Croghan to the northwest of Austin; Fort Martin Scott to the west of Austin; Fort Lincoln to the west of San Antonio; Forts Lincoln, Inage and Duncan to the southwest of San Antonio; Fort McIntosh and the Brownsville installation along the Rio Grande; and Corpus Christi on the coast.8

GEN George Brookes, commander of the Eighth Military District – which included Texas – intended the north-south and northwest-southeast axes of the system to separate the Anglo sphere from the Comanche empire. Despite the supportive concept, his 1,400 soldiers proved grossly inadequate to the task of screening against light-cavalry incursions. Of the 22 companies stationed in Texas, 16 were infantry, indicating the Army’s reliance on passive and reactive measures. Even the mounted forces were not truly cavalry but rather dragoons (predecessor of the modern 2nd Cavalry Regiment), who used horses only for transport to fight as infantry. Like the Spanish presidios, the federal garrisons soon found themselves unable to anticipate and interdict fleet Amerindian raiders, much less pursue them into the vastness of the Great Plains.

Continued Amerindian raiding in Fall 1849, often in response to settler provocation, compelled Brookes to request state augmentation by experienced Texas Rangers. The American dragoons and infantrymen were incapable of applying needed tempo to achieve surprise against the asymmetric threat. A mounted expedition launched into Comanche territory in 1850, which was later described as “fruitless marching, scouting and searching operations,” exemplified federal inability to launch strategic operations. Seeking to add both proactive patrolling and operational reach to his fighting capacity, Brooks accordingly requested “three mounted companies of Rangers, 78 strong in the aggregate” to take the field.9

With the federal attempt to pacify the Texas Frontier a controversial failure, the U.S. Army altered its strategy in 1851. The new commanding general, Persifor Smith, surveyed the existing forts and garrisons and elected to counter Native mobility with a more complex defense-in-depth. The new system, called the Second Federal Line, established a second chain of forts 150 miles to the west of the original network, essentially creating inner and outer perimeters around Central and East Texas. While infantry companies would garrison the outer chain to the west as forward outposts, mounted forces would respond from the inner line with coordinated interdiction.10

In addition to establishing the second line, the federal army increased its total strength in Texas to 3,600 troops across 48 companies, including a marked increase in mounted units. The professional garrison now comprised six companies of 2nd Dragoons, eight companies of 1st Mounted Rifles, four companies of 4th Artillery and a combined total of 32 companies from 1st, 5th, 7th and 8th infantry regiments. This combined-arms buildup stationed almost 25 percent of the U.S. Army in Texas at an annual cost of $6 million.11 Despite the improvements, the heavy proportion of foot soldiers and the infantry-centric nature of the horse companies ensured continued immobility.

Coordination between outer and inner lines also proved disastrous. As one exasperated Texas statesman exclaimed, “How can they protect us against the Indians when the cavalry have not horses which can trot faster than active oxen, and the infantry dare not go out in any hostile manner for fear of being shot and scalped!”12 Once again, with security unraveling, the army enlisted Texas Rangers to bridge the security gap.

2nd U.S. Cavalry arrives

In 1855, as the Texas Frontier remained unstable despite increased Army presence, the War Department dispatched the newly formed 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment to add mobile capacity to the beleaguered Texas garrison. Designed as an elite mounted corps by Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the 750-man regiment boasted the finest officers and most experienced noncommissioned officers available. The 10 companies of the regiment arrived in Texas with breech-loading carbines, Colt revolvers and sabers, making them the best-armed troops in the state.

The 2nd Cavalry spread out by company across Texas to support the existing garrison structure that occupied a network of forts ranging from the Red River to Rio Grande. With a higher esprit de corps than their dragoon counterparts, and a more aggressive intent to close with the Comanche enemy on horseback as true cavalry, the troopers spent the next few years learning the lessons of counter-guerrilla tactics in the harsh academy of frontier combat. These advances centered on improvements in intelligence collection, active reconnaissance and security forward of the federal line, and timely interdiction. Despite tactical success in 14 minor engagements against Indian war parties, the strategic source of Comanche power remained undiminished, and the raids against the encroaching Anglo settlements continued unabated.

Fed up with federal inability to provide reliable security, the Texas governor assumed his own initiative to solve the problem with strategic raids against the Comanche homeland. In Spring 1858, he directed an exceptionally large force of Texas Rangers, led by famed CPT John Salmon Ford, to “follow any and all trails of hostile or suspected hostile Indians you may discover, and if possible, overtake and chastise them.”13 Populated by frontier veterans and guided by allied Indian scouts, the force proceeded to move north from Austin, establish a forward base north of Dallas and launch an audacious attack north of the Red River.

The resulting campaign provided a direct precedent for long-distance raiding for 2nd Cavalry to emulate. Despite the fatal risks associated with deep force projection – which included dying of thirst, losing horse mobility and thus dying from privation, and the perennial specter of ritual torture by Indians if captured – the Rangers maintained a bold movement tempo for several days to achieve surprise against a large Comanche village on the upper Red River. They then concentrated against the Natives with superior firepower and a rapid frontal attack that destroyed any possible resistance. Called the Battle of Antelope Hills, the attack succeeded in annihilating the source of that tribe’s power, which unfortunately included the indiscriminate slaughter of many noncombatants.

The Texas Rangers’ success – and their use of operational reach, speed and navigation to emulate Comanche raiding operations – did not go unnoticed by 2nd Cavalry officers. Like the Texas governor, federal leaders realized they needed to neutralize the strategic source of the Comanche combat power to achieve decisive results. With the Washington, D.C., and the military district commander in agreement, officials subsequently directed a particularly aggressive troop commander named Earl Van Dorn to assume command of troops A, F, H and K, along with detachments of mounted infantry and indigenous auxiliaries, and then launch an audacious raid against the Comanche heartland. Van Dorn, who proved to be a darkly inspired choice and would go on to Civil War fame, quickly organized the force of 300 men and deployed Sept. 15, 1858.

The federal task force rode north, crossed into Oklahoma and established a forward-operating base called Camp Radziminski. After Delaware scouts located a large Comanche village 90 miles to the east, Van Dorn immediately moved to attack while he maintained the advantage of surprise. Additional intelligence gained en route confirmed that the famous chief called Buffalo Hump, leader of an aggressive raiding tribe, commanded the enemy. The soldiers rode hard through the undulating prairie for about 38 hours, at last halting in an attack position to stage for a dawn assault.

Thus far, the cavalrymen had relied upon actionable intelligence to inform a rapid movement tempo designed to achieve surprise. Now, with the task force in position, Van Dorn would use his advantage in firepower and initiative to concentrate against the unprepared defenders. The decisive point of the operation consisted of a massed cavalry charge against the first row of lodges, thereby spreading panic and chaos throughout the rest of the village. The attack, later called the Battle of Rush Springs and criticized as a wanton massacre, unfolded exactly as intended. The task force used the pre-dawn darkness to conceal its approach with information gained by scouts, arrayed itself in four assault columns and, when the village was finally sighted, “deploy[ed] in company front and charge[d].”14 The culminating assault, which included transition fire between carbines and revolvers, achieved its purpose of preventing the warriors from organizing a coherent defense.

While condemnatory by both 19th and 21st Century rules of war, the attack resulted in more than 80 warriors killed; uncounted women, children and elderly killed; and at least 100 Natives wounded. The tribe also suffered 120 lodges burned and more than 300 horses confiscated. The American attackers lost four killed and 10 wounded. By cold military calculation, the strategic raid had used an unprecedented scope of operational reach – at least in terms of U.S. Army development to that date – to locate, close with and destroy a source of Comanche power. GEN David Twiggs, commander of the Texas garrison, enthusiastically called the operation “a victory more decisive and complete than any recoded in the history of our Indian warfare.”15

In April 1859, Van Dorn elected to build on his bloody success with another deep attack into Comanche territory intended to yield strategic impact. As before, he relied upon a combination of audacious maneuver and actionable intelligence to allow the tactical surprise. Assembling a more mobile force comprised of 2nd Cavalry troops A, B, C, F, G, H and K, along with Native scouts, the force again staged out of Camp Radziminski and proceeded to conduct a reconnaissance-in-force north into unsettled Kansas. The cavalrymen traveled light, without tents and with minimal rations, demonstrating further emulation of Comanche techniques. On May 10, scouts located a village hidden in a growth of timber.

Instead of ordering an immediate frontal attack by mounted companies, Van Dorn assessed the restrictive terrain and proceeded to dismount two troops for infantry assault while cordoning the target area with the remaining four mounted troops. Like the previous expedition, the subsequent attack against the unprepared village proved completely successful. The Indians were driven from their village and into a ravine, where they, according to the mission report, “fought without asking or giving quarter until there was not one left to bend a bow.”16

The soldiers killed 49 warriors and an unknown quantity of noncombatants, and captured 36 prisoners. The Americans lost two dead and four wounded. The learning process complete, the Battle of Crooked Creek proved that 2nd Cavalry had mastered the execution of the long-distance raid.


The twin raids at Rush Springs and Crooked Creek, however atrocious in terms of the human cost, represented the culmination of 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment’s learning process in the brutal methodology of warfare on the Texas Frontier. By appreciating the doctrinal value of surprise, they learned to “strike the enemy at a time and place or in a manner that he least expects.” By using approach marches designed to allow concentration of combat power, they were able to “mass available forces” against unprepared targets. By pursuing a high movement rate, they maximized tempo to allow effective operational reach far from their home base. And finally, by embracing the intangible quality of audacity, Van Dorn and his men projected combat power far beyond previously accepted risk tolerances to achieve strategic impact.

The application of these fundamentals emerged through an arduous process of organizational learning. While the Spanish had utterly failed to adapt to warfare on the periphery, and the U.S. Army initially fared only marginally better, operational advances by partisan Texas Rangers provided a bloody model of success. This precedent, essentially based on emulation of Comanche practices of long-range force projection, was then adopted by 2nd Cavalry and applied with strategic impact. Rising beyond tactical interdiction and operational posturing, the theater-wide strikes achieved an expanded scope of military and social destruction. Robert E. Lee, who three times commanded the regiment in Texas, reported of his formation’s maneuvers against the Comanche that “the energy and determination evinced in bringing them to battle merits high commendation.”17 This mastery of long-distance raiding, indicative of a modernizing American mounted arm, would serve the U.S. Cavalry well across a diversity of conflicts and future wars.


1Teran, Manuel Mier y, edited by Jack Jackson, Texas by Teran, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

2Gwynne, S.C., Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, New York: Scribner, 2010.

3Sibley, Marilyn, editor, Travelers in Texas, 1761-1860, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967.

4Berlandier, Jean, The Indians of Texas in 1830, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969.

5Barker, Eugene, editor, The Austin Papers, four volumes, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1924-1928, II: 1442.

6The Texas Democrat, Sept. 9, 1846.

7Telegraph and Texas Register, Aug. 31, 1842.

8Richardson, Rupert, The Frontier of Northwest Texas, 1846 to 1876, Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1963.

9Texas Gazette, Aug. 25, 1849.



12Williams, Amelia, and Barker, Eugene, The Writings of Sam Houston, 1813-1863, eight volumes, Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1938, VI: 123.

13Winfrey, Dorman H., Texas Indian Papers, five volumes, Austin: Texas State Library, 1959, III: 272-273.

14Simpson, Harold, Cry Comanche: The 2nd U.S. Cavalry in Texas, 1855-1861, Hill Jr. College Press: Hillsboro, 1979.



17Crimmins, Martin, “Colonel Robert E. Lee’s Report on Indian Combats in Texas,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 39, July 1935.