- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Highway 18 runs through Fort Riley, and on both sides of the road there are wide lawnlike pastures, groves of oak, lines of sycamores and short steep bluffs that separate the hill country from the prairies to the west. The reservation is a 97,475-acre expanse of flat-topped hills threaded with narrow thicket-lined ravines. In one of these in 1893 two boys from Riley, Warren Whitside and Dennison Forsyth, were hunting with some foxhounds when one of the dogs made a running jump to a tree limb and pulled down a wildcat that measured one inch short of five feet long. That is the kind of fact that Fort Riley historians relish. Warren was the son of Major Samuel Whitside, Dennis the son of Colonel James Forsyth; these were the officers in command of the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee.
From the heights of Custer Hill you can look off toward ridge lines rising through the haze and the undulating ground that was once the eastern limit of the buffalo range. "This is wonderful riding country," a student officer wrote in the Cavalry School yearbook. "The footing is good, and hunts can be held in wet weather. The grass is of the prairie character and good for holding scent." Kansas City is 130 miles east. Manhattan, the home of Kansas State University, is on one side of the fort and Junction City on the other. Here and there in folds in the hills are the farms and ranches of retired officers, places where they have pictures of famous cavalry horses on the walls—Chiswell, Democrat, Swizzlestick, Dakota, Si Murray—and where people talk about great riders the way baseball fans talk about batting averages. Fort Riley was horse country that lacked the snobbishness of Virginia or Long Island, a military life that blended easily with the civilian life around it, a sporting world that mixed casual elegance with hardworking Midwestern practicality. No great military institution ever looked less like a fort.
Bennett Riley, for whom the post was named, never saw the place. He was a Virginia boy who joined the Army at 16, was promoted for heroic conduct in Indian battles in Florida and was subsequently stationed at Fort Leavenworth near Kansas City, where he displayed genius in plains warfare. Traders bound for the West over the Santa Fe Trail often asked for a military escort. (These trains carried money; one on record headed off with $100,000 in silver, several wagon-loads.) Riley guarded one train as far as the Mexican border on the banks of the Arkansas River. A day's ride beyond the river the trader dismounted to get a drink of water and was shot dead. Riley, learning of the killing, rode his force into Mexican territory and met a large party of Mexican soldiers. Instead of hostilities, they combined forces, protected the train and then spent three days in the wilderness feasting and holding riding competitions before returning to their respective posts.
In pre-Civil War days the capital of Kansas Territory was briefly located at Riley. During the Civil War the soldiers did not see much action and spent most of the time squabbling over liquor. A Captain Sylvester from Wisconsin once emptied 13 barrels at a place that has since been known as Whiskey Lake. On another occasion a shooting erupted, leaving one man killed and two wounded. The cavalry's consumption of spirits was heroic, the chief of surgery at the hospital relating that three quarts of whiskey a day was "the customary allowance of quite a number of men."
It was odd country in which to build a Midwestern equivalent of L'Ecole de Cavalerie, but in the decades after the Civil War the fort's style and purpose were set. How did the old boys accomplish it? There were two horse shows a week and weekly races over a course in Race Track Pasture, point-to-point events, steeplechases, coyote hunts, rabbit hunts and wolf hunts. A man did not have to take part, but one Mounted Service School yearbook contains a photograph of prisoners lounging near the guardhouse. The caption reads: "They voted against the Steeplechase."
The greatest feat of the old boys was to start a rivalry among prominent horse owners to see who could give the best horses to the cavalry. Around the turn of the century a number of capitalists were rivals on the racetrack as well as in business, and they donated horses with the same fierce competitive spirit they showed, in battling over mines and railroads. So from the stables of August Belmont, James Keene, "Bet-a-Million" Gates and others, the cavalry acquired some superb thoroughbreds—Henry of Navarre (who dead-heated in a match race with the magnificent Domino), Vestibule, Octagon, Footprint, Sandringham, Belfrey II—to improve the breed of cavalry horses. This upside-down contest culminated when Belmont grandly presented the cavalry with the Kentucky Derby winner, Behave Yourself. It is possible that the cavalry put Behave Yourself to work with other mounts patroling the Mexican border, since he never won anything after winning the Derby and at stud "accomplished nothing and begat nothing."
There were two or three drag hunts a week. Foxes once were imported, but there were so many coyotes around that the hounds strayed, pursuing any nearby coyote. The drag consisted of a piece of canvas six feet long and three wide, liberally saturated with fresh dung from captive foxes. A trooper on horseback dragged this at a gallop through Hill pasture with its six fences, up Morris Hill, down through the woods to the jumps in Magazine Canyon. The scent had to be strong. In fact, it was so strong that people complained the riders could follow the trail by the odor alone and did not need the hounds.
Then there was polo, with games on Sunday and Wednesday. The opponent was usually another service team, though Junction City had a foursome organized by a local physician named Fred O'Donnell. The doctor first came to the attention of the cavalry when Carry Nation, armed with her hatchet, arrived in Junction City with the announced intention of wrecking its saloons. O'Donnell met her at the station and pushed her back on the train, saying he did not want her sort around. Considerably more welcome was the Humboldt Team, made up of cowboys from nearby ranches. The Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail and a Mormon trail to Utah crossed near the fort, and on Sundays the cowboy team appeared over the hill, their ponies drawing buggies and farm wagons filled with rooters. The cowboys unhitched the horses, saddled them with ordinary stock saddles and rode out into the field to take on some of the best riders in the country. They were always short of equipment, and if a player broke a mallet he held on to what was left, leaned far off his horse and played with the stump. Since the cowboys had never had professional instruction they devised their own system of play. When one of them ran over the ball he simply quit trying and rode to the rear of his team. That left no one ahead of the ball, but it produced a steady stream of cowboys on the ball. The field was rough, and the cow ponies followed the ball well. No scores have been preserved, but an Army observer said the cowboys' play "was rather baffling and quite successful."
Popular support for military sport (and later on, even grudging government approval) came around 1910 with the sudden appearance of cavalrymen in dress uniforms racing on the big dirt tracks of the East—Belmont, Saratoga, Pimlico. These were usually special events on an ordinary day's program, with standard betting as on the other races and with purses that were about average for those years, around $350. The times were not impressive. It was possible to win a mile race in 2:01 on the flat in 1911, riding a cavalry horse, while thoroughbreds were running the distance in about 1:40. But the cavalrymen rode at 160 pounds. And crowds cheered whenever they appeared. Patton, who seems to have entered every competitive event he could—he owned seven thoroughbreds and once took 21 of his own mounts to a horse show—said the Army races did more to popularize the cavalry than all the horse shows and polo games put together. "Horse shows and polo games are notoriously society events," he wrote sternly. "At races the seats are ample, the crowds large and, if not select, at least representative of the American voter—the man who makes or breaks us."
Four men and half a dozen horses left Fort Riley for Sweden in 1911 to appear in an international riding competition against the armies of Germany, England, France, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Chile. The final event was a 54-mile cross-country ride, each horse carrying 176� pounds. The weather turned extremely hot. Captain Guy Henry, sometimes called the best rider in the history of the post, was delayed when his horse lost a shoe. To make up lost time he had to gallop 12 miles to the starting point. The Americans decided to take the 54 miles in three stages, 18 miles at a walk, 18 at the trot, 18 at the gallop, with six minutes of rest each hour. During the competition they washed their horses with hot water and alcohol, massaged their muscles with alcohol and witch hazel three times during the afternoon and evening, and wrapped bandages soaked in a cooling lotion on all their legs. Russia, Chile and Norway withdrew. Belgium, Denmark and England failed to complete the course. The Americans finished third, behind Sweden and Germany, as Captain Henry explained, "under the embarrassing conditions of being very much outclassed as to horseflesh."