by Frank W. Jennings
The namesake of Camp Bullis is remembered for much more than his promotion at age 64 to brigadier general in the U. S. Army one day in April 1905, and his retirement the next. This small and wiry cavalry officer, John Lapham Bullis, had become known for his incredible endurance and bravery as a lieutenant leading the Seminole-Negro Scouts from 1873 to 1881.
He and his little band of scouts created legends of courage—and earned Medals of Honor—as they fought the Native Americans resisting the westward movement of American newcomers after the Civil War.
Bullis married Josephine Withers and had three daughters. Mrs. Bullis, a San Antonio native, was the granddaughter of Edward Dwyer, the town’s mayor in 1845. She was also descended from Juan Leal Goraz, leader of the Canary Islanders in 1731. Bullis, the little general, was honored for years in San Antonio, and when he died there on May 26, 1911, he was praised as a hero.
So in the early 1900s, Army officials had no difficulty in coming up with an appropriate name for the new military camp. Camp Bullis was a part of the Leon Springs Military Reservation and a sub-installation of Fort Sam Houston. Stretching across 22,818 acres, some twenty miles northwest of Fort Sam, the Leon Springs reservation was acquired shortly before, during, and after World War I. Camp Bullis was opened officially in 1917.
Covered with live oak, Spanish oak, ash junipers and tall native grasses, the vast, rolling acreage of Camp Bullis—now covering 28,000 acres—is used for billeting troops, and as an isolated place for field training, military maneuvers and target practice. It provides air space and logistical support to active duty and reserve components of all the Armed Services. The Army Medical Department Center and School from Fort Sam Houston is the prime user, but it serves all Military Departments, as well as federal, state and local government requirements.
During the 1930s, recruits from Fort Sam Houston learned to shoot their rifles—and seasoned soldiers practiced—at Camp Bullis. Artillery units pulled their caissons across the hilly terrain and stopped to set up and fire for effect. Hundreds of young members of the Citizens Military Training Camps and Reserve Officers Training Corps assembled there in the summer for a few weeks of military training.
In Soldiers of the Old Army, Victor Vogel tells how in the 1930s, he and other Regular Army infantrymen at Fort Sam Houston would go out to Camp Bullis every spring, where they would spend a month in tents while conducting field training and range firing.
"Some soldiers provided their own Springfields," wrote Vogel. "This was possible under a regulation that enabled an officer or enlisted man to buy a firearm from the Ordnance Department. An arsenal was located at San Antonio, and such purchase was common practice for it ensured that a soldier would have a weapon he could depend on for record firing."
The Seminole-Negro Scouts that Lieutenant Bullis so ably led were crack shots, accomplished horsemen, and phenomenal trackers. They were employed by the Army to lead U.S. military forces in tracking down the elusive Apache or Comanche Indians after attacks on Americans and their property. Their skill at trailing was described as "uncanny." They were supplied by the government with arms, ammunition, and rations. At first they were equipped with Spencer carbines; later they got Sharps carbines. While they furnished their own horses, they were compensated. And they dressed as they pleased—mostly in modified Indian style. Some, however, appeared completely Indian, wearing buffalo-horn bonnets, for example. Many had English names. Some spoke only Spanish and Seminole; others, English and Spanish. But there was no real language barrier between the Seminole-Negro Scouts and their officers.
In exchange for their services, the government had promised them, they believed, their transportation to the United States from Mexico, provisions for their families, and grants of land. The Seminole-Negro Scouts had come to the U.S. Army in the 1870s by way of Florida, the Indian Territory north of Texas (now Oklahoma), and Mexico.
According to Kenneth Wiggins Porter, writing in Southwestern Historical Quarterly in January, 1952, the ancestors of the Seminole Negroes "were for the most part runaway slaves who had taken refuge among the Florida Seminole." They knew both the English and Seminole languages. They took a leading part in the resistance to the annexation of Florida from Spain by the United States, but, according to Porter, "were finally transported, along with the Indians, to the Indian Territory, where they were exposed to the danger of kidnapping by whites and Creeks."
In 1849 and 1850, led by Indian chief Wild Cat and Negro Chief John Horse, several hundred Seminole Indians and Negroes crossed from Indian Territory to Mexico and were settled on the border as military colonists, where, says Porter, "they did good service against Indians and Texas filibusters."
Many of the Army's frontier posts had been abandoned during the Civil War, and the military men at the few forts that remained in the early 1870s were not able to cope with the raiding parties of Apaches and Comanches, who would come across the border from Mexico, make their raids on ranches and drive horses and livestock back across the border.
That's when Maj. Zenas R. Bliss commander of the "Buffalo Soldiers" of the 25th United States Cavalry at Fort Duncan, sent an invitation to some Seminole Negroes at Nacimiento, Mexico to serve as scouts. Seminole Negro Scouts from that and other sources never totaled more than 50.
By May 1873, sixteen scouts under Lieutenant Bullis, accompanied six troops of the 4th Cavalry on Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie's expedition against Lipan and Kickapoo camps at Remolino, Mexico. They killed 19 warriors and captured 40 prisoners.
During the following years, until 1881, they engaged in numerous encounters with the Indians. On one chase, they spent 80 days in the desert, traveling 1,266 miles, at times almost perishing from thirst. Lieutenant Bullis, lean and tough, his face burned bronze as an Indian, learned to live off the country, as did his scouts. He was tireless and Spartan, more like an Indian chief than a military officer, and his scouts were completely loyal. Often they subsisted on half rations. At times, when his unit had rations, he made it a practice to live on one can of food a day, whether corned beef or peaches.
Only one of many exciting stories that could be told about Bullis was the time he was saved by his men in the midst of a desperate fight, when his horse left him virtually in the hands of the Indians. In the face of fire, his men moved in to rescue him, for which two were awarded the Medal of Honor.
In 1882, Lieutenant Bullis and his scouts made 12 expeditions from Texas posts, covering 3,662 miles, but could find no trace of Indian raiders.
However, after about a decade of service, with the hostile Indians effectively eliminated from the Southwest, the government could find no land to give the Seminole-Negro scouts. Despite the efforts of Lieutenant Bullis, Colonel Mackenzie and Lt. Gen. Philip Sheridan to help them, they and their families living near Fort Clark at Brackettville were forced to shift for themselves. Lieutenant Bullis was breveted as captain and major, then promoted to captain. In 1897 he was promoted to major and made paymaster at Fort Sam Houston. He was elevated to brigadier general in 1905, mostly because his record had made him acclaimed widely as "the greatest Indian fighter in the history of the United States Army."
Porter, Kenneth Wiggins. The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People. Eds Thomas Senter and Alcione Amos. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1996.
Porter, Kenneth Wiggins. "The Seminole Negro-Indian Scouts, 1870-1881," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 55 (January 1952).
Tate, Michael L. "Indian Scouting Detachments in the Red River War, 1874-1875," Red River Valley Historical Review 3 (Spring 1978).
Vogel, Victor. Soldiers of the Old Army. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1990.
Wallace, Edward S. "General John Lapham Bullis, the Thunderbolt of the Texas Frontier," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 54, 55 (April, July 1951).
Williams, Clayton W. Texas' Last Frontier: Fort Stockton and the Trans-Pecos, 1861-1895 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982)