Kansas was officially opened to white settlers in 1854, and settlers, lured by promises of cheap land and easy wealth, rushed to the area. As settlements grew behind the westward movement of the frontier line, the federal government built roads and forts to accommodate the migration and to protect and assist the travelers along the trails that led southwest to Santa Fe and Denver, and northwest to Salt Lake City and The Dalles in Oregon. Fort Riley, Kansas, built on the Santa Fe Trail near the confluence of the Kansas and Republican Rivers in 1855, was one of those forts.
Kansas immediately became embroiled in the national debate over the expansion of slavery into the new territories that were carved out of the Louisiana Purchase. Debate turned to bloodshed as violence erupted back and forth across the Kansas and Missouri line. During this time, Fort Riley avoided direct involvement in the border war hostilities, but it was not immune to the tensions building over the slavery issue.
During this time, Fort Riley avoided direct involvement in the border war hostilities, but it was not immune to the tensions building over the slavery issue.
Slaveholders lived in Kansas prior to the Civil War, and some slaves are known to have been held by families at Fort Riley, including those owned by the post surgeon and the post chaplain. Officers stationed at Fort Riley came from all parts of the United States, and when the war broke out, some were forced to choose between family and duty. J.E.B. Stuart and Louis A. Armistead, who both became Confederate Army generals, were stationed at Fort Riley before secession and the outbreak of the war. Stuart’s father-in-law, Philip St. George Cooke, was also stationed at Fort Riley and pledged his loyalty to the Union, but his son, John R. Cooke, became an officer under General Robert E. Lee.
With the advent of the Civil War, Fort Riley’s regular troops moved east and the fort was manned mainly with volunteers and local militia. The fort’s duties expanded to include helping keep the area safe from Confederate incursions. However, since the Confederacy had no Western forts, direct contact with Confederate forces was minimal.
In early 1862, Fort Riley temporarily held 133 Texas Confederate prisoners captured in a major military campaign in New Mexico. The Confederates stayed at Fort Riley about a month before being moved to Fort Leavenworth, but during their stay, seven died of illness or from their wounds and are buried in the area. The prisoners were treated so well by Fort Riley’s commander, Captain Daniel S. Whittenhall, that two of the local newspapers issued protests. In May 1863, Fort Riley again held Confederate prisoners who were captured after participating in raids in the Council Grove, Kansas, area. But, overall, Fort Riley’s direct participation in the Civil War was limited.
Even during the war, western migration continued, and Fort Riley's role remained focused on supporting and protecting the travelers.
Even during the war, western migration continued, and Fort Riley’s role remained focused on supporting and protecting the travelers. With the coming of the railroads, the fort was also responsible for protecting those laying the rails and servicing the commerce it brought. Eventually, the duties of the fort changed as conflicts with Indians declined and the needs of the area shifted. By 1871 the fort was almost deserted, and in 1872 the local newspaper even recommended that Congress consider abandoning the fort. Instead, the fort’s mission was redefined and continues to be adjusted, as the country’s military needs evolve.
Today, Fort Riley is one of only two Kansas forts established before the Civil War that are still in operation. The other is Fort Leavenworth. Fort Riley covers 101,733 acres and houses 55,000 soldiers, their families, and civilian workers.
Pollard, William C., Jr. "Kansas Forts During the Civil War." Paper Presented at the Fourteenth Annual Mid-America Conference on History at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, September 1992.
Pride, Woodbury Freeman. The History of Fort Riley. Fort Riley, Kansas: Cavalry School, Book Dept., 1926.
Tate, Michael L. The Frontier Army in the Settlement of the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.