The military reservation that would become Fort Bliss was initially established on the Rio Grande in the late 1840s shortly after the end of the Mexican-American War and was active from 1848 to 1851. At this time, it did not have an official name, and was referred to as the “Post Opposite El Paso del Norte.” There was already a sizeable civilian settlement on either side of the Rio Grande: American El Paso and Cuidad Juarez on the Mexican side. The fort was comprised of the Third Infantry and was commanded by Jefferson Van Horne. After this short period of two to three years, its troops were mostly removed to Fort Fillmore, New Mexico Territory.
However, without the troops being present, Indian attacks increased and in early 1854, the United States government established a second fort near a ranch known as the Magoffin Ranch, about a mile from the first location. The official name of the post became Fort Bliss, honoring Lieutenant Colonel William Wallace Smith Bliss, who had died in 1853, in the years following the Mexican-American War.
Lt. Col. Bliss came from a military family and was a graduate of West Point in 1833. He served in the United States Army during the Cherokee Wars and returned to West Point around 1840. Strong in mathematics, he was an associate professor in that area while at West Point. After this assignment, he returned to the regular Army where at the rank of captain, he served as Chief of Staff to Brig. General Walker Keith Amsted. Immediately prior to the annexation of Texas into the Union in 1845, Bliss served in Texas, putting him in place to take part in the Mexican-American war in the mid 1840s. He was involved in the fighting in Palo Alto and for his service there, was promoted to major. After his service in the battles of Resaca de la Palma and Buena Vista he was again promoted, to Lieutenant Colonel. It was said of him that in addition to being well suited for the military, he was highly intelligent and gifted. He was known to be able to speak thirteen languages.
He met Mary Elizabeth Taylor, the youngest daughter of his senior officer General Zachary Taylor, while serving as the general’s aide. The two courted and were married in 1848 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Following his military success in the Mexican-American War, General Taylor was encouraged to run for President of the United States for the Whig party, and he won. The Bliss and Taylor families seemed destined to have a bright future ahead of them, but Taylor did not to serve long as President. After being inaugurated in early 1849, President Taylor passed away unexpectedly the following year. His widow followed him in death in 1852. After serving in New Orleans during a massive outbreak of yellow fever, Bliss contracted and died of the disease at the age of thirty-seven while serving in Louisiana in the summer of 1853. He was initially interred in the Girod Street Cemetery in New Orleans. The following year, the Texas fort was named in his honor. Over one hundred years later, when the cemetery was condemned, Bliss’ remains were removed to the Texas fort that was named for him.
The fort supported activities in the late 1850s during the relatively short Cortina Wars. In the early days of the Civil War, the site was surrendered to Confederate forces and later burned after the Confederates again passed through the area while heading south, retreating after the Union victory at Glorietta Pass. None of the actual structures of this second fort are known to remain.
After the Civil War, a new post was created in the same general area, but in a location known as Concordia Ranch. The structures of this facility were mostly adobe. During this period, the fort supported activities in defense of activities by the Kickapoo and Mescalero tribes. Also, conflicts with Apache tribes in the area had regularly occurred since the 1860s and would not be resolved for around another twenty-five years. This fort lasted until the mid 1870s when the United States government abandoned the post due to the decreased level of Indian conflicts in the area at that time. Another conflict known as the Salt Wars arose between rival Mexican and Anglo groups over rights to the natural surface salt deposits nearby. Order was initally restored with the aid of troops from three nearby Army forts. The strategic value of a fort in the area was again realized and in the late 1870s Fort Bliss was again reactivated. The Concordia Ranch location remained active until the railroads advanced through the area in the 1880s, generally bisecting the fort, and it was moved once more to the nucleus of its fifth and current location.
At various times, the government had considered moving the activities elsewhere, but the strategic location near El Paso and the fact that the area became a major gateway to Mexico likely helped it to survive various closure and relocation considerations over the years. It sits at the point where the states of Texas, New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua all come together. This location was the staging area for settling border conflicts with Mexico and served defensive purposes for the next several decades that included the Mexican Revolution and the United States government’s various unsuccessful attempts to capture Pancho Villa.
Since then, it has remained active and has been greatly expanded to well over one million acres. The current fort is located north and east of the city, at the base of the Franklin Mountains. There is a replica of the second Magoffin era fort on the grounds of the current fort. It houses The Old Fort Bliss Replica Museum and is generally open to the public in the daylight hours, Monday through Friday, except for holidays.
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