William Rufus Shafter was a Union officer in the Civil War. Born in 1835 in Michigan, he was in seminary at the outset of the Civil War and enlisted in the Union Army. About thirty years after the end of the Civil War, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for meritorious service pertaining to an incident on May 31, 1862. Shafter had been a lieutenant involved in bridge construction near Fair Oaks, Virginia when the Union forces were engaged by Confederate troops. Shafter left the bridge and took about twenty-two men to counter the Confederate attack. All but four of his troops were killed and he received a flesh wound and possibly other wounds. However, Shafter stayed on the field, concealing his wounds. In a later battle, he was captured by the Confederates and served three months in a prison camp in 1864 before being released. He was then assigned to the 17th United States Colored Infantry, which appears to be his command when the war ended. Shafter had been elevated to the rank of brevet brigadier general.
Shafter remained in the United States Army after the end of the war and was posted in West Texas during the years of the Indian Wars. In the southwest, he commanded the 24th United States Infantry, one of several African American “Buffalo Soldier” regiments, and was one of the commandants of Fort Davis and Fort Clark. During this period, Shafter was credited for effectively leading campaigns against the native tribes in the area, including Kiowa, Kickapoo, Cheyenne, Apache and Comanche. He participated in the campaign to capture and subdue the Apache leader Victorio. Nicknamed “Pecos Bill” as a likely reference to the nearby Pecos River, Shafter was physically large, weighing over three hundred pounds most of his career, but was considered an effective leader while serving in the Big Bend and Llano Estacado areas under Col. Ronald Mackenzie.
While serving as commandant of Fort Davis, Shafter was involved in the court-martial of Henry O. Flipper, the first African American graduate of West Point and the first African-American commissioned officer in the United States Army. Flipper had been accordingly assigned as the first African-American officer of an all African-American regiment, with only his fellow officers being Anglo. In his short military career, he served at Fort Sill, Fort Elliott, Fort Quitman and Fort Davis. Flipper was convicted of improprieties and dishonorably discharged from the United States Army as a result of finding of the the court-martial. The case had numerous racial overtones, including the possibility that it could have been racially motivated and/or that he could have been framed. After his dismissal from the Army, Flipper went on to a career as an engineer and as a specialist in Mexican and Spanish land law. He died in 1940. His conviction and dismissal was appealed by his descendants for being “unduly harsh and unjust.” In 1976, Flipper was posthumously granted an honorable discharge by the United States Army. In 1999, President William J. Clinton posthumously issued Flipper a full pardon.
The former town of Shafter, Texas (now a ghost town in Presidio County) was named for General Shafter. It was once the site of a number of silver mines. According to local history, the silver deposits were discovered prior to 1880 by John W. Spencer, a former freighter and prospector. Per the John William Spencer story as related in the Jimenez Family Album, John Spencer, Gen. Shafter, a Lt. Bullis (possibly John L. Bullis), and a Lt. Wilhelm were believed to be investors in the Presidio Mining Company. Silver and other minerals were extracted from the area until around 1940 when most of the operations finally ceased, although later attempts have been made to resume the mining operation from time to time.
Shafter had risen to the rank of Major General prior to the Spanish-American War and was in his mid sixties at the outset of that war. Although his command adequacy has been called into question by some, he participated in that conflict, despite his age and physical limitations. Shafter remained in the Army until his retirement at the rank of Major General in 1901. Shafter died in 1906 in Bakersfield, California and is interred in the San Francisco National Cemetery.
For further reading:
John William [Spencer] Story
Text of William Rufus Shafter Medal of Honor Citation
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