Monday, April 16, 2018

Congress Authorizes Fort Sherman Construction in North Idaho [otd 04/16]

Gen. William T. Sherman, ca. 1865.
Library of Congress.
On April 16, 1878, the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of a fort on Lake Coeur d'Alene at what would eventually become the city of that name. The action had been recommended by General William Tescumseh Sherman.

The General had traveled through the area the year before, not long after the end of the Nez Percé War. Sherman sought answers to why the Army had had so much trouble with the Nez Percé and other Indian uprisings (the Custer disaster was only a year in the past). More importantly, he wanted to head off any re-occurrence.

Assessing the region, the General decided that a fort on Lake Coeur d'Alene would allow troops to keep an eye on the tribes in the Idaho Panhandle. From there, they could also reinforce units watching the Yakimas in Washington and the Nez Percé along the Clearwater River. Sherman’s experience during the Civil War no doubt alerted him to the advantages of having the lake and the Spokane River close at hand to move troops more quickly.

The installation began life as Camp Coeur d'Alene, a few months after Congress provided the funding. Within about a year, the post was fully manned, and the name changed to Fort Coeur d'Alene. That same year, the Army contracted for the construction of the first steamboat to operate on the Lake [blog, Apr 4]. The steamer primarily hauled feed for the Fort’s animals, but could also carry troops if needed.

As often happened, a town – Coeur d'Alene City – soon grew up near the Fort. The combination of the Fort, and the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the region, fueled considerable growth in the area.

The fort’s garrison was called out during the Bannock War of 1878, but nothing came of that. The Fort experienced a bit of excitement in 1887, shortly after a new commander took over from Colonel Frank Wheaton. Wheaton, in collusion with his quartermaster and his adjutant, had resorted to “unconventional” means to run the fort: Among a host of transgressions, they had allowed civilians – for a fee – to use the Army steamer to transport goods.

A court of inquiry concluded (The Evening Star, Washington, D.C., July 2, 1887) that “while the actions of the accused may have had their origin in a zealous desire to create a military post for which no adequate appropriation had been made, the methods and processes were deplorable … ”

Yet, in the end, the administration did not pursue the matter. Nor did the incident seem to hurt Wheaton’s career – he became a Brigadier General in 1892, and a Major General five years after that.
Fort Sherman, ca. 1895. Museum of North Idaho.

The post name changed to Fort Sherman in 1887. The only real "action" the troops saw was during the 1892 disputes in the mining districts. Then, the soldiers were sent to establish martial law in Wardner and the other mining towns.

The final deployment from the Fort was in 1898, when the garrison joined the buildup for the Spanish-American War. For a variety of reasons, the Army abandoned the facility in 1901. When the government auctioned off the land in 1905, a small portion was set aside for a park and cemetery. Today, the area is part the Museum of North Idaho & Fort Sherman.
Reference: [French], [Illust-North]
Larry R. Jones, "Fort Sherman," Reference Series No. 355, Idaho State Historical Society (1969).
Ezra J. Warner, Generals In Blue - Lives of the Union Commanders, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge (1964).

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