Fort Leavenworth

Colonel Henry Leavenworth and the 3rd Infantry Regiment established Fort Leavenworth on bluffs along the west bank of the Missouri River in 1827. The U.S. Army built the fort to protect settlers and merchants traveling along the Santa Fe Trail. Throughout the nineteenth century, Fort Leavenworth played a significant role in furthering U.S. westward expansion, providing crucial support during the Civil War and other armed conflicts, and implementing the federal government’s policies regarding indigenous peoples.

Fort Leavenworth is the oldest permanent settlement in Kansas, the oldest active military base west of the Mississippi River, and one of the oldest continuously active military bases in the United States.


Stereographs of Fort Leavenworth, circa 1870-1880


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Map of Fort Leavenworth, 1882


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Top and middle: Letter from Lewis Anthony Waterman to his mother, July 22, 1864

Bottom: Selected cartes de visites of Waterman's Signal Corps comrades at Fort Leavenworth, circa 1864-1865

Fifteen-year-old Rhode Islander Lewis Waterman enlisted in the United States Signal Corps in April 1864. He served at Fort Leavenworth from June 1864 until his discharge in late 1865, documenting his Civil War experiences in regular letters to his family. The letter shown here includes this description:

“A few days ago the brush wackers gathered in force of about 500 and captured several places under command of Gen [William Clarke] Quantrill of the rebel army. Col. Jenison [Charles R. Jennison] of this post went a cross the river with about 700, men killed about 150 of them loosing only 2 men one of which couldn’t manage his horse Nothing more has been heard from them, but it is expected they will get together again.”

The numbers in Lewis’s account are probably wildly exaggerated, and Quantrill was no longer in the area despite numerous reported sightings. However, Lewis’s letter accurately reflects the escalation of guerilla activity along the Missouri-Kansas border during the summer of 1864. Bushwhackers disrupted and harassed federal military operations while the notorious “Jennison’s Jayhawkers” (7th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry) brutally retaliated. 

Lewis Waterman died of scarlet fever on January 19, 1868, at age nineteen. 


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Letter from Ella Dewey Woart to her grandmother, May 19, 1874

Ella Dewey Woart was born in New York State around 1848. Her father was a U.S. Army chaplain at various military posts before serving at Fort Leavenworth from 1873 until 1882.

Ella’s letter is full of observations about the garrison.

“We are at last stationed in a most delightful post, and one a little nearer civilization – Eighteen hours ride in the cars takes us to St. Louis, and a little longer one to Chicago. There are six companies of Infantry stationed here; it is also Head quarters of the Department, so we have quite a number of officers and their families with us. A beautiful parade covered with soft grass, and shaded by handsome trees is enclosed on two sides by very good quarters for the officers, one side is left open toward the city – and the fourth has the barracks for the men.”

Ella also writes that the fort is “about three miles from Leavenworth City, a place of twenty thousand people…There are some pretty places in it, and agreeable people.”

Ella appears to have played Musidora in the comedy Who’s to Win Him? in February 1874. See the program for the performance below.


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Program for an “amateur theatrical” at Fort Leavenworth’s Hop Room, February 16, 1874

The Spirit of ’76; Or, The Coming Woman, A Prophetic Drama (1868) is a satirical anti-suffrage play set in Boston in 1876. Businessman Thomas Carberry has just returned to his hometown after a decade in China with no news from the United States. Carberry finds that women obtained the right to vote in his absence and then voted themselves into every executive office in the city.

The Queensland [Australia] Figaro and Punch summarized the plot of Who’s to Win Him?, the second play in this program, on December 3, 1887.

“‘Cyril Dashwood’ is a young military officer, with a ‘snug little fortune,’ and on the look-out for a ‘snug little wife,’ and a number of nieces of his friend ‘Squire Brushleigh’ make the running after him, while the comic marplot of the piece is an eccentric individual named ‘Prattleton Primrose,’ who gets refused by each girl in turn.”



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Illustration of captured Nez Perce Indians at Fort Leavenworth, in the German edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, undated [circa February 1878]

Approximately 400 Nimíipuu (Nez Perce) prisoners – 87 men, 184 women, and 147 children – arrived at Fort Leavenworth on November 26, 1877. They had surrendered to the U.S. Army in October, ending the five-month Nez Perce War and expecting to return home. The conflict arose when the U.S. government coerced a group of Nez Perce to relinquish 90% of the tribe’s remaining ancestral lands in the Pacific Northwest and move to a reservation in Idaho – a treaty-violating forced removal. After war broke out in 1877, the Nez Perce sought sanctuary in Canada, embarking on a 126-day fighting retreat that covered 1,170 miles, four states, and a series of battles against the Army.

Over protests by the garrison commander, the Nez Perce prisoners lived in army tents set up in the Missouri River bottom two miles above Fort Leavenworth. Visiting Bureau of Indian Affairs officials denounced the location as “the worst possible place that could have been selected.” A doctor reported that “one-half could be said to be sick, and all were affected by the poisonous malaria of the camp.” The U.S. government sent the Nez Perce to a reservation in northeastern Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in July 1878. Chief Joseph and 268 surviving Nez Perce returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1885.