John Wynn “Black Jack” Davidson
By Dave Chagnon, Scout Section, 3rd Platoon, K Troop, 3rd Recon Squadron, 2nd ACR (’66 & ’67); Sennachie, Clan Davidson Society (USA)
If you walked into the average college American history class in this country and asked “Which American military leader was known as ‘Black Jack‘?”, probably a million out of a million respondents would reply “Black Jack Pershing” (if they knew at all). And every one of those million respondents would be wrong!
Wrong, that is, if you were thinking of Black Jack Davidson!
John Wynn Davidson was a 19th C. US Cavalry officer who served in the US Army from 1845 to the time of his death in 1881. He was given the sobriquet “Black Jack” because he at one time commanded a Squadron of the 10th Cavalry, a military unit comprised of free Negroes or recently freed slaves also know as “Buffalo Soldiers”. It was for this very same reason that “Black Jack” Pershing got the same nick-name some thirty years later when he served first as a Lieutenant in the same Regiment, the 10th Cavalry, in 1892 and later as a Captain during the Spanish American War in 1898. Quite obviously, the “Black” part of the name refers to their mutual service as a commander of Black soldiers. I’m not entirely sure this mark of service would be held in high esteem in these more politically correct times… but history is history, despite those revisionists who would like to remake the past to suit the more liberal palates of today. Certainly not the style of the Sennachie…
It was the 10th Cavalry, by the way, that pulled Teddy Roosevelt’s 1st U.S. Volunteer Regiment’s (the Rough Riders) bacon out of the fire during their famous (but frequently mis-reported) ride up Kettle & San Juan Hills.
I first became aware of the existence of John Wynn Davidson when I was reading the history of the 2nd Cavalry, the military unit to which I was attached when I did my mandatory military duty in the mid-60’s. The specific unit I was a part of was the Scout Section, 3rd Platoon, K Troop, 3 Reconnaissance Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. I was stationed near Amberg, West Germany although I spent the bulk of my time patrolling the barbed-wire, machine gun-guarded Iron Curtain borders of East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
But I digress… one of my great failings (but not certainly my only one). The more I read, the greater my true connections to the 2nd Cav became apparent. And the spookier these connections became, too! There are or have been thousands of regiments in the US Army – how come I ended up in the 2nd Cav, seemingly as the result of a totally random “luck of the draw” impersonal assignment by some nameless clerk in some nameless personnel unit in some nameless place?
Beats me, but end up in the 2nd Cav I did, as did my Great Great Grand Uncle Robert E. Lee who was a Lt. Colonel in the 2nd Cav in Texas [editors note: R. E. Lee was in the 2nd US Cavalry which was established in 1855, later becoming the 5th Cavalry in 1861, not the 2d Dragoons which became 2nd ACR the author served in] just before he resigned his US Army commission to become a General in the army of the Confederate States of America. And of course, there’s Black Jack Davidson, a fellow Clansman, who was appointed the commanding Colonel of the 2nd Cav in 1879. But the coincidences don’t stop there.
As a brevetted Major General during the [1. American Civil War; 2. War Between the States; 3. War of Yankee Aggression; take your pick] he took part in the capture of Little Rock Arkansas, the part of the world that this New York State-born damned Yankee of a Sennachie has been calling home for better than 30 years!
And I’ m sure there are more than these connections tying me to the 2nd Cav; I just haven’t unburied them yet.
But here I go again, more digression. I started out to tell you folks about John Wynn Davidson, and this I intend to do. Actually, I’m going to give you the work of some unknown biographer, below.
John Wynn Davidson, army officer and Indian fighter, the eldest of the four sons of William B. and Elizabeth Davidson, was born on August 14, 1825, in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Davidson graduated from West Point in 1845 and saw frontier duty in Kansas and Wisconsin. During the Mexican War he was stationed in California and participated in the battles of San Pasqual and the San Gabriel. On June 18, 1851, he married Clara McGunnegle in St. Louis, Missouri.
During the Civil War Davidson served as a brigadier general in General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. He fought in the Peninsular Campaign and the Seven Days battles and throughout the rest of the war served in the Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi districts. [editors note: Davidson served in the 2d Cavalry during this period 14 Nov 1861 – 1 Dec 1866]
After the war in 1866 Davidson was commissioned lieutenant colonel of the Tenth United States Cavalry. Since the regiment consisted of black buffalo soldiers, he soon acquired the nickname “Black Jack”. With the outbreak of the Red River War, Davidson, on September 10, 1874, led six companies of the Tenth Cavalry, three of the Eleventh Infantry, a section of mountain howitzers, Lt. Richard H. Pratt’s Indian scouts, and forty-six supply wagons out of Fort Sill into the Texas Panhandle in search of Indians.
Marching north to the Ouachita River, Davidson then turned west and for over a week toiled along the breaks of the Red River tributaries. By October fifty-eight horses and mules had been lost, and forage and rations were running low. Davidson’s men surprised a band of Kiowas on October 2, but the remaining animals were too worn to carry out pursuit successfully. On October 24 he received the surrender of a Comanche band his troops had defeated on Elk Creek. With the onset of northers (sleet and snow in mid-November) about twenty-four troopers suffered from severe frostbite, food and supplies ran low, and 100 animals died during the “Wrinkled-hand Chase”. However, Davidson and his subordinates destroyed several Indian camps and captured nearly 400 Indians and over 2,000 of their horses before returning to Fort Sill on November 29.
In March 1875 Davidson relinquished regimental command to Benjamin H. Grierson and was transferred to Fort Griffin in Shackelford County, Texas where his duties were confined mainly to patrolling the nearby cattle trails and cow camps. In December 1876 Davidson became commander at Fort Richardson until its abandonment in 1878 then once more at Fort Sill. In January 1879 he was sent to command the garrison at Fort Elliott. There his humane policy toward transient Indians from the reservations brought him into sharp conflict with the Texas Ranger captain, George W. Arrington.
Promoted to colonel of the Second Cavalry on June 25 [editors note: the actual date was 20 May 1879], Davidson took command of that regiment at Fort Custer, Montana. On February 8, 1881, Davidson was seriously injured during an inspection tour when his horse slipped on ice and fell on top of him. He died at St. Paul, Minnesota, on June 26, 1881. He was buried in the Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, and his remains were re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery in 1911.
These are the bare and straight forward facts as perceived by an unknown biographer. A better view of good ol’ Black Jack Davidson can be gleaned from this review of a biography of him written by his grandson Homer K. Davidson. The title of the work is “Black Jack Davidson, a cavalry commander on the Western frontier: The life of General John W. Davidson“. The book is available from a number of sources easily found on the Internet for about 35 bucks. The review adds some life to Davidson’s image.
Reviewed by Robert W. Frazer, Professor of History, California State University, Long Beach, a well known authority on Western military history.
In his introduction to the first full-length biography of General John W. Davidson, the author, a retired United States Navy Captain, makes it clear that he does not believe his grandfather has always been treated accurately and fairly by his contemporaries or by historians. The book, then, is a reappraisal, intended “to give credit where it is long overdue, in as objective a manner as is possible for the grandson of General Davidson to do.”
Davidson was a scion of a military family. Both of his grandfathers fought in the American Revolution, one as a general and one as a private, and his father was an artillery captain when he died in 1840. Davidson graduated from the Military Academy in 1845 at the age of nineteen and was commissioned brevet second lieutenant, First Dragoons. For the rest of his life he served his country honorably, always in the mounted branch of the army.
During his thirty-six years of military service Davidson participated in the Mexican War, the Civil War, and various Indian campaigns in California, the Southwest, and on the Great Plains. Early in the Civil War he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, volunteers, and was several times brevetted for gallant and meritorious service, achieving the rank of brevet major general. In June, 1862, during the Peninsular Campaign, he was felled by a severe sunstroke from which he never fully recovered, suffering recurring bouts of ill health thereafter.
Following the war he reverted to his regular rank of major, Second Cavalry. On December 1, 1866, he was appointed lieutenant colonel, Tenth Cavalry, one of two Negro cavalry regiments organized after the Civil War. The author [Homer K. Davidson] believes that discrimination and the little credit given the black regiments, contributed to the lack of recognition accorded his grandfather in the post-war period.
Detached service and sick leave kept Davidson from joining his new regiment until early in 1872. He then served with the Tenth Cavalry in Texas and Indian Territory until 1879 when he accepted the colonelcy of the Second Cavalry. His regimental headquarters and final station was Fort Custer, Montana. On June 26, 1881, he died at St. Paul, Minnesota, while on leave for his health. Davidson’s career in the “Old Army”, most of it spent in the trans-Mississippi West, offers an insight into the difficulties and frustrations as well as the achievements and rewards of nineteenth century military service.
The review continues on with a more detailed exegesis of the biography. The reviewer is clearly not impressed with the author’s obvious bias in his retelling of his grandfather’s exploits. Gee, a grandson stretching the truth in telling stories about his grandfather? Whodda thunk it?
There is one part of Black Jack’s military career worthy of note, the “Battle of Cieneguilla” (1854), in which cavalry troops under his command suffered huge losses (based on percentages of casualties) reminiscent of what was to happen to a part of the 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Colonel George Custer near the Little Big Horn river in 1876.