Kit Carson’s Civil War: Learning to Command, Delegate…to Whom?

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Ray Shortridge

Part three in a series

The military commanders in New Mexico Territory knew that they could delegate a mission to Kit Carson, and he would get the job done. Who did Carson have who would follow his orders while he was elsewhere? During the course of his campaign to round up the Navajo Tribe, Carson learned the hard way — very few. The roots of the problem were familiar to regular officers in other theaters of the Civil War when dealing with volunteer troops: lack of military discipline; inability to carry out orders sensibly; and consuming alcohol while on duty.

To round up the Navajo Indians, General James Carleton ordered Carson to build forts deep within Navajo country to serve as supply depots. From them, Carson would launch infantry and cavalry columns into the field to harass the Navajos continuously — killing male Indians and destroying homes, crops, orchards, and livestock.

Carson led the strike columns. Over nine months from July 1863 to March 1864, he conducted four major expeditions, that he called “scouts,” and a second and final foray into Canyon de Chelly that covered hundreds of miles in what is now New Mexico and Arizona. His problem was to find reliable commanders for his supply depots, new Fort Wingate, east of present-day Gallup, New Mexico, and Fort Canby (now called Fort Defiance, Arizona), while he was in the field.[1]

The army’s practice was to defer to rank and seniority. Carson’s pool of senior officers to command the forts in his absence included:

  • Major Joseph Cummings: At first glance, Cummings seemed to be an officer that Carson could rely on — Carleton had appointed him provost marshall of Santa Fe. However, Cummings was a big-time gambler who did not volunteer to fight the Confederates when they invaded New Mexico in 1862. After the Confederates were driven off at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, Cummings was commissioned a major in the New Mexico cavalry in May, 1862. Rumor suggested that he paid bribes for his gold oak leaves. In August 1863, he disobeyed orders and left Carson’s column with a civilian and was soon killed by a Navajo bullet. He carried $4,205.70 in cash at the time of his death. Where he obtained the money, what he intended to do with cash deep in Navajo country, and where he was going were never determined.
  • Major Arthur Morrison: He enlisted in the First New Mexico Volunteers as a captain and was promoted to major. At the outset of the Navajo campaign, he was late in departing Los Lunas, an Hispanic village south of Albuquerque on the Rio Grande and a frequent victim of Navajo raids, with his command because he was too drunk to stand. The spree included his offering to bring in harlots to entertain his company, claiming: “I am the damdest (sic) best pimp in New Mexico.” Carson was rightly reticent to count on him to enforce discipline in a garrison.
  • Captain Albert H. Pfeiffer: After emigrating from Holland, he enlisted in the army. While in New Mexico, he resigned and became agent to the Ute and Jicarilla Apache Indians, a position previously held by Carson. He enlisted in the First New Mexico Volunteers and earned Carson’s respect. After being dropped from the rolls after the Confederate defeat in New Mexico, Carson successfully protested that he was a “much better soldier than many who were retained.” However, Pfeiffer was frequently cited for gambling and drinking. He was an aggressive tactical commander and led the detachment that looped to the east to enter Canyon de Chelly that drove Navajos into Carson’s command at the west end. He was an able man to lead a column under KC’s watchful eye, but not one to command a fort without supervision.

Carson passed on these officers and, among those he selected to command the forts in his absence over the course of the campaign were a major and two captains.

  • Major Thomas J. Blakeney: General Carleton urged Carson to provide Blakeney, a protege of his from the California volunteer regiment, “a chance for distinction.” When leaving on his first scout, Carson placed Blakeney in command of Fort Canby, the supply depot for his strike force. Blakeney tried to push his authority over the fort’s commissary officer and quartermaster in ways “overbearing and unbecoming an officer.” As an example of how friction developed in a close military environment, Blakeney’s enemies accused him of having the commissary department throw away fresh potatoes and meddled in the quartermaster’s guard duties over the beef herd. He was also accused by other officers and NCO’s of abusing four Navajo Indians who came to inquire about turning in their people — two escaped and two were killed. He feuded with several other officers. Although not court-martialed, his obnoxious manner of command ended his tenure as a fort commander.
  • Captain Asa Carey: A West Pointer, Carey served under Colonel Edward R. S. Canby in the field against the Navajo Indians in 1860 and and as quartermaster at Fort Union. He also fought against the Confederates at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. The army operated on a river of paper, and, experienced in army administration, Carey kept the paper flowing from his inbox to his outbox in Carson’s command post to the army’s departmental command in Santa Fe. He drafted reports in his and the largely illiterate Carson’s name to Carleton. In command of Fort Canby, he banned alcohol, evicted prostitutes, and sternly dealt with two surgeons who repeatedly drank and brawled. Carey was Carson’s most capable fort commander.
  • Captain James Barbey : He was a quartermaster clerk in Carleton’s California Volunteers, and Carleton recommended him to Carson as “a gentleman of spotless integrity and patriotism…who will bring honor to your regiment.” When Barbey fought in a drunken brawl at Fort Wingate, Carleton extracted from him a signed letter of resignation that the general would execute if Barbey broke his promise to abstain. While in command of Fort Canby during Carson’s Canyon de Chelly campaign, Barbey got drunk, and Carleton forced him to resign “to save mortification to your friends.”

Perhaps, Carson could reach down to junior officers and provide them with an opportunity to advance their career, although he did not. This candidate pool included:

  • Lieutenants Stephen Coyle and William Mortimer: Both men were discharged after becoming drunk and and engaging in “a disgraceful fight” in front of enlisted men at Fort Defiance.
  • Second Lieutenant Charles H. Fitch: He was a veteran of Carleton’s California volunteer regiment. Carson’s adjutant preferred charges against for signing a report falsely claiming that his scouting unit had killed several Navajo Indians while serving in the field. Carleton allowed him to resign.
  • Lieutenant Archibald McEachran: While serving as regimental commissary at Fort Wingate, he drank a fair amount of the warehoused spirits. He was cited for drunkenness several times in January, 1864, and discharged. After he left for California, he was charged for stealing $1,400 from the government.
  • Lieutenant Franklin Cook: While serving as Regimental Commissary Officer at Fort Canby, Cook removed $1,324 from the safe and took it to his quarters from which, Cook claimed, it was stolen. To avoid court martial, Cook repaid the funds. Carleton re-assigned him to Fort Stanton on the new Navajo reservation at Bosque Redondo.
  • Captain Eben Everett: He volunteered for Carson’s regiment in September, 1861, and became an effective campaigner, despite his drinking. On July 11, 1863, Everett showed up drunk for an inspection by Carleton’s Assistant Adjutant General. Carson tried to shield Everett by obtaining a pledge “that for One Year from this date I will not drink one single drop of any intoxicating liquid…” Three months later, Everett was court martialed at Fort Canby for “being at the time so drunk as to be wholly unable to perform any duty properly.” On November 1, drunk again, and Carson sent him back to Santa Fe, reporting that “I have been obliged to place a Sentinel over Captain Everett that he might get sober enough to make out his Muster Rolls, but it was no use…”
  • Lieutenant David McAllister: While serving as Officer of the Day at Fort Canby, he was found drunk and in bed with an enlisted man. This behavior contravened multiple regulations defining how officers should socialize with enlisted men, and McAllister resigned in December 1863.

Carson had an uneven pool of officers from which to choose reliable commanders. Even the Catholic Chaplain, Damasio Taladrid, drank and gambled with the enlisted men. Charges were dropped because, it was said, that the popular priest was ignorant of the army’s regulations in those areas. Carleton was in the same plight with Carson and complained to the War Department that his command was “greatly embarrassed for want of good officers, particularly in Carson’s New Mexican regiment.”

From this experience, Carson learned that he must select his officers carefully and give them assignments that fit their capabilities and not ones in which they might succumb to their weaknesses or vices. Carson applied these lessons in his later commands, most notably as he prepared for the campaign that culminated in the First Battle of Adobe Walls in November, 1864.

[1] The particulars for the following profiles is found in: Lawrence Kelly, Selected Correspondence of Kit Carson’s Expedition against the Navajo, 1863-1865, Boulder, Colorado, 1970.


2 Responses to Kit Carson’s Civil War: Learning to Command, Delegate…to Whom?

  1. Out here in the southwest, we are teeming with the descendants of those Navajo — can’t believe the callous tone of this essay. We in northern New Mexico are also still dealing with the conflicted legacy of Carson who was ‘just following orders’ as it were when he created so much damage within the Navajo community. How to respect the living when doing forays into our recent history? 150 years isn’t so long ago.

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