Kit Carson’s Civil War: The 1864 Battle of Adobe Walls

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

Conclusion of a series

Earlier pieces in this series described how Kit Carson learned important aspects of the art of command — administration and training (Kit Carson’s Civil War: Learning to Command, Administration and Training); commanding combined arms (Kit Carson’s Civil War: The Navajo Round Up); and the risks of delegating important matters to subordinates (Kit Carson’s Civil War: Learning to Command, Delegate…to Whom?). Carson applied the lessons in 1864 when he commanded the campaign against Plains Indians that culminated in the battle at Adobe Walls.

After the Union victory at Glorieta Pass in late March, 1862, the United States Army transferred its most of its regular units from New Mexico to the east. In 1864, the Kiowa and Comanche Indians exploited this by raiding wagon trains wending their way along the Santa Fe Trail. The raids threatened the army’s supply line to Fort Union and the other further to the southwest.

General James Henry Carleton, the military commander of New Mexico Territory, turned to Carson, who, at the time, was superintendent of the Bosque Redondo reservation that impounded the Navajo and Mescalero Apache tribes. On August 15, 1864, Carleton wrote Carson that the “Comanches have within a few days killed five Americans at Lower Cimarron Springs and run off cattle from a train of five wagons …” He asked: “Will 200 Apaches and Navajoes (sic) go with troops to fight Comanches, in case of serious troubles with the latter Indians?”[1]

In September, Carleton wrote to Carson, who was home in Taos, that “some 200 or more Ute Indians, now near Mr. Maxwell’s place on the Little Cimarron, are willing and anxious to go out on the plains and attack the Kiowas and other Indians.” Carleton contemplating paying the Ute Indians by the sale of livestock taken from the Plains Indians. Carleton did not assign any of the few remaining volunteer cavalry and infantry units scattered about the plains to Carson’s command, but commented that “any one of these parties will co-operate with you on showing this authority to its commander.”[2]

Carleton noted that “the main object is to have the Utes commit themselves in hostility to the Indians of the plains, that there may be less chance for them to join in any league which the latter Indians may attempt to make for a general war by all the Indians between the mountains and the Missouri upon the whites.” Then, Carleton acknowledged that Carson was “the most fitting person to organize, direct, and bring this enterprise to a successful issue.”

In his reply, Carson focused on the resources required for the campaign. He acknowledged the wisdom of compromising “the Utes and Apaches with the Indians of the plains.” However, he insisted on receiving the provisions and ammunition needed for a successful campaign along with the required transportation. Moreover, he noted that the Ute Indians were bargaining hard for their services. One Ute chief insisted upon “blankets and shirts, also arms and ammunition for his men…and will require such articles before he can go on the campaign.”[3]

Carson clearly had learned from his experience on the roundup of the Navajo Tribe. He contemplated a sustained campaign conducted by army troops supported by Indian scouts, rather than the quick strike force of Ute Indians that Carleton had in mind.

Having experienced the need for a clear chain of command to ensure that his orders would be followed, Carson pushed Carleton beyond the general’s earlier vague reference about army units cooperating with Carson’s force. “I am not informed as yet what troops are to form my command. This I would like very much to know, and it is important that I should know it as soon as practicable, in order that I may properly organize the staff departments of the expedition.”

Carson learned from his problems in the Navajo Roundup in delegating to officers selected by others, and requested specific officers to serve as his assistant and commissary-quartermaster.[4]

Reflecting his success coordinating combined arms, Carson requested two mountain howitzers “one piece I want to protect my wagons in case I should meet a large village of Indians, and the other if I should strike the trail of a large village of Indians.” Carson advised Carleton that about one hundred Ute and Apache Indians would serve as scouts, but that the Ute Indians opposed serving with their traditional enemy, the Navajo.[5]

Carleton abandoned his notion of a punitive raid and adopted Carson’s strategy for a sustained campaign. He delivered the supplies, wagon train, two howitzers, and army troops to Fort Bascomb (near Logan, New Mexico). Carson’s force included elements from the First Cavalry California Volunteers, elements from the First Cavalry New Mexico Volunteers, and elements from the first Veteran Infantry California volunteers. All told, Carson commanded fourteen officers, three hundred twenty one enlisted men, and seventy five Indians.[6]

Carson led his force out of Fort Bascomb on November 12, 1864, and marched east down the Canadian River toward Adobe Walls, the ruins of an abandoned trading post, northeast of present day Amarillo, Texas. Carleton learned from Comancheros trading with the tribes that the Kiowas and Comanches were gathering for the winter in the Paloduro Creek area, north of the Canadian River. Carleton wrote Carson:, “We make war upon men who have murdered and robbed our people.” His orders to Carson read:

I need not repeat to you the orders given to all commanders whom I have sent out to fight Indians, that women and children will not be killed; only men who bear arms. Of course I know that in attacking a village women and children are liable to be killed, and this cannot, in the rush and confusion of a fight, particularly at night, be avoided, but let none be killed willfully and wantonly.[7]

Carson marched along the north side of the Canadian River for about eighty miles and, on November 24, reached Mule Spring, about thirty miles from Adobe Walls. His scouts reported Indian villages near Adobe Walls. Carson conducted a night march for a dawn attack on November 25.[8]

Carson remained with the reserve waiting for the howitzers to come up. Major McCleave led the greater part of the cavalry toward Kiowa Chief Dohason’s village of about one hundred fifty tipis. Three young Kiowa Indians shouted an alarm, and the Indians in the village scattered. The cavalry partially destroyed the now largely deserted village and rode downstream toward a larger Comanche village about three miles away.

When Carson arrived on the scene, McCleave had placed his horses within the ruins and positioned his men, lying prone, in the grass outside the fort. The Ute scouts were about two hundred yards in advance of the soldiers, racing back and forth on their horses in front of the estimated twelve hundred mounted Kiowa and Comanche Indians. One of the howitzers fired at a cluster of Indians, who experiencing their first artillery barrage, scattered. During this pause in the action, the troops ate their rations.

The Indians returned to the attack, but, now aware of the range of the artillery, avoided clustering. Rather than closing with Carson’s troops, they rode their horses to within a few hundred yards, fired and withdrew. Carson ordered his force to withdraw to the Kiowa village to destroy it. He intended to resupply his men and then return to destroy the Comanche village. The troops found Kiowa Indians in their village removing their possession, but a howitzer shell drove them away.

Seeing the Indians gathering in growing numbers near the Comanche village, Carson took council for his next course of action. His officers wanted to fight through the Indians and destroy the Comanche village. The Ute Indians recommended withdrawal. Carson, unlike General George Custer’s decision twelve years later at the Battle of Little Big Horn, respected his scouts’ advice and prudently ordered a night march back to Adobe Walls.

On November 27, Carson retired from Adobe Walls and arrived at Fort Bascomb on December 10. He reported casualties of two soldiers killed and ten wounded, along with one Indian killed and two wounded. He urged Carleton to provide him with one thousand troops so that he could return to defeat the Indians decisively. Carleton did not have the soldiers available for this mission and rejected Carson’s recommendation.

The 1864 battle at Adobe Walls (another battle was to occur there in 1874) was Carson’s final fight in the Civil War. He had begun the war as retired army scout untutored in military science. By his final campaign in 1864, Carson demonstrated the skills of a general – he developed a strategy for the campaign, identified the logistical requirements, selected trusted subordinates, and led the combined arms of infantry, cavalry, and artillery in the field. Although he would not learn of it until after the war, on March 13, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Carson to brevet Brigadier General, United States Volunteers.

[1] OR, Vol. XLI (Part II), Chap. 53, 723.

[2] OR, Vol. XVI (Part III), Chap. 53, 244-245.

[3] Ibid. 295-296.

[4] OR, Vol. XLI (Part IV), Chap. 53, 99-100.

[5] OR, Vol XLI (Part III), Chap. 53, 771.

[6] OR, Vol XLI (Part I), Chap. 53, 940.

[7] OR, Vol. XLI (Part IV), Chap. 53, 214.

[8] The narrative of the campaign is based upon Carson’s after-action report. See: OR, Vol XLI (Part I), Chap. 53, 939-942.


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