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Dragoons in Apacheland: Conquest and Resistance in Southern New Mexico, 1846-1861

Dragoons in Apacheland: Conquest and Resistance in Southern New Mexico, 1846-1861

by William S. Kiser


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In the fifteen years prior to the American Civil War, the U.S. Army established a presence in southern New Mexico, the homeland of Mescalero, Mimbres, and Mogollon bands of the Apache Indians. From the army’s perspective, the Apaches presented an obstacle to be overcome in making the region—newly acquired in the Mexican-American War—safe for Anglo settlers. In Dragoons in Apacheland, William S. Kiser recounts the conflicts that ensued and examines how both Apache warriors and American troops shaped the future of the Southwest Borderlands.

Kiser narrates two distinct contests. The Apaches were defending their territory against the encroachment of soldiers and settlers. At the same time, the Anglo-Americans maneuvered against one another in a competition for political and economic power and for Apache territory. Cross-cultural misunderstandings, political corruption in Santa Fe and Washington, anti-Indian racism, troublemakers among both Apaches and settlers, irresponsible army officers and troops, corrupt American and Mexican traders, and policy disagreements among government officials all contributed to the ongoing hostilities. Kiser examines the behaviors and motivations of individuals involved in all aspects of these local, regional, and national disputes.

Kiser is one of only a few historians to deal with this crucial period in Indian-white relations in the Southwest—and the first to detail the experiences of the First and Second United States Dragoons, elite mounted troops better equipped and trained than infantry to confront Apache guerrilla warriors more accustomed to the southwestern environment. Often led by the Gila leader Mangas Coloradas, the Apaches fought desperately to protect their lands and way of life. The Americans, Kiser shows, used unauthorized tactics of total warfare, encouraging field units to attack villages and destroy crops and livestock, particularly when the Apaches refused to engage the troops in pitched battles.

Kiser’s insights into the pre–Civil War conflicts in southern New Mexico are essential to a deeper understanding of the larger U.S.-Apache war that culminated in the heroic resistance of Cochise, Victorio, and Geronimo.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806146508
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 08/19/2014
Pages: 370
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

William S. Kiser is author of Turmoil on the Rio Grande: The Territorial History of the Mesilla Valley, 1846–1865 and Dragoons in Apacheland: Conquest and Resistance in Southern New Mexico, 1846-1861.

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Dragoons in Apacheland

Conquest and Resistance in Southern New Mexico, 1846â"1861

By William S. Kiser


Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4650-8


The Soldiers

Anglo-Apache conflict in southern New Mexico prior to the Civil War involved two groups that found themselves vying for power and control over a shared southwestern landscape. Vast cultural differences separated the two, and each group struggled to understand the other. Beyond the difficulties of coexisting with their neighboring Native inhabitants, Anglo-Americans also had trouble coping with the unforgiving environment and sundry other unfamiliar characteristics of the Desert Southwest. The troops stationed in New Mexico experienced innumerable hardships resulting from poor equipment, dilapidated living quarters, and grueling campaigns in the field, among other challenges. Throughout the decade of the 1850s, three types of U.S. troops operated against the Apaches: dragoons, mounted riflemen, and infantry. Each regiment bore distinctions in composition and tactical training, but all served the shared purpose of fighting Indians.

The rigors of frontier army life in antebellum New Mexico are sometimes overlooked because much of the extant primary-source material emanated from higher-ranking officers who enjoyed advantages not available to enlisted men. While junior officers typically did not fare much better than their subordinates, the higher-ranking men who reported on troop conditions often did so from a skewed perspective because their elevated status allowed them privileges and amenities otherwise unavailable to the bulk of the soldiers.

In the diary that he kept from 1850 to 1856, Private James A. Bennett of Company I, First Dragoons provides a rare glimpse of daily life for soldiers during this time period. Bennett arrived in Santa Fe at the age of eighteen and enlisted in the army, perhaps underestimating the hardships that he would face. During his six years with the First Dragoons, Bennett would be stationed at more than a half-dozen different southwestern posts. He saw action against the Navajos, Utes, Jicarilla Apaches, and Mescalero Apaches, traveling thousands of miles on horseback while enduring scorching hot summers and brutally cold winters with only limited provisions, typifying the arduous duties of an 1850s dragoon.

On March 30, 1854, during a skirmish with hostile Apaches, Bennett received a gunshot wound through both thighs, the ball ultimately lodging itself two inches below his groin. "The horses dragged me one half mile [before] I managed to mount my horse ... blood flowed freely," he later recalled. Arriving back at his post, he "was taken off [the] horse, having ridden 25 miles after being wounded." Bennett spent the next several months in the hospital recovering from his painful wounds, the healing process being significantly impeded by rudimentary medical equipment and technology. "The doctor we have here knows nothing," Bennett complained. "I asked him to extract the ball last night but it was not done until today." Many of the casualties discussed hereafter, soldier and Indian alike, doubtless shared Bennett's excruciating medical experience during this primitive antebellum era. The fact that these men readily thrust themselves into a conflict so brutal and ruthless is evidence of the importance that Anglo-Americans placed on quelling Indian raids and opening the frontier for safe settlement.

The U.S. Regiment of Dragoons (the predecessor to the cavalry) was organized pursuant to an act of Congress dated March 2, 1833. In May 1836 this outfit became the First Regiment of Dragoons after the raising of another regiment, designated the Second Dragoons. Following the Mexican-American War, these two units served throughout the western territories, with many of their component companies being stationed at New Mexico's posts. Together with the infantry and the Regiment of Mounted Rifles, the dragoons undertook the unenviable task of thwarting Apache, Ute, Comanche, and Navajo raiding in New Mexico up until the onset of the Civil War.

Each of the two dragoon regiments contained a maximum of 652 men, substantially less than the 802 allotted to the Mounted Rifles. A congressional act of June 17, 1850, mandated that dragoon companies contain a maximum of 50 enlisted men per company, with ten companies in each of the two regiments. But the tactical nature of Indian warfare on the western frontier, coupled with the vast domain requiring protection, ultimately induced an executive order increasing each company's allowable manpower to 74 in certain regions, New Mexico being one of them. In 1855 the secretary of war reported that each regiment contained 615 enlisted men, indicating that company strength had indeed been augmented, though not to the maximum capacity.

For the most part, dragoon companies never boasted full strength. Secretary of War Charles M. Conrad, in his annual report of 1850, noted, "It rarely happens ... that a company is complete, for, while on the one hand the enlistments can never exceed the limit prescribed by law, deaths, discharges, and desertions must always cause the number of men actually enrolled and in pay to fall far short of it." Conrad pointed out that this characteristic held especially true on the western frontier, estimating that the number of men "fit for duty" typically fell 30–40 percent short of the legal organization of the army.

The Regiment of Mounted Rifles (commonly abbreviated "RMR") could best be described as another dragoon regiment, only under a different name. Congress, recognizing the need for additional cavalry troops on the western frontier but hesitant to raise a new regiment at the higher pay grade of dragoons, created the Regiment of Mounted Rifles in 1846. The four-company unit would receive the "pay of infantry, and forage of dragoons," which reduced War Department expenditures on the regiment by roughly 10 percent annually. Riflemen were trained to fight as infantrymen but rode horses for speed during the chase. How strictly this tactical ideology was followed in New Mexico is questionable, for tracking and fighting the elusive Apaches as infantrymen seldom proved successful. Each company contained a maximum of sixty-four privates. Riflemen did not generally receive assignments in New Mexico until 1851; from that point on they routinely participated alongside dragoons and infantry in military maneuvers against the Apaches, especially after 1856, when the War Department transferred all Mounted Rifle companies remaining in Texas to New Mexico.

Finally, the infantry actively partook in Indian affairs during these years as well. Of the army's 1855 aggregate total of 12,703 troops, almost half of them—5,582—belonged to infantry regiments. In 1850s New Mexico, the vast majority of foot soldiers belonged to the Third Infantry Regiment. While these troops often performed thankless duties as laborers at their respective posts, they nevertheless did receive occasional exposure to the rigors of campaigning, especially after Colonel Edwin V. Sumner assumed command in 1851. Unfortunately, the unique characteristics of Apache warfare often rendered the infantry useless in the field. The Apaches "stand in little awe of troops on foot," Secretary of War Conrad admitted, "but a light and active cavalry could pursue and chastise them, or recapture their plunder, whereby their depredations would be rendered more dangerous and less profitable." As Conrad and many others knew, mounted dragoons and riflemen held a distinct advantage over infantry in that they could be mobilized for pursuit at a moment's notice and move rapidly.

In theory, the 1850s dragoon would have an impressive physical appearance, wearing uniforms ornamented with gilded buttons and insignia and laced with the standard yellow pennons adorning trousers and blouse alike. According to army regulations, they would ride perfectly fit horses similarly decorated in shiny regalia, including rosettes and martingales featuring the identifying markings of both the company and the regiment. In actuality, as will be seen throughout these pages, most dragoons rarely maintained such an appearance; to be sure, the harsh southwestern environment, reverberating from numbing cold to extreme heat, did not prove conducive to such pomp and show. Soldiers partaking in burdensome post duties and difficult marches through treacherous terrain hardly concerned themselves with ensuring a striking physical appearance in a region where scarcely anybody would see them anyway. While post quartermasters retained a significant amount of army-issue accoutrements in storage, most soldiers only donned them when on parade, preferring instead to dress more casually and comfortably when on the march. Indeed, many officers continually submitted requisitions to replace obsolete, worn-out government-issue uniforms and equipment, a reality hardly befitting the oft-painted image of an ideal dragoon.

Life on the frontier could be daunting, perhaps more so for soldiers than for any others who ventured westward. They performed unrewarding tasks under unfavorable conditions for minimal pay. One can scarcely imagine the seclusion and isolation these men experienced in a territory situated thousands of miles from what they considered to be civilization. As attested to in numerous diaries and journals, the Southwest's sparsely populated, predominantly Mexican villages did not constitute civilized life in the eyes of newly arrived soldiers from the East.

Private Josiah M. Rice, who saw a considerable amount of military service in New Mexico, frequently bemoaned the repulsive tendencies exhibited by some of the residents he encountered. "[Mexicans] are the meanest and most contemptible set of swarthy thieves and liars to be found anywhere," he wrote in a scathing, ethnocentric indictment of Hispanic character. "The rich ones will cheat and swindle and the poor [will] sneakingly pilfer anything." Even worse, according to Rice, were the clergy: "The priests are high in position and always rich, but in morals and character they are, with few exceptions, even below their followers." Rice's superior, Colonel Sumner, shared these sentiments. In 1852, as commander of the military department, he excoriated New Mexicans as being "thoroughly debased and totally incapable of self-government, and there is no latent quality about them that can ever make them respectable.... [T]hey have more Indian blood than Spanish, and in some respects are below the Pueblo Indians, for they are not as honest or as industrious." Another officer complained, "The population [of New Mexico] at this time with individual exceptions was not half civilized." While these racially skewed observations certainly did not apply to all persons in the territory, they provide a fairly accurate overview of the prejudiced outlook shared by many Anglo-American soldiers of that time.

Yet another difficulty the troops faced in their daily encounters with New Mexicans arose from linguistic differences, as communication between the two cultures oftentimes proved overly toilsome. Many of the army's antebellum enlistees came directly from Europe, having recently immigrated from the British Isles and Germany, and joined the military as a means of travel, adventure, and economic subsistence. In the 1860 census, for example, Company D, First Dragoons at Fort Buchanan contained fifty-one men between the ages of eighteen and forty-seven. Of those, twenty-seven were born in the United States, while twenty-four listed their place of birth as somewhere in Europe (sixteen being from Ireland). Company G, First Dragoons (also at Fort Buchanan) listed forty-one men, of whom twenty-five (61 percent) were immigrants. Because of their diverse cultural and dialectal backgrounds, several languages were spoken among the soldiers, Spanish seldom being one of them. Many of the hired Mexican laborers who worked at southwestern military posts spoke only Spanish and therefore struggled to understand instructions from soldiers, which served only to exacerbate tensions. With few exceptions, neither the Anglo-American troops nor the Mexican-American inhabitants could effectively speak the other's language, and interpreters were few and far between.

Ironically, soldiers sometimes found themselves victimized by the federal government just as the Indians did. Most troops in the West received poor clothing and inadequate provisions from a cash-strapped War Department. Eastern bureaucrats devoted little attention to the necessities of soldiers stationed in a territory so far removed from the bulk of the nation's population. In terms of expenditures, Washington officials concerned themselves more with fortifying posts in the East, especially with monumental Mexican-American War costs still to be repaid and the threat of sectional conflict looming on the horizon. For most politicians, more important things demanded their attention than equipping troops to fight hostile bands of "savages," especially when New Mexico already bore the distinction of being the country's most expensive military department to maintain.

In 1852 Colonel Sumner recommended that the War Department abandon New Mexico altogether, a suggestion that Secretary of War Conrad likewise advocated. Citing imperfect peace accords and interminable Indian warfare, the colonel believed that the government should "withdraw all the troops and federal officers, and let the people elect their own civil officers ... under the general supervision of our government.... With regard to their protection from the Indians, they would have the same that was extended to them by the Mexican government—that is to say, permission to defend themselves." An unapologetic Mexican-American War veteran, Sumner evinced little sympathy for the territory's Mexican inhabitants, who he viewed as an inferior race, and often felt that his assignment in Santa Fe represented nothing more than a waste of his time and taxpayer funds. Sumner's letter found publication in the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette and incited considerable controversy, given the harmful nature of his rhetoric. "All classes of our citizens," retorted the newspaper's editor, "Americans and Mexicans, males and females, old and young, will find themselves gratuitously and maliciously assailed" upon reading the colonel's recommendation to withdraw the troops.

Secretary of War Conrad ventured a step further and suggested that all civilians be compensated for their property and relocated elsewhere, thereby eliminating the necessity for troops altogether. "Even if the government paid for the property quintuple its value," he hypothesized, "it would still, merely on the score of economy, be largely the gainer by the transaction, and the troops now stationed in New Mexico would be available for the protection of other portions of our own and of the Mexican territory." These suggestions emanated from a profound level of frustration among military and civil authorities following more than six years of failed attempts to control New Mexico's nomadic tribes. Many of these men, exhibiting Anglo-centric ideals common to that era, did not believe that protecting the mestizo population warranted excessive expenditures and political hardships.

In an attempt to mitigate these concerns, officials such as Sumner and Conrad sought exit strategies that would allow the citizens to govern and defend themselves while the United States retained legal possession of the territory. Naturally, the civilian population condemned their point of view. The Santa Fe Weekly Gazette reprinted Conrad's statement and offered a terse rebuttal: "a proposition of this kind ... [excites] in our minds nothing but cool contempt for its folly and absurdity." It also satirized Sumner as "the Big Bug of Albuquerque" and all but criminalized the military commander for both his policies and his ambivalence toward the territory's citizens.

A dragoon private could expect to receive a paltry salary of $8 per month, while an officer's pay exponentially exceeded that amount. In 1851, lieutenants in the First Dragoons earned from $169 to $600 annually, with higher-ranking officers receiving considerably more. Infantry lieutenants accrued a comparable salary, averaging between $360 and $690. In addition to this base income, officers received allowances for rations and servants, often in amounts exceeding $1,000. In 1854, under the administration of President Franklin Pierce, Congress passed legislation allowing a $4 wage increase for military personnel, bringing a dragoon private's earnings to $12 per month. Miniscule stipends and infrequent visits from the paymaster created widespread discontent and worsened an already woeful level of morale. The massive disparity between enlisted-men and officer salaries only exacerbated the situation.


Excerpted from Dragoons in Apacheland by William S. Kiser. Copyright © 2012 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Preface and Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 3

Prologue: Duplicitous Proclamations 13

1 The Soldiers 19

2 The Apaches 37

3 The Early Years of Military Occupation 54

4 The Department under Sumner 89

5 The Woes Continue 124

6 One Regime to the Next 152

7 Events Foreshadowed 174

8 "Campaign of Clowns" 203

9 The Mescaleros 232

10 The Dragoons' Final Years 272

Conclusion 284

Notes 293

Bibliography 331

Index 345

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