Kearny's Dragoons Out West

Kearny's Dragoons Out West

by Will Gorenfeld, John Gorenfeld


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Having banished eastern Native peoples to lands west of the Mississippi, President Andrew Jackson’s government by 1833 needed a new type of soldier to keep displaced Indians from returning home. And so the 1st Dragoons came into being. Will and John Gorenfeld tell their story—an epic of exploration, conquest, and diplomacy from the outposts of western history—in this book-length treatment of the force that became the U.S. Cavalry.

The 1st Dragoons represented a new regiment of horsemen that drew on the combined skills and clashing visions of two types of leaders: old Indian killers and backwoodsmen such as loudmouth miner Henry Dodge; and straight-arrow battlefield veterans such as Stephen Watts Kearny, who had fought Redcoats in 1812 but now negotiated treaties with Indian tribes and enforced the new order of the West. Drawing on soldiers’ journals and other never-before-used sources, Kearny’s Dragoons Out West reconstructs this forgotten, often surprising moment in U.S. history. Under Kearny, the 1st Dragoons performed its mission through diplomacy and intimidation rather than violence, even protecting Indians from white settlers.

Following the regiment up to the U.S.-Mexican War, when diplomacy gave way to open violence, this book introduces readers to future Civil War generals. Colorful characters appearing in these pages include Private Thomas Russell, a young attorney tricked by a horse thief into joining the army; James Hildreth, who authored two books on the 1st Dragoons; and English drill sergeant Long Ned Stanley, whose tenure in the 1st reveals much about American immigrants’ experience in 1833–48.

The promises made in Kearny’s well-intentioned treaty making were ultimately broken. This detailed and in-depth look back at his legacy offers a glimpse of a lost world—and an intriguing turning point in the history of western expansion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806153940
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/13/2016
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Will Gorenfeld writes about soldiers, operations, and battles of the pre–Civil War Army out west. His work has appeared in Wild West, the New Mexico Historical Review, Missouri Historical Review, and the collected volume Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier.

His son John Gorenfeld is a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Observer, the London Guardian, and in the book Armchair Reader: Civil War.

Read an Excerpt

Kearny's Dragoons Out West

The Birth of the U.S. Cavalry

By Will Gorenfeld, John Gorenfeld


Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5394-0


Henry Dodge and the Birth of the U.S. Cavalry

Here is the bold Dragoon who laughs at care,
And crosses Prairies with unshorn hair
.................... ... ...
He mounts his horse, his march begins
O'er river and mountains away he skims;
And the uncouth elk with sudden fear
Bounds from his haunts when the Dragoon's near.
From Capt. Rufus Ingalls, Song of the Dragoon (1854)

"By the Right Flank, March!": The Dragoon Enlisted Man

Pvt. Thomas Russell felt himself an absurd sight, standing on the grassy parade grounds of the Missouri army barracks. Instead of a uniform he wore civilian clothes — cotton shirt, wool trousers, black leather military fatigue cap — and carried a stick. He was under orders to pretend this stick was a rifle. The men stood on a rectangular piece of ground on a hill behind which lay the dull-red bricks of Jefferson Barracks, and the land dropped away to the vast and muddy waters of the Mississippi behind them. It was hot and humid. At the sergeant's command, Russell and the ranks of Company A snapped to attention to face west — aspiring horse soldiers without horses, uniforms, or sabers and, in place of rifles and carbines, scraps of wood from their menial and miserable construction projects.

Russell tried to reconcile his situation with the one a prominent poster outside the Nashville, Tennessee, recruiting station had promised. Passing by it often in 1833, Russell was finally tempted into abandoning a secure future as a lawyer in the small-town South for a thrilling role as a hero in the conquered West. The magical, trackless land of the Indian and the bison, the high country of the Rockies — he had expected to ride through these in an elite order of knightly men seemingly taken from the pages of Ivanhoe. Instead, Russell and the other young men found themselves little more than day laborers in a disorganized and underequipped infantry.

For this predicament, Russell blamed a twenty-seven-year-old recruiter by the name of Thomas Tredway, the natty and affable sergeant who had greeted him in the Nashville recruiting station and who operated as the front line of the army's desperate effort to staff its new regiment. The veteran Tredway's smart black shako hat sported a dancing yellow braid that matched the trim on his stately indigo uniform. Everything about him seemed to embody the courageous and gentlemanly existence of a professional soldier who knew adventure. But in real life Tredway belonged less to Ivanhoe than to the tradition of river con men later immortalized in Huck Finn.

As Tredway smilingly described the glorious West, Russell found himself drawn by that wild alternative to lawyering in Greeneville, Tennessee. Yes, Tredway confided with momentary gravity, he would be lying if he didn't allow that being a dragoon wasn't all roses and did occasionally require "light duties." But, he hastened to reiterate, dragoon life brought a world of opportunity perfectly suited to a gifted, middle-class young man seeking the possibilities of the rapidly opening West. Tredway described his time in the service, during which he had to feed and groom his mount, of course, but was otherwise at liberty, like Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, to browse a "Library of Scientific and Professional works which cost 15,000$ & [was] free to all enlisted men [so] every winter I could read, having nothing else to do than to attend to my horse."

Warming to his theme, Tredway concluded with the disclosure that dragoons' special privileges flowed from their distinctive status as the army's first regular regiment of mounted soldiers: "Exploring the Rocky Mountains," Russell recalled Tredway explaining, "we would not be subject to the strict laws which in general govern the army." By day, he was led to believe, they would investigate prairie and forest; by night, be quartered in comfort.

As an added incentive, the sergeant promised Russell that he would be able to keep his own horse, a fine mount worth a substantial two hundred dollars. Tredway would be delighted to provide the valet service of riding it over to the barracks, where the army would allow Russell to ride his steed or would compensate him for its full value. The young lawyer, to his "disgrace and everlasting regret," signed up. Shortly after, the charming recruiter received his own orders to report to Jefferson Barracks, caught a riverboat to his new station, and deserted and vanished, along with Russell's mount, which he sold to unknown horse traders. His horse stolen, bereft of uniform and saber, Russell had nothing but a three-year commitment to serve in the wretched dragoons.

The stick drill came to an end. The drill sergeant assigned them their next duty: building stables for the horses — should any arrive. Every day after close-order drilling on foot, Company A would march from the parade ground, armed not with gentlemen's muskets but rather with "shovels, pickaxes, hammers, saws, and various implements of mechanical use, to a spot on the ground of the barracks, for the purpose of building stables" — a chore against which many voted with their feet and simply deserted. Regimental records document that sixty-five men got up and left between September and the end of 1833. The guardhouse filled with captured deserters and other malcontents, upon whom the officers inflicted severe punishment.

Russell shouldered a shovel, wistfully looked west toward the great prairie, and considered joining the deserters — three more years of this was more than he could imagine! He quashed the thought. Desertion would disgrace his proud, well-connected family. Then it struck him that he could draw on those enviable connections to escape this dreadful regiment. But until discharge came, he would soldier on.

While Russell and the other aspiring knights-errant swung pickaxes and hammers like a chain gang, a congressman who knew the family wrote directly to President Andrew Jackson. Ironically, though, the president's own policy of Indian Removal had necessitated the formation of the regiment in the first place. But the White House duly referred the matter to the secretary of war, who in turn dispatched a request to an adjutant general, whose inquiry arrived at the desk of the unlikely commander of the dragoon regiment, the burly and crude former militia colonel, Henry Dodge.

Now Colonel Dodge had to deal with the Russell-Tredway recruitment matter. On April 5, 1834, Dodge reported to Adj. Gen. Roger Jones that he had no doubt that Tredway "made use of every Artifice resorted to by [other] recruiting sergeants" and had also cheated Russell "out of the Value of his Horse." He declared Tredway to be "a man of most infamous Character[,] a man every way calculated to deceive those with whom he had intercourse." Problem was, Dodge pointed out, Tredway had enlisted half of Capt. Clifton Wharton's company. Were he to recommend honoring Private Russell's discharge request, more than fifty other equally justified applications by A Company members would follow. So the army declined to assist Russell. Private Russell decided to make the best of a bad lot and, once again, soldiered on.

Russell soon discovered much company in his misery; many others realized that they had been lied to by a recruiter and that army life, even as a vaunted dragoon, was a hardship. Despite his intelligence and education, trooper James Hildreth of Geneva, New York, born in 1813, had fallen for the exaggerated enlistment pitch. He was promised a regiment organized to search the land well beyond the Mississippi, "the wild regions of the West, prairies, Indians ... all objects of intense interest to my romantic imagination." Some months after joining the regiment, the disillusioned Hildreth reported having heard "the sad story of many a heart-broken soldier as he recounted the misfortune that led to his enlistment, and as the tear-drop has trickled down his manly cheek."

In other cases, deception (or at least secrecy) originated with the recruit, as in other regiments. An anonymous dragoon hinted at some comrades' dark motivations for joining: "The Company was composed of many young men, some of them of good literary abilities and others of skillfull Mechanical attainments each having his own reasons for enlisting which their Comrades never inquired into. Indeed, it seemed a point of delicacy to let each one keep his reasons to himself." The St. Louis Gazette in 1839 published the results of a surgeon's informal survey of fifty-five recruits from various regiments who were asked their reasons for enlisting: "Every man was called upon to tell his own story; it appears that nine tenths enlisted on account of some female difficulty; thirteen of them had changed their names, and forty-three were either drunk, or partially so, at the time of their enlistment. Most of these were men of fine talents and learning, and about one-third had once been men in elevated stations in life. Four had been lawyers, three doctors, and two ministers."

Clearly, the Regiment of Dragoons also attracted its share of desperate souls seeking employment, food, shelter, and concealment. In the mind of one recruit, the thought of a "career of Adventure was exciting & fatiguing, but as a general thing pleasant, diverting my mind from previous troubles. The free air and exercise furnishing a remedy to the troubled mind as well as stimulating." But what set the Dragoon Regiment apart was its substantial number of highly educated enlistees. It was not unusual for educated men such as Russell, Charles Parrott, and the Hildreth brothers, James and William, to be enlisted in the regiment. In the years that followed, a host of well-schooled men from comfortable homes signed up to fulfill their dreams of taming the West, and their letters and journals offer valuable insights into enlistee life. In contrast to most regiments, the dragoons boasted a significant proportion of well-educated men, reared in comfortable surroundings but bored with the East and seeking adventure in the Wild West.

James Hildreth and his brother William were two such men; they would later write two books together, one nonfiction and the other fiction, describing the regiment's first years. Another recruit, Charles Parrott, was born in Easton, Maryland, on May 21, 1811, and had learned his family's mercantile business. Employed in his uncle's paper factory in Wheeling, Virginia, he read accounts of military life with growing fascination. Parrott joined the regular army on February 10, 1834, and was assigned to the Regiment of Dragoons, which he later described as "the finest ever raised in America" by virtue of its assembling brilliant young men from aristocratic and wealthy families from the East.

Even outside observers shared this opinion of the regiment's troops, including the artist George Catlin, who had gained consent from the War Department to accompany the dragoons on their 1834 expedition. Catlin found the regiment "composed principally of young men of respectable families, who would act, on all occasions, from feelings of pride and honour, in addition to those of the common soldier." Charles Latrobe, an author who accompanied Washington Irving in the Indian Territory and wrote of his travels in a book entitled The Rambler in North America, 1832–1833, also pronounced the recruits "distinguished from the rag-tag-and-bob-tail herd drafted into the ranks of the regular army — by being for the most part picked, athletic young men of decent character and breeding. They were all Americans, whereas, the ordinary recruits [of other regiments] consist either of the scum of the population of the older States, or of the worthless German, English, or Irish emigrants."

But there were more pressing reasons for establishing the dragoon regiment than the troops' romance with the West or boredom with their elevated upbringing. After all, in the first third of the nineteenth century the United States had used the army almost exclusively to drive the Indians away from the paths of white settlers. By the 1820s, pioneers had pushed their settlements into the fertile areas bordering the great prairie west of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, but had halted their wagons at the edges of the two great waterways. In the same era, President James Monroe dispatched Andrew Jackson to Florida to fight the Seminoles in a campaign that even contemporary observers found inhuman. Monroe preached a peculiar nineteenth-century doctrine that the savage, however noble, must for his survival be forced through land policy to evolve through the stages of civilization, from hunter to farmer. The president believed that the Indian's progress could be ensured only by graciously dispatching him beyond the great rivers into the West. Thus, in 1825, Monroe requested that Congress devise a "well digested plan" to accomplish this result.

President John Quincy Adams and other northern Whigs initially opposed forced removal of the tribes, but at the same time allowed aggressive states such as Georgia to invade Cherokee lands. Expansionists cheered Andrew Jackson's victory over elite East coast intellectual Adams in 1828, as it decisively doomed all Native American claims to ancestral lands lying east of the Mississippi. Fueling Jackson's policy of Indian Removal was not just greed for land but also a thirst for retaliation against tribes who had allied with the British in the War of 1812. To the pragmatic and racist new president, the best solution to the strife between white and Native was to use the natural barrier of the Mississippi River to segregate them. Jackson's Secretary of War Lewis Cass exhibited the disingenuous argument: believing that the government had the paternalistic duty to remove the tribes to protect them from extermination by contact with whites. It would be the role of the army to remove the tribes and keep them to the west of the great river.

Others, like the correspondent for the pro-Jackson Missouri Republican, reflected with empathy and insight on the moral rather than the tactical problems of removal. Indians had been cast across the river "to starve or plunder for a livelihood" once tribe after tribe had been dispossessed of their "farms and orchards ... without any prepatory arrangements." So the Natives "hate us, because they feel we have wronged them. They fear us, because they see we are strong enough to wrong them with impunity, and believe we will wrong them whenever interest prompts. Most of them are in squalid poverty — some die every year." Fueling this poisonous situation was the illegal sale of whiskey: "Some of the vilest of our own people, miscreants who would ruin a whole tribe of Indians and endanger the lives of our frontier women and children, for the sake of a few dollars, get a barrel or two of whiskey ... and seduce the poor wretches to their ruin. ... Our march upon them is one everlasting encroachment, our incessant demand is, land — land — more land! ... Yet the next year they shall cede the remainder, renounce their improvements ... and [we shall] remove [them] to a dangerous wilderness."

Despite opposition from an enlightened faction including former president John Quincy Adams and Senator Daniel Webster, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act on May 28, 1830, by a vote of 102 to 97. During the ensuing years, the Osages, Winnebagos, Sac and Foxes, Ottawas, Pottawattamies, the Five "Civilized" Tribes and others would be deported west beyond their original territory. These once-powerful and self-sufficient peoples were now relegated to existing on unreliable governmental dole and starving on new lands.

With the tribes duly removed, soldiers in a series of western forts were charged with preventing any Indians from returning across the rivers. By invoking the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1790, soldiers also tried to stop unlicensed settlers from trading with the tribes and entering or squatting on Indian reserves west of the rivers. But at this same time, wagons and merchants began to travel the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and Mexican settlements in New Mexico and Chihuahua. The federal government expected the artillery and infantry garrisons of frontier posts to provide adequate protection for those merchants crossing the barren reaches on the Santa Fe Trail. Many Plains tribes, however, resided well beyond the reach of the forts' foot soldiers and were difficult to police or control. In 1829, for example, the Sixth Infantry proved incapable of chasing down mounted warriors who were raiding travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.


Excerpted from Kearny's Dragoons Out West by Will Gorenfeld, John Gorenfeld. Copyright © 2016 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Prologue 3

1 Henry Dodge and the Birth of the U.S. Cavalry 14

2 Dragoons on the Plains, 1834-1835: The First Expeditions 50

3 1836: Kearny Takes Command 85

4 The Snively Incident: Dragoons on the Santa Fe Trail 122

5 Soldiers Four: Sumner, Allen, Wharton, and Carleton 147

6 1845: Exploration, Peacekeeping, and Preparation for Conquest 194

7 Kearny and His Dragoons at War 216

8 The Battle of San Pasqual: A Glass to the Dead Already and Here's to the Next Man to Die 249

9 Love's Defeat at Coon Creeks 289

10 The War in Mexico: From Buena Vista's Mountain Chain to the Adobe Walls of Santa Cruz de Rosales 304

Epilogue 353

Notes 363

Bibliography 435

Index 451

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