On the road between Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico Territory, dragoons found themselves in a desperate fight for survival against Chief Chacon’s superior force of Jicarilla Apaches.
In the winter of 1854-55, Lieutenant John W. Davidson was still basking in newspaper reports that, true to his Revolutionary War forebears, he had led a 60-man detachment of the 1st Dragoon Regiment in a fearless battle against four times as many Apaches the previous spring. But now came a challenge from another dragoon officer, threatening Davidson’s story and reputation. The original Army report had made for gripping reading. On March 30, 1854, in New Mexico Territory, the lieutenant had ridden into an ambush at the hands of 200 to 300 Jicarilla Apache warriors. The desperate fight had gone on for three hours, and the brave horse soldiers had virtually run out of bullets. As arrows killed fleeing men, the still-able dragoons had madly spilled the ammunition pouches of dead comrades, looking for cartridges. A heroic effort had been needed to avoid certain annihilation in the Battle of Cieneguilla.
The challenge came in the form of a December 27, 1854, letter, which potentially could turn the accepted battle tale on its head. The author was Lieutenant David Bell, who had fought the Jicarillas several times before March 30 and who had questioned Lieutenant Davidson’s assertion that these Indians would be an easy foe. Bell wrote the letter to 1st Dragoon Lieutenant Robert Williams, a former classmate of his at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but instructed him to show it to Davidson.
Why Bell attacked Davidson at that time is not certain, but attack him he did. Bell wrote that Davidson was not ambushed but had disobeyed orders and attacked a peaceful village; furthermore, Davidson had allowed his command to panic and had abandoned the wounded to their fate. Bell even disputed Davidson’s claim that the battle had lasted three hours, observing that there had been insufficient ammunition for a protracted fight and “in the excitement of action most men will lose a large portion of their ammunition.” Bell concluded, “If he [Davidson] had been under the command of almost any officer other than [Major George] Blake he would have been tried for disobedience of orders.”
Bell’s letter outraged Davidson, who demanded and got an Army court of inquiry. It convened in Santa Fe in March 1856 to explore Bell’s charges. The hearing was a one-sided affair. Bell’s commanding officer at Fort Leavenworth had refused to allow him leave to testify at the hearing, and, aside from Bell’s condemnatory letter, no evidence was presented that might be viewed as critical of Davidson’s actions. Major Blake, who in 1856 was facing a court-martial for habitually leaving the fort on personal matters and provoking a mutiny, withdrew all criticism of Davidson. Sergeants James Bronson and James Strawbridge—both having been promoted by Davidson and now serving under the newly promoted Captain Davidson in Company B—praised the officer’s actions. Bronson’s favorable testimony was undoubtedly influenced by the kind treatment he had received at the post hospital from Davidson’s wife during the two months he was recuperating from wounds. She had “been very kind to me in sending me a great many little niceties,” he noted.
The court found Davidson blameless and commended him for bravery. Recent archaeological studies, however, confirm many of Bell’s statements. Gifford Velarde, a Jicarilla archaeologist, examined the site of the village and estimated that fewer than 100 Jicarilla Apaches had taken part in the battle.
David Johnson, an archaeologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Taos, surveyed the battlefield and concluded that Davidson had chosen a poor location for his defensive position and that by allowing his men to be pinned down for a long time, he eventually hampered their ability to fight. Johnson also combed the route of retreat and found it littered with many dropped musket balls, unfired percussion caps and other Army equipment, suggesting that the fighting effectiveness of the force during the withdrawal was shattered. Johnson’s conclusion, contrary to all reports: The Jicarillas had soundly routed the dragoons.
The Rio Grande, which flows swiftly southward from the Colorado Rockies, divides most of New Mexico into two parts and then turns southeast toward Texas. The northern portion of the Rio Grande runs briskly down a steep gorge carved along the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where river crossings are few. In the pre-dawn darkness of March 30, 1854, scout Jesus Silva and trooper Jeremiah Maloney reached the Embudo river crossing. Lieutenant Davidson had ordered them to ride to this place and see if a defiant band of Jicarilla Apaches had crossed the river. Silva and Maloney found no signs of Jicarillas but, looking behind them to the northeast, saw distant campfires twinkling brightly atop a ridge. Suspecting these fires to be coming from the Jicarillas’ camp, the two men rode back to Cieneguilla, New Mexico Territory, to tell Davidson.
In February a government beef contractor near Fort Union, New Mexico Territory, had reported several of his cattle stolen by the Llaneros faction of the Jicarilla Apaches. A troop of 2nd U.S. Dragoons, under the command of 2nd Lt. David Bell, was sent from Fort Union to intercept the cattle thieves. On March 5, 1854, Bell encountered some warriors under Lobo Blanco on the Canadian River. It is uncertain whether these men had stolen any cattle, but the Army had long suspected Lobo Blanco’s band of killing white and Hispanic settlers. A fight soon ensued and, when the dust settled, Lobo Blanco, four warriors and two dragoons lay dead. The next day, Jicarillas and allied Utes raided a cattle herd near Fort Union, killing two herdsmen.
The Jicarillas had long warred against European intruders who moved into their region. Speaking the Apache language, the tribe settled the region between present-day New Mexico and western Oklahoma. The Spanish viewed the tribe as informally divided into two factions: the plains-dwelling Llaneros and the mountain-dwelling Olleros.
As noted by Dr. Veronica Velarde Tiller in The Jicarilla Apache Tribe, the Llaneros and Olleros factions “shared a common culture, but not an overall formal political organization…independent and autonomous political units had leaders, influential persons who acquired their positions through skill and wisdom.” The Llaneros (also called Vaqueros and Carlanas) were hunters and gatherers living on the northeastern plains of New Mexico. Comanches, Arapahos and Cheyennes had pushed the Olleros out of the Great Plains region. The Olleros settled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where they learned farming, weaving and pottery making from the neighboring Pueblos and readily adopted many facets of Hispanic culture.
Hoping to persuade the peaceful factions of the tribe to not support the Llaneros, Christopher “Kit” Carson, who was recently appointed Indian agent at Taos and who had dealt with the Jicarillas in the past (see “Kit Carson’s Ride” in the April 2007 Wild West), held council with the leaders of the Olleros band on March 26. The Olleros chiefs told Carson that they sought peace and had not participated in the fight with Bell. They stated that their men were afraid to hunt lest settlers confuse them with the warlike Llaneros. Carson knew that keeping the peace meant getting food to these people. He told them to make their camp near the Pueblo of Picuris while he went to Santa Fe in search of wheat and corn. Chief Francisco Chacon oversaw the loose confederation of the Olleros. Despite Kit Carson’s plea for the tribe to stay put at Picuris until he returned from his meeting with the governor, Chacon’s people were unnerved by the movements of U.S. troops in nearby valleys and slipped away from their camp.
Major George Blake, the commanding officer at Cantonment Burgwin, an Army post 10 miles southwest of Taos, believed that the sudden movement of Olleros indicated that they were trying to join the Llaneros. He made a clumsy attempt to take four Olleros prisoners; these men initially agreed to come to the fort but soon fled. On March 29, 1854, Blake ordered Davidson to take a company of dragoons to locate and observe the movements of this fugitive band of Olleros. Blake instructed him to prevent the band from crossing the Rio Grande, but to avoid a fight if possible.
Davidson had encountered this band while on patrol a couple of weeks earlier and was less than impressed with their weaponry of bows, lances and a few old muskets. He boasted to brother officers at Fort Union that these cowardly warriors would be no match for his veteran company of dragoons. Hearing this boast, Bell assured the lieutenant that the Jicarillas “were not cowardly, to say the least.” Brushing aside Bell’s caution, Davidson reiterated his boast as to what he would do to the Indians should the occasion present itself.
On March 30, Kit Carson would be meeting in Santa Fe with Acting Territorial Governor William Messervy to discuss the Olleros’ desire for peace with the white men and their need for food. Confident that the proximity of Lieutenant Davidson to the village would cause the Olleros to remain peaceful, Major Blake absented himself from the post and rode to Taos to partake of some mountain man liquor known as Taos Lightning.
AT DAWN’S FIRST LIGHT
Lieutenant Davidson’s dragoons mounted up at dawn on the 30th and left their encampment at Cieneguilla, a village made up of one Roman Catholic church and scattered ranchos. The 60 men (Company I and a detachment of Company F) rode about a mile north along the river on the Embudo-Taos trail and then turned eastward into a narrow canyon. The canyon acted as a stethoscope—the clatter of hundreds of iron-shod hooves upon the rocky streambed, the loud rattling of weaponry, tin canteens, tin cups and horse equipage echoed from the canyon floor and was heard in the Jicarilla encampment. As the first rays of the morning sun warmed them, warriors secured weapons and made plans to defend the village. Meanwhile, women, children and the elderly gathered their belongings and fled south into the relative safety of the nearby woods and gullies.
Riding in advance of the column, Corporal Richard Byrnes with a detachment of six men discovered the Jicarillas camp perched on a ridge 100 feet above the canyon. As the troopers approached, chants and war cries rang among the rocks. First Sergeant William Holbrook, a seasoned veteran of many battles with the Comanches, Apaches and Utes, heard these cries, turned in his saddle and exclaimed, “Look out men, that is a war whoop and we’ve got to fight.”
Davidson, riding at the head of the main formation with his brother-in-law Dr. David Magruder, held his right hand high, and the troopers halted. From atop the ridge came a defiant cry in English, “Come on up if you want a fight!” The gauntlet had been thrown and the lieutenant, a proud Virginia-born descendant of a Revolutionary War general, decided to meet the challenge directly. He ordered his men to dismount and approach the village on foot. It was a serious tactical blunder.
Mobility of force is the raison d’etre for mounted troops. From earliest of times, cavalry has used mobility to outflank and overpower foot soldiers and to swiftly retreat when necessary. A man fighting from horseback holds the advantages of greater height, speed and inertial mass over an opponent on foot. Cavalry is also at a decided disadvantage when fighting on broken ground. Davidson should have kept his troops mounted and approached from the south or southwest, instead of ordering a direct ascent on foot up the precipitous ridge. In addition to his weapons, the dragoon was encumbered by a bulky leather cartridge box, a small pouch containing percussion caps, a haversack for rations and a wooden canteen.
Davidson’s attack went as prescribed in Pointsett’s 1841 Cavalry Manual: One trooper out of a section of four men, referred to as the “number 4,” would keep mounted while each dismounted trooper passed reins over his horse’s head, tying them to the halter of the horse on the right. In this manner the remaining mounted trooper secured control of three horses belonging to the dismounted troopers and would take these mounts to the safety of the rear. Davidson divided the men into three platoons. A small detachment consisting of the “number 4” horse holders and Dr. Magruder was ordered to remain behind to guard the horses. Sergeant Holbrook took command of the right platoon and advanced up the wooded slope on the village’s left flank. Sergeant William Kent commanded the second platoon and advanced uphill on the right flank.
The two platoons went into action awkwardly, advancing up the slope at a near crawl, the men’s smooth leather soles slipping on loose soil, broken terrain and vegetation. As they reached the crest, Kent’s platoon formed itself into a line and charged left oblique into the encampment. Some shots rang out from the village, and the sergeant fell dead. The dragoons replied with an uneven volley that struck a few Jicarillas.
The dragoons quickly secured the camp, and the troops began to loot it. From below the hill could be heard the cries that the horse holders were under attack. Davidson, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy’s Class of 1845, had attended a course in tactics taught by the cantankerous Professor Dennis Hart Mahan. He was about to receive a postgraduate lesson in tactics that he would never forget. The Jicarillas, in the classical maneuver of Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, had invited their foe’s advance, and then slipped around the flanks and employed a double envelopment of the enemy.
When Davidson heard that the Jicarillas were in the rear and attempting to run off the horses, he had little choice but to order his men to run back down the slope to lend support to the hard-pressed detachment guarding the mounts. Davidson had chosen a poor site for his defense: The men were positioned in a low hollow in an elliptical skirmish line around the horses. Taking cover behind boulders and trees, the dragoons fired with musketoon and pistol at elusive groups of warriors who would suddenly spring from behind concealment, fire arrows and then disappear. These attacks came all down the line, from rock to rock, tree to tree. Even more frustrating to the dragoons was the deadly “shower of arrows” that rained down at them from positions above—well beyond the musketoons’ range.
John Davidson may have had Cieneguilla in mind when he wrote four years later, “Give your soldiers but confidence in the effectiveness of their weapons, and they will give a better account of themselves than [with] those [weapons] they can not trust.” But his troops on that day did not have much confidence in their shoulder weapons. A dragoon fighting on foot chiefly relied upon his Springfield Model 1847 Musketoon, a .69-caliber weapon with an effective range of less than 60 yards. Inspector General Joseph Mansfield reported in 1854 that the musketoon presented “no probable certainty of hitting the object aimed at, and the recoil is too great to be fired with ease.” He concluded that the musketoon was “a worthless arm” and that it had “no advocates that I am aware of” (see “Springfield Musketoon,” in the June 1998 Wild West).
The desperate fight for the horses lasted about 11⁄2 hours. Trooper Peter Weldon, a three-year veteran from Philadelphia, described being so tired from climbing, running and fighting that he “could stand up no longer.” The troops were surrounded and demoralized by what they believed to be superior numbers of warriors. Dragoon casualties were relatively light at this stage of the battle and, although ammunition was starting to run low and fatigue was setting in, they were confident that victory was at hand. When Trooper James Strawbridge asked Holbrook whether he ought to remove the saddle from his dying horse, the sergeant replied, “Wait until we whip the Indians and then it will be enough time to take the kits off of the dead horses.”
Many of the troopers had been wounded and two others now lay dead. With each casualty, each lost mount and each spent cartridge, the dragoons were losing their effectiveness as a fighting force. A dragoon carried about 30 to 40 musketoon rounds in a purse-like cartridge box attached to his belt. In an intense firefight, 30 to 40 rounds of ammunition did not last very long, as frightened troopers shooting at an elusive foe wasted cartridges in wild and undisciplined fire. Also in the heat of battle, a trooper frantically rummaging for ammunition in his cartridge box was likely to drop some cartridges.
“MOUNT AND SAVE YOURSELF”
Davidson consulted with Holbrook, and they decided that the dragoons’ position was fast becoming untenable. The lieutenant told his men, “Mount and save yourself.” The bugler brought up the lieutenant’s horse, and the command mounted. Firing their Colt Dragoon revolvers and Aston horse pistols with good effect, the detachment troops broke out of the smoke-filled enclosure, splashed across the stream and rode 150 yards up a steep embankment on the opposite side of the canyon. Five dead or dying soldiers were left behind.
The Jicarillas did not appear to be following the dragoons, and for the moment the battle seemed to have ended. Halfway up the steep hill, Trooper George Breenwald of Company F, wounded in the fighting below, pleaded, “Please don’t leave me.” Davidson ordered a halt so that assistant surgeon Magruder could tend to Trooper Breenwald. The doctor was unable to stop the bleeding, and the trooper died. With difficulty, the column reached the top of the ridge. After riding along the ridge for about 800 yards, the troopers turned right and headed down the hill and the trail to Cieneguilla.
The Jicarillas anticipated the lieutenant’s movement and were in good position to attack the battered command from all sides as it attempted to descend southwesterly from the ridge. Holbrook organized a dozen dismounted skirmishers to protect the column. Safely positioned beyond the range of musketoon fire, the Jicarillas fired volleys of arrows at the dragoons, who, silhouetted against the sky, made for easy targets.
Holbrook was struck in his shoulder by an arrow, which Corporal Benjamin Dempsey promptly pulled out. The corporal was immediately hit in the leg by a musket ball and had a portion of his thumb shot off. He would survive. Holbrook’s luck ran out as he was pierced by two more arrows, the shaft of one so deeply lodged that only the fletches could be seen. The sergeant faintly cried out, “I am shot and cannot go any further on foot.” Weakened from the heavy loss of blood, Holbrook begged Trooper Strawbridge to bring up his trusty mount. While attempting to place his foot in the stirrup, the gallant sergeant fell over backward and died.
Davidson galloped about from point to point, displaying great bravery, attempting to rally his weary and panicked men. When an arrow struck the lieutenant down, Corporal Byrnes came to Davidson’s aid and pulled out the arrow. As Byrnes did so, an arrow struck him.
With their supply of ammunition nearly depleted, the troops madly spilled the contents of cartridge boxes of dead comrades, seeking cartridges. Trooper Weldon was struck in the right arm with an arrow and could only fire his pistol with his left hand. Trooper James Bennett, who had joined the dragoons in 1849 under the assumed name of Bronson, was wounded when a rifle ball entered the fleshy part of his left thigh and traveled upward, ending in the upper right thigh near the groin. He tried to run for his life before fainting due to the extreme pain and loss of blood. Regaining consciousness, Bennett somehow managed to get between two horses and, seizing a stirrup in each hand, was dragged half a mile to safety. With most of their horses lost, the survivors were forced to either walk or mount two men to a horse. Late that afternoon they reached the relative safety of Cieneguilla. The Jicarillas, who had their own casualties to worry about, did not follow the soldiers.
The next day, officers and scouts surveying the battlefield saw that the path of retreat was marked with the scattered bodies of 17 men who had perished while attempting to flee. The Santa Fe Gazette later reported that Chief Chacon had told the territorial governor, “The Americans killed a chief, Pechaco [sic], and a ball [was] cut out of the entrails of a woman, who survived. A nephew of Lobo was also killed. About fifty Indians were killed at Cieneguilla.”
A total of 22 dragoons were killed in this action and another 23 wounded. Two dragoons would later die of wounds while being cared for at Cantonment Burgwin. Davidson reported losing about 45 out of the 60 horses that his command had started out with on that March morning. He would soon recover from his wounds and go on to a successful career as a general of volunteers in the Union Army. After the war, he became lieutenant colonel of the 10th Cavalry buffalo soldiers and soon acquired the nickname “Black Jack.” On March 20, 1879, he was promoted to colonel of the 2nd Cavalry and served at Fort Custer in Montana Territory. John Davidson died in St. Paul, Minn., on June 26, 1881, at age 57.
Sergeant James Bronson (aka Bennett) deserted shortly after giving testimony at the court of inquiry. He avoided capture by traveling through the Mexican state of Chihuahua, returned to New York, studied medicine and later served as an Army surgeon. Sergeant James Strawbridge soldiered on with the 1st Dragoons for another six years. In 1860, while stationed with Company B at Fort Tejon, he deserted. Corporal Byrnes, an Irish-born tough from New York, would survive his arrow wound at Cieneguilla, only to fall as colonel in the 1864 Battle of Cold Harbor.
And what of the Jicarillas? By exhibiting great tactical skill and bravery, they had inflicted a major defeat upon one of the U.S. Army’s finest regiments. Perhaps the Indians had won too well. An editorial in the Santa Fe Gazette on April 29, 1854, called upon the Army to inflict upon the Jicarillas the severest punishment, “even to the extent of destroying the tribe entirely.” On April 4, 1854, a strong Army column under the command of Lt. Col. Phillip St. George Cooke took the field. Chief Chacon had fled west, hoping that the rugged terrain in Rio Caliente Canyon would provide his band with a measure of protection.
On April 8, Army scouts discovered the camp, and Cooke attacked, capturing the pony herd, burning the village and killing five warriors. More than a dozen women and children perished as they attempted to flee through the snow. In observing the suffering of the noncombatants, the hard-bitten Colonel Cooke was later moved to write, “The tracks of bare and diminutive feet left a feeble memorial of their suffering.”
In an April 12, 1854, letter to Acting Governor William Messervy, Kit Carson complained bitterly that the Jicarillas had been “driven into war, by the action of officers & troops.” Regardless of the injustice of the conflict, Carson promptly offered his services to the Army. On June 4, he acted as a guide for a 1st Dragoon column under Brevet Major James Carleton that attacked and destroyed a Jicarilla encampment near Raton Pass. The Army’s relentless pursuit of the Jicarillas continued well into 1855. In the end, the Jicarillas were dispossessed from their lands and left in impoverished bands, barely surviving.
In 1883 the two Jicarilla bands—the Olleros and Llaneros— were moved to the Mescalero Reservation, but they found little good land remaining, and many left for their old territory to the north. The government granted them an official home in 1887, but little of the land was any good for farming. By the 1920s, many Jicarillas had turned to herding sheep. In 1937 the tribe organized a formal government and adopted a consitution. Headquarters for the reservation is in Dulce, N.M.
Will Gorenfeld is a retired attorney with the state of California who enjoys researching and writing about the U.S. dragoons. For further reading on the Antebellum era in New Mexico Territory, he suggests: James Bennett’s Forts and Forays, Durwood Ball’s Army Regulars on the Western Frontier and his own blog at www.musketoon.com. Dave Johnson’s archaeological report appears in Douglas Scott’s book Fields of Conflict.
Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.