Modern history

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Chapter 15

ON THE ALTAR OF THE COUNTRY

In the blast heat of mid-August, the New Mexicans waited for General Kearny. More than three thousand men had answered their governor’s call to patriotism. They had streamed from their villages and ranches and cornfields, rich and poor alike, boys on burros and peasants in their tattered sombreros and old men hobbling on arthritic feet. Chanting Crush the gringo invaders! Stop the infidels!—they toted antique muskets, lances, swords, bows and arrows, clubs. They assembled fifteen miles southeast of Santa Fe in a narrow defile called Apache Canyon, so named because the Apaches had for years used it as a place to ambush wagon trains.

Apache Canyon was the eastern gateway to Santa Fe, a parched and rattlesnakey place well suited for defense: As the Santa Fe Trail passed through its tight jaws, the road became so constricted that travelers could enter only one wagon at a time. From the high rock walls, screened behind trees and boulders, a well-positioned army could rain unmerciful fire down upon any invading force. And so, just as the Americans had suspected and feared, the New Mexicans would mount their final defense here.

After weeks of indecisiveness in the face of conflicting rumors about the size and precise intent of the American advance, the New Mexicans now had to work fast. They hauled some old cannons from Santa Fe and set them up in strategic places along the canyon walls. They stockpiled ammunition. They chopped down trees that obstructed the lines of fire and began to dig themselves in.

They were, all in all, an abysmal army, untrained and laughably ill equipped. But they enjoyed one advantage: They loved their country, most of them, and were keen in their desperation to defend it. They had become convinced that the Americans meant to destroy their ancient way of life, to ravage their women, and even to abolish their faith. Santa Fe was plunged into pandemonium. Many of the clergy packed up and fled. Officials proposed destroying the city’s churches to prevent the enemy from desecrating them as barracks. Wealthy families boarded up their homes and joined relatives in the south. The rest sent their women into the mountains, and then picked up whatever weapons they could find and made their way to Apache Canyon.

For days, as the canyon’s defenders improved their fortifications, dissension brewed in their ranks. No one was quite sure who was in charge, and there were conflicting ideas about how best to hold the canyon. Finally, after many unexplained delays, the governor rode into camp accompanied by a retinue of one hundred presidial soldiers and most of the members of the New Mexican legislative assembly. With his strong presence, it seemed the defenders’ efforts would gain new focus.

The governor, Don Manuel Armijo, was a master of court intrigues who had been in and out of power for years. Having risen through cunning from humble peasant origins near Albuquerque, Armijo had a reputation for shameless corruption. He was not above outright stealing: It was said that as a boy he had made his first wealth by robbing a few thousand head of sheep from a prominent man and then selling them back to him. After the Santa Fe Trail opened, he had finagled a post as the collector of customs, and by levying (and personally pocketing) exorbitant tariffs against the American traders, he had amassed a fortune. By charging $500 for every wagon-load that entered Santa Fe, regardless of the contents, Armijo reportedly collected as much as $60,000 per year.

As governor, Armijo was an avid gambler, a secretive breeder of racehorses, and a composer of florid but deeply cryptic proclamations that left the public not quite knowing where he stood. He was arbitrary in his affairs and thought nothing of stealing from his own people without pretext or provocation. “God rules the heavens,” he liked to say, “but Armijo rules the earth.” One army lieutenant who later investigated him reported that it was “Armijo’s practice, in peace or in war, to seize the person or property of anyone who fell under his displeasure.” Armijo was called a general, but that was just a bit of title inflation he permitted himself; he had no military training whatsoever. Still, he loved to wear flamboyant uniforms—with bright sashes, glinting swords, and feathery plumes. He was a decorous and gracious host. At the Palace of the Governors he would entertain far into the night, always generous with his imported delicacies and decanters of El Paso brandy. Though married, he kept several mistresses. He had a round, jowly face that was not unhandsome, but he was extremely, almost operatically, obese—“a mountain of fat” in the estimation of one English travel writer who passed through New Mexico.

Armijo was, above all, a survivor, and while he put on a bold face, he could be an impressive coward when cornered. “It is smarter to appear brave,” he liked to say, “than to be so.”

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Earlier in the summer, when Armijo first received word that the American army was pressing toward Santa Fe, the “general” behaved strangely. First, he kept to his quarters and did nothing at all. Then he hastily held a meeting of prominent officials in which he called for “a great sacrifice on the altar of the country” while simultaneously indicating that any resistance was doomed. At one point he even asked his own ministers, to their shock, “whether I ought to defend New Mexico…or not.”

Shortly after that, he secretly entertained an American emissary sent ahead by Kearny, offered him a sumptuous meal, and patiently considered his arguments. The emissary was James Magoffin, brother-in-law of Susan Magoffin, still recovering from her miscarriage back at Bent’s Fort. President Polk himself had given the savvy trader what amounted to plenipotentiary powers to negotiate a deal with Armijo. He had come straightaway from Washington to Bent’s Fort with high-level orders cloaked in absolute secrecy.

In early August, James Magoffin left Bent’s Fort with a small escort of dragoons. A jovial sophisticate, he traveled in style as was his wont, puffing opium and sipping claret in his carriage as he sped to Santa Fe. Behind closed doors at the Palace of the Governors, Magoffin may have offered Armijo a considerable sum of money if he would promise not to take up arms. Whether the governor accepted this outright bribe has never been proven, and the details of their conference are shrouded in conjecture. But given everything that is known about Armijo’s rather legendary venality, and his erratic behavior leading up to the American invasion, it seems quite likely that he did.

Even while he was hosting Magoffin, the governor liquidated his own considerable business holdings and cleaned out the church coffers. Then he sent a series of formal letters to Kearny through express runners. These oddly worded messages seemed to float opaquely somewhere between capitulation and tepid defiance. “You have notified me that you intend to take possession of the country I govern,” one of Armijo’s letters read. “The people of the country have risen en masse in my defense. If you take the country, it will be because you are strongest in battle. I suggest you to stop…and we will meet and negotiate on the plains.”

Armijo was stalling for time. He was shrewd enough to keep his true intentions to himself. He wrote nothing down—he was, in fact, only half literate. But, truly, he found himself in an impossible situation. His government was bankrupt. His army was a joke. If he put up a fight, the Americans would surely have him hanged. His only slender hope was for his superiors in faraway Chihuahua to send up military reinforcements, and when by mid-August those failed to arrive, he was left in a fretful predicament—“forced,” as one historian put it, “to heave from position to position.”

Other New Mexican leaders, however, unequivocally insisted that Governor Armijo defend the homeland—to the last man, if necessary. Foremost among these stalwarts was Col. Diego Archuleta, an influential politician and a courageous soldier who was Armijo’s second-in-command. In temperament and character, Archuleta was the very opposite of Armijo. For him, it was not a question of whether the war could be won; it was simply a question of honor. Archuleta was astounded that Armijo could even think of deserting the cause. At all costs, the New Mexican people must repulse the invaders, or die trying.

Archuleta had been the prime mover in mustering the volunteers who assembled at Apache Canyon, and he was optimistic about their success. He realized that the American lines of communication, not to mention its supply trains, were now spread out over many hundreds of dismal, Comanche-infested miles. Kearny’s troops must surely be hot, hungry, sick, and demoralized, their livestock jaded, their will to fight withering under the high plains sun as they marched a thousand miles from their home. Besides, the New Mexicans outnumbered Kearny’s force by more than two-to-one. If they had time to get themselves properly dug in, Apache Canyon would be nearly impossible to breach.

The faithful defenders at Apache Canyon, by and large, were not privy to Armijo’s behind-the-scenes vacillations; as far as they knew, their governor remained a staunch protector of the province. That was, at least, the pose he had assumed in public. On August 8, Armijo had circulated a war proclamation that sounded, on its surface, like a clarion call: “Fellow Patriots,” it read, “the moment has come at last when the country requires from her sons the bottomless sacrifice which circumstances claim for her salvation.” He asked them to show the “highest devotion to homeland,” assuring them that “he who actually governs you is ready to sacrifice his life and interests in defense of his beloved country.” On the other hand, anyone who closely parsed the governor’s call to arms may have detected undertones of equivocation. At one point Armijo urged his subjects to “seek victory…if it be possible, for no one is obliged to do what is impossible.” He told the citizens that, regrettably, they would have to foot the bill themselves, and then basically left the whole matter in their hands: “Your governor is dependent upon your pecuniary resources, upon your decision, and upon your convictions.”

On August 16, as the governor rode into the mouth of Apache Canyon, he wore one of his snappiest uniforms and straddled a prized horse that groaned under his staggering weight. He surveyed the breastworks his men were constructing and seemed to like what he saw. He mouthed a few encouraging words about the coming battle. Armijo was a good thespian and knew how to rally a crowd. But even while he bellowed and spluttered and shifted his “mountain of fat” in his beautiful silver-trimmed saddle, restlessly working his horse’s ribs with the enormous rowels of his spurs, the governor seemed troubled, his gaze distracted by far-off concerns.

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