The volunteers hailed from small towns and villages, places like Independence and Liberty and Excelsior Springs, and from many unnamed crossroads in the central Missouri Valley. They numbered more than sixteen hundred men in all, farm boys and preachers’ sons and apprentices from the green hills and river bottoms. In a pique of patriotism, they left their gristmills and their blacksmith shops and their young wives. President Polk in Washington called for volunteers to fight against Mexico, and the men of Missouri resoundingly answered the call. With whatever weapons and horses they might possess, they sped to Fort Leavenworth, the frontier stronghold in far eastern Kansas that was then the remotest outpost of American military power.
Here, in May 1846, they mustered into regiments and camped in the grass not far from the banks of the Missouri River, where whistling steamboats churned the turbid waters, occasionally off-loading passengers. Each morning soldiers from the U.S. Dragoons—the mounted infantrymen who were the precursors to the U.S. Cavalry—rode over and conducted martial exercises for the benefit of these volunteers, drilling them in close order, in saber and bayonet techniques, in marching and charging and marksmanship. The dragoons were commanded by a firm, regal man named Stephen Watts Kearny, then a colonel and soon to be a general, and a legendary figure on the Western plains. Kearny’s soldiers began to winnow these fresh recruits, a task that at first appeared nearly hopeless. “The raw material is good enough,” one lieutenant wrote, despairingly, “but then it is, in truth, very raw.” In a few short weeks, however, this ragtag was turned into a semi-respectable column of soldiers, which, collectively, would be known as the Army of the West.
On the eve of their departure in June, hundreds of families of the volunteers gathered around Fort Leavenworth to say their good-byes, not knowing if they would ever see their sons and brothers and husbands again. Tearfully, the Missouri ladies presented the assembled companies with American flags to carry into battle, each banner painstakingly sewn by hand. Offering one such flag, a Mrs. Cunningham from Clay County addressed the crowd of volunteers. “We would rather hear of your falling in honorable warfare,” she said, “than to see you return disgraced by cowardice.” One by one, the leaders of the various companies rose to accept their flags, pledging that their men would not shirk their duty.
“Death before dishonor,” one of them declared. “The love of country is the love of God.”
Then, the next morning, the Army of the West began to march, the miles of men and animals kicking up plumes of dust along the rutted road. They moved on horseback and on foot in columns stretching across the plains, with yoked teams of oxen pulling Pittsburgh wagons filled with ammunition and salt provisions and hardtack. Nearly fifteen thousand head of cattle and oxen started out from Fort Leavenworth. Trains of pack mules huffed along, too, burdened with the components of mountain howitzers and other pieces of artillery. With the morning sun at their backs, the Missourians marched under banners of E PLURIBUS UNUM.
Conestoga axles creaked under their loads as the barrels of molasses and bacon and meal rattled in the wagon beds. Drovers cracked their whips at the ox-teams, crying “Catch up! Catch up!” The trail smelled of lathered sweat and fresh excrement and urine, the sour musk of a living army. At the distant head of the column, the report of pistol fire was periodically heard, as the riders in the vanguard cleared the path of rattlesnakes, whose dens were then rife on the prairie.
Kearny’s army followed the same grooved highway that Kit Carson had taken twenty years earlier: the Santa Fe Trail. The two-month journey would be arduous and kidney-punishing, but at least the route was sure. This long thread across the prairie, meant for commerce but now invested with military significance, was conveying an army intent on conquering huge sweeps of the West.
Not long out of Fort Leavenworth, the last cornfields and villages of American civilization fell away, and the country opened up. The men would not see another house or settlement for nearly eight hundred miles. They had entered the expanse often marked on maps as “The Great American Desert,” a void on the western edge of the country that was thought to have no practical use other than as a preserve for Indians—tribes that had long lived on the prairie as well as those which, like the Cherokee, had been forcibly relocated from the East. In fact, the Great Plains was not considered fully part of the United States at all, properly speaking, but rather a perpetual wilderness, officially designated as the “The Permanent Indian Frontier.”
As the men of Missouri marched into this lonely grassland, their sense of isolation deepened, for they had no means of communicating with the world they knew. Although telegraph wires had begun to link the larger cities along the eastern seaboard, no lines came anywhere near the prairie—nor trains, nor even express mail coaches with which to speed urgent messages back home. When a soldier took a fever and died, as happened often during the long march to New Mexico, he was buried in a shallow grave in the fine loess soil of the prairie, not far from the trail itself. The corpse was wrapped in a blanket, and then in an American flag, and as part of a frontier protocol of uncertain origins, the deceased man’s saddled horse was brought to the graveside to honor him, with the man’s boots dangling upside down in the stirrups. After a three-gun salute, soldiers tamped stones into the burial dirt to discourage wolves, but were careful not to pile them so high as to pique the interest of any wandering Plains Indians, who sometimes desecrated frontier graves.
As the Army of the West followed the trail, the country took on a strange and beautiful spareness. Grasshoppers snapped in the open expanses. Timber grew ever more scarce, until it played out altogether and the men were swallowed in a circumference of primeval grass—rosinweed, bull’s-eye, redroot. Occasional slashes of sandbar willow greened along the meandering creeks, but otherwise the land was as featureless as the rolling ocean.
John T. Hughes, a young volunteer from Liberty, Missouri, and a schoolmaster, was moved by the spectacle of the Army of the West as it advanced upon the prairie. He observed that the “boundless plains, lying in ridges of wavy green, seemed to unite with the heavens in the distant horizon. As far as vision could penetrate, the long files of cavalry, the gay fluttering banners, and the canvas-covered wagons of the merchant train, might be seen winding over the undulating surface.” But the romance soon wore off for Hughes. A week into the journey the march became “slow and tedious,” he said. “The mules and other animals, being mostly unused to the harness, often became refractory and balky. The grass was tall and rank, and the earth in many places so soft that the heavily loaded wagons would sink up to the axle.”
Stephen Watts Kearny was the natural candidate to command the Army of the West. Cautious, pragmatic, a stickler for discipline, the fifty-two-year-old colonel (who would learn of his promotion to brigadier general while on the trail to New Mexico) was one of the finest and most intelligent officers in the American army. Kearny had three strenuous decades of experience on the Great Plains, exploring and policing the grassland solitudes that Thomas Jefferson had acquired from Napoleon in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; Kearny understood the prairie’s peculiar hardships, its bizarre weather and wildlife, and its overwhelming sense of isolation. By spurred horse or cordelled keelboat, Kearny had traveled many thousands of miles across the West, navigating the Missouri and the Yellowstone, the Arkansas and the Red. Along the way he’d built forts, completed maps, signed treaties, trained armies. He had served under legendary names of the frontier—among them Col. Henry Dodge and Col. Henry Leavenworth. Kearny was married to the former Mary Radford, stepdaughter of the great explorer William Clark.
Though an Easterner with certain patrician tastes, and a lover of fine wine, Kearny had embraced the rough ways of the frontier. He relished bear meat and badger and elk. He thought nothing of making thousand-mile tramps—the previous year, 1845, he had led an unbelievably brisk march from Fort Leavenworth to the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains and back, a twenty-two-hundred-mile trek that he was able to complete, without a single casualty, in ninety-nine days. He was perfectly content to hunker through the harsh winter at some godforsaken post on the periphery of the known world. He fondly remembered the winter of 1840, at Leavenworth, when the ink in his fountain pen froze solid while he was writing a letter, the thermometer reading 23 degrees below zero. On innumerable occasions he had smoked the pipe with Indians, learning their manner of speaking, their penchant for metaphor; he once flattered a Sioux chief by complimenting him on the “soaring eagle of your fame.” During a council with Oglala Indians, he heartily partook of the local delicacies—boiled dog and blood-tinged river water from the paunch of a buffalo.
Kearny perceived, with a clarity rare among frontier soldiers of his generation, that alcohol was destroying the American Indian. Everywhere he went on the prairies, in his summits with the Plains tribes, he made “firewater” one of his central themes. “You have many enemies about you but this is the greatest of them all,” he once said in council with the Sioux. “Open your ears now and listen to me. Whenever you find it in your country, spill it all upon the ground. The earth may drink it without injury but you cannot.”
Kearny’s experience with Plains Indians was vast and yet, so rare in the brutal history of the West, his encounters were happily uneventful. Among the Plains tribes he was known as Shonga Kahega Mahetonga, Horse Chief of the Long Knives. He’d dealt with the Crows, the Blackfeet, the Chippewa, the Mandan, the Pawnee, the Winnebagos, the Potawatomi, the Sac and Fox, and scores of other tribes and moieties—almost always without bloodshed. Sometimes he fought against them, but more often he tried to referee the various Plains tribes in their time-honored wars against one another—or in their newer wars against the freshly arrived Cherokees, Chickasaws, and other so-called “civilized tribes” that the United States had force-marched from the East in the 1830s to live in the immense, if vaguely defined, Permanent Indian Frontier. Not surprisingly, the tragic U.S. policy of transplanting woodland Indians with an entirely alien culture and grafting them by fiat onto the unfamiliar world of the prairie had pried open a Pandora’s box of tensions—tensions that Kearny spent the bulk of his years as a young officer trying to understand and, to the extent possible, resolve. As one historian succinctly put it, Kearny and his contemporaries in the frontier army were charged with the thankless task of “imposing a Pax Americana on the entire artificial, ill-amalgamated Indian nation which the government had created.”
A diplomat by nature and an officer possessed of a Job-like patience, Kearny was the right man for this kind of work. His career was marked by persistence, discretion, and tolerance. There was about all his actions a distinct “absence of swashbuckling,” as biographer Dwight Clarke phrased it. It was that quality, perhaps more than anything else, that kept his invasion of New Mexico in 1846 from devolving into a disaster.
Kearny was a small-statured man with a Roman nose and scrolls of graying hair sweeping back from a high squarish forehead. His discerning eyes, bulging slightly under fleshy hooded lids, seemed to look through his men and out toward a great beckoning future. In his no-nonsense army journals, he wrote precisely in a neat, unflorid hand. An army historian once called Kearny “the strictest disciplinarian in the service—bland in his manners, but of iron firmness.” His orders, said one Missourian, “came like claps of thunder in a clear sky.” Ulysses S. Grant, who as a young lieutenant served under Kearny in the early 1840s, thought him “one of the ablest officers of the day,” a man able to keep discipline “at a high standard but without vexatious rules.” Kearny was fond of issuing proclamations that were circulated among his officers and read aloud to his men almost like sermons. “An army,” declared one, “is a mob of the worst kind unless properly governed & restrained. Soldiers are commissioned to perform high duties for the glory of our country & such duties can only be performed through rigid discipline.”
His training sessions were legendary. During a marching exercise at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Kearny’s horse lost its footing and pinned him to the parade ground, but Kearny, unfazed, continued to bark orders from beneath the horse until the drill was over. As an authority figure, Kearny could be witheringly stern. He once wrote his son Charles a letter imploring him to stick with his schoolwork. “If you do not study so that you can make a living by some profession,” he warned, “you will be compelled to starve.”
Kearny seemed to reserve his softer emotions for horses. He was, above all, an equestrian. He doted on his mounts and saw to it that they were always immaculately shod and curried. He loved to breed and race them. He abhorred the rough treatment of animals then prevalent in the army. Kearny was the commander of the U.S. Dragoons at Fort Leavenworth, the elite unit of mounted soldiers created in 1833 to police the Western borderlands (the name “dragoon” derived from the so-called “dragon” guns carried by a venerable French mounted outfit on which the dragoons were loosely based). Kearny had personally recruited and shaped this fabled precursor to the United States Cavalry from its very inception. It is because of this that historians would later call Kearny “the father of the American cavalry.” Not surprisingly, the largest part of Kearny’s training concerned the care and handling of horses. In the first manual of the U.S. Dragoons, which Kearny wrote, he urged that each soldier always be “very careful to avoid alarming or disturbing his horse.” A soft-spoken man by nature, Kearny advised the dragoon to speak to his mount in a low, even voice, almost a whisper.
The frontier was a long way from his roots. Stephen Kearny came from a well-to-do New Jersey family. His father was a successful wine merchant in Newark, and his mother descended from a prominent family of established Knickerbockers; her father, John Watts, was one of the founders of the New York Public Library and the first president of New York Hospital. Kearny studied the classics at Columbia for two years before hurriedly enlisting, in 1810, to fight in the looming war with Britain. His keen rush to join the army before graduating from Columbia may have reflected his desire to expunge the legacy of his father, who, as a British loyalist, had been imprisoned and then lived in humiliating exile during the Revolutionary War. The young Kearny burned to prove his patriotism against the same hated royals to which his father, a generation earlier, had so embarrassingly clung.
In one of the early battles of the War of 1812, at Queenston Heights on the Niagara River, Lieutenant Kearny distinguished himself for bravery during an action that involved clawing up the nearly vertical banks of the Niagara to take a British position on a high hill. In this stirring but ultimately ill-fated battle led by Major General Van Rensselaer, Kearny fought alongside another figure who would become famous during the war with Mexico, Winfield Scott. Years later, General Scott recalled how the young Kearny “gained the peak of the hill” at Queenston Heights and had “driven the enemy from the field,” scattering the British and their allies, the Mohawks. It was, Scott said, “one of the most brilliant engagements of the war.” The next day, however, Scott and Kearny, along with nine hundred other Americans, were captured by the British. The POWs were marched in disgrace to the old French Citadel in Quebec to serve what proved to be a brief captivity of four months.
One colorful story from Kearny’s imprisonment has been passed down. At the Citadel, American officers were occasionally allowed to dine with British officers. During dinner one night, an intemperate Englishman proposed a toast to the president of the United States. “To Mr. Madison, dead or alive!” he shouted, hoisting a glass. To which Lieutenant Kearny is said to have risen and boldly declared, “To the Prince of Wales, drunk or sober!” The dining hall erupted in shouts and near fisticuffs before the British officer who proposed the first toast was carted off and arrested.
After the War of 1812, Kearny decided, apparently against his parents’ wishes, to make a career in the military, and as he steadily rose in rank, he ventured ever westward, assigned to a series of increasingly remote posts, first in the Great Lakes region, and then on the Missouri River. Except for a very brief stint in New York City, Kearny would never serve again in the East.