Kit Carson would not have to deal with the consequences of the cutworm blight. By mid-September 1864, his short tenure as reservation superintendent was over. Although he had been at the bosque only three months, Carson was called away on an even bigger assignment, in some ways the biggest assignment of his career: General Carleton ordered him to venture east onto the plains of Texas to lead a large-scale expedition against the Comanches.
That year the Comanches, along with their allies the Kiowas, had been wreaking unprecedented havoc. In addition to their nearly constant attacks on the Navajos at the bosque, the Comanches had been preying on emigrant wagon trains and army caravans along the Santa Fe Trail. According to Capt. George H. Pettis, a California volunteer then serving in New Mexico, these “lords of the southern plains” had “held high carnival…There was not a week of that whole season, but that some outrage was committed by them.”
The Comanches were now expressly targeting Anglo-Americans. At a place called Walnut Creek in western Kansas, a band of Comanches descended on a wagon train and killed ten white men and scalped two boys alive. In August, Comanches murdered five whites leading a caravan across southwestern Kansas; several Hispanic survivors returned to New Mexico to report that, after the attack, the Comanches boasted they would “kill every white man that came on the road.” The Comanches even threatened to kill General Carleton himself if he ever sent a force after them. An army colonel then serving in New Mexico wrote: “You cannot imagine a worse state of affairs than exists now on this route.”
The stepped-up rampages of the Comanches may have been an echo effect of the Civil War. Army authorities believed, on the basis of credible evidence, that Texas Confederates had incited the Comanches to attack wagon trains in the hope of disrupting Union supply lines. Whether or not Texans were indeed the ultimate source of the trouble, the Comanches by late summer of 1864 had nearly succeeded in halting the mails and cutting off Carleton from his superiors back east. The general fretted: “We have been greatly embarrassed in getting supplies from the States.”
Trying to run an enormous military department during the fevered height of the Civil War, Carleton knew that something had to be done to fend off these attacks. And who better to do it than Carson? He had succeeded against the Mescaleros and the Navajos—why wouldn’t he also succeed against the Comanches?
So Carleton gave Carson his next assignment, flattering him that “a great deal of my good fortune in Indian matters here—in fact nearly all—is due to you.” Now, the general said, Carson must turn his attention to the Comanches and do his utmost “in punishing these treacherous savages before the winter fairly sets in.”
In truth, Carson was physically not up to another campaign in the field. He was now constantly in pain. People who knew him commented on the marked change in his appearance. He’d lost weight and his eyesight was steadily worsening. Like a raisin, he appeared to be wrinkling and withering from within. A close acquaintance wrote that “his face seemed haggard and drawn with pain,” as though a disease “had fastened itself upon him.”
Carson knew that any campaign against the Comanches was likely to be strenuous as well as risky. He had fought several skirmishes with the Comanches over the years and had enormous respect for their prowess in battle. Arriving on the southern plains sometime in the 1700s, this Shoshone-language people had developed elaborate warrior societies and were known to gather and fight in large numbers. Though Comanches had caused nearly constant troubles since the conquest of 1846, the U.S. Army had sent only one modest punitive mission to fight them in the heart of their own country, but the expedition had returned unsuccessful.
It was an encounter with the Comanches that had produced what was perhaps the most colorful story in the whole compendium of Carsonian tall tales. Sometime in the 1830s, while hunting buffalo on the plains east of Bent’s Fort, Carson was surrounded by a large band of Comanches on horseback. While still mounted, he reached around his own mule’s neck and slashed its throat with his knife. The mule dropped to the ground and promptly expired. Using the carcass as a makeshift barricade, Carson took up his rifle and proceeded to fight off wave after wave of onrushing Comanches. He could not shoot them all, however, and some of the warriors drew perilously near. But when they did, their horses smelled the fresh blood of Carson’s mule and became spooked. They halted in their tracks and would advance no farther. Finally, the exasperated Comanches gave up and galloped away across the prairie.
Whether this story is actually true—Carson doesn’t mention it in his memoirs—it was widely told and widely believed. And it served to illustrate a larger truth: Like so many men who had lived and traveled in the Southwest, Carson had nearly lost his life fighting Comanches. With the possible exception of the Blackfeet, he believed they were the fiercest Native American tribe one could encounter. They’d killed Jedediah Smith and Robert Bent, the youngest of the Bent brothers. They’d killed many other men Carson had known over the decades. Carson did not need to be reminded that the only thing worse than being killed by Comanches was being caught by them: Their tortures were too grotesque to contemplate.
Still, Carson did not hesitate to take on the assignment. In some ways it was the same old pattern; his sense of duty all but compelled him to accept General Carleton’s call. Yet there was more to it than that. Carson’s three months at Bosque Redondo had convinced him that the Comanches were now the greatest menace in the territory. Their attacks on the struggling and virtually defenseless denizens of the bosque threatened to derail the fragile project he had set in motion, while their depredations on the Santa Fe trail threatened to halt the very supplies necessary to ensure the reservation’s immediate survival. He felt he had no choice but to go after them.
For Carson, the Indian wars were thus increasingly assuming a vicious, self-perpetuating pattern: Each engagement seemed to beget another. In order to keep the Navajos and Mescaleros safely on the reservation, he needed to pursue their common enemy. In order to preserve his two earlier victories, he now needed to secure a third.
On November 12, 1864, Carson left New Mexico for the plains of the Texas panhandle with some 400 men, including 75 Utes serving as scouts. His well-armed force was composed of two companies of cavalry, one company of infantry, and a battery of two 12-pounder mountain howitzers. Carson rode a beloved racehorse and wore a thick wool greatcoat.
Unlike during the Navajo campaigns, General Carleton had given Carson wide latitude to direct the course of the action. Carleton made it clear that he wanted no women or children killed—at least not “willfully and wantonly”—but otherwise, it was Carson’s fight to win or lose and to prosecute as he saw fit. On the subject of strategy, Carleton offered few words: “You know where to find the Indians, you know what atrocities they have committed, you know how to punish them.” Carleton did not want Carson to make peace, only war. “You know I don’t believe much in smoking with Indians,” the general wrote. “They must be made to fear us or we can have no lasting peace.” At this point, Carleton suggested, all treaties with Indians were but “theatricals simply for effect.”
The timing of the expedition was deliberate. Through the summer months and on into early fall, the Comanches lived a scattered existence, roaming the plains in small bands in search of migratory buffalo and whatever loot might present itself. But by mid-November they began to concentrate for the winter, setting up their lodges in extended villages along a few creeks and rivers. This was the time to catch them all in one place, Carleton knew. In their villages they could be “easily overtaken,” the general wrote, for they would be encumbered “by their families and by their stores of food.” They would be, in other words, sitting ducks.
They marched east for nearly two weeks through chilly but not unbearably cold weather, loosely following the course of the Canadian River. Each night as the men set up camp and bedded down, the Utes erupted in war dances. “Their groans and howlings became almost intolerable, it being kept up each night until nearly daybreak,” Captain George Pettis writes in a published article that has proven to be the best account of the expedition.
Tramping over the Staked Plains, the column of men passed the spot where in 1849 Carson had found Ann White’s still-warm body. He told the story of that sad day to the officers who rode with him, narrating the events in what Pettis described as a “graphic manner.” Literally and figuratively, Carson had been over this same ground, and he seemed to have ominous feelings about what was to come. One night on the march, while the Utes danced and keened their war songs, Carson had a dream about a great bloody battle, with the mountain howitzers thundering in the sky. When he woke up the following morning, he sensed that this battle was at hand.
And he was right. It was November 24, a day that President Lincoln had recently declared a new national “Thanksgiving” holiday. The weather was bright and crisp, the atmosphere “rarefied and electrical,” by Pettis’s description. That morning Carson’s Utes caught sight of the Comanche lodges—tepees of bleached buffalo hide shimmering bone-white on the drab plains. The scouts returned in the afternoon and reported to Carson that large encampments—with many hundreds of Comanches and Kiowas—were sprawled on the south bank of the Canadian River. Carson told his officers that “we will have no difficulty finding all the Indians that we desire.”
That night Carson ordered a moonlight march. For hours the men crept along in the blackness. Carson would permit no talking or smoking or unnecessary noise. Around midnight they dropped into the rugged gash of the Canadian River, where they found a deep-worn trail freshly left by the Comanche and Kiowa horses. There they waited in silence until the first streaks of dawn broke across the wintry sky. Rallying his men, Carson threw off his heavy overcoat and tossed it in the brush, to be retrieved later. Then he resumed the march, with his Utes now in the lead, decorated in feathers and painted for war.
As they pushed ahead, the thick grass and driftwood clogging the banks slowed the gunners who pulled the mountain howitzers, and they fell behind the rest of the troops. Carson sent Maj. William McCleave ahead with a company of cavalry to attack a smaller Kiowa village of some 200 tepees, a kind of suburb of the larger Comanche camps farther downriver. As McCleave and his men charged the village, the Kiowa warriors, led by a chief named Little Mountain, held their ground only long enough to allow their women and children to scatter and hide along the river.
Carson’s troops destroyed the village, whose tepees, Pettis said, were found to be “full of plunder, including many hundreds of finely finished buffalo robes.” The lodges weren’t entirely empty, it turned out. A chief named Ironshirt refused to leave and was shot at the door of his tepee. Elsewhere, the Utes found four elderly Kiowas cringing in their tepees; the Utes promptly split their heads open with axes.
It was discovered that the Kiowas had been holding at least three American captives: a Colorado woman and her two children, whom the Indians had kidnapped during a recent attack on a wagon train passing through Kansas. The prisoners were nowhere to be found, but as Carson’s soldiers ransacked the village, they found the clothing of an American woman as well as children’s clothing and photographs of a Caucasian family. Carson’s men made a bonfire of all the belongings they did not seize, including a U.S. Army ambulance and a wagon that had been stolen from a government caravan. Soon the village was engulfed in flames.
In the confusion, Kiowa riders had dashed downriver to the larger constellation of Comanche villages to gather reinforcements. Soon several hundred warriors were massing on the plain, their riders bolting this way and that. Periodically they made what McCleave described as “severe charges.” Pettis recalled how the warriors rode “with their bodies thrown over the sides, at a full run, and shooting occasionally under their horses.” Far outnumbered now, McCleave had clearly bitten off more than he could chew and realized he needed to find a defensive position.
Not far away, only a few hundred yards from the river, stood an old abandoned fort known as Adobe Walls. The Bents had built it years earlier as a satellite outpost of their then extensive empire, using it as a safehouse from which to carry on trade with the Comanches (who, because of their mutual hostility with other Plains tribes like the Arapaho and Cheyenne, were not allowed to camp near Bent’s Fort). Now Adobe Walls was nothing but a tumbledown ruin, its ramparts warped and sagging. Still, it was a well-known landmark on the plains, one that helped wayfayers orient themselves as they rode across the featureless solitudes.
Carson, who had joined McCleave’s company in the advance, decided to make the old bastion his base. It was a place he knew well from his years spent working for the Bents, a relic of his younger days as a buffalo hunter. Inside its high crumbling walls, he corralled the horses while his surgeon hastily set up a hospital. All around the ruins, he had his men sprawl in the high grass and fight as skirmishers.
Then, training his field glasses on the horizon, he saw something terrifying. Behind the Kiowas, a much larger wave of Indians was assembling. Fourteen hundred warriors, perhaps more, most of them Comanche, had gathered on horseback and seemed poised to make a great charge.
Luckily for Carson, the mountain howitzers had caught up to the company. He ordered the gunners to occupy a knobby hill outside Adobe Walls and unlimber the two artillery pieces. Then, with a sweeping gesture toward the mustering warriors, Carson told his artillerymen, “Throw a few shell into that crowd over thar.”
“Number one—Fire! Number two—Fire!” The twin howitzers boomed, and the Comanches and Kiowas rose high in their stirrups in astonishment. They waited and listened intently as the first shots lobbed skyward, then exploded wide and short of their mark. The warriors wheeled their horses and galloped away. By the fourth firing, they had moved safely out of range of the shells.
The howitzers had done their work, and the immediate danger had passed. “They won’t make another stand,” Carson reassured Pettis. In the welcome lull, Carson ordered his men to gather around Adobe Walls and then to rest and eat—something they hadn’t done in twenty straight hours.
The soldiers had a meager haversack lunch of dried meat and hardtack—“starvation would be averted for a season at least,” one allowed. After lunch, Carson planned to push downriver and attack the Comanche villages, one by one. But then he noticed something alarming taking shape on the blond plains. He had been wrong: The Comanche and Kiowa allies were massing again, this time in far greater numbers. As he watched the situation develop from his remove at Adobe Walls, Carson became increasingly anxious. Three thousand mounted warriors had emerged from the Comanche villages.
In a few short minutes Carson was facing one of the largest engagements of Native American fighters ever gathered in the West. Certainly Carson had never seen such a concentration of warriors. His men were outnumbered nearly ten to one.
Painted for battle and riding what Carson judged to be “first-class horses,” most of the warriors were armed with bows and lances, though many had rifles. Wave after wave raced toward Adobe Walls, then circled back and mounted another assault, firing under the necks of their galloping horses as they constantly revised their angle of approach. For hours the battlefield was enveloped in a haunting chorus of ululations, the mingled war cries of Comanches, Kiowas, and Utes “yelling like demons,” as Pettis put it. With each sortie, Carson’s men fell farther back to the safety of the ruins, defending their position with a furious crack of carbines and a determined shelling from the howitzers.
Still the Indians kept coming, Carson wrote, “repeatedly charging my command from different points, but invariably repulsed with great loss.” One howitzer shell passed cleanly through the body of a warrior’s mount (killing the horse, but not the man), and then resumed its trajectory, exploding another hundred yards deeper on the plains. Little Mountain, the Kiowa chief, also had his horse shot out from under him, in his case by rifle fire, yet he continued to exhort his men from the ground. Whenever the warriors drew within range of the mountain howitzers, the Indians were now careful to disperse and attack in smaller numbers so as not to present an easy target for shrapnel. Other warriors dismounted and fought lying down in the high grass, “making it hot for most of us by their excellent marksmanship,” Pettis writes.
Watching the fighting, Carson was increasingly alarmed. The Comanches and Kiowas had been aroused to a hornetlike fervor. Carson later said that they “acted with more daring and bravery than I have ever before witnessed.”
A young man of the New Mexico Volunteers was lying prone and firing in the grass outside the ruins when a rattlesnake bit him in the hand. He was taken to the hospital, where a doctor cleaned the wound and gave the soldier a drink of whiskey. The dazed New Mexican returned to the fight and later killed a Comanche who had sallied too close. Before the comrades of the deceased warrior could circle back and collect the body, the New Mexican scrambled out to the field and took his scalp. Remarkably, it was the only scalp taken that day.
The battlefield was not without its comedy. Months earlier, one of the Kiowa warriors had somehow acquired an army bugle and learned to play it well. Whenever Carson’s own cavalry bugler sounded “advance,” the Kiowa, unseen in the dusty throngs of horsemen, would sound “retreat.” This caused great confusion until Carson’s men finally discerned the location of the mysterious second bugler.
The fighting raged into the afternoon, with many Indian casualties—it was, Carson judged, “a great slaughter.” The American wounded, however, numbered less than a dozen. This astonishing statistic was owed in part to Adobe Walls itself, which had proven to be a superior defensive position. But it also spoke of Carson’s coolness under fire. Throughout the day he urged his men to stay calm and steady, to ignore the warriors abroad on the field and focus on each wave as it came. If they had shown any weakness, if the lines had faltered just once, the Comanches would have overrun them with sheer numbers.
But it was the mountain howitzers that made the crucial difference. If not for their presence on the battlefield, Carson said, “few would have been left to tell the tale.” Carson biographer Edwin Sabin surmised that “had it not been for the two cannon, this Thanksgiving time fight might have made Josefa a widow.”
Through the afternoon the warriors kept pressing in on all sides. Although he enjoyed a temporary advantage in firepower, Carson knew that he could not hold out indefinitely—and that the Indians could.
Then Carson did something singularly intelligent: He retreated. Some of his officers urged him to push forward and attack the Comanche villages as planned, but he now judged such a move to be foolhardy, if not suicidal. “It was impossible for me to chastise them further at present,” he euphemized in his official report.
Speaking more frankly, though, he later admitted to a friend: “The Indians whipped me in this fight.”
Executing a retreat would be tricky enough. The column would have to vacate Adobe Walls, slink down to the river, and head west like an ungainly centipede, somehow protecting itself as it slowly backpedaled. His troops assembled in a long column, with the horses held in the middle, skirmishers flanking all sides, and the howitzers poised for use and trundling along in the rear.
The Kiowas and Comanches did not let up—on the contrary, Carson said, they “now commenced the most severe fighting of the day.” Through the late afternoon, as the column made its crawl along the Canadian, Carson thought the “Indians charged so repeatedly and with such desperation that for some time I had serious doubts for the safety of my rear.” The Comanches started a grass fire along the river and used the smoke as a screen to tear at Carson’s flanks without being seen. One of his men was shot and lanced, and many others were injured. The smoke and heat grew so intense that Carson and his men had to climb out of the river valley and march on the bluffs, where at least he could clearly see what he was up against.
At dusk the howitzers were put to use again. The shells whistled in the twilit skies, and finally the warriors began to relent. Satisfied that they had taught this white army a lesson, they rode back along the Canadian toward their villages and their families.
The battle of Adobe Walls was the last fight of Kit Carson’s life. By most measurements he had been defeated. The Comanche-Kiowa alliance had resoundingly driven him from the field. Had a few things gone differently, the battle could have ended in the total slaughter of his men, a debacle that would have dwarfed Custer’s last stand at Little Bighorn twelve years later.
But luckily for his men, Carson was no dashing glory-hunter. Through his caution and good judgment, he shows us just how differently his martial mind worked from that of George Armstrong Custer. Carson understood that the first definition of victory is survival. He was outnumbered ten to one, on a battlefield that lay 250 miles from his base. These were not good odds.
And yet his casualties were remarkably low: Only three of his men died that day, and 21 reported wounded. The Kiowas and Comanches, on the other hand, had lost more than 100 warriors, with perhaps as many as 200 wounded, and Little Mountain’s village had been utterly destroyed. One Carson biographer thought the battle was a classic “coup” for Carson in the traditional sense understood on the plains—a victory won “exactly in the style the Indians understood: entering enemy territory, inflicting damage, and retiring with little loss.”
General Carleton, when he received word of the battle, went so far as to call Adobe Walls “a brilliant affair,” and complimented Carson for the “handsome manner in which you all met so formidable an enemy and defeated him.” The general said that Carson’s campaign added “another green leaf to the laurel wreath which you have so nobly won in the service of your country.”
This was plainly an overoptimistic assessment. But if Adobe Walls was a defeat, Carson was at least able to view it as an acceptable one as he limped home to New Mexico during the last cold week of November. In the confusion of his withdrawal, he had completely forgotten about the greatcoat he had tossed on the ground by the Canadian River, so now he rode wrapped in a buffalo robe that had been taken from the destroyed Kiowa village. Fearing that the Comanches and Kiowas might return, he marched all through the night. The following day, when he finally decided the coast was clear, he gave in to his exhaustion and ordered his men to set up camp. He had been in the saddle for four days straight, and his mount was in sorry shape. When he removed the saddle, the horse’s skin came with it.
Four days later, at another remote location on the southern prairie, another American army descended on a village of Plains Indians. A band of Cheyenne led by a chief named Black Kettle had made their winter camp along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado, not far from the ruins of Bent’s Fort. Because Black Kettle had shown peaceful intentions and a willingness to negotiate, U.S. Army officials had promised to afford him protection that winter and even gave him an American flag to fly over his camp.
But on November 29, a force of Colorado Volunteers appeared on the winter plains. They were led by Col. John Chivington, the former minister who had made a name for himself in the battle of Glorieta. Without provocation, Chivington attacked Black Kettle’s village at dawn, ignoring both the American flag and the various swatches of white cloth the Indians held up in desperation. The slaughter was beyond horrendous. More than 150 Cheyenne, mostly women and children, were murdered in cold blood that day, in a massacre that is now widely regarded as the worst atrocity committed in all the Indian wars. When someone questioned Chivington’s policy of killing children, the “Fighting Parson” is said to have replied, “Nits breed lice.”
Chivington returned to Denver in triumph. At a theater his men paraded their war trophies before the cheering crowds: Scalps, fingers, tobacco pouches made from scrotums, purses of stretched pudenda hacked from Cheyenne women. The Denver newspapers praised the Colorado Volunteers for their glorious victory. “Posterity will speak of me as the great Indian fighter,” Chivington gloated, adding, “I have eclipsed Kit Carson.”
When Carson learned of the massacre upon his return from Adobe Walls, he was appalled. He knew the Cheyennes well and was personally acquainted with many of the victims. Later, he denounced the massacre during a conversation with Col. James Rusling, an army inspector who, though no sentimentalist on the subject of American Indians, faithfully documented Carson’s tirade, dialect and all. “Jis to think of that dog Chivington and his dirty hounds, up thar at Sand Creek,” Carson told Rusling.
His men shot down squaws, and blew the brains out of little innocent children. You call sich soldiers Christians, do ye? And Indians savages? What der yer ’spose our Heavenly Father, who made both them and us, thinks of these things? I tell you what, I don’t like a hostile red skin any more than you do. And when they are hostile, I’ve fought ’em, hard as any man. But I never yet drew a bead on a squaw or papoose, and I despise the man who would. I’ve seen as much of ’em as any man livin’, and I can’t help but pity ’em, right or wrong. They once owned all this country yes, Plains and Mountains, buffalo and everything. But now they own next door to nuthin, and will soon be gone.