History of the First Dragoons

by admin on March 6, 2004

THE FIRST REGIMENT OF CAVALRY.*
By CAPT. R. P. PAGE WAINWRIGHT, 1ST U. S. CAVALRY.


General Stephen W. Kearney

The “United States Regiment of Dragoons” was organized by Act of Congress approved March 2, 1833, becoming the “First Regiment of Dragoons” when the Second Dragoons were raised in 1836. Its designation was changed to “First Regiment of Cavalry” by the Act of August 3, 1861. The first order announcing appointments in the regiment was dated March 5, 1833, and gave the names of the colonel, lieutenant-colonel, major, four captains and four lieutenants, stating that the organization of the regiment would be perfected by the selection of officers from the “Battalion of Rangers.” Headquarters were established at Jefferson Barracks.

The organization of the regiment does not appear to have been completed until June, 1834, the regimental return for that month naming the following officers:

Colonel Henry Dodge.

Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen W. Kearny.

Major Richard B. Mason.

Captains Clifton Wharton, E. V. Sumner, Eustace Trenor, David Hunter, Lemuel Ford, Nathan Boone, J. B. Browne, Jesse Bean, Matthew Duncan and David Perkins.

First Lieutenants P. St. G. Cooke, S. W. Moore, A. Van Buren, J. F. Izard, Jefferson Davis, L. P. Lupton, Thomas Swords, T. B. Wheelock, J. W. Hamilton (adjutant), B. D. Moore, and C. F. M. Noland.

Second Lieutenants James Allen, T. H. Holmes, J. H. K. Burgwin, J. S. Van Derveer, J. W. Shaumburg, Enoch Steen, James Clyman, J. L. Watson, and B. A. Terrett.

Brevet Second Lieutenants William Eustis, G. W. McClure, L. B. Northrop, G. P. Kingsbury, J. M. Bowman, Asbury Ury, A. G. Edwards and T. J. McKean.

Lieutenant Jefferson Davis was the first adjutant but resigned the staff position February 4, 1834, and was assigned to Company A.

In October, 1833, the five companies first organized were sent under Colonel Dodge to winter in the vicinity of Fort Gibson, Arkansas Territory, where they remained until June, 1834.

In June, 1834, the regiment was sent on the “Pawnee Expedition,” during which, although it ended in September of the same year, one fourth of the officers and men of the command died of fevers. On the 6th of August, Colonel Dodge writes to Lieutenant-Colonel Kearny: “I have on my sick report 36 men, four of whom have to be carried in litters. My horses are all much jaded, and would be unable to return by the mouth of the Wishitaw and reach their point of destination this winter season. This has been

*An abridgment of Capt. Wainwright’s “History of the 1st U. S. Cavalry.”

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a hard campaign on all; we have been for the last fifteen days living almost on meat alone. The state of the health of this detachment of the regiment makes it absolutely necessary that I should arrive at Fort Gibson as early as possible, as well as the difficulty of providing grain for the horses. I am well aware you are placed in a most unpleasant situation, encumbered as you must be with sick men, baggage and horses, and regret exceedingly that it is not in my power to help you.”

For the winter, Headquarters with Companies A, C, D and G, were sent to Fort Leavenworth; Companies B, H and I, Colonel Kearny, commanding, into the Indian country on the right bank of the Mississippi, near the mouth of the Des Moines River; and Companies E, F and K, Major Mason commanding, to Fort Gibson.

Throughout the summer of 1835 all the companies of the regiment were kept in the field. The object appears to have been exploration chiefly, for no conflicts with the Indians took place. The regiment performed its duty thoroughly, as was shown by the letter of commendation sent by General E. P. Gaines, commanding West Department, to the regimental commander upon receipt of his report of operations.

Many letters written and orders issued about this time are of great interest and some are very amusing from the force of language used, showing great difference in military correspondence then and now; the court-martial orders are especially interesting on account of the peculiar sentences imposed.

During the year 1836 the general disposition of the regiment remained unchanged. The companies were employed in scouting among the Indians, especially along the Missouri frontier, a portion of the regiment going to Nacogdoches, Texas, for the purpose of keeping off white trespassers from the Indian country, and preserving peace between whites and Indians and among the Indians themselves; also in building wagon roads and bridges. During the winter the companies returned to their stations—”Forts Leavenworth, Gibson and Des Moines.

Colonel Dodge resigned July 4, 1836, and was appointed Governor of Wisconsin. He was succeeded by Colonel Kearny. Major Mason was promoted vice Kearny, and Captain Clifton Wharton vice Mason.

The regiment was not engaged in the Florida war of this year, but Colonel Kearny, being called upon subsequently, reports, March 16, 1844; —””The only officers of the Regiment of Dragoons who died of wounds received or diseases contracted during the late contest with the Florida Indians are 1st Lieutenants J. F. Izard and T. B. Wheelock,” and that no enlisted men of the regiment served there.

The circumstances attending the death of Lieutenant Izard are interesting. Being on his way from the east in January, 1836, to join his regiment, he heard at Memphis of Dade’s massacre. He at once offered his services to General Gaines as a volunteer for the expedition then being organized in New Orleans for Florida, was appointed brigade major of the light brigade organized at Tampa Bay composed of the 2d Artillery, 4th Infantry and the Louisiana Volunteers, and had also the command of the advanced guard assigned him which he retained until he was shot.

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On the 26th of February, 1836, the light brigade left Fort King for Ouithlacoochee, during the passage of which stream an attack by the Indians was anticipated. On the following day the place where General Clinch had his battle of December 25 was reached. Here a sharp skirmish took place and some men were lost. Having learned of a better ford below it was decided to take it. Izard, coming with his advanced guard to the bank of the river, posted his guard and went down the river alone to look for the ford. While wading in the stream he was struck by a bullet in the inner corner of the left eye, the ball passing out near the right temple. He fell, but called out while falling, “Lie still, men, and maintain your positions.” He never spoke afterwards and died on the 5th of March.

First Lieutenant T. B. Wheelock left New York for Florida with a detachment of recruits in February, 1836. He distinguished himself with a portion of these recruits on the 10th of June at Fort Micanopy, and died at that post on the 15th of that month of a fever contracted during his service in Florida.

During the year 1837 the regiment was not called upon for any especially hard service. The usual scouting parties were sent out from time to time, and there were several changes of station, so that in June six companies were at Leavenworth and four at Fort Gibson.

The following extract from an order issued by General Gaines, commanding the Western Division, shows the high state of discipline prevailing in the regiment at this time.

“The First Regiment of Light Dragoons at Fort Leavenworth, recently inspected by the Commanding General, was found to be in a state of police and discipline reflecting the highest credit on Colonel Kearny—”the exemplary commandant, —”his captains and other officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers, whose high health and vigilance, with the excellent condition of the horses, affords conclusive evidence of their talents, industry and steady habits.”

In March, 1837, a regimental order designated the color of the horses of each company as follows:—”A and K, black; B, F and H, sorrel; C, D, E and I, bay; and G, iron gray.

In October, 1837, and again in March, 1838, serious difficulties were reported between the settlers and the Osage Indians, and companies of the regiment were at once sent to the disturbed regions. On the second occasion the rapidity of Colonel Kearny’s movements and the sudden appearance of zoo dragoons in their midst appear to have had a very quieting effect on the Indians, for after his return to Leavenworth Colonel Kearny reports no further danger of trouble with the Osages.

In April, 1839, the post of Fort Wayne, on the northwestern frontier of Arkansas, was established for the purpose of keeping the Cherokees in subjection, and by the end of October Companies E, F, G and K, were stationed there. In this same month Colonel Kearny, with Companies A, B, C, H and I, scouting, visited the post, but in November returned to Fort Leavenworth having marched about 550 miles.

Except that Companies A, C and D, under Major Wharton, were sent to Fort Gibson in December for temporary duty, nothing of any moment occurred to the regiment during the remainder of the year.

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Twice in March and once in September, 1840, the regiment was called upon to overawe the Indians, and the end of that year found the Headquarters with Companies E, F, H, I and K, at Leavenworth; C, D and G, at Fort Gibson; A at Fort Wayne, and B at Fort Crawford.

During the period 1841-45 there is little of interest to record regarding, the movements of the regiments. There was the usual detached service for companies, and changes between Leavenworth, Gibson, Wayne, Crawford and Fort Towson—”on the northeastern boundary of Texas. The records show no engagements or excessive marches, except that in April, 1842, on account of some disturbance among the Cherokees, Colonel Kearny marched his command of five companies to Fort Gibson from Leavenworth, and then made a forced march of 57 miles to Fort Wayne in one day. The records do not show that these Indian disturbances amounted to anything; the Indians made no attacks on the troops and but few on the settlers; still it is fair to presume that the activity of Colonel Kearny and his dragoons held them in subjection, and by their timely arrival at points where trouble was imminent, overawed the savages and prevented bloody wars.

On May 18, 1845, Colonel Kearny with Companies A, C, F, G and K, left Leavenworth for an expedition to South Pass in the Rocky Mountains. The command reached Fort Laramie on the north fork of the Platte, June 14; marched to South Pass and returned to Laramie by July 13; thence via Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas to Fort Leavenworth, where it arrived August 24, having made a march of 2000 miles in less than 100 days. In the order issued to his command after his return from this expedition Colonel Kearny says: “In the length of the march, the rapidity of the movement and the unimportant sacrifices made, the expedition is supposed to be wholly unprecedented; and it is with pride and pleasure that the Colonel ascribes the result to the habitual good conduct, efficiency, and attention to duty on the part of the officers and soldiers of the command.”

At the end of the year Companies C, F, G and K, were at Leavenworth; A at Fort Scott; B at Fort Atkinson; D at Camp Boone, near Beatties Prairie; E and H in camp near Evansville, Ark.; and I at Fort Des Moines. The Headquarters of the regiment were at St. Louis, where they remained until April 23, 1846, when they were returned to Fort Leavenworth.

Colonel Kearny was promoted brigadier general June 30, 1846, and was succeeded by Colonel Mason. Major Wharton was promoted vice Lieutenant Colonel Mason, and Captain Trenor vice Wharton.

Very soon after the commencement of hostilities between the United States and Mexico, preparations were begun for the invasion of Mexican territory at various points. One expedition was to advance from the Missouri River west to Mexico, Santa Fé being its objective point. It was immediately determined, however, to push on with this column and occupy Upper California. General Kearny was placed in command of this “Army of the West,” which consisted of Companies B, C, G, I and K, 1st Dragoons, two companies of artillery, two of infantry and nine companies of Missouri volunteer cavalry under command of Colonel A. W. Doniphan, in all about 1800 men. This command was concentrated at Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas, from which point it marched for Santa Fé, August 1, 1846.

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Some show of resistance to Kearny’s advance was made by the Mexican governor of New Mexico, but Las Vegas was occupied on the 14th, and Santa Fé on the 18th of August without a conflict, the Mexicans retreating upon Kearny’s approach. Leaving Colonel Doniphan in command at Santa Fé, General Kearny took up the march for California September 26, and encamped about 40 miles from San Diego December 5, where he was met by a small party of volunteers under Captain Gillespie, sent out from San Diego by Commodore Stockton to give information of the enemy, of whom there were supposed to be six or seven hundred opposed to Kearny’s advance.


Company B, coming from Ft. Atkinson Iowa Territory, caught up with the expedition at Bent’s Fort. From there the Dragoons marched into Santa Fe and took the town without a shot being fired. Leaving Companies B, I, and G behind in Santa Fe, General Kearney set out with reinforced companies C and K bound for California.

In the predawn darkness of December 6, 1846, at San Pascual, California, Kearny unwisely ordered his troops to charge a force of 160 Californios. In the ensuing battle, the Dragoons, although holding the field at day’s end, were soundly defeated. General Wilcox in his History of the Mexican War says: “At dawn of day the enemy, already in the saddle, were seen at San Pasqual. Captain Johnston charged them with the advanced guard, followed and supported by the Dragoons, and they gave way. Captain Moore led off rapidly in pursuit accompanied by the Dragoons (mounted on horses), and followed, though slowly, by those on tired mules. The enemy, well mounted and superb horsemen, after falling back half a mile, halted, and seeing an interval between Captain Moore with the advance and the Dragoons coming to his support, rallied their whole force and charged with lances. Moore held his ground for some minutes but was forced back, when those in the rear coming up, the enemy were in turn driven back and fled not to rally again. Kearny occupied the field and encamped upon it.The action was severe, the 1st Dragoons losing three officers,—”Captains Moore and Johnston and Lieutenant Hammond,—”and 14 men killed; and about all the dragoons were wounded, principally with lance thrusts. General Kearny himself received two wounds, Lieutenant Warren of the Topographical Engineers, three; and Captain Gillespie of the volunteers, three. Kearny’s battered command reached and occupied San Diego on December 12.

“But few of Moore’s men escaped without wounds. Captain Johnston was shot dead at the commencement of the action; Captain Moore was lanced and killed just before the final retreat of the Mexicans; Lieutenant Hammond was also lanced, surviving the wound but a few minutes; two sergeants, two corporals, and 10 men of the 1st Dragoons, one private of volunteers, and a citizen engaged with the engineers were killed.”

Company B, meanwhile, was recruited back to strength. In June, it was to escort the paymaster on his trip to Santa Fe ordered. Under the command of Lt. John Love. B Troop fought a skirmish against the Comanche on 26 June 1847, at Coon Creek in what is today Western Kansas. The bulk of the men in the company at this time had been recruited in Missouri and Indiana just a few months prior to the battle. In the action, which became known as “Love’s Defeat,” five Dragoon recruits died and six were wounded. The company reached Santa Fe, New Mexico on August 6 with $350,000 in gold specie that they had been escorting.

In explanation of the remark “mounted on horses,” it may be stated that, with a few exceptions, the Dragoons were mounted on tired mules which had been ridden from Santa Fé, more than a thousand miles.

General Kearny with a force consisting of Company C, 1st Dragoons, (60 dismounted men) under Captain Turner, sailors and marines with a battery of artillery, and California volunteers, left San Diego for Los Angeles December 29. He reached and occupied Los Angeles January 10, 1847. The enemy under Governor Flores was encountered at the crossing of the Rio San Gabriel January 8, and on the plains of the Meza on the 9th, on both of which occasions he was routed with some loss. The loss to the Americans was one soldier killed, and two officers,—”Rowan of the navy and Captain Gillespie,—”and 11 privates wounded. With the loss of Los Angeles all resistance to the occupation of this portion of California ceased.

General Kearny had left Companies G and I at Albuquerque under Captain J. H. K. Burgwin. When Colonel Sterling Price (the successor of Colonel Doniphan in command at Santa Fé) learned of the seizure and murder at Fernando de Taos of Governor Bent and five others by the Mexicans (Jan. 20), he moved out against them with a force of about 350 dismounted men and easily defeated them, Jan. 24, at Canada. Captain Burgwin, with Company G, 1st Dragoons, also dismounted, joined him on the 28th, and the Mexicans, numbering about 500, were again encountered on the 29th in a cañon leading to Embudo, from which position they were driven out by Burgwin with a force of 180 men of Price’s regiment and Company G. He entered Embudo the same day.

On the 31st, having united his force, Price moved towards the Pueblo de Taos, which he attacked February 3, but on account of its strength and the stubborn resistance offered, and more especially for the reason that the ammunition for the artillery had not come up, the attack failed. It was renewed on the following morning when Captain Burgwin, with his company of Dragoons and McMillan’s of Price’s regiment, charged, crossed the walls, and attacked the church, which, with other large buildings within the walls, was occupied by a large force of the enemy and was stubbornly defended. While gallantly leading a small party against the door of the church Burgwin received a mortal wound from which he died on the 7th. Company G sustained a loss in this engagement of one officer and 23 men killed. The Mexicans lost 153 killed and many wounded.

During the year 1847 regimental headquarters were still at Leavenworth and Companies A and E were with Taylor in Northern Mexico. Company B was reorganized at Jefferson Barracks in May and sent to Albuquerque, N. M., being engaged while en route with Comanche Indians at Grand Prairie, Arkansas, June 26, losing five men killed and six wounded.

Company F escorted General Scott from Vera Cruz to the City of Mexico and was present at the battles at and near that city. From November 1 to December 20 it was engaged on escort duty between the city and Vera Cruz.

Companies D and K, as well as F, saw service on Scott’s line in Mexico, and in 1848 the three companies returned to the United States and were stationed at various points on the northwestern frontier. In March of 1848, Companies B, G, and I, took Chihuahua and then fought at the battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales on 17 March 1848. These companies returned to Santa Fe in August.

During the year 1849 the regiment lost three men killed and two wounded (one mortally) in Indian skirmishes, the particulars of which are not obtainable.

Brevet Brigadier General Mason, Colonel 1st Dragoons, died at Jefferson Barracks, July 25, 1850, and was succeeded by Colonel Thomas L. Fauntleroy, promoted from the Second Dragoons.

For the next three years there is no record of any important engagement, march or duty, performed by the regiment; in fact, very little attention was given to recording really important fights.

On 30 March 1854, Companies F and I, under the command of 1st Lt. John W. Davidson, attacked a Jicarilla Apache encampment near Cieneguilla, New Mexico Territory. The two companies soon found themselves surrounded and were forced to retreat. In a running battle, the Dragoons lost 24 men killed in action and 22 men wounded. This was the worst defeat inflicted upon the regiment during the Ante Bellum period. Nonetheless, an Army court of inquiry held in Santa Fe, in 1856, cleared Lt. Davidson of misconduct.

Regimental headquarters were transferred to Fort Union, N. M., in July, 1854, and throughout the following year the companies in New Mexico were almost constantly on the move. Colonel Fauntleroy made three expeditions against the Utahs and Apaches, and Companies I and K went with Colonel Miles against the Mescalero Apaches.

Meantime out on the Pacific Coast, Companies C and E took part in the Rogue River war in Oregon. At the battle of “Hungry Hill,” the troops were compelled to retire with a loss of 26 killed and wounded, after fighting a day and a half. In August of 1854, Company A marched from Ft. Miller, California to the Canon de las Uvas and commenced to build Ft. Tejon.

The headquarters of the regiment were established at Fort Tejon, California, in December, 1856, with Companies H and I. At this time Companies B, D, G and K were at Camp Moore, N. M.; C at Fort Yamhill, Oregon; E at Fort Walla Walla, Wash.; F at San Diego, Cal.; and A en route from Ft. Tejon to Benicia Barracks, California.

From this time until the year 1861 scoutings and skirmishes with the Indians were almost incessant, and portions of the regiment were always found where the fighting was going on. Four companies were present with Chandler’s expedition against the Navajos and Apaches in March and April, 1856. In 1856 two companies took part in numerous Indian skirmishes in Oregon and Washington; one was with Wright’s expedition to the Walla Walla country in April, and to the Yakima country in June; later in the year it was out with Colonel Steptoe.

In May, 1858, Companies C, E and H formed part of Steptoe’s expedition northward to the British line which, on the 17th of May, met a force of about 800 Spokane and other hostile Indians and was forced to retreat.

In August of the same year Companies C, E, H and I were with Wright’s column, and administered a severe thrashing, September 1, to the Indians who had defeated Steptoe.

Company D, under the command of Captain Richard Ewell, was in the, field in Arizona in 1858, and E in Oregon in 1859.

Colonel Fauntleroy resigned May 13, 1861, and was succeeded by Colonel B. L. Beall. The various companies of the regiment in California, Washington, and Oregon received orders to travel by ship, by way of the Istmus, to New York. By the Act of August 3 of this year the designation of the regiment was changed to “First Regiment of Cavalry.”


General Stephen W. Kearney

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