LOVE’S DEFEAT: The Battle of the Coon Creeks
By Will Gorenfeld and George Stammerjohan
ed December 8, 2003
First Lieutenant John Love, commanding Company B, 1st United States Dragoons, felt he was in a rut that winter of 1846-47. The year before, as a 2d Lieutenant, he was on recruiting duty in Dayton, Ohio. Hearing that the war with Mexico had begun, in May of 1846, the young officer sent off a flurry of letters to his superiors requesting permission to close down the recruiting station and join my Company should my Regiment be ordered into the field.—In due course, authorization was granted and, on July 29, 1846, the hard-riding Lt. Love caught up with Colonel Steven W. Kearney’s Army of West near Bent’s Fort. A few days later, he marched with Kearney—™s column into Santa Fe, New Mexico. The bloodless conquest of New Mexico had been accomplished, and Lieutenant John Love was ordered back to Dayton to again seek dragoon recruits.
Lt. Love desperately sought to recruit a full company of men so that he might return to New Mexico before the fighting was over. On December 20, 1846, the Lieutenant wrote to Roger Jones, the Army’s grandfatherly Adjutant General, expressing how “extremely anxious” he was “to fill the Company which fortune has given me the command”and that he expected to take the field by April 1, 1847. Finding recruits in a hurry was not going to be an easy task. Lt. Anderson Nelson of the regular Sixth Infantry, one of Love’s West Point classmates, complained to him in February of 1847 that, after “pegging away since some time last summer and [he had] done any thing but a ‘land office’ business” finding Hoosier recruits for his regiment.
By 1847, much of the nation was fast growing weary of a war that seemed to have no end in sight. Nearly a dozen volunteer regiments had already been raised in the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, stripping the landscape of those young men willing to fight a war in a distant land. The volunteer regiments offered cash bounties and short terms of enlistments. Equally valuable as an inducement was the regulation that permitted company officers of the volunteer regiments be selected by a democratic vote of the men. In contrast, officers of the regular regiments gained their commissions by way of a presidential appointment.
In February of 1847, Lt. Love was in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his recruiting flag draped from a balcony of the Drake Hotel. He placed an advertisement in the local Indiana State Journal there requesting the wartime services of men of good character, between the ages of 18 and 35, in the elite United States Dragoons. “Only those who are determined to serve the period of their enlistment, honestly and faithfully” need apply. The advertisement promised each recruit eight dollars a month, good quarters, the best of medical attention, as well as a “large supply of comfortable and genteel clothing investigate this site.” The recruiting laws, now having been changed by Congress, made service in the regulars somewhat more attractive. Upon enlistment, the regular recruit would be paid a bonus of six dollars and receive another six dollars when he joined his regiment for duty. A recruit was now allowed to opt for a shorter term of enlistment: “duration of the war.”
The 1st Dragoons were a mounted regiment; the volunteer regiments, for the most part, were infantry. Lt. Love knew that he had an ace in the hole and he was quick to play it–pointing out to the Hoosier farm boys the glory of their becoming splendidly clothed and mounted “bold dragoons”–whose military status, uniform and bearing was unquestionably superior to that of the humble and often ill-clad “dough foot” of the volunteer regiments. When Love’s bright-eyed recruits arrived at Newport Barracks, Kentucky, however, they found there were no horses available and, worse, infantry officers were daily putting them through the wearisome close order drill of the foot soldier. Included in the John Love collection at the Indiana Historical Society is a letter from three recruits from Indianapolis expressing their “not inconsiderable dissatisfaction prevailing in regard to our having no officers of our own company with us.” The trio complained that, “[w]e are here drilled in the infantry squads [by Infantry officers], and obliged to do duties that we believe we would be exempted of.”
Meanwhile, a detachment of 25 Company B recruits who had been recruited by Lt. Leonidas Jenkins in St. Louis were doing much better than their Indiana and Ohio counterparts. These men had been sent to nearby Jefferson Barracks and there drilled by Lt. Jenkins of the 1st Dragoons. He wrote to Lt. Love that the recruits from Missouri were “as good men as ever were enlisted.” In early March of 1847, the Lt. Jenkins scared up some horses and new model Grimsley saddles for these troops and marched them westward to Fort Leavenworth.
Of all of the branches of the service, the mounted arm of the nineteenth century military was the hardest to train. It is one thing to teach a soldier how to march and fight while on foot and quite another to instruct him how to march, attack, and rally while mounted. In addition, the mounted trooper must learn how to care for, feed, groom, and saddle his mount.
The 1841 manual for the training of dragoons contemplated that the typical recruit would spend his first six weeks in dismounted drill; the next twelve weeks learning to ride; and five weeks learning to ride in military formation. But due to the immediate need for reinforcements in Santa Fe, this regimen would be ignored for Company B. Most B Company recruits would be expected to learn in less than two months’ time the skills that a dragoon usually learned in six.
Although the troops were untrained and horses scarce, two seasoned non- commissioned officers would drill the recruits once they reached Fort Leavenworth. German-born First Sergeant Frederick Muller had been with the Dragoons since 1834. Thirty-five years of age and standing six foot-one inch, Sgt. Muller commanded the respect of his commanding officer. Lt. Love would write of Sgt. Muller, “whether in battle, in camp, or on the march, he is energetic and soldierly; never in one instance have I known him to neglect his duty.” Pennsylvanian Benjamin Bishop also had joined the Dragoons in 1834. At five foot ten inches, tough and literate, he was a born leader of men and a skilled horseman.
Company B was also fortunate to have Bugler Langford Peel in its ranks. The son of a career soldier, Peel was “practically raised in the army” and at seventeen years of age he enlisted in the Dragoons. Percival Lowe, who served with Peel from 1849-1854, described him as being “naturally bright, clear headed, cheerful and helpful always . . . a perfect horseman, possessing unlimited courage and endurance, he was a man to be relied on and trusted in every emergency.”
The recruits had barely settled into its quarters in the two-story brick barracks at Fort Leavenworth when the troop received orders to escort the paymaster and $350,000 in gold coin to New Mexico. Also joining the expedition would be Navy Lieutenant John K. Duer, who was carrying important dispatches for the Pacific Squadron in California. On June 7, 1847, B Company took the salutes of Colonel Clifton Wharton, paraded out of the fort and headed west. George Ruxton, an English cavalry officer and adventurer, observed Company B on its march. He was less than impressed with what he saw and wrote that although “superbly mounted” ‘on full-blooded sorrels, these men were “soldier like neither in dress nor appearance.”
Although Lt. Love, in his six years of military service, had never commanded a troop in the field and his men were untrained, he was certain that the Comanche tribesmen would not be so foolish as to attack this large force of armed Dragoons. In 1843, while on an expedition on the Plains, he wrote, —œ6 men could have kept off 500 Indians as they never approach within gun shot.— He would be soon proven wrong.
Prior to the commencement of the Mexican War, Native Americans living near the Santa Fe Trail raided only the smaller trading caravans. Experienced traders traveled in large numbers and heavily armed. These trains were rarely attacked. But this all changed during the years 1846-1848, as the Santa Fe Trail became the highway of conquest as a vast stream of troops and supplies headed west along the 873-mile road that coursed the Plains from Ft. Leavenworth to Santa Fe. As the number of expeditions proliferated during the war, the travelers not only polluted the streams and spread contagion, but consumed the sparse grasses, wood, water, and game along the trail. Starvation and disease became more widespread among the tribes and they began to assault nearly every caravan, supply train, and body of troops that traveled on the Santa Fe Trail. By year—™s end, 47 travelers would be killed, 330 wagons destroyed, and 6,500 head of stock plundered.
A few days out of the fort, Indian Agent Thomas “Badhand” Fitzpatrick, making his way back to his post at Bent’s Fort, overtook the Dragoon column and traveled with it. Fitzpatrick, a trapper, guide, scout, and Indian agent, had ranged the frontier since 1823. The late historian David Lavender credits Fitzpatrick as being “one of the openers of the West.”
Indian Agent Fitzpatrick later wrote that the Dragoons and paymaster’s wagon train “traveled along happily and with much expedition, until we arrived at Pawnee Fork, a tributary of the Arkansas River, three hundred miles from Fort Leavenworth.” It was at this point that, on the early evening of June 23d, they came upon the encampment of three large government commissary wagon trains (two westbound and one eastbound). These wagons had been attacked two days prior by a large body of Indians, who left three men wounded. The eastbound train had lost most of its oxen to the marauding Indians and was thereby left without the means of hauling several of its wagons any further. These wagons were burned in order to prevent their contents from falling into the hands of the Indians. Lieutenant Love promised the dejected wagon boss that he would avenge the attack on the train.
Lieutenant Love directed that henceforth, the westbound trains would travel and encamp with the Dragoons for the duration of the trip. Charles Hayden, the 22-year-old captain of one of the government trains chafed at being told what to do by a shave-tail lieutenant. Hayden claimed to have received detailed instructions from the quartermaster at Fort Leavenworth and would take whatever course of action he thought to be prudent.
It took all of the next day for the wagon trains to descend the steep banks, cross the swollen waters of Pawnee Creek, and climb the opposite bank. The next morning, the wagons of Hayden, along with two wagons belonging to civilian trader Henry Miller, were out on the trail at dawn’s light and making good time. Hayden was determined to travel without the interference of a military escort and would beat them into Santa Fe.
The wagon trains traveled along at a brisk pace, making 27-miles that day and, camped on a plain in about a mile from the Arkansas River (what is today about nine and one-half miles west on US 56 near Garfield, Kansas). The dragoons made their camp on the north bank of the Arkansas River. Although the plain was sandy and nearly barren of grasses, the river bottoms provided good grazing for the animals. The treeless prairie was bisected by two washes that flowed into the Arkansas, known as Little Coon Creek and Big Coon Creek.
Lieutenant Love was not pleased by the fact that Hayden and Miller, in attempting to shake off the army and its wagons, had placed their wagon trains about 500 yards to the west of the Dragoon camp. In the event of a raid, Love’s soldiers and their short-ranged weapons could not effectively protect these wagons and stock. He planned to speak to Hayden tomorrow about the need to camp within supporting distance of the other wagon trains and troops.
In the pre-dawn hours of June 26, 1847, Lieutenant Love mounted and rode to the top of a slight hill. The sky was clear and a slight breeze blew up from the south. This young officer knew that horses and mules should not be allowed to freely graze until it was safe to do so, when no raiders lurked in high grasses of the nearby washes. For the moment, all horses and mules remained tethered to the picket lines.
With the first emergence of dawn, the young officer heard the distant sound of reveille. He saw his troopers slowly forming for the morning roll call and inspection. Looking to the west he noticed that Hayden had turned his oxen out of the corral to graze. Love opened his spyglass for a better view of the countryside. His jaw dropped when he saw well over one hundred Comanche spilling out of Big Coon Creek. Lt. Love could see the teamsters frantically grabbing what few clumsy weapons they possessed and firing wildly at the raiders. The Comanche fought back, wounding three teamsters; within minutes they had stampeded Hayden’s oxen and seized control of the herd.
Spurring his horse down the rise, Lt. Love galloped back to the Dragoon camp and ordered Bugler Peel to sound “Boots and Saddles”. The non commissioned officers barked orders to their sleepy men; horses were saddled; the men were soon smartly standing to horse, under arms, awaiting further orders. It was Lt. Love’s intention to recapture the oxen so he ordered his detachment to mount. Just then he saw about 150 Comanche splashing across the Arkansas River with the intent of attacking his camp. Faced with this new danger, Love ordered his men to dismount and fight as skirmishers.
A ragged volley from the massed Hall carbines drove most of the Comanche out of range. Sgt. Benjamin Bishop, the veteran trooper, fired his Hall carbine and killed the horse of one warrior. A pull on the Hall’s fishtail lever opened the breech of his carbine. Tearing open a paper cartridge and spilling its powder and ball into the chamber, Bishop slammed the breech shut, and capped his weapon. Before he was able to take aim, two riders gracefully swooped down; each grabbing an arm of the fallen warrior, and carried him away to safety.
Lieutenant Love placed Sergeant Benjamin Bishop in command of 25 Dragoons and ordered him to retrieve the stolen oxen. Bishop, who had been with the Dragoons since 1834, must have had a sense of apprehension. Taking a small detachment of green troops, mounted on unseasoned horses, with orders to pitch into over one hundred of the world—™s finest horseman, was pure folly, to say the least. But orders were orders.
Bishop dutifully trotted his men out of camp and brought them to within one hundred and fifty yards of the raiders. There he halted and formed his small detachment into line. The sergeant was about to order an advance when he noticed a large body of well-mounted Comanche fast approaching to his rear. Armed with lances, bows and firearms, these warriors had crossed the Arkansas River and cut off the Dragoons’ avenue of retreat.
Outnumbered twenty to one, Bishop realized that his only real chance for survival was to keep his formation intact. In this manner, the massed volley fire from 25 carbines and pistols might sufficiently rattle the enemy just long enough to allow his detachment to charge to the rear. Sgt. Bishop ordered, “Left about, march!” Wheeling a line of 25 horses 180 degrees on a parade ground is not an easy task for a detachment of unskilled horsemen. Attempting this tricky maneuver while on restive mounts and under attack was near impossible.
The army-issued curb bit of the 1840’s was designed so that a Dragoon need only to gently tug at the reins in order to gain control of his mount. The curb bit had the opposite effect should an untrained rider, attempting to turn or stop a horse, pull too hard upon the reins. It is fair to assume that many of the novice troopers frantically tugged at the reins, causing their horses to run wildly out of control.
The Comanche waved blankets, blew on bone whistles and yelled to further panic the horses. Several of the Dragoon horses, being new to the service and unaccustomed to the pandemonium of combat, soon became wholly unmanageable and bolted. Given the chaos that followed, all manner of military formation was lost and it was now every man for himself.
Sergeant Bishop fired his carbine and then discharged his horse pistol. There was not time to reload and so he drew his saber. Finding himself beset by several warriors and struck in the side by a musket ball, Bishop pointed his saber forward in “tierce point,” spurred his mount, and rushed headlong into his foes. Later he would recall that he “made his saber . . . drink blood”; the lanky sergeant hacked and parried lance thrusts, fended off blows from buffalo hide shields, somehow fighting his way back to the safety of the Dragoon encampment. Five members of the detachment were not as fortunate. Troopers Jonathon Arledge, John Dickhart, Moses Short, George Gaskill, and Henry Blake were killed. (Gaskill, having enlisted at Edinburgh, Indiana, on April 17, 1847, had been in the army for just over two months.) Five other troopers, Henry Vancaster, John Lovelace, Thomas Ward, James Bush, and Willis Wilson, although badly wounded, were able to cheat death and escaped. Fourteen Dragoons somehow managed to reach the camp without suffering any serious wounds.
Although Bugler Peel later boasted that he killed three warriors during the fray, the Comanche seem to have endured only a few casualties in the half-hour fray. They were content to take all of Hayden’s oxen and before departing, mutilated three of the dead Dragoons and absconded with their clothing, equipment, arms, and horses.
The Dragoons were forced to remain encamped at the Coon Creeks to tend to the wounds suffered by six troopers and because of the lack of sufficient teams of oxen to pull all wagons. On the day after the battle, a train of eight wagons was seen approaching from the east. Lt. Love and Fitzpatrick rode out to this train and asked the wagon boss for assistance. Fortunately, this train had a number of spare mules that were for sale and Henry Miller was able to obtain mules to pull his two wagons.
On July 2, 1847, Lt. Love deemed it to be safe to move his wounded. The remaining oxen were redistributed between the two government wagon trains and, in this manner; Hayden obtained enough oxen to pull 13 of his wagons. The caravan, making five to eight miles a day, limped its way towards the small government outpost of Fort Mann. Finding the fort to be abandoned, Love left Hayden and his train behind with instructions that he remain there until a relief party could be sent. The weary and battered Dragoon detachment reached Santa Fe on August 6, 1847.
When word of the battle reached “the states”, newspapers were quick to call the battle “Love’s Defeat” Indeed, for recklessly ordering Sgt. Bishop to attack overwhelming numbers of Comanches with untrained troops, Lt. John Love had displayed the same arrogance that would later spell the doom of the commands of John Grattan, William Fetterman, and George Custer. Agent Fitzpatrick and Sgt. Bishop, nonetheless, wrote accounts in which they commended the manner in which he handled his troops during the battle with the Comanche. Fitzpatrick was quick to fault the wagon captain for not following Love’s order to place his camp next to that of the two other wagon trains. He was “very certain that, if Hayden had obeyed the order of Lieutenant Love, no such misfortune would have happened.”
In his report, a wiser and chasten Lt. Love wrote that the Comanche were “the most expert horsemen in the world, they are enabled to make an attack, alarm the animals, and be out of sight in an incredibly short time.” He concluded that, “in an attack, it is nearly as much as a company of dragoons can do to prevent their horses from taking a “stampede.”
Seven months later, Lt. Love would redeem himself at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales in Mexico, where Company B, converted into a battery of artillery, performed gallantly in the battle. Sergeants Muller and Sergeant Bishop (the latter still recovering from the wound he had suffered at Coon Creek) each ably commanded a section of artillery. The war ended, but Company B garrisoned the town of Chihuahua, Mexico until July 16, 1848. After thirty-four days of marching, they entered Santa Fe, wheeled their horses smartly into line on the town plaza, and dismounted. Between August 19th and 24th the —œwartime service— men received their discharges and went home. In a period of fifteen months, these Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri farm boys had marched across two thousand miles of harsh terrain and fought in two battles. In the finest tradition of the United States Dragoons, they could now proudly claim to be veterans.
Company B was broken up and its few remaining enlisted men transferred to Company G. Lieut. Love and the non-commissioned officers headed east in search of a new batch of recruits. In 1849, Sergeant Muller donned the scarlet trimmed jacket of an Ordnance Sergeant. He served in this capacity until his death in 1861 at Fort Wood in New York harbor. Sergeant Bishop was discharged in 1849 and gained employment at Fort Leavenworth as a civilian forage master for the army. Bishop later became a successful cattleman in the town of Weston, Missouri.
John Love was brevetted to the rank of captain for his heroism at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Rosales. He resigned his commission in 1853. Returning to Indianapolis, Love embarked upon a career as a railroad construction contractor. During the Civil War, he was briefly commissioned as a Major General of Indiana volunteers. After the war he spent most of his remaining years as the European agent for the Gatling Arms Company.
To read more on the post war exploits of B Company, the reader might wish to consult Percival Lowe’s Five Years a Dragoon.For information on the Santa Fe Trail during the Mexican War, the authors recommend “Dangerous Passage” by William Chalfant, published by the University of Oklahoma in 1994. The authors wish to express their deep appreciation to Betsy Caldwell (Collections Assistant) at the Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana, for supplying them with previously unpublished letters that are quoted extensively in this article.
WILL GORENFELD, an attorney for the State of California and member of the Company of Military Historians, has been the author of articles on the First United States Dragoons. He lives in Ventura, California.
GEORGE STAMMERJOHAN, grew up in the farming community of Turlock, California. From 1974 through 1998, he worked as a State Historian II with the California Department of Parks and Recreation where he authored several historical articles on California and military history. Among his interests is the role of the Spanish, Mexico, and the U.S. military in early California. George resides in Sacramento, California.
The United States Dragoons
Dragoons are horsemen who are trained to fight both on foot and while mounted. The United States Regiment of Dragoons was formed in 1833 for patrolling the Great Plains region. In 1836, a second regiment of Dragoons was formed to fight the Seminoles in Florida. The 3d Dragoons were created for the Mexican War and disbanded at the end of the war.
The typical Dragoon was a —œmoving arsenal and military depot.— Secured by a leather sling over his left shoulder hung a .52 caliber Hall carbine—”a percussion breech-loading smooth-bore carbine of limited range and impact. In his pommel holster was a single shot Model 1836 flintlock horse pistol in .54 caliber. This foot-long weapon was wildly inaccurate and it was said, —œ[I]n practicing marksmanship it was never wise to choose for a mark anything smaller than a good sized barn.—
From his buff belt was slung the Model 1833 saber. Troops complained that this saber would warp —œrubber-like around a man—™s head and was only good for cutting warm butter.— He also carried on his person a cartridge box, a small pouch containing percussion caps, a haversack for rations, and a wooden canteen. Attempting to mount, while weighed down by all of this unwieldy equipage, could be a daunting task. Company B was able to obtain the new Grimsley saddle and horse equipment.
As for the —œgenteel clothing— mentioned in the recruiting advertisement, army regulations provided that for dress occasions the Dragoons wore a high collared coatee with a double row of nine brass buttons, trimmed in yellow, light blue kersey trousers, white belts, and a shiny black shako that sported a flowing white horsehair plume and yellow braid. For fatigue duty, Dragoons wore the natty blue woolen shell jacket that was trimmed in yellow along with the Model 1839-pattern dark blue wool forage cap.
“OUR CONDITION IN UNPLEASANT” Newport Barracks 1847
Included in the John Love collection at the Indiana Historical Society is a letter from three recruits complaining about their treatment at Newport Barracks, Kentucky. This did not offend Lt. Love slight to his rank and station: in June of 1847, he promoted George Gibson, one of the signatories, to the rank of corporal. All three of the men would serve honorably in Company B. We have left intact the spelling and grammatical errors contained in the original.
April 2, 1847
Liet Dear Sir
We wish to inform you that our condition is very unpleasant
on account of the absence of our officers. We are here drilled in the infantry
squads, and obliged to do duties that we believe we would be exempted
of, were you with us and on this account there is some, not inconsiderable dissatisfaction prevailing in regard to our having no officers of our own company with us. We would inform you that the discord refered to, has already been the cause of the one of the company—™s —œdeserting—, but we do not think that any who came with us, will, on any consideration be guilty of so base an act, but could you favor us with an officer of our own greater satisfaction would exist, and a greater degree of confidence would be concentrated in you by your men. We consider it right you should know these circumstances and also that is binding on us to inform you of it. Gardener is dead and another one of the Company not expected to recover. We have considered it our duty to write this much.
We remain your friends and Obedient soldiers
John W. George
George W. Gibson
A CALL TO ARMS: Indiana 1846
When it became known that the President of the United States had made requisition upon the States for troops. and in response to a general demand from all parts of’ the county, a meeting of the citizens of the county was called to be held in the City Hall at Dayton the evening of May 21, 1846. The hall was filled with militiamen of the different companies of the county and prominent citizens of the city and townships. Gen. Spiece was called to the chair. and Maj. Thomas B. Tilton. his Brigade Major, was made Secretary of the meeting. Gen. Spiece briefly stated the object of the meeting to be to give an expression of the sentiment of the county on the Mexican war question, and to adopt measures to encourage the enrollment of volunteers. Capt. Luther Giddings of the Dayton Dragoons in response to a call of the meeting. made a patriotic appeal. Short. stirring speeches were. also delivered by Capt. M. B. Walker. of the Germantown Cavalry : by Maj. Tilton. Capt. Lewis Hormell, of the Dayton National Guards (German Company) ; Lieut. Atlas Stout, of the Dayton Gun Squad and Lieut. John Love, of the United States Army, and others.