Lt. David Bell, of the 2d Dragoons had engaged in several skirmishes with the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches. When he heard of the attempts to cover up Lt. John Davidson’s defeat at Cieneguilla in 1854, Bell could not contain himself and wrote the following letter to a West Point classmate condemning Davidson’s action.
In 1855, a furious Davidson asked for and received a Court of Inquiry which whitewashed his defeat. Recent archaeological studies performed by David Johnson of the US Forest Service have much vindicated many of Lt. Bell’s claims.
Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas Territory
December 27th, 1854
Dear William [Lt. Robert Williams]:
The mail from N.M. arrived here two days since and I was truly gratified to hear from you. The mail was delayed several days, as the contractors have succeeded in disproving one of the received axioms of geometry, namely that —œa straight line is the shortest distance between two points,— and consequently instead of bringing our mail direct from Independence, they cross the river at Liberty to go to Weston and proceed to this place. As the ice has been running in the river for some days, they were unable to do this and I finally sent a sergeant for the mail and got it after being made annoyed by a delay of several days.
You speak of Lieut. J.W. Davidson of your Regt. and his course and situation to his fight &c. Now as Davidson is an officer of your Regiment, I am perfectly willing that he should see anything I write about him and if you think proper, I am perfectly willing you should show him any letter, for I would scorn to say behind his back that I would not report to himself, and indicate in the proper manner, as this is a subject affecting a member of your Regiment. I will give you my opinion in full, which however you will find to be that of officers at your own post.
On the evening of the 21st of March, Lieut. Davidson at Fort Union from Taos (?) where he had left his Company and reported to Col. Cooke for instructions. I was present when he arrived, and afterwards during several conversations between him and Col. Cooke in relation to the Indians, their mode of and ability for war &c. Col. Cooke and myself occupied the same house, and Lieut. D was our guest. He stated that on his way from Cantonment Burgwin to Fort Union, where he had been ordered by Col. Cooke, he met the Apaches in a canyon between the former place and Moro, that he had halted his command and, with Col. Brooks, had a talk with them; he described them as being overwhelmed with fear and protesting that they desired peace, stating also that he had made advantageous dispositions for battle in case they exhibited any signs of insolence or hostility. He also commented upon the miserable quality of their arms, and their mean, shrinking deportment, at the same time averring that he was sorry they did not show some signs of hostility, for that if they had, he would have —œwiped them out—. In the same conversation, he stated that the number of warriors counted at the time amounted to one hundred and seven. When informed that these same Indians had, two weeks previously, when attacked by a command of Dragoons, evinced anything but a cowardly spirit; he reiterated his assertion, for rather brash, as to what he could do with them. On the 22nd instant, I went on a scout down the Canadian and across to Anton Chico, and returned to Fort Union on the 29th. Lieuts. Sturgis and Moore, who left Ft. U. on the 21st and kept further to the east, returned on the 30th. On the 31st an express arrived at Ft. U. from Cant. Burgwin, with a communication from Maj. Blake giving an exaggerated account of the fight at Cieneguilla. In justice to Maj. Blake, however, I will state that the exaggerated account of the affair was founded upon data furnished by Lieut. D. himself. In a few hours, we were en route for Cant. Burgwin, where we arrived on the 1st of April.
Davidson met our command near his quarters, and in reply to some question from Col. Cooke, which was met with much apparent concern as to the result of the affair of the preceding day, he said, in a self-confident and positive tone, that he had —œkilled fifty or sixty Indians.— This was asserted as a fact. I was present. Lt. D. left Cant. B. on the 2nd instant under orders from Major Blake, to follow and watch the movement of the Apaches, but to avoid if possible bringing on an action— He marched a portion of the night and on the morning of the 30th sent a guide with two men, to ford on the Rio Grande below Cieneguilla, to ascertain if the Indians had crossed the river.
A trail was afterwards discovered leading up a hill, the advance guard was sent to reconnoiter the position of the Indians, and some returned saying that when they arrived at the camp which was on the top of a hill, the Indians had leveled their rifles upon them. Upon being thus informed, Lt. D. says he cursed the corporal and demanded to know of him why he had not fired upon them with his revolver. The corporal also reported that the Indians told him (in Spanish) to —œcome on.— Lt. D. now dismounted his command in a canyon, divided it into two platoons, and advanced upon the Indian camp which contained the families and now was to fulfill the prediction about —œwiping them out—.
It is at least doubtful who fired first, but what matters it? Was not the advance upon the Camp in a hostile attitude a bona fide attack? Nobody would doubt it particularly if his position was that of the Indians and Lt. D. would have been one of the last to do so. If he had been under the command of almost any officer other than Maj. Blake he would have been tried for disobedience of orders. Again let me look at the manner in which the affair was conducted.
The command advanced in two platoons as nearly in line as the nature of the ground and other circumstances would admit. This was the most unmilitary as well as the most exposed order possible–it could not be expected that a display of numbers would intimidate the Indians while a large mark was thus presented to their concentrated fire. This is no labored scientific delusion—”a non-commissioned officer who would not have appreciated it upon this ground should have been reduced for incapacity. But if exception is taken to this mode of approaching a crouching and concealed [enemy] for what are we to think of the second attempt to go up a steep hill each man leading his horse. The horses alarmed by the noises and confusion of the fight would refuse to advance and the men would struggle with them unwilling to abandon them and thus instead of using their weapons would fall victims to the fire of a concealed enemy.
An attack could not be made mounted and to attempt to lead the horses would expose the men. What was then to be done? To abandon the horses of course. This ill-advised and unfortunate attack arrived at the top of the hill, leaving behind it those who are killed or wounded, and now the command is given —œMount men a save yourselves.— This Lt. does not or did not deny. This order was calculated to strike terror to heart of the bravest soldier, for he would know that nothing but the utmost exertion could prevent his falling a prey to the merciless savage. This order was alone was sufficient to panic a command. The consequence was a disorderly flight over ground of the difficulties of which the Indians well knew how to take advantage. Every other consideration was forgotten in that of personal safety and hence the entire abandonment of arms & etc. Every man expended his energies to save his own life while he abandoned his wounded comrades to be butchered. I have conversed with Major Blake, Maj. Thompson and Mr. Quinn all of whom visited Cieneguilla the next day and the result of their stories is this that 5 men only were found dead upon the side of the hill up which Davidson advanced, and it is by no means certain they were dead when the retreat was ordered, while 14 men formed on the hill side down which the flight took place, and two other dead in the ravine below. This cannot be denied, and it proves that a command of 57 Dragoons retreated without an attempt to preserve order, when they had lost 5 of their number. Davidson says in his official report which I read there were nearly 250 or 300 Apaches and Utah warriors in the fight he fought for three hours and had every reason to believe he killed a large number of Indians. In the first place there were no Utahs & secondly there were not more than 130 warriors (Apaches) in it, as Carson or any person who followed them will tell you. If 50 or 60 of them been killed the rest must have been wounded if any amt of usual proportion between killed and wounded obtained. As to fighting [for] 3 hours that is the most ridiculously absurd assertion in the whole report. A cartridge box (cavalry) holds some 30 to 50 cartridges. How long would it take a man to fire this number assuming that he fired all of them? But in the excitement of action most men will lose a large portion of their ammunition. I think that any reasonable man will agree that Davidson—™s fight have lasted 30 minutes, his assertion to the contrary notwithstanding. In regard to the probable number of killed I forgot to say that it is a probable fact that the number of lodges after the flight was the same as before and we were informed in every Mexican settlement through which we passed in the pursuit, that the Indians said they had lost only two men in the battle. I could pass over most of the things and sincerely sympathize with
Davidson in his misfortune, but when an attempt is made to transform an unskillful attack, a feeble resistance, a disastrous flight, the combined consequences of which entailed upon others days of toil and night of suffering and present that to the world as a glorious triumph. I do not consider it my duty longer to be silent for I am one of those who suffered from these misguided monuments. However, others may regard the matter I cannot but think remaining silent is very near akin to countenancing tacitly a gross imposture. The correspondence recently published in the Santa Fe Gazette, between Lieut. D and Mr. Davis, should silence all who are cognizant of the facts any feeling of forbearance towards the former he attempts to make capital out of what he knows to be an error and wishes to force upon the public what he did not himself believe. There is one other circumstance of which you are probably not aware. Last winter Davidson preferred charges against Major Blake—”they were of a very grave nature. A few days after the affair at Cieneguilla the major made some remark to the effect that D. had done as could be expected, when D. instantly offered to withdraw the charges although if xxx Maj. B. had signed a false certificate etc. All of which I was prepared to prove. I am also acknowledge himself that Maj. could have presented him —œwith a single word— —“hence the spirit of martial concession. If D. had sustained no feat why did he offer gratuitously to withdraw these charges? But there is another fact where Davidson—™s conduct was assailed and he talked so loudly about asking for a Court of Inquiry why did he change his tone so suddenly when he found it very easy to get the Court and he was even recommended from persons whom he pretended to seek advise. In conclusion I will again say that you are entirely free to show my letter to Davidson or any of his friends for it contains not only my convictions also drawn from unmitigated facts.
We have no news of importance except that there now seems a strong probability that some new regiments will be raised this winter. How many we have no idea but if Congress acts upon the suggestions of the President and Secty. of War it would be very natural to suppose they would raise the force recommended as indispensable. I hope they will for without we have no prospect keeping our [red?] buttons within any reasonable bounds. I have applied for promotion in a new regiment but without much hope of getting it. I will however use what little political influence I can muster for that purpose. I applied to Col. Cooke a few days since for a statement in reference to my standing in my regiment, services, capabilities, etc. And when I received what was willingly handed me an hour or two afterwards, I was almost at a loss to make out my own identity. I had no idea I was half as alone as the Col. made me out and my modesty would hardly allow me to make use of a description by which perhaps I might more afterwards be recognized. The [appropriation?] Bill is expected to pass–it is thought that the new phase under which it will be presented will be of advantage to it. I speak in pay and to the limitation of time. The pay Bill will too come up and as it appears as a fixed fact that Members of Congress are going to raise their own pay [, so] I don—™t see how they can get over giving us a little more.
The Sioux War now seems determined upon. We have it from Genl Scott himself. It is still doubtful what troops will be sent out. The 2d Inftry and our companies of Drags, with one or two companies will go of course and if there is an addition to the Army it is expected that the whole 2d Drags will be ordered out in which case we will have a lively time of it. The Indians are reported as being very hostile and confident in their numbers. I think however with a Battery or two and a regiment of Drags we will rather worst them in a pitched battle. We have not received any more recruits, a detachment was ordered here but the order came so late that navigation had closed. It is probable however that they will reach us from St. Louis. Our Hd. Qts. has not yet arrived but we expect them soon. There is very little pretension to gaiety or even sociability here. No parties or amusement. Besides I have been sick ever since I came here and am so badly broken up by Rheumatism that I can scarcely hobble about.
Robertson received your letter addressed to him at Jefferson Bks. and will write you. He, Polk, Haight & etc. send their love.
You must have had quite a lonely time during the absence of the ladies on a visit to Ft. Filmore. I would give anything to be a Ft. Union for a few days. This place is intolerably stupid. My time principally spent in reading. I have been duly engaged for the last two months in the study of some French military works from which I have derived much pleasure and I think some useful knowledge too. I have poured over them for whole nights when my rheumatism would not let me sleep.
I have now three or four other letters to write to Fort Union. It is now late and I must get them in the post office tomorrow morning. So I will have to conclude. My love to Byrne, McCook & Magruder. Remember me to all my friends at your post and don—™t forget to write by every mail.
Yours very truly,
P.S. Buford has been ordered to his company and Oakes and Garnett detailed on duty at the Cavalry depot. B. has not arrived here yet.