Taos Mutiny 1855

by Will Gorenfeld on May 1, 2009

THE TAOS MUTINY: THE ANATOMY OF A RIOT
May 24, 2009
On the 16th day of March in the year 1860, Aaron Stevens, a principled young man and abolitionist, finds himself awaiting execution on the gallows in Charleston, Virginia. A jury has declared guilty him of complicity in John Brown—™s abortive raid on Harpers Ferry. Stevens had honorably fought for his country in the late war with Mexico and then out in New Mexico with the United States Army. How different might the fate of Stevens have been had he not, five years earlier, attempted to restore order following a drunken riot by fellow soldiers.
In the mid 19th Century there were few reported attacks by a group of regular soldiers men upon an officer. One such attack took place in the Spring of 1855 in Taos, New Mexico Territory, when about   a dozen enlisted Dragoons participated in a physical assault upon Major George Blake. Blake was a martinet somewhat cast in the mold of the Captain William Bligh. Both were uncaring officers who routinely mistreated the men in the ranks and stirred their animus until it eventually boiled over. After suffering the ignominy of mutiny and surviving for weeks in a longboat, Blight would become an admiral in the Royal Navy and contribute to its victory at Trafalgar. Blake would, likewise, avoid being dismissed from the service, rise in rank and gain a degree of glory in battle.
Blake—™s adjutant, Lt. Robert Johnston, who acted faint-hearted during the riot, would become one of the Robert E. Lee—™s most trustworthy generals during the Civil War. The remainder of the cast, however, would not fare well. Capt. Philip Thompson, the company commander, would be dismissed from the service. The non commissioned officers of the company lost their stripes. In particular, Bugler Aaron Stevens, initially a bystander who got caught up in the riot by offering to help bring peace, and three other enlisted men were found guilty of rioting and condemned to death.
Buck and Gag Him
The Taos mutiny of 1855 offers unique insight into the tensions and problems besetting the army in Northern New Mexico Territory. To be specific, it exposes the ill feeling extant not only between enlisted men vs. officers, as well as officer vs. officer. The mutiny sheds light upon the hostility caused by a mediocre cast of officers serving in Northern New Mexico Territory.
An army song of the era, —œBuck and Gag Him—, encapsulated the systematic abuse inflicted upon the common soldier for, sometimes, the most minor of offenses:
The treatment they give us, as all of us know,
Is bucking and gagging for whipping the foe;
They buck for malice or spite,
But they are glad to release us when going to fight.

A poor soldier tied up in the hot sun or rain
With a gag in his mouth till he is tortured with pain,
Why, I—™m blessed if the eagle, we wear on our flag,
In its claws couldn—™t carry a buck and a gag.

Disgruntled soldiers tend to desert from the army. If they stay, these malcontents take out their resentment upon sergeants and corporals.  This is because officers remain distant from the enlisted ranks, while non commissioned officers are in daily contact with the men and are responsible for enforcing unpopular commands. Hence, mutinies directed at officers tend to be rare. The Taos Mutiny of 1855 is, thus, unique in that it was directed at an officer.  Military historian William Skelton observed, —œThe most common form of soldier resistance was spontaneous and individualized—”a single soldier reacting against an officer—™s threats or blows or against a perceived affront to his dignity.—   This is not to say that the potential for —œfragging— (the killing of an officer by another soldier) was unheard of out during antebellum times. A trooper who served with the Regiment of the Mounted Rifles wrote, —œDiscipline was very severe in those days and I heard many of the enlisted men [of Captain George McLane—™s company] say that if opportunity offered itself they would spare one shot for some of the officers for whom they had a grievance.—   Captain McLane was killed during a skirmish with the Navajos on October 13, 1860.
Most men in the ranks feared, with good reason, those who commanded them. Army discipline of the day tended to be swift and court martial sentences were draconian.  In 1852, Dragoon Captain James Carleton forced three drunken enlisted men to walk back to camp while tied behind wagons; one of the men fell, was dragged for a mile and one-half and soon died from injuries suffered from being dragged.   Dragoon James Bennett described how an enlisted man, who said he could not go further on a march was stuck down by the sword of his commanding officer and left to die. He also wrote of another officer, without any justification, seriously injuring an enlisted man with his sword.   A Dragoon in Utah Territory reported an incident in which a lieutenant, for no apparent reason, knocked an enlisted man senseless with the butt of an army revolver, and then remarked —œone less dough boy.—   Lt. Cave Couts, a Dragoon officer, described in his journal of his disgust for an artillery officer who chained a handcuffed prisoner to a caisson, with an iron band around his waist, and then forced him to walk behind the caisson from Chihuahua to Santa Fe.   Lt. Philip Thompson, of whom we shall hear much more about later, was known to lose his temper when drunk and would physically abuse enlisted men. As a veteran of service in the 7th Infantry wrote, —œcompany commanders would inflict all kinds of punishment that was not prescribed by regulations, bucking and gagging, carrying large timbers before the guard house, knocking them down with the butt of their muskets, maiming them by sabre cuts and in some instances shooting them.—  The abuse of alcohol by enlisted men and officers was a long-standing problem in the military. Dragoon Sergeant Percival Lowe of B Company wrote, —œUnfortunately there were men who would become intoxicated and cause trouble for anyone having anything to do with them.—   He estimated that, at any given time, ten percent of his company could be found in the guardhouse for offenses committed while intoxicated.   Suffice it to say, Fort Massachusetts was not immune from alcoholism. As in other frontier garrisons, many men endured the harsh duty, isolation and boredom at Fort Massachusetts through the heavy use of intoxicating liquor.   Alcoholism was also a serious problem for many an officer in the antebellum army.   Thompson was fighting a lifelong battle with alcohol, a battle that he would ultimately lose.
DRAMATIS PERSONAE
A colorful cast of characters roamed New Mexican Territory during the Antebellum Years. Remarkably, a number of these personages found themselves caught up in the 1855 riot. During the course of this paper the author will briefly introduce the reader to a variety of soldiers, vecinos, peones, townsmen, a deputy marshal, a judge and two widely noted frontiersmen. As the primary focus will be upon the actions of Aaron Stevens and two officers who played central roles in the affair, they shall be introduced more fully than the others.

A. Aaron Dwight Stevens: The Bowld Soger Boy

There is not a man that’s going
Worth a knowing or a showing,
Like Scott from glory growing,
The Bold Soldier Boy.
He went to Mexico,
Sure you know it is so,
And he flogged his country’s foe,
Like the Bold Soldier Boy.
Triumphantly he marched through.

Bold Soldier Boy F. J. Ottarson;
Colston, E. R.; editors,
The Campaign Scott and Graham Songster:
A Choice Collection of Original and
Selected Whig Songs (New York: D. E. Gavit, 1852.)

Bugler Aaron Stevens served on the New Mexican frontier in the First Dragoons. From all reports, he was a capable soldier who took great pride in his regiment. On November 27, 1854, Stevens wrote to his sister Lydia Pierce from Cantonment Burgwin, New Mexico Territory. He was in good spirits and apologized for not having written any sooner, explaining he had been on patrol since April. The 24-year old Stevens boasted that his company —œhad two fights with the Patches, this year and had 9 men killed & 10 wounded . . . and as luck would have it[,] I have got off safe so far, but they might get me yet.—   He bragged, “that they hadn—™t taken his scalp yet—¦but if they did, it was just as good ground to be buried in as New England.” This soldier described himself as —œd__m sauscy [sic]— and thinking of marrying —œa Spanish Lady—, He wrote of shooting bear and antelope, but stated he would trade them —œfor a good old pot-apple pie or some berries and milk.—
Stevens had enjoyed the freedom of open spaces and many of the adventures the army had provided him. Though he might have made the army his career and possibly covered himself with glory, within the space of a few months of writing to his sister, he and several other men of his company assaulted Major George Blake in the Taos plaza. An Army court martial panel sentenced Stevens and with three enlisted men to be executed. The once carefree Stevens found himself bound on a journey that ended with his capture as a participant in John Brown—™s abortive slave uprising at a place called Harpers Ferry.
Aaron Dwight Stevens hardly fit the stereotypical notion of a mutineer, much less an enlisted soldier. Born in Lisbon, Connecticut, on March 15, 1831, this son of a comfortable upper middle-class family came from solid Puritan stock. His great grandfather Moses Stevens had been a captain in the Revolutionary War who was personally honored by George Washington for his contributions to the cause of liberty.  Great grandson Aaron was said to be a man of superb bravery who was blessed with a great sense of humor. It is said that as a youth Stevens expressed his zeal to defend the rights of the weak and oppressed.
The Mexican American War was so unpopular in Connecticut that the state refused to raise a regiment to fight in the war. At 16 years of age, possibly a young gentleman finding himself in difficulties, left his comfortable home and went to Massachusetts, where claiming to be 19 years old, Stevens enlisted in Company I of Colonel Caleb Cushing—™s soon to be made infamous, 1st Massachusetts Regiment. If he was looking for the glory of war, he didn—™t find it. The young soldier, rather, found himself in a regiment badly run by political hacks plagued with mismanagement, graft, dissention and disciplinary problems,  serving alongside soldiers described by a contemporary as —œlow ignorant men; some of them drunken and brutal.—  A regular officer noted in his journal that the men of the Massachusetts regiment could be distinguished from the other regiments by its —œ—™General rowdy appearance,—™ and ignorance of a Soldier—™s duty.—
Amidst the jeers and boos of antiwar Bostonians, the regiment boldly marched off to the war.  Stevens landed with his regiment at the Mexican port of Vera Cruz in October of 1847. On the 18th of October, one of the companies mutinied when they were ordered to throw away their volunteer clothing and purchase new uniforms. Cushing, recently promoted to the rank of brigadier general, found sixty-five of the men to be —œincorrigibly mutinous and insubordinate— and placed them in confinement in the castle of San Juan de Ulloa.
During the ensuing campaign, the men of the Massachusetts regiment would suffer some of the harshest punishment inflicted during the war.  The troops, however, devised ways to resist this arbitrary authority. In order to intimidate his mutinous men, Cushing had constructed a couple of wooden stocks and a punishment horse in his encampment. His men promptly carried off these punitive devises and destroyed them. For weeks afterwards, the ranks poked fun at Cushing by posting advertisements in the camp seeking the return of the runaway horse.
Although the regiment marched with General Winfield Scott into the Valley of Mexico, it —œhad the slightest possible glimpse of the —˜elephant,—™ as they had never have been in a single engagement[,] returning home unshaven, dirty, half-clad, ragged, sick, and hungry.—  While stationed in Mexico, nearly half of the men in the 1st Massachusetts died from disease and exposure.  In June of 1848, the regiment began its long trip home. Stevens was amongst the regiment—™s lucky, albeit grubby, survivors.
Following his discharge from service in the volunteers in 1848, Stevens—™ father seems to have located work for him and his cousin as machinists in New York. It has been reported that when a fellow worker attempted to harass him, Stevens grabbed the tormenter firmly by the neck, then slapped and pinned the terrified scoundrel against a wall.  As was the case with so many reckless and bored young men of the era, the lure of the west beckoned.
Although he had witnessed and experienced the worst kind of treatment the voluntary military establishment could dish out, Stevens expected that he would be better treated in the regular army. On 1 April 1851, Stevens visited a recruiting depot in New York where he met Major Charles May, a dashing bearded Dragoon hero in the late war. Stevens was enthralled with May—™s stories of military adventure and glory. His enlistment papers state that Stevens stood at 5 feet and 8 inches, with grey eyes and dark hair.2
Immediately shipped from New York to the West without any training, the Army assigned him to Company F of the 1st Dragoons and, on May 26, 1851, Stevens accompanied his company on its march from Fort Leavenworth to New Mexico Territory.
Having served in a mutinous volunteer regiment in the Mexican-American War, Aaron Stevens surely witnessed the harsh discipline dished out to the ranks 2by an inferior class of politically appointed officers. What he was to witness as an enlisted man in New Mexico would be every bit as draconian and brutal as anything he saw in Mexico.
Nearly half of the ranks of the antebellum army were foreign born.  In 1855, Company F counted fifty-six men in its ranks—”seventeen of these men with either German or Irish surnames. Like Stevens, a significant number of the enlisted men in the company had previous military experience—”that is if one wants to count Stevens—™ service in one of the war—™s worst trained regiments. A few of the enlisted dragoons serving in New Mexico at this time, like Stevens, came from comfortably established families and were reasonably well educated.
On 30 March 1854, Lieutenant John Davidson, at the Battle of Cieneguilla, foolishly attacked a peaceful Jicarilla Apache village.  The Jicarillas fought back with great skill and courage, killing or wounding one hundred percent of a 15-man Company F detachment engaged in the battle.  Stevens was not engaged in this battle. But six days after the battle, three men of F Company deserted from Cantonment Burgwin. One of the men taking —œFrench leave— was a veteran bugler by the name of James Cook who took with him not only a horse and saber, but also a new Sharps carbine.  With Cook—™s hasty departure, Stevens became a company—™s bugler. With Davidson—™s defeat at Cieneguilla, General John Garland planned an intensive campaign against the Jicarillas and their Ute allies.  The operation would rage for nearly two years and Company F would play a significant role in the fighting.
(To be continued)

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: