THE DRAGOONS OF FORT TEJON
c 2001 by George Stammerjohan and Will Gorenfeld
Elements of the First Dragoons arrived in California in December of 1846. They were promptly mauled at the Battle of San Pasqual. This ragged affair, pitting weary Dragoons riding on jaded horses and restive mules against lance-wielding and well-mounted Californio vaqueros, was something less than a glorious introduction to the Dragoons’ presence in the Far West. Nonetheless, the Dragoons were in California to stay and would remain until the outbreak of the Civil War.
The Regiment of Dragoons (the First Dragoons), a mounted cavalry unit trained to ride to battle and to fight on foot, was created in 1833 to patrol the great plains region. Initially, the Dragoons were armed with the latest in experimental weapons such as the Hall carbine and the Colt Patterson revolving rifle.
THE DRAGOON UNIFORM: FANCY vs. FACT
The 1850’s presents a confusing picture of the Dragoon image. On the one hand, the Regulations of 1851 gave a neat picture of what a suitably uniformed, dashing Dragoon should look like: dark blue frock coat, “flower pot” shako, and grey-blue trousers.
The frock coat had orange collars and cuffs. For troopers of the First Dragoons, a brass number, “1”, was placed on each side of the collar. The first model (1851) shako bore a brass eagle, orange facing, and orange pompom.
The long-tailed frock coat was heavy, and generally scorned by the troops because it impaired the Dragoon when he mounted or dismounted. The shako was stiff, hot, and hard to balance while riding at a fast gait. The orange facings of the coat and shako faded rapidly beneath a bright California sun, creating in anything but a uniformed appearance to a line of troopers. No matter to the Dragoon troopers in California, for it would take years before this uniform would be delivered to them.
Army storehouses were filled to the brim with old-style uniforms left over from the Mexican-American War. An economy-driven Quartermaster Department wished to use these until stores were exhausted. In 1852, it was decreed that mounted troops would receive yearly allotments of two jackets–the first would be of the dark blue 1833 pattern, while the second would be of the sky-blue variety, reportedly stripped of its infantry or artillery piping. Indeed, some Dragoon companies received nothing but the sky-blue jackets.
Two items of clothing which would remain in constant use by the Dragoons were the off-white wool flannel shirt and old-pattern 1839 forage cap. The shirt was long in the tails, with a fairly full body and tight sleeves. The neck was a shallow “V” with a single button at the throat. (The dark grey salt-and-pepper woolen shirt, seen in some illustrations, was not issued until 1875.)
On August 10, 1854, a detachment of Company A of the First Dragoons arrived at Camp Canada de las Uvas. Although not located in Tejon Pass, the post soon was designated Fort Tejon. Upon arrival, these rowdy recruits and former infantrymen were put to work in the construction of the post.
These Dragoons were dressed in a bewildering kaleidoscopic array of colors. The former infantrymen, who had recently marched overland from New Mexico, wore the light blue infantry jackets. The recruits were wearing old pattern 1833 dark blue jackets. The original members of Company A–all nine of them–wore a mixture of dark blue and sky blue jackets; all the worse for wear. This elite regiment would resemble ragpickers–or even worse, mounted infantry.
1st Lt. Thomas Castor begged departmental headquarters to either send new clothing or else allow him to purchase civilian attire for the ragged troops. The next month, a shipment of 1851 pattern clothing arrived at the fort.
The popular image of the Dragoon depicts him in tall boots and brass spurs. This is wrong. The Dragoon generally wore infantry-style brogans. When mounted, the Dragoon wore low-shank bootees with brass stud spurs. The spurs were commonly lost and the unfortunate trooper was charged $1.10 per set to replace them.
In 1854, the regulations did away with the frock coat. In its place was a short shell jacket trimmed with orange piping and brass shoulder scales. This uniform did not reach Fort Tejon until the fall of 1856. The old-style surplus jackets in sky blue or dark blue were continued to be issued to the troops–two per year. If Company A troopers wore out their yearly issue, which was often the case, they had to purchase a sky blue jackets, making them appear as worn-out infantrymen.
The men of Company F, arriving at Ft. Tejon in 1857, were issued Mexican War surplus sky blue jackets. This troop would not receive the proper Dragoon pattern uniform until it reached Fort Crook, California, in 1858.
Companies B and K arrived at Fort Tejon on July 7, 1858. Brevet Major (Captain) James Carleton, the commanding officer of Company K, was furious when he learned that the Quartermaster Department had mistakenly sent his unit artillery trousers. He demanded that the Quartermaster take them back and send him proper trousers for Dragoons. The quartermaster officer, temperamental Captain Winfield Scott Hancock, refused to exchange the trousers. This led to a private feud between the future generals Hancock and Carleton.
Company B, under the sickly and more easygoing command of Captain John Davidson, still wore the 1850 white buff belt and carried the Model 1833 Ames saber. It was said that the saber would wrap “rubber-like around a man’s head and was only good for cutting warm butter.”
In 1858, a new uniform was designated for the Dragoons: a refined version of the 1854 jacket, dark blue trousers, and the new, so-called Hardee hat of stiff black felt with a folded brim, ostrich feather, orange cord and brass company letter. Of this hat Major Albert Brackett wrote, “If the whole earth had been ransacked, it is difficult to tell where a more ungainly piece of furniture could have been found.”
Company K was, perhaps, the best company in the 1st Regiment. Carleton wished his troop to be correctly dressed and requested the new hats. The Quartermaster Depot in Benicia sent him just ten hats for a company of eighty men. When Carleton demanded to be sent the new fatigue flannel sack coat for these men, he received just forty.
Carleton was not the kind to surrender without a fight. He lodged some stinging complaints but was each time rebuffed with the reply that the new clothing was “experimental” and that he should be happy with what he had already received. Only the fact that Lt. Col. Benjamin “Old Ben” Beall of the 1st Dragoons was serving as acting commander of the Department of California saved Carleton from being court-martialed.
DRAGOON FIREARMS: More Legend than Fact
One persistent myth concerning the Dragoons on the frontier is that they were well-equipped with the most modern of weaponry. In reality–and that reality would remain true until the late fall of 1858–the Dragoons who served out on the west coast were, for the most part, armed with firearms that bordered upon obsolete.
This is not to say that these weapons were old. Indeed, none of their firearms were technically out of date. Rather, they were what the War Department, controlled by a penny-pinching Congress, could afford to issue.
The Ordnance Department arsenals were filled with large stocks of these weapons. Also on hand were immense inventories of ammunition. The acquisition of modern pistols and carbines would not only render obsolete those weapons on hand, but would also require the costly procurement of new ammunition. An economy-minded Congress was not about to authorize new funds for these purchases.
Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, graduate of West Point and former Colonel of Mississippi Volunteers, also appreciated the need of better firearms, but could only do so much. Davis authorized the testing of new firearms and the updating of existing weapons but, lacking congressional appropriations,
could not purchase large numbers of new weapons for the troops.
In 1851, the Dragoons had turned in their old Hall carbines and M1837 Hall North flintlock horse pistols. In exchange they were issued the Model 1847 Springfield Musketoon and Model 1842 Aston pistol.
The .69 caliber Model 1847 musketoon was a well-balanced, smoothbore carbine. It had an effective range of less than sixty yards.
Inspector General Joseph Mansfield reported in 1854 that the musketoon presented “no probable certainty of hitting the object aimed at, and the recoil is too great to be fired with ease.— Mansfield concluded that the weapon, as issued, was —œa worthless arm— and that it had —œno advocates that I am aware of.—
In order to somewhat compensate for the musketoon’s deficiencies, officers would instruct their men to load a double charge: two .63 caliber balls and six .31 caliber buckshot. At close range, this load made the musketoon a deadly shotgun.
For example, in late 1854, a detachment of Dragoons from Company A, mounted on mules borrowed from the post quartermaster, rode down to the Tejon Reservation. The Indians were outraged over the murder of two tribesmen by a former government teamster; they wanted to take him into custody and were ready to fry him up.
Alfred Latimer, a young Infantry Lieutenant in command of the Dragoon detachment, demanded that the tribesmen disperse. When they refused, he ordered his men to load two charges. Through an interpreter, the lieutenant stated that he was “ready to commit murder.” The angry crowd quickly scattered. The crisis was over.
Responding to growing criticism, Colonel Henry K. Craig, the chief of the Ordnance Department wrote that if the musketoon —œis not a suitable arm for cavalry, I do not know where to look for one that will answer.— As it turned out, Colonel Craig did not have to look far for a replacement weapon.
Christian Sharps, who had worked on the Hall carbine while employed at the Harper—™s Ferry Arsenal, by 1848 had patented a breech-loading, rifled carbine. The design was relatively simple. Pulling down a lever located as part of the trigger guard lowered the slide, and a paper or linen cartridge was then placed into the breech. When the slide was forced back upward, it sheered off the rear of the cartridge and exposed the powder to ignition.
The Sharps rifled carbine fired at the revolutionary rate of 8 to 10 rounds per minute–with accuracy. The Ordnance Board tested the weapon and was favorably impressed. In 1852, it ordered 150 carbines for field tests by Dragoons stationed in New Mexico Territory and Southern California. Because it was an experimental weapon, only ten Sharps were issued to each company.
Secretary Davis continued to press for congressional funds with which to purchase experimental weapons. In 1857, four-hundred model 1855 Sharps carbines were purchased by the War Department. Ten carbines were issued to each of several Dragoon companies stationed out on the West Coast.
Out in New Mexico territory, in 1858, Captain Richard “Old Baldy” Ewell raved that his 15 Sharps carbines were the best firearms available, and asked for more. Captain Davidson chimed in: “I am satisfied from trial and experience, that Sharps—™ carbine is the best weapon yet known in our country for a cavalry soldier. Its range and accuracy are greater than those of the musketoon. It is a stronger arm; the soldier can make it last longer. . . . One argument I had almost omitted to mention in favor of the Sharps—™ carbine is that dragoon soldiers have more confidence in it than any other weapon I have ever seen put into their hands; and I have seen them use the musketoon, carbine pistol and Minie rifle. Give your soldiers but confidence in the effectiveness of their weapons, and they will give a better account of themselves than with those they can not trust.—
When Dragoon Companies B and K, enroute to Ft. Tejon, from Ft. Buchanan in New Mexico Territory, they were armed with the Musketoon and the M1841 Mississippi rifle. While stationed in New Mexico they had been issued ten M1855 Sharps carbines per company. But these experimental weapons were the property of the Ordnance Department of New Mexico and, as such, were left behind.
The War Department had delivered two dozen or so First Model Colt Dragoon revolvers to each Dragoon company for testing. A great debate soon raged within the ranks of the mounted arm over the efficacy of the Dragoon revolver. It was much too heavy to be carried in a belt holster. Brevet Major Carleton quipped that the Dragoon revolver was only fit for teamsters who had a wagon in which to carry it. Thus, many officers favored the lighter .36 caliber “belt revolver,” the 3d Model 1851 Colt Navy.
A number of officers chafed at the notion that a lowly enlisted man, often an immigrant, might be entrusted with Colt pistols worth between $25-$50. It is also important to bear in mind that company arms were, ultimately, the financial responsibility of the senior company officer. Lost revolvers could, thus, be charged against the officer’s monthly pay.
Colt’s revolvers were easily stolen by deserters and sold on the black market. In late 1856, 25 second-model Colt revolvers were issued to Company A at Fort Tejon. Within weeks of the delivery, three Dragoons deserted, taking with them three pistols. The sale of stolen Colt’s became such a problem that General Order No. 19, issued August 16, 1859, decreed that any trooper who lost his Colt would have to pay $40.
In 1856, the Army contracted with the Sharps Company to produce 4000 Model 1853 carbines. These weapons, sealed into tin can-like cases, along with a large order of Navy Colt revolvers, were crated and shipped from New York to California. They were placed in storage at the Benicia Arsenal. The Ordnance Department continued to issue the musketoon and Aston pistol the best weight loss supplement.
To the north of California there would be fought an engagement that would change the whole picture of mounted troops. On May 16, 1858, the Couer d—™Alene, Spokane, and Palouse Indians of Eastern Washington attacked a field force of three companies of dragoons and 25 infantrymen marching under the command of Major Edward Steptoe.
During a running fight, two companies of Dragoons, armed with the short-range musketoons, were deployed as a rear guard. In this firefight, they consumed a huge amount of ammunition–with little effect. Finally, the battered column gained a low hilltop and forted up. The Indians, many of whom had Hudson Bay trade muskets and rifles, soon formed a ring around the hill and banged away at Steptoe—™s beleaguered force. With men dying and ammunition down to three rounds per trooper, Steptoe buried his dead and made a run for the Columbia River and the safety of Fort Walla Walla.
This embarrassing fiasco sent a shockwave through out the Army. At Department of the Pacific headquarters, grandfatherly Brevet Brigadier General Newman A. Clarke pointed his finger at the Ordnance Department which, at the time, had resting in its warehouse in Benicia, California, dozens of boxes of Sharps carbines and Navy Colt revolvers. Clarke wanted the new weapons issued, and now!
Beginning in July of 1858, Ordnance officers at Benicia uncrated, cleaned, and shipped hundreds of Sharps and Colts to Fort Walla Walla for the mounted units destined for the Spokane Campaign. Additional weapons were next shipped to Forts Crook and Tejon to re-arm the other Dragoon companies.
Within weeks, Dragoons from Fort Tejon took to the field armed with their newly issued M1853 Sharps carbines. The Mojave tribe was angered by a new wagon road across their lands and were attacking emigrant trains. At a place near the Colorado River known as Beaver Slough, Mojave tribesmen, boldly attacked the Dragoons. It was a mistake: the awesome firepower of Sharps carbines in the steady hands of veteran troops quickly drove off the attackers.
59, Inspector General Mansfield, on an inspection tour of California, witnessed a firing exercise by Brevet Major James Carleton’s company K at Fort Tejon. Mansfield reported that, despite the lack of sufficient powder in the experimental cartridges supplied by the Benicia Arsenal, half of Company K’s shots hit a 6′ x 22″ target at 100 yards. Carleton, never without a hot opinion, later wrote to the chief of Ordnance at Benicia and openly expressed anger over the poor quality of the experimental cartridges.
Sharps carbines, like Colt’s, were popular with deserters. Stolen Sharps could be sold in Los Angeles for about $100 in gold coin. One 1st Dragoon sergeant took a detail into the pueblo of Los Angeles and then, graciously, allowed his men a night on the town; after the men had departed from camp, he gathered up their carbines and disappeared.
In 1860, Dragoon trooper Henry Ott, the post butcher, got tired of army life. He procured three Sharps carbines and vanished in broad daylight. For good measure, Private Ott also pilfered a new Model 1855 Springfield rifle that had been sent to the Dragoons for field tests. He was never caught.
The Dragoons of Fort Tejon rode out on their last campaign On April 12, 1860. Crossing the arid sands of the Mojave Desert as far as Las Vegas, they chased scattered bands of Pah-Utes who had been attacking mail carriers, cattlemen, and prospectors.
By the end of the Regular Army’s occupation of Fort Tejon, Company K had was properly dressed in the complete 1858 dark blue uniform. The men of Company B, however, sailed off to the Civil War still wearing the old 1854 Shako and carrying the 1833 Ames sabre.
Thus, in the final moments of pre-Civil War California, the Fort Tejon Dragoons, most of them, had finally attained the level of armament that gun lore had always declared: they were elite troopers who were superbly armed! It had simply taken the Army 24 years to make fact match legend.
SOME ADDITIONAL TID BITS
CAMELS AND FORT TEJON
Another of the great myths of Fort Tejon is the relationship between Dragoons and the government-owned camels. In reality, there was no connection.
In 1855, the War Department purchased 75 camels for experimentation. Edward Beale, a former naval officer and Superintendent of Indian affairs, was ordered by Secretary of War John Floyd to take 25 of these camels westward across the desert to California.
Beale reached Los Angeles in late 1857 and turned the camels over to Samuel A. Bishop, his business partner. Bishop put the camels to use on his ranch. Two years later, the Fort Tejon army quartermaster was ordered to take possession of the camels. The camels spent just four months in the army corrals at the fort, during which time they were not used by the Dragoons, but ate prodigious amounts of hay and barley. The camels went back to the Bishop Ranch on rental grazing.
In September of 1860, Captain Winfield Scott Hancock put four of the camels to use as “pony express” to deliver mail between Los Angeles and Fort Mojave. The first camel, ridden by the legendary herder “Hi Jolly”, dropped dead near present day Barstow; the second camel made it just a few miles further east before it died. That was the end of the experiment.
When the fort was closed in mid-June of 1861, the camels were transferred to the Los Angeles Quartermaster Depot. What did the Dragons have to do with camels? Absolutely nothing.
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