Dragoons v. Jicarilla Apache: The Battle of Cieneguilla

Anatomy of an Army Disaster
April 5, 2008

By Will Gorenfeld

—œA contemptuous opinion of the prowess of these ferocious prairie Indians has been generally entertained by those who knew nothing about the matter—”a consequence, probably, of the thousand exaggerated stories which Western adventurers have told of their own feats, and of the cowardly and thieving propensities of the savages.—
—”New York Times, May 24, 1854

—œSome inexperienced people have charged Indians with possessing less courage than white men. There was never a greater mistake.—
—”Percival Lowe, Five Years a Dragoon and Other Adventures on the Great Plains

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. ” The Man who Shot Liberty Valence

In 1854, Lieutenant John W. Davidson of the 1st Dragoons, boasted at Fort Union that Jicarilla Apache warriors were puny cowards. In a conversation with fellow officers, he had described a recent meeting with these warriors who seemed —œoverwhelmed by fear— at the sight of the dragoons. Had there been pretext, Davidson said, he would have —œwiped them out.— Another officer knew better. Lieutenant David Bell, recently touted in the territory as having defeated chief Lobo Blanco—™s —daring band of outlaws—, stated that Jicarillas were —œnot cowardly, to say the least—, he told Davidson, but was ignored. [Santa Fe Weekly Gazette, March 25, 1854; Lt. John Davidson to Maj. George A. H. Blake, Cantonment Burgwin, NM, 25 March 1854; Letters Received Dept. of New Mexico 1854, f. 596-597, Main Series (LR 1805-1889); National Archives Microfilm Publication [NAMP] Microcopy 120, Record Group 3, National Archives [hereafter M120, RG 3, NA].: Correspondence, 1800 -1917; Records of the Adjutant General—™s Office 1780 —“ 1917, [hereafter M120, RG 3, NA]. An account of this gathering may be found in Lt. David Bell to Lt. John Williams, 27 December 1854, Fort Leavenworth. Kansas Terr., Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry Convened at Santa Fe, New Mexico, February 8 1856, Headquarters, Department of New Mexico General Order No. 1, February 9, 1856, Transcripts and Proceedings of General Courts-Martial and Courts of Inquiry, 1799-1867) Judge Advocate General (Army), Record Group 153, National Archives, Washington, D.C. [hereafter referred to as COI], pp. 5-6; see also Durwood Ball, Army Regulars of the Western Frontier, 1848-1861 (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press 2001), 55.]
In the Eurocentric view to which Davidson clung, a well-armed force led by a West Point officer was certain to prevail against —œprimitive— native Americans. Davidson soon learned not to underestimate the Jicarillas of northern New Mexico when the tribe decimated a force under his command. After the battle, one man, Lieutenant David Bell, called Davidson incompetent. Bell protested that Davidson, disobeying orders, had ineptly led his men into a disaster. According to Bell, Davidson was to blame for provoking the fight and his failure of leadership, in which U.S. soldiers had panicked and been routed by a small group of defenders.

Embarrassed, Davidson and his superiors whitewashed the defeat in an Army court of inquiry that found as unwarranted critical accusations against Davidson lodged by Bell. Generations of historians, without question, relied on the Army—™s inaccurate version of events, in which has Davidson being ambushed by superior numbers of warriors and, after fighting for three hours, the dragoons had deftly escaped a trap thanks to their commander’s cool leadership. [See Christopher Carson, Milo Quaife ed., Kit Carson—™s Autobiography (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1966)149; Albert G. Brackett, History of the United States Cavalry, from the Formation of the Federal Government to the 1st of June 1863 (New York: Argonaut Press, Ltd. 1965), 79; Dewitt C. Peters, Kit Carson—™s Life and Adventures, From Facts Narrated by Himself, Embracing Events in the Life Time of America—™s Greatest Hunter, Trapper, Scout and Guide (Hartford, Conn.: Dustin, Gilman & Co. 1874) 424; John K. Herr, The Story of the U.S. Cavalry (Boston: Little, Brown & Company 1953) 135; Utley, Frontiersmen in Blue The United States Army and the Indian, 1848-1865 (New York: The Macmillan Co. 1967), 144; Homer K. Davidson, Blackjack Davidson: A Cavalry Commander on the Western Frontier (Glendale: Arthur Clarke Company 1974) 69-74; Gregory J.W. Urwin, The United States Cavalry: An Illustrated History (Dorset: Blandford Books 1983), 93; Edwin L. Sabin, Kit Carson Days (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1995) 2 vols., 2:660-661; Michno, Encyclopedia of Indian Wars, 24; Bill Yenne, Indian Wars: The Campaign for the American West (Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing 2006) 74; Only a few writers have questioned the official version of the battle of Cieneguilla. (See the foreword by Jerry Thompson in James A. Bennett, Forts and Forays (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press 1996) edited by Clinton Brooks, Clinton and Frank Reeve, xxii-xxvii; Morris F. Taylor, Campaigns Against the Jicarilla Apache, 1854, New Mexico Historical Quarterly (1969), Taylor, 275-276; and Scott, Fields of Conflict, 2:236-260.]

Many of the criticisms tendered by Lt. Bell would be proven right by an archaeologist, Dave Johnson, whose study of the battle site refuted the Army’s findings. The true picture has come to lighting, revealing a story of an officer who disobeyed orders, placed his command in a tactically unsound positions and whose troops were routed by a weaker force.

To better understand this battle we must return to a chilled night along the Rio Grande. Flowing swiftly southward from the Colorado Rockies, this river divides most of New Mexico into two parts and then turns southeast towards Texas. The northern portion of the Rio Grande runs briskly down a steep gorge carved along the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains where crossings of the river are few. In the pre-dawn darkness of March 30, 1854, scout Jesus Silva and trooper Jeremiah Maloney reached the Embudo crossing of the river. They had been ordered by Lieutenant John Davidson to ride to this place and see if a defiant band of Jicarilla Apaches had crossed the river. Silva and Maloney found no signs of Jicarillas, but looking behind them to the northeast, saw distant campfires twinkling brightly atop a ridge. Suspecting these fires to be coming from the Jicarillas camp, the two men rode back to Cieneguilla to tell Lt. Davidson of what they had seen.

In February, a government beef contractor near Fort Union, New Mexico Territory had reported several of his cattle stolen by the Llaneros faction of the Jicarilla Apaches. A troop of Second U.S. Dragoons, under command of 2d Lieutenant David Bell, was sent from Ft. Union to intercept the cattle thieves. On March 5, 1854, Lt. Bell encountered some warriors under Lobo Blanco out on the Canadian River. It is uncertain whether these men had stolen any cattle, but the Army had long suspected Lobo Blanco—™s band of killing white and Hispanic settlers. A fight soon ensued and, when the dust settled, Lobo Blanco, four warriors and two Dragoons lay dead. The violence escalated; the next day Jicarillas and allied Ute warriors raided a herd of cattle near Ft. Union, killing two herdsmen.

To be continued in Wild West magazine for February 2008.