Carson grew up in the Western wilderness and was a bona fide mountain man before
he was 21 years old. He served as a guide and hunter for John C. Fremont’s initial
explorations of the country and it was through Fremont’s published journal that
Carson became famous as the quintessential mountain man. The government hired
him as an Indian agent for a while – he had both married and killed Indians and
so seemed a natural choice – but he disliked the bureaucracy of the job and resigned
to serve with the First New Mexico volunteers.
In that capacity he was
sent to Texas in 1864 to find and punish, with extreme
prejudice, the Comanche and Kiowa who were making life miserable and death a real
possibility for wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail. Carson followed the Canadian
River onto the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains, where no one, not even the
Texas Rangers, had ever ventured in pursuit of Comanches, the fear being that
they might actually find them.
Carson took on the task as a practical
matter and employed Navajo and Apache scouts as he followed the Canadian
River in search of marauders. Such an expedition, under most any other commander
of the day, would have been an abject and bloody failure. Even with Carson in
charge it almost turned out that way anyway.
advantage that Carson had on this expedition was a pair of howitzers, large caliber
cannons that worked essentially like a huge sawed-off shotgun, spraying hundreds
of .69 caliber cannon balls with each shot. Howitzers could turn a large crowd
of warriors into a small gathering of survivors in a matter of minutes. The Comanche
would call it “the gun that shoots twice.”
routing a Kiowa village on the banks of the river, Carson and his men moved to
a large Comanche village and wheeled the howitzers into place. When the inevitable
Comanche charge came, the howitzers gave the warriors a cause for pause before
they embarked on a full-scale retreat and a change of strategy. When they attacked
a second time they spread out in order to make the howitzers much less effective.
the U.S. soldiers heard the sound of a bugle being played with considerable skill
from somewhere within the enemy ranks. When the U.S. bugler sounded “charge,”
the Comanche bugler – perhaps chief Santanta – would play “retreat” and visa versa.
It was a bit of comic relief in what turned out to be a bloody battle.
subsequent Comanche attack was relentless and, Carson noticed, aided in no small
part by a steady stream of reinforcements riding into the fray from a much larger
Comanche village that he and his scouts could now see clearly. By afternoon, some
3,000 warriors had joined the battle.
This was similar to the blunder that
George Armstrong Custer would later make at the Little Big Horn, the difference
being that when Carson’s scouts told him he should leave that place or die there,
he listened. The troops retreated but the Comanches now outnumbered Carson and
his men by 10-1. Carson again unleashed the howitzers, and that weapon alone allowed
Carson and his soldiers to make good their escape under cover of darkness.
The U.S. military claimed the battle as a rousing victory but Carson didn’t quite
agree. Without the howitzers, he said, “few would have been left to tell the tale.”
This was to be the last battle Kit Carson would ever fight. Despite what the official
report said, Carson would say, “The Indians whipped me in this fight.” As usual,
he was right.
June 16, 2012 Column
Battle of Adobe Walls Centennial