The enslavement of captured Indians was an old convention in New Mexico—as was peonage, another form of servitude in which poor, usually Hispanic workers became indebted to wealthy estate owners. Peonage was a kind of feudal arrangement that kept the landed class rich while the majority of the citizens, illiterate and powerless to improve themselves, stayed mired in a financial misery from which they could rarely escape. William Davis, who as the United States attorney for the territory made a close study of the practice in the 1850s, thought that peonage was “in truth but a more charming name for a species of slavery as abject and oppressive as any found upon the American continent.”
Neither Carson nor the better-off New Mexicans he lived among had shown moral qualms about slavery. In fact, the people of the southern part of the New Mexico Territory had, in 1861, seceded from the Union to create their own Confederate state, which they called Arizona. Centered around the towns of Tucson and Mesilla, the population was composed largely of Hispanic landowners who farmed along the Rio Grande, and Anglo Texan transplants who’d moved farther west to try their hand at ranching or mining. (Kit’s own brother, Moses Carson, was now a settler living in Mesilla.) Arizonans vigorously cast their loyalty to Richmond and hoped their New Mexico brethren to the north would eventually come over to the Rebel side. The new territory of Arizona was governed by a bold, ruthless man named John Baylor, who sought to import Southern-style Negro slavery while simultaneously pursuing a stated policy of “exterminating all Apaches and other hostile Indians.” (Among the more sordid outrages in his career, Baylor was once charged with killing sixty Indians by giving them a sack of poisoned flour.)
Many of the army soldiers who lived in the New Mexico Territory were Southerners. Sibley wasn’t the only one who had left the U.S. Army at the first word of war—fully half the officers in the territory had quit New Mexico to fight for the Confederate cause. Officers could resign, but enlisted men in the lower echelons of the department could not without facing charges of desertion (punishable, in some cases, by death). So the ranks of Canby’s army on the Rio Grande were sprinkled with regulars who hailed from Southern states—men whose loyalty and motivation he understandably did not trust.
Lawrence Kelly, who made a thorough study of Carson’s command in his excellent book Navajo Roundup, noted that nearly half of the officers serving on the Navajo campaign were either court-martialed or forced to resign. Lawrence observes that, among other things, Carson’s officers were charged with “murder, alcoholism, embezzlement, sexual deviation, desertion, and incompetence.” Lt. David McAllister was caught in bed with an enlisted man while he was officer of the day at Fort Canby. Capt. Eben Everett was court-martialed for “being so drunk as to be wholly unable to perform any duty properly.” Lieutenants Stephen Coyle and William Mortimer were forced to resign after they bloodied each other in “a disgraceful fight” in front of enlisted men. John Caufield was charged with murdering an enlisted man and held in irons until convicted by a military court. Assistant Surgeon James H. Prentiss was charged with stealing most of the “Hospital Whiskey and Wine and applying it to his own use.” Lt. Nicholas Hodt was found to be “beastly intoxicated” and “in bed with a woman of bad character.” Another officer was found to have offered to secure prostitutes for his men, boasting in all seriousness that he was the “damdest best pimp in New Mexico.” These colorful disciplinary notes go on and on, bearing sad testimony to the morale problems that clearly prevailed among this confederacy of dunces.
17 August 2016
U.S. Military Dregs in the Southwest, 1860s
From Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides (Anchor, 2007), Kindle Loc. 5803-5820, 7087-7098: