Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The First Battle of Adobe Walls

The First Battle of Adobe Walls was a battle between the United States Army and Native American Indians, which actually took place during the Civil War. It was a battle in which the Kiowa, Comanche, Plains Apache, the Kiowa Apache tribes drove U.S. forces from the battlefield.  Yes, it resulted in a retreat.

The Union Army sent an Expeditionary Force to northern Texas in response to attacks on white settlers moving into the Southwest. The battle, which took place on November 25, 1864, resulted in light casualties on both sides but is considered one of the Great Plains' largest engagements. If the years 1864 rings a bell - it's because the Civil War was still going very strong.

Gen. James H. Carleton, commander of the military units in New Mexico, was determined to halt Comanche and Kiowa attacks on Santa Fe wagon trains. The Plains Indians saw the wagons and buffalo hunters as trespassers who were killing off "their" buffalo - their food. General Carleton wanted to put an end to the raids or send a sharp signal to the Indians that the Civil War had not left the United States unable to protect its people. Because he was the most seasoned veteran Indian fighter at his disposal, Carleton selected famous mountain man and Indian fighter Christopher "Kit" Carson to lead the Expeditionary Force. 

During the Civil War, Kit Carson held the rank of Colonel in the Union Army. Col. Carson took command of the First Cavalry, New Mexico Volunteers, with orders to proceed against the Comanches and Kiowas' winter campgrounds, which were reported to be somewhere in the Palo Duro Canyons of the southern Panhandle area, on the south side of the Canadian River.

The Carson expedition was the second invasion into the heart of the Comanche homeland known as "Comancheria," after the Antelope Hills Expedition. The Antelope Hills Expedition was a campaign from January 1858 to May 1858 by the Texas Rangers and other allied native American tribes against Comanche and Kiowa villages in the Comancheria. That campaign began in western Texas and ending in a series of fights with the Comanche tribe on May 12, 1858, at a place called Antelope Hills by Little Robe Creek, a tributary of the Canadian River in what is now Oklahoma.

The hills are also called the "South Canadians," as they surround the Canadian River. The fighting on May 12, 1858, is often called the Battle of Little Robe Creek. 

The years 1856 to 1858 on the Texas Frontier were particularly vicious and bloody as the settlers continued to encroach into the Comancheria. They plowed under valuable hunting grounds, and the Comanche lost grazing land for their herds of horses. In addition to the influx of settlers, the United States Army had waged a campaign to block the Comanche's traditional raids into Mexico.

Finally, the Comanches struck back with a series of ferocious and bloody raids against the settlers. At the time, with the focus of the Union Army on the war with the Confederacy, the Union Army proved wholly unable to stem the violence. Not only were units being transferred, but federal law and numerous treaties barred the Army from attacking Indians in the Indian Territories. 

Although many Indians, such as the Cherokee, were trying to farm and live as settlers, the Comanche and Kiowa continued to live in that part of the Indian Territories, traditionally the Comancheria, while raiding into Texas.

On November 10th, Col. Carson arrived at Fort Bascom with fourteen officers, 321 enlisted men, and seventy-five Ute and Jicarilla Apache scouts and fighters he had recruited from Lucien Maxwell's ranch near Cimarron, New Mexico.

On November 12, Carson's force, accompanied by two mountain howitzers under the command of Lt. George H. Pettis, twenty-seven wagons, an ambulance, and supplied with forty-five days of rations, proceeded down the Canadian River into the Texas Panhandle. Carson had decided to march first to Adobe Walls, which he was familiar with more than 20 years earlier.

Carson, long familiar with the Utes and Jicarillas, had confidence in his Indian scouts. They covered his flanks, and each morning two of them rode far ahead of the slow-moving column to search for Comanche and Kiowa encampments. Inclement weather, including an early snowstorm, also added to the slow progress.

On November 24, 1864, the First Cavalry reached Mule Springs, in Moore County, approximately 30 miles west of Adobe Walls. That same afternoon, the Indian scouts reported they had found the trail of a large Indian village.

Carson left his infantry behind to guard his supply train and ordered a night march of cavalry and artillery. He rode in the van with the Ute and Jicarilla. The next morning he ordered the two howitzers forward to join him in the van. Coming to the easily-fordable Canadian River, he deployed one cavalry company on the north side of the river and continued with the remainder on the south side. 

The battle of Adobe Walls occurred on November 25, 1864, in the vicinity of Adobe Walls, the ruins of William Bent's abandoned adobe trading post and saloon, located on the northern side of the Canadian River 17 miles northeast of present-day Stinnett in Hutchinson County.

The battle came about when General James H. Carleton, commander of the military district of New Mexico, decided to severely punish the Kiowa and Comanche, who he saw as responsible for attacks on wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail. Remember, the Indians saw the wagon trains as trespassers who killed buffalo and other game the Indians needed to survive. Also, keep in mind, as the Civil War drained available troops, attacks on the Great Plains worsened. This lead to cries from settlers for more protection against the Indians in 1863.

Approximately two hours after daybreak on November 25, 1864, Carson's cavalry found and attacked a Kiowa village of 176 lodges. The Chief, Dohasan, and his people fled, passing the alarm to allied Comanche villages nearby.

Marching forward to Adobe Walls, four miles from the Kiowa village, Carson dug in there about 10:00 am, using one corner of the ruins for a hospital. To his absolute surprise, Col. Carson discovered several villages in the area -- including a huge Comanche village. 

Carson saw large numbers of Indians pouring forward to engage him in battle. It was a much greater force than he had expected. I imagine that he must have felt the same as George Custer did years later when he, too, underestimated the number of Indians he was up against.

Captain Pettis, who is said to have written the most complete report of the battle, estimated that 1,200 to 1,400 Comanche and Kiowa attacked the soldiers and Indian scouts, who numbered 330. And remember, 75 of those men had been left behind to guard the supply train.

"Throw a few shells into that crowd over there," said Col. Carson to artillery officer Lt. Pettis

Carson dismounted his cavalry and deployed them around the two howitzers. His Indian scouts skirmished with about 200 Comanche and Kiowa warriors "mounted and covered with paint and feathers...charging backwards and forwards...their bodies thrown over the sides of their horses, at a full run, and shooting occasionally under their horses."

Dohasan, assisted by Satank and Satanta, led the Kiowas in the first attack. Fierce fighting developed as the Kiowa, Plains Apache, and Comanche warriors repeatedly attacked Carson's position. Satanta replied to Carson's bugler with his own bugle calls to confuse the soldiers.

Carson succeeded in repelling the attacks only through his clever use of supporting fire from the twin howitzers. The first shells from the howitzers caused the Comanche and Kiowa to retire from the battlefield, but they soon returned in even greater numbers to renew the attack.

By afternoon, Pettis estimated Carson's army faced more than 3,000 Indians.

Yes, it looked as though Carson could have been Custer! After six to eight hours of fairly continuous fighting, Carson realized he was running low on howitzer shells and ammunition in general and ordered his forces to retreat to the Kiowa village in his rear. At the same time, Carson was also concerned about the fate of the 75 men guarding his much-needed supply train.

The Indians tried to block his retreat by setting fire to the grass and brush down near the river. However, Carson set back-fires and retreated to higher ground, where his twin howitzers continued to hold off the Indians.

When twilight came, Carson ordered about half his command and his Indian scouts to burn the village's lodges. This also resulted in the death of the Kiowa-Apache chief Iron Shirt, who refused to leave his tipi. The soldiers also confiscated "finely finished buffalo robes" and burned the rest, and the Indian scouts killed and mutilated four wounded Kiowas too injured to flee.

Carson's soldiers continued their retreat and found their supply train intact that night. Carson and his soldiers rested in camp on November 26. The Indians were visible on a hilltop about two miles away. And while Carson's Indian scouts skirmished with the Comanche and Kiowa, no serious attack was mounted on the soldiers.

The next day, Carson gave the order to return to New Mexico. Some of his officers wished to renew the battle, but Carson, consulting only with his Utes and Jicarillas, ordered the retreat to New Mexico. In all, Carson's troops and Indian scouts lost a few men, and there were twenty-five wounded. While Indian casualties were estimated at 100 to 150, no one really knows if those numbers are correct or not.

One Comanche scalp was reportedly taken by a young Mexican volunteer in Carson's expedition, which disbanded after returning to Fort Bascom without further incident. And as strange as it might sound, believe it or not, the United States Army declared the First Battle of Adobe Walls "a victory." 

On the contrary, the Kiowa recorded in their annual record, painted on a buffalo skin, that the period was "muddy travel winter, the time when the Kiowas repelled Kit Carson."

Carson was well known by all the Indians of the Southern Plains. The battle left the Comanche and Kiowa unchallenged in their control of the Texas Panhandle until the Battle of the North Fork of the Red River eight years later.

Most believe that Kit Carson's decision to retreat was wise and that he deserves credit for a good defense. Fact is, he was outnumbered, and it was only because of his clever use of back-fires and his deployment of his howitzers that prevented his force from being overrun and massacred as Custer was later at the Little Bighorn.

A few days later, after the battle of Adobe Walls, Colonel John M. Chivington led Union troops in a massacre of a village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapaho encamped in southeastern Colorado Territory at a place called Sand Creek.

Chivington boasted that he had surpassed Carson and would soon be known as the great Indian killer. As for Carson, he is said to have expressed outrage at the massacre and openly denounced Chivington's actions.

General Carleton applauded Col. Carson's retreat in the face of overwhelming odds at Adobe Walls, calling it "an outstanding military accomplishment; though the former mountain man was unable to strike a killing blow, he is generally credited with a decisive victory." 

In October 1865, General Carleton recommended that Carson be awarded the brevet rank of brigadier general, "for gallantry in the battle of Valverde, and for distinguished conduct and gallantry in the wars against the Mescalero Apaches and against the Navajo natives of New Mexico."

The First Battle at Adobe Walls would be the last time the Comanche and Kiowa forced American troops to retreat from a battlefield and marked the beginning of the end of the plains tribes and their way of life. The battle was one of the largest engagements between whites and Indians on the Great Plains. The result of that war was that the Southern Plains campaign led the Comanches to sign the Little Rock Treaty of 1865.

Carson afterward contended that if Adobe Walls was to be reoccupied, at least 1,000 fully equipped troops would be required. As for reports of what took place, the first eyewitness account of the battle other than Carson's military correspondence was published in 1877 by George Pettis, who had served as the expedition's artillery officer.

A decade later, the Second Battle of Adobe Walls was fought on June 27th, 1874, between 700 Comanche and 28 American buffalo hunters defending the settlement of Adobe Walls for similar reasons. During that fight, which included a four-day siege, the Indians withdrew.

The Second Battle is historically significant because it led to the Red River War of 1874-75, resulting in the Southern Plains Indians' final relocation to reservations in what is now Oklahoma.

Texas First Battle Of Adobe Walls Historical Marker

Story by Tom Correa


1 comment:

  1. I'm used to hearing about Bat Masterson and Billy Dixon when it comes to the Battle Of Adobe Walls. Over the years, people claimed that they were there but whether or not they were we will never really know. This claim was featured in the 1972 Western, "The Magnificent Seven Ride!" where Lee Van Cleef's character, Chris Adams, claims he was at Adobe Walls. And, yep, you guessed it, I plan on making a movie about this battle called, "Adobe Walls". Tom Correa is scheduled to play Dewey but don't tell him or he'll get mad. But yes, in the near future, if Tom is still with us, I'll make the film. Until then, wish me luck. Benny Bence, 2023.


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