Kit Carsonthe Illiterate General
Articles by Marc Simmons
name that continues to loom large in the history of New Mexico is
that of Kit Carson, perhaps the most famous Westerner of his day.
His career as a mountain man, guide, transcontinental mail courier,
Indian agent and military officer has become the stuff of legend.
Not a bad outcome for a pioneer boy who never went to school, and
never learned to read.
After his trapping days
were over, Carson settled in Taos, marrying the beautiful Josefa
Jaramillo in 1843. Ten years later, he became Indian agent for the
Utes and Apaches with his adobe residence two blocks from the plaza
serving as agency headquarters. That building today is the Kit Carson
When the Civil War broke
out, Kit received a commission as colonel of the 1st Regiment of
New Mexico Volunteers. He obtained that position based solely on
previous fighting experience, since he had no formal military training.
Kit recruited his regiment
from the towns and farms of Northern New Mexico. Late in 1861 he
moved his men down to Albuquerque, where they engaged in training
for several weeks. Capt. Rafael Chacon said that Kit brought his
wife and children down from Taos where they had an enjoyable time,
until January when the regiment was sent south to defend Fort Craig,
which was threatened by a Confederate invasion from Texas.
What followed was the
first major battle of the Civil War in the New Mexico Territory.
Bloody Valverde was fought on the east bank of the Rio Grande several
miles above the fort in central New Mexico on Feb. 21, 1862.
As it happened, Kit's
hastily trained regiment of Hispano farmers and shopkeepers ended
up in the center of the Union line. They faced repeated Texan cavalry
charges and never wavered. Chacon remembered later that Col. Carson
had stalked the lines amid a swarm of bullets and cannon balls calling
out: "Firme, muchachos, firme (Stand firm, boys.)"
When the Union commander
ordered a retreat, Kit's gallant regiment was still fighting furiously,
and even pressing forward. His men were the last Federal troops
to leave the field. In his own official report, Carson stated undramatically:
"I received the order to withdraw and recross the river. The
movement was executed in good order."
Afterward, when the main
Union force followed the Confederates toward Albuquerque, Col. Carson
remained as temporary commander of Fort Craig. One day he rode up
to Socorro to visit some of the wounded rebels left behind. One
of them recorded that they were awed by Kit, a man the Texans loved,
even while dreading him because of his "big reputation as a
Maj. Edward Wynkoop,
who served in New Mexico, said in his memoirs that "Carson
knew how to lead men into battle and keep them there." As a
result of his performance at Valverde, Kit was promoted to brevet
brigadier general of volunteers. It is claimed that he was the only
man in the country ever to attain a general's rank who was illiterate.
That deficiency might
have played a part in an amusing incident that occurred at Santa
Fe in 1866, the year after the war. In the capital on official business,
Gen. Carson had to share a room at Fort Marcy with visiting New
York artist Worthington Whitredge, who tells the tale.
A formal military ball
was scheduled, and Kit became highly agitated, being unable to read
the manual that described proper dress. Too embarrassed to ask other
officers, he inquired of his roommate. According to Whitredge, Carson
said he'd heard that pumps were correct at a ball, but he didn't
know what pumps were. "I told him pumps were a low shoe,"
replied the artist, "but no officer would wear them and he
must go in his boots."
Still uncertain and worried,
Kit went shopping, only to learn that no pumps could be had in Santa
Fe. He did find a pair of ladies slippers that fit, so he bought
them at a high price. That evening he attended the ball in his boots,
but carried the slippers hidden in his coat, in case he found it
necessary to make a quick change.
At first glance Whitredge
was unable to see where the slippers had been stashed in the tight
uniform. But upon closer inspection, he observed one buttoned on
each side of the general's chest, so that, as he put it, "his
figure was not unlike that of the handsome senoritas whirling in
Poor Kit: a perfect lion
in battle, but uninformed and painfully ill-at-ease in polite society!
A tall stone column honoring
Kit Carson can be seen at the end of Lincoln Avenue in Santa Fe,
near the entrance to the U. S. courthouse.
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Articles by Marc Simmons