Kit Carson—the Illiterate General

By Marc Simmons

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A 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 Museum.

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 soldier."

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 the waltz."

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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