Defending Fort Defiance – April 30, 1860


In the predawn darkness of April 30, 1860, approximately 2,000 Navajo warriors attacked Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory (present-day eastern Arizona). Fort Defiance, established in 1851 to block Navajo raids, was defended by 138 men from Companies B, C, and E of the 3rd Infantry.


The Navajos assaulted in three columns, penetrating some buildings before being stopped by the Old Guard’s steady and disciplined fire. Attacks continued for another two hours. As dawn broke, the soldiers of 3rd Infantry counterattacked and cleared the area.


One Old Guardsman (Private Sylvester Johnson) was killed in action and several more were wounded. Sylvester Johnson was buried in a grave at Fort Defiance, but was later re-interred at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery. Navajo losses were estimated at twenty killed, and many more wounded. The Old Guard earned the red and black Indian Wars Campaign Streamer embroidered “NEW MEXICO 1860” for its service there that year.


In 1883, William Dickinson, a lieutenant at the time of the attack, wrote of his “Reminiscences of Fort Defiance, 1860” for the “Journal of the Military Service Institution of the United States, Vol. IV.” documenting his experience at that battle.

Reminiscences of Fort Defiance, NM, 1860

There was in garrison at Fort Defiance in 1860 a small force of the Third Infantry, consisting of Companies “B,” “C” and “E” – 138 officers and men for duty. Possibly, counting sick, extra duty men, civilians and all, we may have had between 150 and 160 people capable of assisting in an emergency.


It will be remembered that in those days (and in some cases now) a frontier post was “fort” only in name.


The stout hearts and arms, the good discipline and courage of its garrison, were its only claims to being a fortification. It had a parade, or plaza, usually square, surrounded by quarters, barracks, guard-house, prison, store-houses, and a miscellaneous collection of adobe, or log buildings; had a flag staff in the center, but had no defensive works; and was in fact nothing but a mere military village. Its position was selected not with any view to defense – no attack being ordinarily dreamed – but solely with reference to wood, water, grass, and shelter from the weather, and as a strategic point from which to operate against or to hold Indians in check. It was, but for its sentinels, as open for ingress or egress as any New England village. Such was Fort Defiance on the morning of the 30th of April, 1860. It was nestled amid the mountains, at the foot of Canon Bonita, not far from the boundary line between New Mexico and Arizona, away up in the loneliest corner of the United States, in the ” Navajoe country,” and was important as a base of operations for protecting the settlements in the Rio Grande valley. It was the most remote and isolated post of its day — its loss would have entailed disaster to the people along the Rio Grande.


Captain and Brevet Major O. L. Shepherd, Third Infantry (now Colonel and Brevet Brigadier- General, retired), commanded the post. Assistant Surgeon Joseph H. Bill (now Major and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel) was Post Surgeon. First Lieutenant William D. Whipple (now Lieutenant-Colonel, Adjutant-General’s Department, and Brevet Major-General) was commanding Company “E.” He was First Lieutenant of Company ” B,” but was in charge of Company ” E ” at the time, from the requirements of service. Second Lieutenant John McL. Hildt (subsequently Captain and Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel, and since deceased) handled Company “C.” Major Shepherd’s duties necessarily calling him from point to point, the immediate command of his Company (“B”) was exercised by its Second Lieutenant, Wm. Dickinson (now Captain and Brevet Major, retired).


Lieutenant Whipple had entertained strong suspicions for some days that something more serious than common was in contemplation by our red neighbours, and, being officer of the day on the occasion described, had taken measures to insure extra vigilance and care on the part of the guard, and had also taken some precautionary steps as to the conduct of his company. A few moments after he had returned to his quarters from a very careful inspection of his guard and a visit to each sentinel’s post, the attack was made.


But for his conscientious and thorough attention to his duty that night, and his personal, minute and thoughtful instructions to every man of his guard, our subsequent efforts might have been unavailing. As it was, the enemy was met by such prompt and efficient a resistance by the guard that the garrison had time to turn out and take position. The place was surrounded by hills, and these were alive with Navajoes and Apaches. It has since been pretty conclusively ascertained that over 3,000 of them took a hand in this daring affair.


At 1 A.M. on April 30th, just as the moon had gone down, with the war whoop, they opened fire with rifles. The “long roll” sounded, the sentinels fired, and the garrison sprang to arms, with an unpleasant conviction that the savages probably had a detail at every officer’s door to knock him on the head so soon as he appeared.


As I approached the company quarters, the First Sergeant gravely saluted, while a shower of balls were pattering upon the log building, and remarked pleasantly, “They seem to think they can take us this morning, Lieutenant;” but he had the men ready and waiting to do all in their power to prevent it.


The entire defense was monotonous and purely passive.


Lieutenant Whipple held the position near Canon Bonita with Company “E,” all the large Quartermaster’s corrals and many store-houses being there. He had sent a Sergeant and squad of men to the rear of the line of officers’ quarters, and with the bulk of his company “stood off” Indians enough to have packed his whole force on their backs, had their courage sufficed them to attempt it. The enemy’s fire, while hot, was not very effective, and Whipple stubbornly held them at bay.


Lieutenant Hildt, with Company “C,” held the group of buildings on the La Hoya road, including the sutler’s store, the contents of which were a strong incentive to hard work on Lo’s part for possession. Hildt, however, held his ground nobly, though his small command had a horde of the enemy rush up in their faces many times.


Lieutenant Dickinson had Company ” B ” on the east face, between the line of quarters and the steep rock hills, some 150 feet high. This line of rocks was alive with them, and all night the flashes of their pieces spangled the darkness all along his front. He had extended the company as skirmishers in a very long thin line, and had, by permission of Major Shepherd, who had accompanied him forward to reconnoitre, taken the men nearly to the foot of the hills, and there kept them all through, excepting one charge made which carried the stone house on the hill. The men behaved most admirably, and all seemed to enjoy the excitement.


As before remarked, the fight was monotonous. Charges firmly and quietly met by careful file firing were rolled back, but were often repeated. As morning broke Major Shepherd assumed the immediate conduct of his company, and having given like orders for simultaneous movements by Lieutenants Whipple and Hildt, he caused the whole garrison to move forward and outward, and the affair was ended.


The Navajoes fled. The whole country round about, when we had charged up the hills, was alive with the baffled savages running for their ponies and thoroughly demoralized. We had no cavalry at the post at the time, so not much pursuit was made, and soon after sunrise recall was sounded. The evening before I had been bitten on my nose by a vicious small dog of Dr. Bill’s, and as “B ” Company rallied on where I was standing, “Paddy Martin,” a little Irish Corporal, and a good soldier, exclaimed, “Och, thin, Liftinant, did yez get scratched in the skrimmage ?”—for my nose was swollen to a ludicrous size.


Our loss was trifling, considering the disparity in numbers, one killed and a handful wounded. The enemy left about a dozen or more dead, and we learned their entire loss was very heavy, most of their dead and all their wounded being carried away in their retreat. Our few casualties may be attributed to the inferior character and unskilful use of the firearms, of which they had plenty. If I remember aright most of the wounds of our people were from arrows—a weapon they were very skilful with. Now-a-days the Indians with firearms of the best use them as effectively as white men.


A funny incident marked the final charge. The commanding officer’s orderlies were furnished from the field musicians, and the orderly for that night was a fifer named Escudaro, a Mexican, many years in the regiment, and phenomenally stupid about every thing but a fife. Being sent with a message to Whipple, he of course, bungled it, and Whipple (much against his will) made a move contrary to his own judgment in obedience to supposed orders. When “B” Company was scrambling up the rocky ledges, driving the long, angry waves of scowling, sullen, red devils before them, and had gained the crest, Escudaro had just returned and reported. Major Shepherd looked across, saw Whipple’s move, comprehended the reason, and in the midst of the smoke, dust, and noise of yelling and firing, the writer saw Shepherd cuffing Escudaro with all his might, and heard him expending some very vigorous and uncomplimentary English. Whipple looked across and had a laugh despite his chagrin, while the whole line of ” B” Company, including myself, went forward to the finish with a hearty laugh at the comical by-play amid the serious work we were at.


Ah! well! Those were jolly days, after all, and many a man, seeing this, will recall the old and long ago abandoned post, kind and genial John Webber, the Sutler, the frolics we enjoyed there out of the world, the “Tub Mill,” the camps of “dug outs” when expeditions were made up, troops arriving and departing, Captain D., of the Rifles, and “G” Company’s coon, and the pranks played on good-natured “Jack Lindsay,” of the Rifles, and Captain (now General and Colonel Second Cavalry) Hatch’s Navajoe protege “Sunday,”—a youth of three feet nothing, absolutely lawless, and whom, if in a mischievous mood, we all dreaded to meet, more than all his male relations in the field; and the final exit of the small ” Sunday ” simultaneously with a new outfit.


Twenty-two years, during which came the Rebellion, have wrought radical changes in the personnel of the dear old Third, but I am assured they are the same “buff sticks” as of yore.

Dick

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