General Stephen Kearny


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Mexican War Time Line | Map of the Mexican War | Mexico | President Polk | Zachary Taylor | Santa Anna | General Winfield Scott | General William Worth | General John Wool | General Stephen Kearny | Commodore Stockton | John C. Fremont | General David Twiggs | Nicholas Trist | Thornton Affair | Battle of Palo Alto | Battle of Resace De La Palma | Battle of Monterey | Battle of Buena Vista | Battle of Vera Cruz | Battle of Cerro Gordo | Battle of Contreras | Battle of Churubusco | Battle of El Molino Del Rey | Battle of Chapultepec

Kearny, STEPHEN WATTS, military officer; born in Newark, N. J., Aug. 30, 1794; uncle of Gen. Philip Kearny. When the War of 1812–15 broke out young Kearny left his studies at Columbia College, entered the army as lieutenant of infantry, and distinguished himself in the battle of Queenston Heights. In April, 1813, he was made captain, and rose to brigadier - general in June, 1846. He was in command of the Army of the West at the beginning of the war with Mexico, and with that army marched to California, conquering New Mexico on the way. He established a provisional government at Santa Fe, pressed on to California, and was twice wounded in battle. For a few months in 1847 he was governor of California;

Stephen Kearny

General Stephen Kearny

joined the army in Mexico; in March, 1848, was governor, military and civil, of Vera Cruz, and in May of the same year was made governor of the city of Mexico. In August, 1848, he was brevetted major-general, and died in St. Louis, Mo., on Oct. 31, following.

The Kearny-Stockton Controversy.

The differences between General Kearny and Commodore Stockton, after the occupation of California, originated primarily in the indefiniteness of the instructions which were issued from the seat of government. Those addressed to the naval commanders on the Pacific, in their judgment, justified the organization of a military force and a civil government in California, and under those instructions Commodore Stockton authorized Colonel Fremont to organize the California battalion and take its command with the title of major. By virtue of those, he likewise took the necessary steps for the organization of a civil government for California and invested Fremont with the title and responsibilities of governor.

As soon as these results were consummated, Kit Carson was sent, with an escort of fifteen men, to bear the intelligence overland to Washington, as soon as possible. Just as he had crossed the desert and was approaching the American frontier, he was met by General Kearny, with a small force of dragoons, marching westward, under instructions from his government to conquer California and organize a civil government in the territory, a work which had already been successfully accomplished.

Upon learning what had occurred, Kearny insisted upon Carson's returning with him, as his guide, to California, having forwarded the dispatches to Washington by another messenger of his own selection. Upon the general's arrival at Los Angeles, the capital of California, and the seat of the new government, the contest soon arose between himself and Commodore Stockton. The process by which Colonel Fremont became involved in this controversy is obvious. He held a commission in the army as lieutenant of topographical engineers, and, as such, was, primarily, subject to the orders of his superior general officer of the army. He had since yielded to the exigencies of the occasion, and, from motive and for reasons which cannot be impeached, waived any privileges he might have claimed, as the real conqueror of North California, and, in point of rank, the superior representative of the army on the Pacific coast, and, with his men, volunteered to serve under Commodore Stockton in the further prosecution of the war in South California, the subjugation of which could not be so successfully effected without the aid of a fleet. By accepting the governorship of California, a vacancy had been created in the command of the California battalion, and other changes had become necessary. The first intimation which Colonel Fremont received of General Kearny's intention to test the validity of Commodore Stockton's acts, through him, was conveyed in the following note:

Jan. 16, 1847.

By direction of Brigadier - General Kearny, I send you a copy of a communication to him from the Secretary of War, dated June 18, 1846, in which is the following: 'These troops, and such as may be organized in California, will be under your command.' The general directs that no change will be made in the organization of your battalion of volunteers, or officers appointed in it, without his sanction or approval being first obtained. WM. F. EMORY,
Lieutenant and Acting Assistant

This note at once raised the question whether he was to obey General Kearny, and thereby, so far as his example could go, invalidate the acts of Commodore Stockton, in which he had cooperated, or obey Commodore Stockton, and, so far as his decision would go, sustain the validity of those proceedings which he believed to be both legal and patriotic. If he took the former course, he incurred the liability to be arraigned, and, in his judgment, justly disgraced for disobeying an officer whose rank and authority he had deliberately recognized; and he further incurred the charge of base ingratitude towards an officer whose courtesy and confidence he had shared, whose conduct he had approved, and who unexpectedly found himself in a situation to need the support of his friends. Fremont was incapable of deserting either a friend or what he deemed a post of duty; he accordingly addressed to General Kearny the following reply, on the following day:

Jan. 17, 1847.

SIR,—I have the honor to be in receipt of your favor of last night, in which I am directed to suspend the execution of orders which, in my capacity of military commandant of this territory, I had received from Commodore Stockton, governor and commander-in-chief in California. I avail myself of an early hour this morning to make such a reply as the brief time allowed for reflection will enable me.

I found Commodore Stockton in possession of the country, exercising the functions of military commandant and civil governor, as early as July of last year; and shortly thereafter I received from him the commission of military commandant, the duties of which I immediately entered upon, and have continued to exercise to the present moment.

I found also, on my arrival at this place, some three or four days since, Commodore Stockton still exercising the functions of civil and military governor, with the same apparent deference to his rank on the part of all officers (including yourself) as he maintained and required when he assumed them in July last.

I learned also, in conversation with you, that on the march from San Diego, recently, to this place, you entered upon and discharged duties implying an acknowledgment on your part of supremacy to Commodore Stockton.

I feel, therefore, with great deference to your professional and personal character, constrained to say that, until you and Commodore Stockton adjust between yourselves the question of rank, where I respectfully think the difficulty belongs, I shall have to report and receive orders, as heretofore, from the commodore.

With considerations of high regard, I am, sir, your obedient servant,

Lieutenant-Colonel U. S. A., and Military Commandant of the Territory of California. Brig.-Gen. S. W. Kearny, U. S. A.

The same day that General Kearny addressed the note above quoted to Colonel Fremont, a yet more serious correspondence commenced between him and Commodore Stockton. It is here given at length, with the introductory remarks of Commodore Stockton's biographer, who evidently wrote under the eye and approval of the commodore:

"Fremont throughout the California war was strictly and technically in the naval service, under Commodore Stockton. He had taken service under him with an express agreement that he would continue subject to his orders as long as he continued in command in California. This engagement both he and Captain Gillespie had entered into from patriotic motives, and to render the most efficient service to the country. He visited California originally upon topographical, and not on military, duty. His volunteering under Stockton on special service was a patriotic impulse, in complying with which the government were in honor bound to sustain him. He therefore very properly refused to violate his agreement with Stockton, and unite with Kearny against him.

" Having failed to compel Fremont to acknowledge his authority, the general addressed himself to the commodore and demanded that he should abdicate the command-in-chief.

" The commodore, considering the subjugation of California complete, and that no further hostilities were likely to take place, was of opinion that he might now relinquish his governorship and command-in-chief and return to his ship. But, having informed the government that upon that event he intended to appoint Colonel Fremont governor, he now proceeded to carry that design into execution.

" General Kearny, learning this to be the purpose of the commodore, and desirous of exercising the functions of governor himself, addressed to him the following letter:"

Jan. 16, 1847.

SIR,-I am informed that you are engaged in organizing a civil government, and appointing officers for it in this territory. As this duty has been specially assigned to myself, by orders of the President of the United States, conveyed in letters to me from the Secretary of War, of June 3, 8, and 18, 1846, the original of which I gave to you on the 12th, and which you returned to me on the 13th, and copies of which I furnished you with on the, 26th December, I have to ask if you have any authority from the President, from the Secretary of the Navy, or from any other channel of the President to form such government and make such appointments?

If you have such authority, and will show it to me or furnish me with a certified copy of it, I will cheerfully acquiesce in what you are doing. If you have not such authority, I then demand that you cease all further proceedings relating to the formation of a civil government of this Territory, as I cannot recognize in you any right in assuming to perform duties confided to me by the President.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, S. W. KEARNY, " Brigadier-General U. S. A.
Commodore R. F. Stockton, Acting " Governor of California."

Jan. 16, 1847.

SIR,—In answer to your note, received this afternoon, I need say but little more than that which I communicated to you in a conversation at San Diego—that California was conquered and a civil government put into successful operation; that a copy of the laws made by me for the government of the Territory, and the names of the officers selected to see them faithfully executed, were transmitted to the President of the United States before you arrived in the Territory.

I will only add that I cannot do anything nor desist from doing anything on your demand, which I will submit to the President and ask for your recall. In the mean time you will consider yourself suspended from the command of the United States forces in this place.

Faithfully, your obedient servant, " R. F. STOCKTON,
Commander-in-Chief. "To Brevet Brig.-Gen. S. W. Kearny."

Jan. 17, 1847.

SIR, In my communication to you of yesterday's date I stated that I had learned that you were engaged in organizing a civil government for California. I referred you to the President's instructions to me (the original of which you have seen) and copies of which I furnished you, to perform that duty, and added that if you had any authority from the President, or any of his organs, for what you were doing, I would cheerfully acquiesce, and if you had not such authority I demanded that you would cease further proceedings in the matter.

Your reply of the same date refers me to a conversation held at San Diego, and adds that you cannot do anything or desist from doing anything or alter anything on your (my) demand. As, in consequence of the defeat of the enemy on the 8th and 9th inst., by the troops under my command, and the capitulation entered into on the 13th inst. by Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont with the leaders of the Californians, in which the people under arms and in the field agree to disperse and remain quiet and peaceable, the country may now, for the first time, be considered as conquered, and taken possession of by us; and as I am prepared to carry out the President's instructions to me, which you oppose, I must, for the purpose of preventing a collision between us and possibly a civil war in consequence of it, remain silent for the present, leaving with you the great responsibility of doing that for which you have no authority, and preventing me from complying with the President's orders.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant, S. W. KEARNY,
Brigadier-General U. S. A. " Commodore R. F. Stockton, Acting
Governor of California."

The motives which actuated Colonel Fremont in electing to pursue the course which he did upon the arrival of General Kearny, are scarcely open to misconstruction. There happens, however, to be the best of evidence in regard to them in a letter addressed to Colonel Benton at the time of the collision, which reveals in all the confidence of personal friendship the innermost secrets of his heart. In that letter, he says:

" ... When I entered Los Angeles I was ignorant of the relations subsisting between these gentlemen, having received from neither any order or information which might serve as a guide in the circumstances. I, therefore, immediately on my arrival, waited upon the governor and commander-in-chief, Commodore Stockton, and, a few minutes afterwards, called upon General Kearny. I soon found them occupying a hostile attitude, and each denying the right of the other to assume the direction of affairs in this country.

" The ground assumed by General Kearny was that he held in his hand plenary instructions from the President directing him to conquer California, and organize a civil government, and that consequently he would not recognize the acts of Commodore Stockton.

" The latter maintained that his own instructions were to the same effect as Kearny's; that this officer's commission was obsolete, and never would have been given could the government have anticipated that the entire country, seaboard and interior, would have been conquered and held by himself. The country had been conquered and a civil government instituted since September last, the constitution of the Territory and appointments under the constitution had been sent to the government for its approval, and decisive action undoubtedly long since had upon them. General Kearny was instructed to conquer the country, and upon its threshold his command had been nearly cut to pieces, and, but for relief from him (Commodore Stockton), would have been destroyed. More men were lost than in General Taylor's battle of the 8th. In regard to the remaining part of his instructions, how could he organize a government without first proceeding to disorganize the present one? His work had been anticipated; his commission was absolutely null and void and of no effect.

" But if General Kearny believed that his instructions gave him paramount authority in the country, he made a fatal error on his arrival. He was received with kindness and distinction by the commodore, and offered by him the command of his land forces. General Kearny rejected the offer and declined interfering with Commodore Stockton. This officer was then preparing for a march to Ciudad de Los Angeles, his force being principally sailors and marines, who were all on foot (fortunately for them), and who were to be provided with supplies on their march through an enemy's country, where all the people are cavalry. His force was paraded, and ready to start, 700 in number, supported by six pieces of artillery. The command, under General Stockton, had been conferred upon his first lieutenant, Mr. Rowan. At this juncture General Kearny expressed to Commodore Stockton his expectation that the command would have been given to him. The commodore informed the general that Lieutenant Rowan was in his usual line of duty, as on board ship, relieving him of the detail of the drudgery of the camp, while he himself remained the commander-in-chief; that if General Kearny was willing to accept Mr. Rowan's place, under these circumstances, he could have it. The general assented. Commodore Stockton called up his officers and explained the case. Mr. Rowan gave up his post generously and without hesitation; and Commodore Stockton desired them clearly to understand that he remained commander-in-chief; under this arrangement the whole force entered Angeles; and on the day of my arrival at that place General Kearny told me that he did then, at that moment, recognize Commodore Stockton as governor of the Territory.

"You are aware that I had contracted relations with Commodore Stockton, and I thought it neither right nor politically honorable to withdraw my support. No reason of interest shall ever compel me to act towards any man in such a way that I should afterwards be ashamed to meet him."

Early in the spring, new instructions, bearing date Nov. 5, reached Commodore Stockton, which put an end to the latter's supremacy in the quarter. In his dispatch the Secretary of the Navy says:

" The President has deemed it best for the public interests to invest the military officer commanding with the direction of the operations on land, and with the administrative functions of the government over the people and Territory occupied by us. You will relinquish to Colonel Mason, or to General Kearny, if the latter shall arrive before you have done so, the entire control over these matters, and turn over to him all papers necessary to the performance of his duties."

Instructions of a corresponding import were of course received from the War Department, by General Kearny, and with them, or not long afterwards, a dispatch from Mr. Marcy, of which the following is an extract:

WAR DEPARTMENT, June 17, 1847.

. . . When the dispatch from this department was sent out in November last, there was reason to believe that Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont would desire to return to the United States, and you were then directed to conform to his wishes in that respect. It is not now proposed to change that direction. But since that time it has become known here that he bore a conspicuous part in the conquest of California, that his services have been very valuable in that country, and doubtless will continue to be so should he remain there.

Impressed, as all engaged in the public service must be, with the great importance of harmony and cordial cooperation in carrying on military operations in a country so distant from the seat of authority, the President is persuaded that when his definite instructions were received, all questions of difficulty were settled, and all feelings which had been elicited by the agitation of them had subsided.

Should Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont, who has the option to return or remain, adopt the latter alternative, the President does not doubt you will employ him in such a manner as will render his services most available to public interest, having reference to his extensive acquaintance with the inhabitants of California, and his knowledge of their language, qualifications independent of others, which it is supposed may be very useful in the present and prospective state of our affairs in that country... .
Very respectfully, your ob't servant, " W. L. MARCY, Secretary of War."

The " definite instructions " to which reference is here made were never communicated to Colonel Fremont, and their suppression was very justly esteemed by him a grievance for several reasons, and among others, because they show that by the President's directions it was at Colonel Fremont's option whether he would remain in California or not, an option, however, which was denied him by General Kearny.

Early in March, and after taking the supreme command in California, General Kearny addressed Colonel Fremont the following letter:

MONTEREY, U. CAL., March 1, 1847.

SIR,-By Department orders, No. 2, of this date (which will be handed to you by Captain Turner, 1st Dragoons, A.A.A.G., for my command), you will see that certain duties are there required of you as commander of the battalion of California volunteers.

In addition to the duties above referred to, I have now to direct that you will bring with you, and with as little delay as possible, all the archives and public documents and papers which may be subject to your control, and which appertain to the government of California, that I may receive them from your hands at this place, the capital of the Territory.

I have directions from the general-in-chief not to detain you in this country, against your wishes, a moment longer than the necessities of the service may require ; and you will be at liberty to leave here after you have complied with these instructions, and those in the order referred to.
Very respectfully, your ob't servant,
Lieut.-Col. J. C. Fremont, Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, Commanding Battalion of California Volunteers, Ciudad de Los Angeles."

About a month later, he received the following order from General Kearny:


SIR,-This will be handed to you by Colonel Mason, 1st Dragoons, who goes to the southern district, clothed by me with full authority to give such orders and instructions upon all matters, both civil andmilitary, in that section of the country as he may deem proper and necessary. Any instructions he may give you will be considered as coming from myself.

A few weeks later Colonel Fremont received orders from General Kearny to report himself at Monterey with such of the members of his topographical corps as were still under pay, prepared to set out at once for Washington. Colonel Fremont then applied for permission to join his regiment, under General Taylor's command, supposed to be on its way to Vera Cruz. This request was refused without explanation or apology, and on June 14 Colonel Fremont addressed General Kearny as follows :

June 14, 1847.

SIR,-In a communication which I received from yourself in March of the present year I am informed that you had been directed by the commander-in-chief not to detain me in this country against my wishes longer than the absolute necessities of the service might require.

Private letters in which I have entire confidence further inform me that the President has been pleased to direct that I should be permitted the choice of joining my regiment in Mexico, or returning directly to the United States. An application which I had the honor to make to you at the Ciudad de Los Angeles for permission to proceed immediately to Mexico having been rejected, and the duties of the exploring expedition which had been confided to my direction having been terminated by yourself, I respectfully request that I may now be relieved of all connection with the topographical party which you have taken under your charge, and be permitted to return to the United States. Traveling with a small party by a direct route, my knowledge of the country and freedom from professional business will enable me to reach the States some forty or fifty days earlier than yourself, which the present condition of affairs and a long absence from my family make an object of great importance to me.

It may not be improper to say to you that my journey will be made with private means, and will not, therefore, occasion any expenditure to the government. I have the honor to be, with much respect, your obedient servant,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Mounted Riflemen. " Brig.-Gen. S. W. Kearny, Commanding, etc."

To this request Colonel Fremont received the following reply:

CALIFORNIA, June 14, 1847.

SIR,—The request contained in your communication to me of this date, to be relieved from all connection with the topographical party (nineteen men), and be permitted to return to the United States with a small party made up by your private means, cannot be granted.

I shall leave here on Wednesday, the 16th instant, and I require of you to be with your topographical party in my camp (which will probably be about 15 miles from here) on the evening of that day, and to continue with me to Missouri.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant, S. W. KEARNY,
Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont, Regiment
Mounted Riflemen, New Helvetia."

General Kearny broke up his camp near Sutter's fort on the day after issuing this order, and set out for the United States, attended by Colonel Fremont, who was treated, however, with deliberate disrespect throughout the journey. The party reached Fort Leavenworth about Aug. 22. On that day General Kearny sent for him, and directed Lieutenant Wharton to read to him a copy of the first paragraph of an order he had just issued of that date, as follows:

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Aug. 22, 1847.
Lieutenant - Colonel Fremont, of the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, will turn over to the officers of the different departments at this post, the horses, mules, and other public property in the use of the topographical party now under his charge, for which receipts will be given. He will arrange the accounts of these men (nineteen in number), so that they can be paid at the earliest date. Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont having performed the above duty, will consider himself under arrest, and will then repair to Washington City, and report himself to the adjutant-general of the army. . . .

For Colonel Fremont's subsequent actions, see FREMONT, JOHN CHARLES.




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