by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Once military hostilities ended between the invading American forces and the defending Californios with the former entering Los Angeles on 10 January 1847 in its second attempt to seize it, a different type of conflict intensified. This was the growing rivalry between the main American officers: Army Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny and Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton.
The conflict was described in the report with a letter written by Stockton aboard the frigate Congress at San Diego as the commodore penned a very lengthy letter to Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft concerning his mounting conflict with Kearny. The 4 February 1847 missive addressed “the extraordinary conduct of General Kearny, or the indefensible language of his notes.” He told Bancroft that
I only desire at this time that you will call the attention of the President to it, and ask that General Kearny may be recalled from the territory, to prevent the evil consequences that may grow out of such a temper and such a head.
The commodore noted that in September 1846 he dispatched Christopher “Kit” Carson, an old friend of William Workman from New Mexico and before that an apprentice at the saddlery of Workman’s brother David in Franklin, Missouri, from Los Angeles to Washington to let President Polk know that California was conquered and a civil government established. Carson was within a few days of Santa Fe, New Mexico, however, when he was met by Kearny.
The general learning the contents of Stockton’s message to the president, including the fact that Frémont was to be governor, he sent back many of the troops with whom he was marching to California and took a detachment of dragoons with him west. Stockton then added, with original italics, “he would not permit Mr. Carson to proceed with the express, but insisted that he should return with him to California.”
Soon after Kearny arrived in California, Stockton continued, he “attempted to surprise the insurgents early that morning, in their camp at San Pasqual; that a battle ensued, in which the General was worsted [?],” though the commodore claimed Kearny left the field as soon as firing ended and did not communicate with anyone left there as he did so. Stockton even included two accounts, including one with Lieutenant Edward F. Beale (who later became a powerful figure with his massive Rancho El Tejon north of Los Angeles and owned a part of Rancho La Puente, as well.)
Once Kearny was escorted from San Pasqual by reinforcements sent after the battle was over, he met with Stockton, who said he offered the general “the situation of commander-in-chief of the forces then preparing for a campaign, and offered to go with him as ‘aid-de-camp.” Kearny refused this offer and said he’d be “aid-de-camp” to Stockton, showing him his instructions from the Department of War (William L. Marcy) claiming “he was entitled to be the governor of the territory.”
The commodore replied that Marcy’s orders stated that this would be so “should he conquer the territory [original italics],” but reminded Kearny that the conquest took place and civil government instituted before the general even left Santa Fe. Of course, the revolt of the Californios in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara took place so that this civil administration was “temporarily interrupted.” Moreover, Stockton already appointed Frémont governor and added that Kearny’s interception of the message carried by Carson delayed approval from authorities in Washington.
Stockton then stated that, on 29 December, as the troops were ready to march from San Diego to Los Angeles, Kearny asked him who was to be in command, to which the commodore answered that he would. The general then queried who would be commander under him, to which the reply was that Lieutenant Stephen C. Rowan, later a Vice-Admiral, was commissioned for that role. Kearny said he should be in that position and Rowan yielded.
While Stockton allowed that Kearny’s behavior during the march to Los Angeles was such that “no one paid more respect and deference to me,” he added that the general wrote a letter, dated 16 January 1847, in which “he arrogates to himself the supreme power of demanding [original italics] of me to desist from the performance of my duties.”
Included were several documents as evidence to support Stockton’s letter, including a note on 2 December 1846 from Kearny from Warner’s Ranch, northwest of San Diego, in which the general informed Stockton that he’d arrived “by orders of the President of the United States” and asked the commodore “to inform me of the state of affairs in California . . . as quickly as possible.” Kearny added that “your express by Mr. Carson was met on the Del Norte, and your mail must have reached Washington at least ten days since.”
The next day, Stockton answered that he sent Archibald Gillespie, whose overbearing treatment of Californios after the first seizure of Los Angeles in August led to the revolt, to “give you all needful information” of the situation in California” and to assist Kearny in his plans to surprise the Californios at San Pasqual.
On the 6th, Captain Henry S. Turner wrote Stockton of the battle between Kearny, with Gillespie’s mounted riflemen and “a very considerable Mexican force,” which left “about eighteen killed, and fourteen or fifteen wounded” including Kearny and Gillespie (one of the killed was Captain Benjamin D. Moore, for whom Fort Moore Hill west of the Plaza in Los Angeles was named) on the American side. Turner then requested “a considerable force to meet us on the route to San Diego” as well as carts to transport the wounded. Turner added that “we are without provisions.”
Stockton added a short note of 16 December 1846 to Kearny thanking him for the War Department dispatches and sending him documents “that you may see how far the wishes of the government have been anticipated and accomplished by the forces under my command.” Clearly stung by this, Kearny responded on 16 January from his headquarters at Los Angeles, acknowledging that the commodore was organizing a government and appointing officers for it.
Yet, the general bluntly stated
As this duty has been specially assigned to myself, by orders from the President of the United States, conveyed in letters to me from the Secretary of War . . . 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 such existed, Kearny went on, “I will cheerfully acquiesce in what you are doing” upon provision of those documents. If not, however, “I then demand that you cease all further proceedings . . . as I cannot recognize in you any right in assuming to perform duties confided to me by the President.”
Stockton wasted no time in issuing his rejoinder from his Los Angeles headquarters, replying that day that he had nothing more to add to what he told Kearny in San Diego weeks prior concerning the conquest of California and the creation of a civil government, with notification sent to the President (via Kit Carson) “before you arrived in the territory.” He then got right to the point, telling the general “I will submit to the President and ask for your recall. In the meantime, you will consider yourself suspended from the command of the United States forces in this place.”
On the 17th, Kearny fired back. He claimed that “the defeat of the enemy on the 8th and 9th instants, by the troops under my command” and Frémont’s subsequent agreement of capitulation with Andrés Pico, who routed Kearny at San Pasqual, meant that “the country may now, for the first time, be considered as conquered and taken possession of by us.”
Consequently, the general went on, “I am prepared to carry out the President’s instructions to me, which you oppose,” but
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.
All Stockton said in answer on that day was “I intend to withdraw to morrow from this place, with the small party which escorted me to this country.”
Tomorrow, we pick up the dramatic story of the Stockton-Kearny battle and conclude this remarkable post.