Stephen W. Kearny

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Stephen W. Kearny
Stephen W. Kearny.jpg
Military Governor of New Mexico
In office
August 1846 – September 1846
Preceded byJuan Bautista Vigil y Alarid
Succeeded bySterling Price
4th Military Governor of California
In office
February 23, 1847 – May 31, 1847
Preceded byRobert F. Stockton
Succeeded byRichard Barnes Mason
Personal details
Stephen Watts Kearny

(1794-08-30)August 30, 1794
Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
DiedOctober 31, 1848(1848-10-31) (aged 54)
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Years of service1812–1848
RankUnion Army brigadier general rank insignia.svg Brigadier General
Union Army major general rank insignia.svg Brevet Major General
UnitCantonment Missouri
CommandsJefferson Barracks
The Old Guard
1CavRegtDUI.jpg 1st U.S. Dragoons
Army of the West
Mexico City
Battles/warsWar of 1812
Mexican–American War
Battle of San Pascual

Stephen Watts Kearny (sometimes spelled Kearney) (/ˈkɑːrni/ KAR-nee)[2] (August 30, 1794 – October 31, 1848) was one of the foremost antebellum frontier officers of the United States Army. He is remembered for his significant contributions in the Mexican–American War, especially the conquest of California. The Kearny code, proclaimed on September 22, 1846, in Santa Fe, established the law and government of the newly acquired territory of New Mexico and was named after him. His nephew was Major General Philip Kearny of American Civil War fame.

Early years[edit]

Stephen Watts Kearny was the fifteenth and youngest child of Philip and Susanna Watts Kearny. His father, who was of Irish ancestry (the family name had originally been O'Kearny), was a successful wine merchant and landowner in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, before the start of the American Revolution (1775–83).[3] Kearny was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Philip Kearny Sr. and Susanna Watts. His maternal grandparents were the wealthy merchant Robert Watts of New York and Mary Alexander, the daughter of Major General "Lord Stirling" William Alexander and Sarah "Lady Stirling" Livingston of American Revolutionary War fame. Stephen Watts Kearny went to public schools. After high school, he attended Columbia University in New York City for two years. He joined the New York militia as an ensign in 1812.[4]

Marriage and family[edit]

In the late 1820s after his career was established, Kearny met, courted and married Mary Radford, the stepdaughter of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The couple had eleven children, of whom six died in childhood. He was the uncle of Philip Kearny, a Union general in the American Civil War who was killed at the Battle of Chantilly.[5]


Sword and scabbard used during the War of 1812 by Stephen Watts Kearny.

In 1812 Kearny was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the War of 1812 in the 13th Infantry Regiment in the U.S. Army. On 13 October 1812 during the Battle of Queenston Heights, Kearny and Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott led a charge, which took the British position; but the enemy retook it, when the "untrained militiamen"[6] did not reinforce the U.S. Regular's which had taken the objective. "Humiliated, Kearny and Scott were forced to surrender;" wounded and prisoners, he and Scott spent several months in captivity before being paroled. But this experience would "harden" his prejudice against militias for the rest of his army career.[7] Kearny was promoted to captain on April 1, 1813. After the war, he chose to remain in the US Army and was promoted to brevet major in 1823; major, 1829; and lieutenant colonel, 1833. He was assigned to the western frontier under command of Gen. Henry Atkinson, and in 1819 he was a member of the expedition to explore the Yellowstone River in present-day Montana and Wyoming. The Yellowstone Expedition of 1819 journeyed only as far as present-day Nebraska, where it established Cantonment Missouri, later renamed Fort Atkinson. Kearny was also on the 1825 expedition that reached the mouth of the Yellowstone River. During his travels, he kept extensive journals, including his interactions with Native Americans.[8]

In 1826, Captain Kearny was appointed as the first commander of the new Jefferson Barracks in Missouri south of St. Louis.[9] While stationed there, he was often invited to the nearby city, the center of fur trade, economics and politics of the region. By way of Meriwether Lewis Clark, Sr., he was invited as a guest of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

In 1833, Lieutenant Colonel Kearny was appointed second in command of the newly organized 1st Dragoon Regiment.[10] The U.S. Cavalry eventually grew out of this regiment, which was re-designated the 1st United States Cavalry in 1861, earning Kearny his nickname as the "father of the United States Cavalry". The regiment was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in present-day Kansas, and Kearny was promoted to the rank of colonel in command of the regiment in 1836. He was also made commander of the Army's Third Military Department, charged with protecting the frontier and preserving peace among the tribes of Native Americans on the Great Plains.[11]

By the early 1840s, when emigrants began traveling along the Oregon Trail, Kearny often ordered his men to escort the travelers across the plains to avoid attack by the Native Americans. The practice of the military's escorting settlers' wagon trains would become official government policy in succeeding decades. To protect the travelers, Kearny established a new post along Table Creek near present-day Nebraska City, Nebraska. The outpost was named Fort Kearny. However, the Army realized the site was not well-chosen, and the post was moved to the present location on the Platte River in central Nebraska.

In May 1845, Kearny marched his 1st Dragoons of 15 officers and 250 men in a column of twos out the gates of Ft. Leavenworth for a nearly four-month-long reconnaissance into the Rocky Mountains and the South Pass, "the gateway to Oregon." The Dragoons traveled light and fast, hauling 17 supply wagons, driving 50 sheep, and 25 beefs on the hoof (cattle). Kearny's Dragoons covered nearly 20 miles (32 km) a day and upon their approach to Ft. Laramie they had traveled nearly 600 miles (970 km) in four weeks. "Barely two weeks later Kearny and his troopers stood atop South Pass, held a regimental muster on the continental divide, and turned toward home."[12] Marching his Dragoons down the Rocky Mountains, past the future site of Denver Colorado, then Bent's Fort, then onto the Santa Fe Trail. When they arrived back to Ft. Leavenworth on August 24, 1845, they had successfully conducted a reconnaissance of over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) in 99 days. "The march of the 1st dragoons was truly an outstanding example of cavalry mobility."[13]

Mexican–American War (1846–1848)[edit]

Gen. Kearny proclaiming New Mexico part of the United States, August 15, 1846, on the Plaza in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

At the outset of the Mexican–American War, Kearny was promoted to brigadier general on June 30, 1846, and took a force of about 2,500 men to Santa Fe, New Mexico. His Army of the West (1846) consisted of 1600 men in the volunteer First and Second Regiments of Fort Leavenworth, Missouri Mounted Cavalry regiment under Alexander Doniphan; an artillery and infantry battalion; 300 of Kearny's 1st U.S. Dragoons (mounted infantrymen)[14] and about 500 members of the Mormon Battalion. With this force, and due largely to the behind the scenes and coordinated efforts of U.S. President Polk, New Mexico Governor Armijo, and the American merchant James Wiley Magoffin, who had 20 years of trading experience in Mexico; Kearny was able to comply with the president's wishes, and conquer New Mexico without firing a shot![15][16]

Kearny established a joint civil and military government, appointing Charles Bent, a prominent Santa Fe Trail trader living in Taos, New Mexico as acting civil. He divided his forces into four commands: one, under Col. Sterling Price, appointed military governor, was to occupy and maintain order in New Mexico with his approximately 800 men; a second group under Col. Alexander William Doniphan, with a little over 800 men was ordered to capture El Paso, in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico and then join up with General John E. Wool;[17] the third command of about 300 dragoons mounted on mules, he led under his command to California along the Gila River trail. The Mormon Battalion, mostly marching on foot under Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, was directed to follow Kearny with wagons to blaze a new southern wagon route to California.

On the plaza in Santa Fe, a monument marks a fateful day. Gen. Kearny had entered the city after routing the militia of New Mexico under the command of Governor Armijo and entered a city then undefended but very hostile. He marched to the plaza in front of the Palacio Real, and took down the flag of the state of New Mexico, which he thought was the flag of Mexico. In its place he hoisted the Stars and Stripes and gave the speech which is summarized on the monument. New Mexico was then a state with a democratically constituted government, which Kearny overthrew, installing in its place under the Kearny Code a military dictatorship. The next year, in 1847, three men pressed the case for the restoration of New Mexico's statehood and its admission to the American Union: Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, and Kearny's rival, John Charles Frémont. New Mexico's statehood and self-government were not restored until 1912.


Stephen Watts Kearny's U.S. Dragoons officer's full dress coat in the 1840s.

Kearny, per orders from President Polk, set out to "conquer and take possession of California"[18] on September 25, 1846, with a force of 300 men. En route he encountered Kit Carson, a scout of John C. Frémont's California Battalion, carrying messages back to Washington D.C. on the status of hostilities in California. Kearny learned that California was, at the time of Carson's last information, under American control of the marines and bluejacket sailors of Commodore Robert F. Stockton of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron and Frémont's California Battalion. Kearny asked Carson to guide him back to California while he sent Carson's messages east with a different courier. Kearny sent 200 dragoons back to Santa Fe believing that California was secure. After traveling almost 2,000 miles (3,200 km) his weary 100 dragoons and most of his nearly worn-out mounts were replaced by untrained mules purchased from a mule herder's herd being driven to Santa Fe from California. On a trip across the Colorado Desert[19] to San Diego Kearny encountered marine Major Archibald H. Gillespie and about 30 men with news of an ongoing Californio revolt in Los Angeles.

On a wet December 6, 1846 day Kearny's forces encountered Andrés Pico (Californio Governor Pio Pico's brother) and a force of about 150 Californio Lancers. With most of his men mounted on weary untrained mules, his command executed an uncoordinated attack of Pico's force. They found most of their powder wet and pistols and carbines would not fire. They soon found their mules and cavalry sabers were poor defense against Californio Lancers mounted on well-trained horses. Kearny's column, along with the small force of Marines and volunteer militia, suffered defeat. About 18 men of Kearny's force were killed; retreating to a hill top to dry their powder and treat their wounded, they were surrounded by Andre Pico's forces. Kearny was slightly wounded in this encounter, the Battle of San Pasqual. Kit Carson got through Pico's men and returned to San Diego. Commodore Stockton sent a combined force of U.S. Marine and U.S. Navy bluejacket sailors under Capt. Archibald H. Gillespie (USMC),[20] and Lieutenant Edward F. Beale (USN), to relieve Kearny's column. The U.S. forces quickly drove out the Californios. In January 1847 a combined force of about 600 men consisting of Kearny's dragoons, Stockton's marines and sailors, and two companies of Frémont's California Battalion won the Battle of Rio San Gabriel and the Battle of La Mesa and retook control of Los Angeles on January 10, 1847. The Californio forces in California capitulated on January 13 to Lt. Col. John C. Frémont and his California Battalion. The Treaty of Cahuenga ended the fighting of the Mexican–American War in Alta California on that date. Kearny and Stockton decided to accept the liberal terms offered by Frémont to terminate hostilities, despite Andrés Pico's breaking his earlier, solemn pledge that he would not fight U.S. forces.

As the ranking Army officer, and per orders from President Polk,[21] Kearny claimed command of California at the end of hostilities despite the fact that California was initially brought under U.S. control by Commodore Stockton's,[22] Pacific Squadron's forces. This began an unfortunate rivalry with Stockton, whose rank was equivalent to a rear admiral (lower half) today. Stockton and Kearny had the same equivalent rank (one star) and unfortunately, the War Department had not worked out a protocol for who would be in charge. Stockton seized on the treaty of capitulation and appointed Frémont military governor of California.

In July 1846, Col. Jonathan D. Stevenson of New York was asked to raise a volunteer regiment of 10 companies of 77 men each to go to California with the understanding that they would muster out and stay in California. They were designated the 1st Regiment of New York Volunteers and fought in the California Campaign and the Pacific Coast Campaign. In August 1846 and September the regiment trained and prepared for the trip to California. Three private merchant ships, Thomas H Perkins, Loo Choo and Susan Drew, were chartered, and the sloop USS Preble was assigned convoy detail. On 26 September the four ships left New York for California. Fifty men who had been left behind for various reasons sailed on November 13, 1846, on the small storeship USS Brutus. The Susan Drew and Loo Choo reached Valparaíso, Chile by January 20, 1847, and after getting fresh supplies, water and wood were on their way again by January 23. The Perkins did not stop until San Francisco, reaching port on March 6, 1847. The Susan Drew arrived on March 20 and the Loo Choo arrived on March 16, 183 days after leaving New York. The Brutus finally arrived on April 17.

After desertions and deaths in transit the four ships brought 648 men to California. The companies were then deployed throughout Upper (Alta) and Lower (Baja) California from San Francisco to La Paz, Mexico. These troops finally allowed Kearny to assume command of California as ranking Army officer. The troops essentially took over all of the Pacific Squadron's on-shore military and garrison duties and the California Battalion and Mormon Battalion's garrison duties as well as some Baja California duties.

With all these reinforcements in hand Kearny assumed command, appointed his own territorial military governor and ordered Frémont to resign and accompany him back to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. On Kearny and Frémont's trip back east on the California Trail, accompanied by some members of the Mormon Battalion who had re-enlisted, they found and buried some of the Donner Party's remains on their trip over the Sierra Nevadas. Once at Fort Leavenworth, Frémont was restricted to barracks and ordered court-martialed for insubordination and willfully disregarding an order. A court martial convicted Frémont and ordered that he receive a dishonorable discharge, but President James K. Polk quickly commuted Frémont's sentence due to services he had rendered over his career. Frémont resigned his commission in disgust and settled in California.[23] In 1847 Frémont purchased the Rancho Las Mariposas, a large land grant in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains near Yosemite, which proved to be rich in gold. Frémont was later elected one of the first U.S. senators from California and was the first presidential candidate of the new Republican Party in 1856.

Governorship and last years[edit]

Kearny remained military governor of California until May 31, when he set out overland across the California Trail to Washington, D.C. and was welcomed as a hero.[24] He was appointed governor of Veracruz, and later of Mexico City. He also received a brevet promotion to major general in September 1848, over the heated opposition of Frémont's father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton.

After contracting yellow fever in Veracruz, Kearny had to return to St. Louis. He died there on October 31, 1848, at the age of 54. He was buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery, now a National Historic Landmark in St. Louis.

Legacy and memory[edit]

Historian Allan Nevins, examining his attacks on Frémont, states that Kearny:

was a stern-tempered soldier who made few friends and many enemies-- who has been justly characterized by the most careful historian of the period, Justin H. Smith, as "grasping, jealous, domineering, and harsh." Possessing these traits, feeling his pride stung by his defeat at San Pasqual, and anxious to assert his authority, he was no sooner in Los Angeles than he quarreled bitterly with Stockton; and Frémont was not only at once involved in this quarrel, but inherited the whole burden of it as soon as Stockton left the country.[25]

Kearny "was simply, a professional soldier's soldier, and he "may have been the only general in the Mexican War who did not long to become president.[26]

Kearny is the namesake of Kearny, Arizona and Kearney, Nebraska. Kearny, New Jersey near Kearny's place of birth, is named after his nephew, Philip Kearny, Jr. of American Civil War fame. Many schools are named after Kearny, including Kearny Elementary in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Kearny High School in the San Diego neighborhood of Kearny Mesa. Kearny Street, in downtown San Francisco, is also named for him, as is a street within Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Camp Kearny in San Diego, a U.S. military base which operated from 1917 to 1946 on the site of today's Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, was named in his honor. Fort Kearny in Nebraska is also named for him.

Two U.S. postage stamps relate to Kearny. Scott catalog number 970, printed in 1948, commemorates Fort Kearny, and number 944, issued in 1946, the capture of Santa Fe. The accuracy of the latter's depiction has been questioned.[27]

Actor Robert Anderson (1920–1996) played General Kearny in the 1966 episode "The Firebrand" of the syndicated western television series, Death Valley Days. Gregg Barton was cast as Commodore Robert F. Stockton, with Gerald Mohr as Andrés Pico and Will Kuluva as Pio Pico. The episode is set in 1848 with the establishment of California Territory and the tensions between the outgoing Mexican government and the incoming American governor.[28]

Stephen W. Kearny is the default name of the United States hero unit in Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition.


  1. ^ Gorenfeld, Will and Gorenfeld, John. (2016) p. 12, 13. Kearny's Dragoons Out West, The Birth of the U.S. Cavalry. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.
  2. ^ Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815–1848. ISBN 978-0-19-507894-7, p. 758.
  3. ^ "Stephen Watts Kearny |".
  4. ^ Fredriksen, 1999.
  5. ^ Fredriksen, 1999.
  6. ^ Gorenfeld & Gorenfeld p. 27, 28
  7. ^ Gorenfeld & Gorenfeld p. 27
  8. ^ Fredriksen, 1999.
  9. ^ Gorenfeld & Gorenfeld p. 37
  10. ^ Gorenfeld & Gorenfeld p. 27
  11. ^ Fredriksen, 1999.
  12. ^ Franklin (1979) p. vii
  13. ^ Franklin (1979) p. vii
  14. ^ Webster's Dictionary (1964) p.440
  15. ^ Gibson, George Rutledge. (1935) p. 55-87. "Journal of a Soldier under Kearny and Doniphan 1846-1847." The Arthur H. Clark Co.
  16. ^ Magoffin, Susan Shelby. (1982) p. xxviii, xxiv. "Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico" (The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin 1846-1847). Bison Books
  17. ^ John E. Wool [1] Kansas University Archived 2006-09-01 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ Briggs, Carl and Trudell, Clyde Francis. (1983). P. 54. Quarterdeck & Saddlehorn, The Story of Edward F. Beale 1822-1893. The Arthur H. Clark Company, Glendale. California.
  19. ^ James, George Wharton; Eytel, Carl (illustrations) (May 1906). "The Colorado Desert: As General Kearney Saw It". The Four-Track News. Passenger Department, New York Central & Hudson River R.R. 10 (5): 389–93. OCLC 214967241.
  20. ^ Downey, Joseph T., Ordinary Seaman, USN; Editor Lamar, Howard. (1963). P. 170. The Cruise of the Portsmouth, 1845-1847, a Sailor's View of the Naval Conquest of California. Yale University Press.
  21. ^ Briggs & Trudell p. 54
  22. ^ Note-Stockton appointed Marine Corps Capt. Gillespie temporary military governor/mayor of Los Angeles in 1846. California was conquered. Then the people of Los Angeles revolted, forcing Gillespie and his men to evacuate to ships waiting in Los Angeles harbor (San Pedro). When Kearny arrived at San Pasqual, California was not a conquered country. California would be conquered in 1847.
  23. ^ Borneman, Walter R., Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. New York,: Random House Books, 2008, pp. 284–85.
  24. ^ Ruhge, Justin (February 8, 2016). "The Mexican War and California: Monterey's Presidio Occupied and Improved".
  25. ^ Allan Nevins, Frémont, Pathmarker of the West (University of Nebraska Press, 1992), p. 306.
  26. ^ Gorenfeld & Gorenfeld p. 252
  27. ^ Trail dust: 'Questionable' drawing plucked as stamp image
  28. ^ ""The Firebrand" on Death Valley Days". Internet Movie Database. March 24, 1966. Retrieved September 10, 2015.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ames, George Walcott, Jr. (Introduction and notes) and a foreword by Lyman, George, D., M.D. (1943) A Doctor Comes to California, The Diary of John S. Griffin, Assistant Surgeon with Kearny's Dragoons, 1846-1847. San Francisco, California Historical Society, MCMXLIII.
  • Calvin, Ross, Ph.D., (Introduction and notes). (1951). Lieutenant Emory Reports: A Reprint of Lieutenant W. H. Emory's NOTES OF A MILITARY RECONNOISSANCE[1] FROM FORT LEAVENWORTH, IN MISSOURI TO SAN DIEGO, IN CALIFORNIA. 1848. New York: Published by H. Long & Brother.
  • Clarke, Dwight L. and Ruhlen, George. (1964). The California Historical Society Quarterly; March 1964. Article (p. 37-44): The Final Roster of the Army of the West, 1846-1847, By Dwight L. Clarke and George Ruhlen.
  • Clarke, Dwight L, (Editor). (1966). The Original Journals of Henry Smith Turner, With Stephen Watts Kearny to New Mexico and California 1846-1847
  • Clarke, Dwight L. Stephen Watts Kearny: Soldier of the West (1962).
  • Fleek, Sherman L. "The Kearny/Stockton/Frémont Feud: The Mormon Battalion's Most Significant Contribution in California." Journal of Mormon History 37.3 (2011): 229–257. online
  • Franklin, William B., Lieutenant. (1979) March to South Pass: Lieutenant William B. Franklin's Journal of the Kearny Expedition of 1845. Edited and Introduction by Frank N. Schubert; Engineer Historical Studies, Number 1; EP 870-1-2. Historical Division, Office of Administrative Services, Office of the Chief of Engineers.
  • Fredriksen, John C. "Kearny, Stephen Watts (30 August 1794–31 October 1848)" American National Biography (1999) online
  • Myers, Harry, C. (Editor). (1982). From the Crack of the Frontier: Letters of Thomas and Charlotte Swords. Sekan Publications, 2210 S. Main, Fort Scott, KS 66701.
  • Peet, Mary Rockwood. (1949). San Pasqual, A Crack in the Hills. The Highland Press, Culver City, California.
  • Roberts, Elizabeth, Judson. (1917). Indian Stories of the Southwest. San Francisco, Harr Wagner Publishing Co.
  • Woodward, Arthur. (1948). Lances at San Pascual. San Francisco: Historical Society. Reprinted with additions, from Vol. XXV, No. 4 and Vol. XXVI, Number 1. Special Publication Number 22.

External links[edit]

  1. ^ Note-The actual spelling for "reconnaissance" for this book is as shown "RECONNOISSANCE. P. 18"