By Bartee Haile
On Aug. 14, 1842, the secretary of war and marine gave a mysterious Missourian everything he wanted: a colonel’s commission, the money and authority to raise a mercenary force and his sealed orders.
Now it was all up to Charles A. Warfield to take Texas’ revenge on New Mexico.
The unprovoked imprisonment the previous year of the 300-plus members of the Santa Fe Expedition had deeply wounded Lone Star pride. The tales of cruel mistreatment the pitiful Pioneers told following their mass release in March 1842 made retaliation a national priority.
Even more important than saving face and appeasing public opinion was the political necessity to protect the international reputation of the young Republic. European confidence in the future of an independent Texas was badly shaken by the embarrassing failure to make the claim to New Mexico stick. As a result, bankers from London to Brussels no longer regarded the regime as a good credit risk.
To organize and lead the clandestine campaign, war secretary George W. Hockley chose a frontiersman with many years experience in New Mexico and the Rocky Mountains. Charles Warfield’s grand though unrealistic goal was the conquest of New Mexico capped by the occupation of Santa Fe.
Figuring 800 fighters could handle the job, Warfield counted on Texas and Arkansas to contribute 300 each. The additional 200 he was confident of signing up himself in his native Missouri and at trading posts in the southern Rockies.
Wrapping himself in the Lone Star flag, a battle banner from the recent Revolution, Warfield attracted several hundred would-be warriors to his cause. Less interested in Texas expansionism than a generous share of the spoils offered by their future commander, they promised to be primed and ready for the invasion of New Mexico.
Imagine Warfield’s surprise when only 24 showed up on the appointed day in March 1843! Refusing to turn back, the crestfallen colonel set out for the rendezvous with the Texas column set for late May. Then, thought Warfield, he would have a real army.
Although U.S. newspapers later portrayed the adventurers as a bunch of buccaneers, their conduct was above reproach. Detaining a party of traders only to discover the travelers were English and American instead of Mexican, Warfield apologized for the mistake and left enormous load of silver and gold untouched.
While waiting for the reinforcements, the colonel attacked a New Mexican military outpost killing five and capturing 18. Warfield promptly freed the prisoners but held onto a bigger prize, a herd of 72 horses.
Running from a second force far too formidable to fight, the expedition lost every horse, the enemy’s and their own, and ended up on foot. Nevertheless, they reached the rendezvous right on time.
But the Texans never made it. After hanging around for several days, Warfield canceled the cursed campaign and encouraged everybody to seek safety.
Meanwhile, Texas’ point man in Washington, D.C. was trying to downplay the diplomatic damage. Isaac Van Zandt at first denied any knowledge of the Warfield Expedition and later assured the secretary of state that the secret mission posed no threat to American interests in the West.
The next news flash must have caused Van Zandt to wonder why he ever had gone into politics. On Apr. 10 in U.S. territory, an Albuquerque businessman was robbed and murdered by John McDaniel, who claimed he served as a captain under Col. Warfield. Although his credentials were dubious at best, hostile reporters played up the crime as an example of how bloodthirsty Texans waged war.
Mercifully unaware of the bad press, Warfield and a handful of followers enlisted in another expedition bound for New Mexico. The sight of Major Jacob Snively’s 200 well-equipped Texas troops revived their sagging spirits and enthusiasm for their original objective.
Warfield covered himself with glory at Taos, where the vastly inferior force virtually wiped out the local militia. But co-commander Snively opposed his plan to march on Santa Fe and inadvertently set the stage for their mutual defeat.
The Texans were beaten not on the battlefield but by a fickle friend. Warfield and Snively welcomed the arrival of the U.S. army in the naïve belief that the soldiers had come to assist in the armed annexation of New Mexico. Not until they were told to drop their weapons did the Texans get the picture.
When Warfield grudgingly gave his word to go straight home, he expected the American officer in charge to return his confiscated weapons. No one in his right mind would send men bare-handed into Comanche country.
But that is exactly what happened. Either through blind luck or divine intervention, the defenseless Texans survived the perilous trek.
Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 and invites you to visit his web site barteehaile.com.