David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Black Jack Davidson, A Cavalry Commander on the Western Frontier: The Life of General John W. Davidson By Homer K. Davidson. Glendale: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1974. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Map. 273 pages. $15.50.
Reviewed by Robert W. Frazer, Professor of History, California State University. Long Beach, a well known authority on Western military history. Among his publications is Forts of the West (1965), an important reference work.
In his introduction to the first full-length biography of General John W. Davidson, the author, a retired United States Navy Captain, makes it clear that he does not believe his grandfather has always been treated accurately and fairly by his contemporaries or by historians. The book, then, is a reappraisal, intended “to give credit where it is long overdue, in as objective a manner as is possible for the grandson of General Davidson to do.”
Davidson was a scion of a military family. Both of his grandfathers fought in the American Revolution, one as a general and one as a private, and his father was an artillery captain when he died in 1840. Davidson graduated from the Military Academy in 1845 at the age of nineteen and was commissioned brevet second lieutenant, First Dragoons. For the rest of his life he served his country honorably, always in the mounted branch of the army.
During his thirty-six years of military service Davidson participated in the Mexican War, the Civil War, and various Indian campaigns in California, the Southwest, and on the Great Plains. Early in the Civil War he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, volunteers, and was several times breveted for gallant and meritorious service, achieving the rank of brevet major general. In June, 1862, during the Peninsular Campaign, he was felled by a severe sunstroke from which he never fully recovered, suffering recurring bouts of ill health thereafter.
Following the war he reverted to his regular rank of major, Second Cavalry. On December 1, 1866, he was appointed lieutenant colonel, Tenth Cavalry, one of two Negro cavalry regiments organized after the Civil War. The author believes that discrimination and the little credit given the black regiments, contributed to the lack of recognition accorded his grandfather in the post-war period. Detached service and sick leave kept Davidson from joining his new regiment until early in 1872. He then served with the Tenth Cavalry in Texas and Indian Territory until 1879 when he accepted the colonelcy of the Second Cavalry. His regimental headquarters and final station was Fort Custer, Montana. On June 26, 1881, he died at St. Paul, Minnesota, while on leave for his health. Davidson’s career in the :”Old Army,” most of it spent in the trans-Mississippi West, offers an insight into the difficulties and frustrations as well as the achievements and rewards of nineteenth century military service.
Davidson had his critics both in and out of the army and with them his biographer tends to deal harshly. At times the defense becomes almost an apologia. The author sometimes resorts to exaggeration, but the surprising number of factual errors is more significant. Perhaps an example of error, exaggeration, and insufficient information will indicate the effect on the narrative.
Mrs. James M. White was not “brutally ravished by a Jicarilla Apache named Lobo Blanco” in March, 1854. (p. 69) She was captured and later killed by Jicarillas in the autumn of 1849. Hence, Second Lieutenant David Bell was not sent out in 1854 “to punish the guilty parties”; rather, he was ordered on a scout down the Canadian River “to protect this part of the frontier from the depredations of the Apaches.” In the ensuing engagement the number of troops and Apaches was about equal. The known Indian dead totalled five, including Lobo Blanco, while Bell’s detachment sustained two dead and four wounded. After the engagement Bell returned to Fort Union unmolested. If “Lieutenant Bell’s detachment was attacked by an overwhelmingly superior band of Jicarillas and given a severe beating,” (p. 69) it seems to have gone unnoticed in the department.
Bell’s encounter had nothing to do with Lieutenant Davidson being ordered into the field from Cantonment Burgwin. The Jicarillas after whom he was sent had been peacefully encamped near Picuris Pueblo. When they broke camp and moved west toward the Rio Grande, Major George A. H. Blake ordered Lieutenant Davidson to “take their trail, and watch and control the party, and not bring on a fight if possible.” Davidson did not head “down the road to Taos.” (p. 70) Cantonment Burgwin was south, not “northeast of Taos” (p. 68) and between Taos and Picuris. The author refers to the engagement at Cieneguilla as an ambush and states that “at a prearranged signal the Indians swooped down upon the Dragoons, catching them unaware.” (p. 70) Yet Davidson, in his own report, written two days after the engagement, stated, “I came upon the Apaches near the Cieneguilla who at once sounded the war whoop. There was but one thing to do. I dismounted my command, and attacked their camp…. ” Again, the author states that “in the action twenty Dragoons were killed, and every man and officer wounded, some seriously.” (p. 71) Davidson reported that of his command of sixty men and an assistant surgeon, twenty-two were killed and twenty-three wounded, an impressive casualty list but well below 100 percent.
When the author questions Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke’s memory (p. 73) he does so on the basis of incomplete information. News of the Cieneguilla engagement did not reach General John Garland, who was in Albuquerque, until April 1, and he issued orders to pursue the Jicarillas on that date. However, on March 30 Major Blake sent an express to Colonel Cooke, commanding Fort Union, which Cooke received at 8:30 A.M. on March 31. In his report of the ensuing campaign Cooke stated, “I did not hesitate for a moment to order preparations for the march of all the troops that could be prudently drawn from this post. At noon I set out…. ” Carleton’s expedition, which followed Cooke’s and in which Davidson participated, was not because “early in May the hostiles became especially troublesome.” (p. 75) It resulted from reports that survivors of the previous engagements were hiding in the San Luis Valley or had left the valley and fled toward the Spanish Peaks. None of this changes what Davidson was doing during these months but it does distort the setting in which the events occurred, their causes, and to some extent, the results.
The book contains few footnotes. The author explains that the story was “pieced together from bits and scraps of information” and that it would sometimes “be a physical impossibility to list them all.” However, the occasional footnotes which do appear are incomplete, making it, if not impossible, unnecessarily difficult to track down the sources of specific information. The bibliography lists both published and unpublished material but not the family records to which reference is frequently made. It may also be noted that there are additional materials pertinent to the subject which, apparently, were not consulted.