The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1980, Volume 26, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Undergraduate Division Winner, Copley Books Awards
San Diego History Center 1980 Institute of History

Images from the Article

The San Diego Mission is unique because it contains within its brief two hundred year existence, elements of the cultural history of four different peoples. The buildings and grounds have passed through periods of intense construction, neglect, ruin, and reconstruction. Each reflects a micro portion of the history of the Indians, Spanish, Mexican, and lastly, American occupants.

The soft sounds of the sandaled footsteps of the Padres and their Indian charges were all too quickly followed by the ringing of the large silver rowels on the spurred riding boots of the Mexican rancheros. By 1848, the remaining fired tile floors of the Mission, then in neglected partial ruin, echoed to the tread of the heavy boots of the United States Army Dragoons. The hooves of the cavalry horses clattered on the floor of the church where, only a short time before, the Santos and the Agnus Dei of the Holy Mass had echoed from the walls.

On March 1, 1849, Captain W. E. Shannon, United States Navy, commanding San Diego, received a communication from H.Q. 10th Military Department Monterey ordering, “the whole of the 2nd Infantry to disembark and take post at the Mission San Diego.”1 The Army representative, Colonel Mason, further ordered that all available wagons and teams, along with provisions and lumber, be sent to the Mission. These were to include iron and nails suitable for making repairs of doors and windows, along with tools and personnel.

One month later, on April 16, 1849, further orders were issued, “Two companies of the 2nd Infantry and one company of the 1st Dragoons are required, and are now under orders, for service at or near San Diego; one company 2nd Infantry for the depot at that place, for the escort required by general orders No. 65, 1848.”2

Brevet Major Samuel P. Heintzelman,3 of the 2nd United States Infantry, was placed in command of a total of ninety-four officers and men. These included the 2nd Infantry field and staff officers, Company A of the 1st Dragoons and Company D of the 2nd Infantry Regiment.

Almost immediately the small command had serious difficulties carrying out its assignments. News of the great fortunes which could be made in the mines and streams to the north resulted in a steady drain of personnel through desertion. 10th Military Headquarters at Monterey was determined to halt or at least slow down the desertion rate. The Articles of War provided severe punishment for desertions.4 The young officers at the Mission were encouraged to take what disciplinary measures were necessary to halt this occurrence.

One result of these increased efforts at discipline was a tragic incident which occurred on June 23, 1850. The major character in the small drama was Lt. Thomas W. Sweeny. Lt. Sweeny arrived in California on April 6, 1849, after a voyage of five months from New York to Monterey, as one of the officers under the command of General Riley. Almost immediately he was ordered to duty at San Diego where he arrived on the morning of April 8th. In a letter written the day following he expressed little appreciation for the small town of San Diego:

We had the greatest difficulty in procuring conveyance for our baggage and stores to San Diego—about 6 miles from the landing—and when we reached the town were not a little disappointed in finding it to consist of a collection of delapidated adobe buildings, affording scanty shelter to a population of three or four hundred Spaniards and Indians. Habitations are not so indispensable here, for the climate is one of the finest in the world. We found tent life pleasant enough until better quarters were procured for us, but before this could be done, we needed less accommodation than ever; the gold fever had raged in our camp, and our command was thinned by desertion in the most alarming manner. Report, like the touch of Midas, had turned all the barren regions of Northern California into gold mines or placers, and the imaginations of men were inflamed with the wildest rumors, till visions of discovered treasures and hidden wealth filled every mind.5

“Fighting” Tom Sweeny, as he was later to be called, had served with gallantry in the war in Mexico where he lost an arm. He was a stern disciplinarian and this, coupled with a quick temper, caused a number of serious charges to be leveled against him throughout his long army career.

Desertion and liquor represented the army’s two greatest problems. On isolated lonely western forts, liquor provided the soldier with his only release from the boring existence of his day to day life. If the boredom became too great, he usually retaliated by simply deserting. On the night of June 22, 1850, Pvt. Lawrence Kearney and Pvt. Newman, both of “I” Company, 2nd Infantry, were on extra duty guarding the stables in the Quartermasters Department. On the following morning Pvt. Newman reported to Lt. Sweeny that Pvt. Kearney and two horses, along with saddles and bridles, had been absent all night.

Pvt. Kearney was brought to his quarters shortly after reveille by one of the guards, who had found him outside the post unconscious, “lying on the ground in a state of intoxication.”6 Kearney was brought before Lt. Sweeny for questioning. He made unsatisfactory answers and was disrespectful to the officer. Lt. Sweeny told Kearney to report himself under arrest to the Sergeant of the Guard. Kearney apparently did not do as he was ordered and a short time later Lt. Sweeny heard some loud noises and upon leaving his tent noticed Kearney standing some distance away and heard him say, “that damned one-arm son-of-a-bitch, pity he didn’t lose the other arm too.”7 He was then arrested by a file of the guard. He continued to use abusive language and upon arriving at the guard tent Lt. Sweeny ordered Kearney to be “bucked” by way of punishment. Bucking and gagging remained to the end of the Civil War one of the most common forms of corporal punishment. Marcellus Edwards, a soldier in the Army of the West, recorded one form of its use through an episode in his diary:

… Herkins, (a member of Edwards’ outfit), was brought up from town this morning under two or three of the guard. He had been engaged in a fight with some one about some green corn. Major Swords with several men attempted to arrest him. He drew his sabre and stood with his back to the fence and kept them at a stand until Captain Turner, who is a good swordsman, came up and wrenched his sabre from him with his own. He was taken to camp and tied to the wagon wheel. He then became very abusive and was gagged, but this was not allowed to remain long. After standing there some length of time, he became very sick and was unlashed. A courtmartial, who are to convene tomorrow, was appointed to sit upon his case.8

Pvt. Kearney was bucked until retreat was sounded that evening and the following morning, the 24th, he was ordered bucked again. After which, he suffered extreme pain in his lumbar and sciatic regions and the appearance of gangrene in his four limbs, as a result of having been tied so tightly as to arrest the flow of blood.

The general effect of the injuries received was that of great prostration of the vital energies, with excessive irritability of the nervous system and stomach, which continued and increased in intensity until the 29th of June when he died.9

Captain Davidson of the 2nd Infantry, who was Sweeny’s immediate superior, felt that a formal military investigation was necessary to determine whether or not Lt. Sweeny was guilty of a criminal act. He, Davidson, was not able to substantiate Lt. Sweeny’s account of the incident through inquiries which were made of the soldiers present at the time the punishment took place. A conflict of accounts between Lt. Sweeny and the noncommissioned officers and privates of the guard suggested that Lt. Sweeny had, in fact, acted beyond the normal scope of military procedure.

Upon his return from Oregon, Bvt. Major S. P. Heintzelman, 2nd Infantry, reviewed Captain Davidson’s report and agreed with his findings and was of the opinion that the case required further investigation. He then forwarded his own report, that of Davidson, and also reports from the Mission surgeon, Summers and Lt. Sweeny to Major E. R. S. Canby, Assistant Adjutant General, U.S.A., in Monterey, California. Upon reviewing these reports Assistant Adjutant General Canby was authorized by the Major General commanding the 10th Military Department to say that, “the conduct of Lt. Sweeny, 2nd Infantry, involves an offense against the civil as well as against the military laws, and should be investigated first by the proper civil tribunal.”10 He further directed that the evidence for this case be submitted to the civil authorities at San Diego for such action as they deemed necessary.

In accordance with the suggestion of the Major General commanding, Lt. Sweeny was arrested by Sheriff Agostin Haraszthy and returned to San Diego to stand trial before civil authorities. On December 9, 1850, Judge Oliver S. Witherby called the court to order and T. W. Sutherland presented the case for the county, after which the defense offered its side. Judge Witherby then made the following decision:

… and now came up for examination the above case where after a careful investigation of all the testimony in the case it is ordered that the said Thomas W. Sweeny be discharged, there being nothing in its testimony to warrant his detention.11

Having found Sweeny innocent of the civil charges, the military had little choice but to drop any charges they may have wished to bring before a general court martial. Fighting Tom Sweeny continued his career; and his reputation as a tough, no nonsense soldier preceded him from then on.

As little as a year later even the newest of recruits to reach San Diego had already heard of Lt. Thomas Sweeny. Sweeny had been ordered by Bvt. Major Heintzelman to leave Yuma, where he had been recently stationed, and proceed to San Diego to pick up a new detachment of recruits. These difficult recruits had been a source of trouble from the time of their recruitment until they reached California. While enroute to San Diego they had stopped in Jamaica for supplies and once ashore they started fighting with the Negroes and police who had come to quell the riot. Later on the Isthmus of Panama these same recruits had several quarrels with natives and authorities there who, “thought it prudent to keep the National Guard constantly under arms,”12 during their stay. Once in San Diego they behaved no better, “they got drunk, kicked up a row, and did just as they pleased.”13 Upon his arrival at the Mission, Lt. Sweeny expressed a desire to meet this formidable band face to face. One of the officers, who had accompanied them from New York, suggested to Lt. Sweeny that he arm himself before going out to meet them.

The men had been drawn up in a line, two hundred and fifty strong, which included a score of men chained with heavy leg irons. Lt. Sweeny moved along in front of them looking each man in the face,

Far from being noisy or unruly, they were as silent and respectful as so many old soldiers, with the exception of hearing, ‘that’s Lt. Sweeny,’ mentioned frequently, as I passed along the line, not a word was spoken.14

Following this inspection he issued a stern word of warning and had the irons struck from the men. The Lieutenant then marched this band of undisciplined recruits all the way to Yuma, without the loss of a single man either to desertion or the elements. Lt. Sweeny had accomplished what would have been nearly impossible for any of the officers stationed at the Mission or Fort Yuma. This successful march only furthered the animosity which already existed between himself and Bvt. Major Heintzleman.

One month after the arrival of reinforcements, a series of occurrences once again placed Lt. Sweeny in the role of protagonist. This time, however, he was not the major actor and was involved only indirectly. On May 31, 1852, two soldiers, Corporal William Hayes and Private John Condon, deserted from the Colorado River detachment. There is no record of the reasons for their actions, but a clue appears in their latter statements in which they stated that if they had come upon Lt. Sweeny they would have killed him on sight.

The two deserters managed to reach a point near Sacketts Wells where they had the misfortune to be sighted by a sergeant attached to the Boundary Survey escort party. He reported their discovery to Bvt. Lt. Colonel Louis G. Craig,15 commander of the escort. Witnesses later described how Craig attempted to encourage Hayes and Condon to surrender and return to their duties. His efforts were to no avail and he was mortally wounded by the deserters. Lt. Sweeny records the incident in a letter to his sister dated June 14, 1852:

I received yours of the 23d on the 2d Inst., but was unable to answer it until this moment. Before I had time to read it I was sent off in pursuit of three men who deserted from here the night previous to the receipt of your letter, and I have but just returned.

There was but one of the deserters captured, the other two having made their escape into Lower California, where it would be unlawful for me to follow them, it being specially provided in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, between the United States and Mexico, that no armed party of either nation shall enter the territory of the other without permission, etc.

A lamentable affair has taken place in connection with these deserters, resulting in the death of Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Craig, Third Infantry, and the severe wounding of a sergeant of Colonel Magruder’s company. There were also several shots fired at a sergeant of Colonel Craig’s company, but he escaped without injury, though his mule was badly wounded.

I met the Boundary Commission at Sacketts Wells, on the desert, on their way to this place. I was on my way to Vallecitas, about 40 miles farther on. Colonel Craig commanded the escort to the Commission. I told him what my business was on the desert, and asked him if he should fall in with them to take them back to the post. He did meet them at New River and, in his endeavors to get them to go back, they shot him, wounded sergeant Beales and killed his mule, and the other sergeant barely escaped with his life. The Colonel lived only ten minutes after being shot. Next day his body was conveyed to the “Alamo Mucho,” where it was interred. As soon as decomposition takes place it will be exhumed and brought to this place. Poor Craig! He was a noble fellow and much beloved by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. God comfort his poor wife and child! He was killed the day after I parted with him at Sacketts Wells, and I remained ignorant of it until I met our express rider on his way to San Diego with the mail, about half-way between Vallecitas and Carissa Creek, when he gave me all the particulars. He told me also that the deserters swore vengeance against me and would certainly shoot me the first opportunity they got; but for all that, they took very good care to keep out of my way.

Every step has been taken to have the villains arrested. Castro, the commanding officer of Lower California, has been written to be on the lookout for them. Magruder, at the Mission, and Captain Lovell, at Chino, are also on the alert. In fact, the whole country is aroused, and, if necessary, $1,000 reward will be offered for their apprehension.16

In another letter to his sister dated July 3rd, 1852, Lt. Sweeny again details the events of Bvt. Lt. Col. Craig’s death and the subsequent capture of Hayes and Condon by Pablo Apis:

I was in pursuit of the deserters who killed Lieutenant Colonel Craig, of the Third Infantry, in command of the escort to the U.S. Boundary Commission at the time. I spent the day with him, Mr. Bartlett and the other gentlemen of the Commission at Sacketts Wells, about 40 miles this side of Vallecitas, on the 5th of June, the day before he was killed. It seems these deserters kept a lookout for me, and concealed themselves until I passed. I suspected as much, and told Colonel Craig in case he fell in with them, to take them back to Camp Yuma. The next morning when he saw them he dismounted and spoke to them, saying that he would use his influence with Major Heintzelman in their favor, and if they did not like Camp Yuma, he would take them with him to El Paso. They told the colonel they would not go back, and cautioned him not to follow them any farther. The colonel and his men, (two sergeants) were some five miles from the train at this time endeavoring to reason with the deserters, and in order to show them that he did not wish to use force, he gave his sword and pistol to sergeant Beales. The colonel’s mule broke loose just then, when he beckoned to the other sergeant to go and catch him. Hayes then said to Condon: ‘Now is our time, there are but two of them,’ and immediately fired his musket at Craig, who instantly fell, not being more than five paces from him at the time. Condon fired at the same time at Sergt. Beales, wounding him in the leg and killing his mule, who fell upon him, and before he could extricate himself from the dead animal, they rushed upon him, took his pistol and hunting-knife from him and rifled the colonel’s pockets. The other sergeant, hearing the shots, rode up to see what was the matter, when they blazed away at him, but he made his escape, having received several buckshot in his mule, and informed the rest of the party of Colonel Craig’s and Sergeant Beale’s death. Having seen them fall he naturally concluded they both were killed.

The colonel’s body was carried to the Alamo Mucho and buried.

Sergeant Beales was found some ten miles this side. It seems he dragged himself thus far, when his wound got to be so painful he had to stop. The last he saw of Hayes and Condon they were making their way as fast as possible towards Lower California. This explains their having eluded the strict search I made for them.

They have been arrested at a place called Temacula, forty miles from Aguas Calientes, in the mountains, by Pablo Apis, the chief of the tribe of Indians inhabiting that part of the Sierras, and given up to Colonel Magruder, at the Mission of San Diego, where they are at present, in double irons, awaiting their trial.17

The two soldiers were very young men. Corporal William Hayes was born in Dublin, Ireland, his trade was that of a shoemaker. He arrived in America in the early part of 1851 and was enlisted on October 15 of the same year by a Major Johnson in Boston, Massachussetts. At the time of his enlistment, he was twenty-two years old, five feet, six inches tall with gray eyes, a dark complexion and brown hair. His service was in D Company of the 2nd Infantry.18

John Condon was a private. He enlisted in the army on December 7, 1851. He was recruited at Albany, New York by a Colonel Walker. His enlistment record describes him as blue-eyed with brown hair, a ruddy complexion, five feet, seven inches tall. Condon was born in Queens County, Ireland and he stated that his occupation was laborer.19

It can be assumed that both were probably illiterate or some mention of their education would have been made in the enlistment record. Their terms as soldiers were very short. Both were tried and found guilty at a court martial convened at the San Diego Mission Post. After a delay of nearly a year, the President of the United States confirmed their sentences and on January 31, both were hanged on a gallows erected in the Mission courtyard. A description of the hanging was written for the local newspaper and many of the townsmen came to witness the event.20

Lt. Sweeny’s career in California ended in 1853 when he was returned for duties in the east. He later served in the early expeditions against the Sioux and attained the rank of Brigadier General where he distinguished himself on a number of occasions. At the end of the war he became a major figure in the Fenian Revolt. The General spent his remaining years at his home in New York compiling his memoirs. He continued to serve his country, standing for office in the New York legislature. His death, at the turn of the century, marked the passing of one of the most colorful figures in early American-California history.



1. Post Returns, 10th Military Department. Letter of March 1, 1849 from R. B. Mason to Captain W. E. Shannon. Microfilm; Reel #1, Roll #1096, University of San Diego Library.

2. Letter from B. Riley, Brevet Brig. General Commanding 10th Military Department, to W. T. Sherman, 3rd Art. AAA, 3rd Div., April 16, 1849. Microfilm; Reel #1, Roll #109b, U.S.D. Library.

3. Brevet Major S. P. Heintzelman—Commanding Officer at Mission San Diego and Fort Yuma, 1849-1856. Advanced to Brigadier General 1861. Retired Major General by special Act of Congress, died in Washington, D.C. in 1880.

4. “General Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1847.” By authority of the War Department, Washington. Printed by J. and G. S. Gideon. Listed under Punishments, pp. 215, 218 and 320.

5. Letter from T. W. Sweeny to his sister, Sarah Ann Barnard, April 9, 1849, Vol. #1, pp. 55-56. The Vincent L. Buckley Collection, James S. Copley Library, Special Collections, University of San Diego.

6. Letter from T. W. Sweeny, Mission San Diego to Commander 10th Military Department, July 12, 1850. Records of U.S. Army Commands, Records of the 10th Military Department, 1845-1851, Letter received, March 2, 1850-July 9, 1851, San Diego Public Library, #979.406, M-210, Roll #5.

7. Ibid., #6—Lt. Sweeny lost his left arm during action in the Battle at Churubusco in the Mexican War.

8. Ernest Dupuy, The Compact History of the United States Army, (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1958), p. 129.

9. Letter from E. Summers, Army Surgeon asg. to Commander 10th Military Department, July 4, 1850. Records of the U.S. Army Commands. Records of the 10th Military Department, 1846-1851. Letters received, March 1, 1850-July 1851. San Diego Public Library, #979.406, M-210, Roll #5.

10. Letter from E. R. S. Canby, H.Q. 10th Military Department to Brevet Major S. P. Heintzelman, August 20, 1850. Military Department, 1846-1851. Letters received March 23, 1847-July 8, 1851. San Diego Public Library, #979.406, M-20, Roll #1.

11. Transcribed Record of the Journal of the District Court of the First Judicial District of the State of California, County of San Diego, AD 1850. State of California vs. Thomas W. Sweeny, No. 10 writ of Habeas Corpus, December 9, 1850.

12. Letter from T. W. Sweeny to his sister, Sarah Ann Barnard, April 9, 1851, Vol. #1, p. 120. The Vincent L. Buckley Collection, James S. Copley Library, Special Collections, University of San Diego.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Brevet Lt. Colonel Craig distinguished himself in the Mexican War, and was appointed escort Commander for the U.S. Boundary Commission Survey Party 1851-1852. He was murdered by two deserters while serving the Boundary Commission.

16. Letter from T. W. Sweeny to his sister, Sarah Ann Barnard, June 14, 1852, Vol. #1, pp. 107-108. The Vincent L. Buckley Collection, James S. Copley Library, Special Collections, University of San Diego.

17. Letter from T. W. Sweeny to his sister, Sarah Ann Barnard, July 3, 1852, Vol. #1, pp. 109-11. The Vincent L. Buckley Collection, James S. Copley Library, Special Collections, University of San Diego.

18. General Services Administration, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C., Veterans Records, Microcopy #617, Roll #1096.

19. Ibid.

20. San Diego Herald, January 31, 1853.