Introducing: Kit Carson

Kit Carson is the only protagonist in The Three-Cornered War who is well-known outside of the Southwest, and western history. But what most Americans know about him are his actions before the Civil War: his work as a guide for John C. Frémont’s expeditions into the West; his fame as an Indian fighter; his popularity as the hero of early western dime novels. 

Carson was so famous in the early 1860s that most of the other protagonists in The Three-Cornered War knew about him, and were eager to meet him on the battlefield, or in Santa Fe.

Colonel Kit Carson, 1864. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Negative No. 007151.

Readers will encounter him first in January of 1862, as he leads his regiment, the 1st New Mexico Volunteers, south toward Fort Craig and their first battle with the Confederates as Valverde.

After the Union army pushed the Confederates back to Texas six months later, Carson tried multiple times to resign his commission and return to his family in Taos. James Henry Carleton, who took command of the Department of New Mexico in September 1862, refused his request multiple times, in order to send him out to fight Apaches and Navajos on behalf of the Union.

“The worldwide reputation of Colonel Carson, as a partisan,” Carleton wrote in his orders to Carson, “gives a good guarantee that anything that may be required of him which brings into practical operation the peculiar skill and high courage for which he is justly celebrated, will be well done.”

Readers will therefore follow Carson as he leads a short-lived campaign against Mescalero Apaches in the fall of 1863, and then embarks on a hard war against Navajos in the fall and winter of 1863-64, ultimately forcing more than 8,000 men, women, and children to surrender to the Union Army.

It is difficult, as a historian and as a writer, to grapple with a historical figure with such a mythic status. At first I resisted including Carson as a major figure in The Three-Cornered War, but the more I researched the conflicts in this region, the more I understood that Carson was central to the story I was trying to tell. The roles he played at Valverde and in campaigns against the Mescaleros and Navajos shaped the Civil War West in vital ways.

Through Carson readers also get a closer look at the 1st New Mexico Volunteers, a regiment made up of mostly Hispano New Mexicans, as well as several auxiliary units of scouts from multiple indigenous communities. The 1st New Mexico was the first multiracial fighting force in the Civil War, and their story complicates what we understand about the Civil War as a fight between white (and after 1863, black) soldiers over slavery and emancipation in the East. 

As the reader will see from the beginning—the Table of Contents, in fact—I wanted to give Carson’s experiences their space in the book and continue resisting his mythology. Kit Carson is therefore the only protagonist in The Three-Cornered War who has no named chapters. His voice appears only with the voices of others, those who fought with him and those who fought against him. 

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In order to tell Kit Carson’s story I used battle reports included in the OR; Navajo oral histories; diaries of soldiers who fought at Valverde and served in Carson’s Indian campaigns; the correspondence between Carson and James Carleton collected in Lawrence Kelly’s Navajo Roundup (1970); and biographies of Carson. 

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