Stephen Watts Kearny

views updated Jun 08 2018

Stephen Watts Kearny

Born August 30, 1794 Newark, New Jersey

Died October 31, 1848 St. Louis, Missouri

U.S. Army general and politician

One of three top U.S. generals in the Mexican American War, Stephen Watts Kearny led the Army of the West in a bloodless takeover of Santa Fe in the territory of New Mexico. Proceeding farther west to California, he merged his troops with those of navy commander Robert Stockton (1795-1866) and army officer John Charles Frémont (1813-1890; see biographical entry) in a combined force that succeeded in putting down a rebellion of Californios (Mexican citizens living in California). Although he was sometimes criticized for being overly stern, domineering, and inflexible, Kearny was admired for his courage and leadership ability.

A young officer on the frontier

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). He sided with the Loyalists (those who wanted what became the United States to remain a colony of Great Britain), however, and after the war his land was confiscated. The family moved to New York City and then to Newark, New Jersey, where Kearny was born.

Kearny attended public schools, entering Columbia College, which later became New York City's Columbia University, in 1811. But the next year marked the start of the War of 1812 (1812-14), a conflict between the United States and Great Britain that started over disputes related to free trade and sailors' rights on the high seas. Kearny joined New York's militia (an army made up of volunteers who offer their services in emergencies) and was appointed a first lieutenant in the Thirteenth Infantry.

At the Battle of Queenston Heights—which took place near what later became Queenston, Ontario, in October 1812—Kearny was wounded and captured by the British. He was soon exchanged for a British prisoner, however, and was promoted to the rank of captain about a year later. Following the war, Kearny continued his army career. After 1819, he served almost exclusively on the western frontier, the undeveloped area west of the Appalachian mountains, to which U.S. settlers were moving in great numbers throughout the nineteenth century.

Moving up through the ranks

During the next several decades, Kearny established a good reputation through his leadership of expeditions to find good locations for, and to build, new frontier forts. These included Camp Missouri (later called Fort Atkinson) near present-day Omaha, Nebraska, and Camp Cold Water (later called Fort Snelling) near St. Paul, Minnesota. In 1825, he took part in an expedition to the mouth of the Yellowstone River, and three years after that he took command of Fort Crawford (located near present-day Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin).

Kearny earned the rank of major in 1829, and in the same year was transferred to the newly built Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. A tall, slender man with a dignified bearing, he was often invited to visit friends in nearby St. Louis. At the home of General William Clark (1770-1838), who gained fame as one of two leaders (the other was Captain Meriwether Lewis; 1774-1809) of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Kearny met Clark's stepdaughter, Mary Radford. Married in September 1830, the two would go on to have eleven children, several of whom died before reaching adulthood.

By the end of the year, Kearny had moved to what would become the state of Oklahoma, where he supervised the rebuilding of Fort Towson, which had recently been destroyed. In 1833, he was made a lieutenant colonel in the new Dragoon Regiment, which was very similar to a cavalry (soldiers mounted on horseback) unit. After leading an expedition to the Iowa territory and beginning construction of Fort Des Moines, Kearny was made colonel and put in command of the Dragoon Regiment. He established his headquarters at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas territory.

Continuing his march up through the army ranks, Kearny was put in charge of the Third Military District, with headquarters in St. Louis, in 1842. There he had the difficult responsibility of trying to protect the many settlers who were streaming into the frontier areas, and to keep peace with the Native Americans whose lives were being disrupted by this westward expansion movement. The settlers were moving into the west along the Oregon Trail, which wound for 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri, to the Columbia River in Oregon Territory. In 1845, Kearny led an expedition along the trail to South Pass in the Wind River range of the Rocky Mountains.

War with Mexico begins

In May 1846, Kearny was one of two generals in charge of construction of the new Fort Kearny (originally located near present-day Nebraska City, Nebraska, but eventually moved to a location on the Platte River). The same month, however, an event occurred that would put Kearny on a new path. On May 13, the United States declared war on Mexico.

Almost ten years earlier, U.S. settlers living in the Mexican Territory of Texas had declared their independence and driven out the Mexican army. Mexico had never accepted the loss of this territory, and had threatened to declare war if the United States annexed Texas (made it a state). Annexation had occurred in March 1845, and tension mounted as U.S. president James Polk (1795-1849; see biographical entry) sent troops to Texas. Many U.S. leaders and citizens were eager to acquire not only Texas but the large Mexican territories of California and New Mexico. The situation had erupted into war when the United States had used a Mexican attack on a small band of U.S. soldiers in an area of disputed land as its excuse to declare war.

The strategy that Polk and his war planners devised had three parts. General Zachary Taylor (1784-1850; see biographical entry) would lead an army into northeastern Mexico, while U.S. troops also marched to the important trading center of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then into California to take control of this vast area valued for its seaports and fertile farmland. Later, General Winfield Scott (1786-1866; see biographical entry) would command an invasion from the eastern coastal city of Vera Cruz, leading his army overland to capture Mexico City, the country's capital.

Commanding the Army of the West

Considered one of the army's most capable officers, the fifty-two-year-old Kearny was given command of the Army of the West in May 1846. At Fort Leavenworth, he assembled a fighting force of 1,660 that included not only his own dragoons, but a large number of volunteers whose toughness and skill with guns made up for their lack of military experience. Kearny and his troops set out in early June and made remarkably fast progress across the desert terrain. They marched 1,000 miles in six weeks, sometimes covering 30 miles per day.

On August 18, Kearny's army reached Santa Fe, a city of about eighty thousand residents. The Mexican troops assigned to defend Santa Fe had fled upon hearing of Kearny's approach, and no one opposed the U.S. takeover. After gaining control of the city, Kearny issued a statement proclaiming that the residents of New Mexico were now U.S. citizens and that their rights—especially the right to practice the Roman Catholic religion, which was an important issue to Mexicans—would be protected. Kearny would remain in Santa Fe for about a month. As military governor of New Mexico, he had to organize a government for the territory, including a system of laws.

The conquest of California gets underway

Meanwhile, some major events had taken place in California, but due to the slowness of communication during the nineteenth century, Kearny would not hear about them for some time. At this period, there were about seven hundred U.S. settlers living in California, most of them without the approval of the Mexican government. These settlers had grown increasingly nervous about the prospect of a war with Mexico and how they would be treated by the Mexicans if war broke out. Finally a group of them who were living in the Sacramento Valley decided to make a decisive move.

With the help of a U.S. military officer—Major John Charles Frémont, a member of the U.S. Corps of Engineers who was in the area on a surveying assignment—these settlers staged what came to be known as the Bear Flag Rebellion. Raising a flag that featured a picture of a grizzly bear, they declared themselves independent from Mexico. Frémont had led the revolt despite the lack of any official orders from the U.S. government to do so. (Although some historians have suggested that Frémont may have had secret orders to take a military role if necessary.)

At around the same time, a U.S. Navy squadron (group of warships) under the command first of Commander John Sloat (1781-1867) and then of Commodore Robert Stockton had taken control of ports along the California coast, beginning with San Francisco and Monterrey and finally including Santa Barbara, San Pedro, Los Angeles, and San Diego. At first, there had been little or no resistance from the Californios, who numbered only about eight thousand. In fact, Stockton and Frémont were so confident that they had California in hand that they sent the famous frontier scout Christopher "Kit" Carson (1809-1868) east to deliver this news to Washington, D.C.

On September 25, with Charles Bent installed as New Mexico's new civil governor and with about three hundred soldiers behind him, Kearny set out for California. On the way, Kearny and his group ran into Carson, who told Kearny that the situation in California was under control. Upon hearing this news, Kearny sent two hundred of his troops back to Santa Fe, an action he would soon regret. For what neither Carson nor Kearny knew was that a small group of Californios under the command of generals José Castro and José María Flores as well as Governor Pío Pico had staged their own revolt and recaptured Los Angeles. The fight for California was not yet over.

Finishing the fight for California

As he approached Los Angeles, Kearny met some U.S. troops who informed him that the city had been retaken by the Mexicans. As a result of this information, Kearny rushed his weary soldiers into battle instead of giving them time to rest from their long journey. This decision lead to Kearny's force being badly defeated at a December 6 battle near the village of San Pascual. While only one Mexican was killed during this fight, Kearny lost about one-third of his troops, and he was wounded twice himself. Only the arrival of some reinforcements from Stockton prevented an even worse outcome.

Kearny now led his men on to San Diego, where he combined forces with Stockton, bringing the total U.S. troop strength to about six hundred. On January 8 and 9, 1847, this force fought two battles at Los Angeles. The result was dramatically different from San Pascual, for only one U.S. soldier was killed while the Mexicans sustained heavy casualties. On January 10, Kearny and Stockton occupied Los Angeles. Then they headed toward Monterrey in pursuit of the last remaining Mexican fighters. Along the way, they heard that this small band had already surrendered to Frémont, whom they had encountered unexpectedly. In a bold step that was typical behavior for Frémont, he had already negotiated a treaty with the Mexicans. Although Frémont had not been authorized to do this, the treaty had been signed and would have to be accepted.

The fighting was over, but now the task of governing a large new territory had to begin. A disagreement quickly arose about who was to take charge of this effort. Kearny felt that his orders made it clear that he was to become the military governor of California. Stockton disagreed, however, and just before leaving to take part in other military actions in Mexico, he named Frémont governor. Frémont moved into a Los Angeles mansion and repeatedly ignored Kearny's demands that he come to Monterrey to meet with Kearny. Finally, more orders arrived from Washington that made it very clear that Kearny was in command, and Frémont had to relinquish his role.

Two careers end prematurely

Within a few months, Frémont had to answer for his actions. The war ended in May 1848, following the September 1847 conquest of Mexico City by Scott's troops and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February. In June, Kearny prepared to return to the eastern United States, and he ordered Frémont to accompany him. When the party reached Fort Leavenworth, Frémont was arrested for disobeying a superior officer. He was to be court-martialed (tried by a military court) in Washington, D.C. At the trial, Frémont made his situation worse by insulting Kearny. As a result, Frémont was found guilty and was sentenced to be discharged from the army. Although Polk pardoned Frémont, he decided to resign from the army anyway. Until the end of this life, Frémont felt that he had been wronged by Kearny and the army.

In the months following the war, Kearny returned to Mexico, serving brief terms as civil governor in Vera Cruz and Mexico City. In August, despite strong opposition from powerful Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858), who was Frémont's father-in-law, Kearny was promoted to the rank of brevet (honorary) brigadier general.

While in Mexico, Kearny had contracted yellow fever, a deadly disease that was then common in Mexico's swampy coastal regions in the spring and summer. Because of his ailment, he returned to Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. As he grew more ill, he was moved into his father-in-law's home in St. Louis, where he died on October 31, 1848. Kearny's funeral, which included seven hundred people marching behind his casket, was said to be the largest that St. Louis had seen up to that time. It honored the thirty-six-year career of a military officer who had served his country well, mostly in securing the edges of the frontier for U.S. settlers.

For More Information


Clarke, Dwight. Stephen Watts Kearny: Soldier of the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961.

Frazier, Donald, ed. The United States and Mexico at War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Von Sachsen, Hans, et al. Winning the West: General Stephen Watts Kearny's Letter Book. Pekitanoui Publications, 1998.

Web Sites

"General Stephen Watts Kearny." Department of Physics and Physical Science, University of Nebraska at Kearney. [Online] Available (accessed on January 29, 2003).

"Kearny, Steven Watts." Fact [Online] Available (accessed on January 29, 2003).

Stephen Watts Kearny

views updated May 29 2018

Stephen Watts Kearny

Stephen Watts Kearny (1794-1848), American soldier, played an important role in the conquest of New Mexico and California during the Mexican War.

Stephen W. Kearny was born on Aug. 30, 1794, in Newark, N.J. After attending common school in Newark and Columbia College, he joined the Army as a first lieutenant in 1812. During the War of 1812 he fought in Canada. He was promoted to captain in 1813 and remained in the Army after the war, serving mostly in the West.

In 1819 Kearny went to Camp Missouri (later Ft. Atkinson) near Omaha. In 1820 he journeyed through unknown land to Camp Cold Water (later Ft. Snelling) near St. Paul, Minn., and in 1825 he took part in an expedition to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. During the next 20 years he had a number of commands and supervised construction of several forts, including the famous fort on the Oregon Trail later named for him.

Shortly after the outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846, Kearny was named brigadier general and placed in command of the Army of the West. With almost 1,700 men he marched to Santa Fe and captured the city without opposition on August 18. After organizing a civil government in New Mexico, he left for California with a small force. En route to San Diego he repulsed a Mexican force at San Pasqual on December 6, suffering heavy casualties. Joining Commodore Robert F. Stockton at San Diego, Kearny led his depleted army to Los Angeles, captured the town in January 1847, and established an uneasy peace. Trouble developed between the American commanders after Lt. Col. John C. Frémont, whom Stockton had appointed civil governor, refused to recognize Kearny's authority to organize a new territorial government. Stockton left for Mexico; new orders from Washington confirmed Kearny's authority; and Frémont was sent back to Washington, where he was court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny, disobedience, and improper conduct.

After the trial Kearny went to Mexico and served for brief periods as civil governor of Veracruz and, later, of Mexico City. With his health weakened by yellow fever he had contracted in Veracruz, he went to St. Louis, Mo. He died there on October 13, 1848.

Further Reading

The only full-length biography of Kearny is Dwight Clarke, Stephen Watts Kearny: Soldier of the West (1961). The standard history of the Mexican War is Justin Harvey Smith, The War with Mexico (2 vols., 1919). The story of the Army of the West is told by Ralph P. Bieber, ed., in his introduction to Journal of a Soldier under Kearny and Doniphan, 1846-1847 (1935), which contains the diary of George Rutledge Gibson. Another firsthand account, Philip St. George Cooke, The Conquest of New Mexico and California (1878), has been reprinted many times. □

Kearny, Stephen Watts

views updated May 18 2018

Kearny, Stephen Watts (1794–1848), frontier army commander, conqueror of New Mexico, governor of California.Born in Newark to a prominent New Jersey family, Kearny became a regular army lieutenant in the War of 1812. He served with distinction at the Battle of Queenston Heights on the Niagara frontier. Promoted in the postwar period, he served in several expeditions and posts on the western frontier and molded the dragoons into one of the U.S. Army's crack units.

During the Mexican War, Colonel Kearny received orders to organize an expedition of dragoons and Missouri Volunteers and seize Sante Fe, the provincial capital of New Mexico. Commanding the Army of the West, Kearny led 1,800 men 700 miles from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on 30 June 1846, arriving at Santa Fe on 18 August. As a brigadier general, he established a U.S. civil government and a territorial constitution there, then left on 25 September with 700 men for his second objective, the seizure of California. Learning that Commodore Robert F. Stockton had already conquered California, Kearny sent half his command back to Sante Fe and proceeded with 300 troops overland to California.

In December, he arrived near Los Angeles, which had been retaken by Mexican Californians. On 6 December, at San Pascual, Kearny defeated a Mexican detachment. After reprovisioning in San Diego, Kearny's soldiers and Stockton's sailors and Marines defeated 600 Mexicans at San Gabriel and retook Los Angeles. A feud between Kearny and Stockton, the latter supported by John C. Fremont, over who was in charge in California led to Kearny's recognition as the military governor and ultimately to Fremont's court‐martial for insubordination. Kearny died from yellow fever.


Dwight L. Clarke , Stephen Watts Kearny: Soldier of the West, 1961.

John M. Hart

Kearny, Stephen Watts

views updated Jun 27 2018

Kearny, Stephen Watts (1794–1848) US general. He participated in the War of 1812 and in numerous wars on the Western frontier. In 1846, he took possession of New Mexico, promising full citizenship to the Native Americans. He also led a successful march to California, taking San Diego (1846) and Los Angeles (1847).

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