I urge those who still adhere to the “Great Man” theory of history, to consider what historian T.H. Watkins has called the “low comedy…” of the American conquest of California. There wasn’t a “Great” man in the entire performance, despite having three chances at one. In fact, the second act was almost reduced to slapstick, thanks largely to Marine Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie.
What should have been the final curtain came down grandly on Act One on August 11, 1847, when the United States captured Los Angeles with little more than a band playing “Yankee Doodle”. Sacramento, Monterey and San Diego had already succumbed to the Americans. After decades of intermittent and ineffective government from Mexico, the 3,000 citizens of the pueblo were optimistic about joining the “Norteamericanos”. But the gringo conquistadors were stretched too thin. And after just three weeks they had to abandon the largest town in California to the oversight of Lt. Gillespie and his forty volunteers, whereupon “Archie” proved to be a far better Lieutenant than he was an Alcalde.
Gillespie was arrogant and not very bright, and had never had an independent command before. Instead of trying to bond with the community leaders, this popinjay bullied and blustered and placed the town under martial law. His curfew starved the stores and cantinas surrounding the plaza until their cash flow resembled the usually anemic L.A. River. Homes were searched and personal belongings were confiscated. Anyone who tried to reason with Gillespie was arrested. Finally, on the night of September 23, when a group of drunken Angelinos got into a fight with some drunken soldiers, the Lieutenant panicked and retreated to a hill top fort overlooking the town.
Unfortunately the fort had no water supply. And this combination of American arrogance and stupidity swelled the Californian rebels’ with self confidence. Their numbers rose to 400. On October 8, 1847 Gillespie was forced to quit the waterless “Fort Monroe”. He retreated to San Pedro, where he recruited seamen and marines from a naval sloop. But 150 picadors drove him off again. (The “greasers” were short on guns and powder, but not brains.) Towns all across southern California now staged their own revolts, and suddenly the American conquest of California, an accomplished fact in mid-August, was in doubt all over again.
Two men rode to Gillespie’s rescue. One was a dull, journeyman soldier with a real talent for carrying a grudge, Brigadier General Stephen Kearny (pronounced 'Karney'), known as the Father of American Cavalry. He was marching west with 300 dragons after having conquered New Mexico. The other was man was Colonel John C. Fremont, who had an actor’s sense of direction and a soldier’s sense of subtly, and would prove to be one of the luckiest idiots in American history. Fremont was currently in Monterey, commanding the 500 barflies and adventurers of the “California Battalion”, right now the single largest land force West of the Colorado River. Informed of Gillespie’s retreat, Fremont marched south with about 150 of his more sober warriors.
Meanwhile out in the parched, wind swept California high desert, the exhausted General Kearny had run into Kit Carson, who informed him that California was already conquered. Relieved, Kearny sent 200 of his dragoons back to Santa Fe, and resumed his march with just 100 men. But then he ran into Gillespie, with the story of the uprising in Los Angeles.
Gillespie assured Kearny that the Californians had almost no guns, were disorganized and could be easily bullied by real soldiers. What followed was the battle of San Pasqual, which ended with a half dozen American dead and both Kearny and Gillespie wounded, (Kearny losing an arm) and the Americans trapped atop a waterless Mesa. They were rescued only when Kit Carson made a daring escape under fire and returned with navy reinforcements from San Diego. Needless to say, after that everybody stopped taking advice from Gillespie.
Meanwhile Fremont had been marching down the coast, reasserting American dominance like an avenging angel, sort of. There was no fighting. There was no shooting. There were no flaming haciendas.
And most important of all, after peacefully occupying San Luis Obispo on December 14, 1847, Fremont was met not by an opposing army but by the lovely Dona Ruiz, married to the cousin of Andres Pico, the commander of the Californians. She was the perfect weapon of choice. Lovely, smart and sophisticated, she seduced Fremont into considering the possibility of a peace treaty with the rebellious natives who had just violated an earlier surrender.
Three weeks later Kearney was approaching the San Gabriel River, marching northward towards Los Angeles. He was now leading a force of 550 sailors and his surviving dragoons. He found his route blocked by about 300 Californian picadors. Kearney ordered his cannon to unlimber, when he as countermanded by Commodore Stockton, who commanded the U.S. Navy in these parts. Technically, Kearney was in command of all land forces while Stockton was just as an observer. But all the gunners were sailors, and rather than argue the point Kearney waded his infantry across the knee deep river. After Kearney got his guns to the other side and fired off a few rounds, the Californians retreated.
Two days later, on January 9, came the real fighting at the battle of La Mesa. All day the Californians rode around the Americans, looking for an opening, and finding none. They suffered 15 dead and 25 wounded, to 1 dead and 5 wounded Americans. The Californians abandoned Los Angeles and retreated to Pasadena.
On January 10, 1847 American forces entered Los Angeles for the second time. Gillespie was allowed to raise the flag over the post he had squandered, after which he was quietly kept out of sight since because, as another Lieutenant recorded, “The streets were full of desperate and drunken fellows, who…saluted us with every item of reproach.” And I think we can all imagine just what kind of salute that was. Commodore Stockton immediately sent a rider north to find Fremont with the good news. The Pathfinder was easy to find, just over the Cahuenga Pass, in the San Fernando Valley.
Because it was there that Dona Ruiz had reappeared. Dona arranged a meeting between her uncle-in-law, Californian commander Andres Pico, and General Fremont, at a humble six room adobe with the ostentatious title of Campo de Cahuenga. As Fremont explained, “The next morning (January 13, 1847) …in a conference with Don Andreas, the important features of a treaty of capitulation were agreed upon…”
The treaty, signed at a kitchen table, was what might be called “generous”. After turning over all their “artillery and public arms”, of which they had almost none, the Californian soldiers could go home, or they could go south to fight the Americans again, in Mexico. They would not be required to take an oath of allegiance to the United States until a peace treaty was officially signed with Mexico, at some time in the future. The Californians were so pleased with the treaty they threw a 3 day fiesta for Fremont and his men. Appropriately enough, the reconstructed Campo de Cahuenga sits on Lankershim Boulevard, in North Hollywood, at the foot of Universal Studios Amusement Park. And on the bottom of a drawer in that kitchen table, amongst a list of far more important signatures, is my own humble name. But I am getting ahead of myself…
General Kearney was not pleased with the treaty. As the ranking field commander he should have been the one to negotiate and sign it. His men had done all the fighting. He had lost an arm to the Californians. That must have made him a little grumpy. Nor was he happy to hear that Commodore Stockton then took it upon himself to appoint Fremont as the new governor of California; especially since he, Kearny, carried a Presidential appointment making himself governor. There was a lot of ego in the air over the next few weeks, until Kearney finally forced Fremont to acknowledge that legally Kearney was the governor.
He wasn’t governor for long, though. Kearney was ordered to return to Washington to explain what had happened. And not having much trust in the United States Navy - for some reason - he made his return overland. But remember what I said about the General knowing how to carry a grudge? He now unloaded it. One of Kearney’s last acts as governor was to order Fremont to return with him. And as soon as “The Pathfinder” reached Kansas, General Kearney had him arrested and court-martialed for insubordination. Fremont was convicted and discharged from the army.
Kearney was promoted and sent south to take part in the conquest of Mexico. Unfortunately, before he could reach the “Halls of Montezuma”, the general contracted Yellow Fever, He returned to his home in St. Louis where he died in October of 1847 at the age of 54. It had been a very busy year for the General.
And now I have to remind you about Fremont being a lucky idiot. Forced out of the army, Fremont moved with his wife to California where in 1848 he bought some land. And guess what; in 1849 about $10 million worth of gold was found on his property. But that is not yet the lucky part. Fremont became rich enough that in 1856 he could afford to be the first Republican candidate for President. He lost. And then in 1860 the second Republican candidate for president was Abraham Lincoln. He won. And Fremont certainly did not want to deal with all of Lincoln’s problems. So you see how lucky he was.
Oh, and Gillespie? After driving Los Angeles into rebellion, history pretty much dumped him like a hot potato. He retired a Captain before the civil war. He became a businessman and died in San Francisco in August of 1873. He was almost forgotten entirely, but during World War II, the U.S. navy built so many ships they decided to name one of them, a destroyer, after Lt. Gillespie. The DD-609 performed heroic service through out the war, and was then mothballed until 1971. Two years later she became a target hulk and was eventually sunk.
I think it would be a good idea for all future candidates for "Great Man" to keep in mind the ultimate fate of the U.S.S. Gillespie.