Naming our forts

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Among the two dozen military forts established in New Mexico during the 19th century, a handful of them were named for soldiers who gave their lives in defense of the territory.

The earliest to do so was Capt. John Burgwin of Missouri. He fell mortally wounded while leading the assault on the Taos Pueblo church, which had been fortified by rebels in the Taos uprising of January 1847.

Seven years later, Fort Burgwin was built 10 miles south of Taos for the purpose of protecting the countryside from raiding Utes and Jicarilla Apaches.

Three officers who died heroically in the Civil War battle of Valverde on Feb. 21, 1862, were honored when their names were given to forts in the region.

Capt. Alexander McRae, in charge of an artillery battery in the Union line, was slain while defending his cannons as Confederate attackers overran the position.

A year later, Fort McRae was located east of the Rio Grande, downriver from the Valverde battlefield.

The other two officers who lost their lives at Valverde were Capt. George N. Bascom and Capt. Benjamin Wingate. The Army established Fort Bascom eight miles north of Tucumcari to discourage raids by Comanches and Kiowas, while Fort Wingate in far western New Mexico served as a staging point for a large scale campaign in 1863 to defeat the Navajos.

That latter effort, as it turned out, resulted in the loss of another officer, whose name wound up on a New Mexico fort, Maj. Joseph Cummings. The manner of his death forms a curious story.

After long periods of Navajo attacks on Spanish, then Mexican and finally American populations along the Rio Grande and elsewhere, Gen. James H. Carleton, supreme military commander of New Mexico, mustered a large military force, placed it under Col. Kit Carson and sent it into the heart of Navajo country.

Carson’s orders were to defeat the tribe and then send it into captivity on a new reservation astride the middle Pecos River. Departing from Fort Wingate, the campaign troops pushed deep into the Navajo domain.

On Aug. 19, 1863, Col. Carson addressed a letter to Gen. Carleton in Santa Fe. In it, he wrote: “It is my melancholy duty to announce the death of Major Cummings, who was killed yesterday by a concealed Indian.”

Kit explained he had divided his command to make a wide sweep over the ground surrounding Canyon Bonito. He had led one company to the right of the canyon and dispatched another to the left.

Maj. Cummings remained in charge of the main body of troops near the mouth of the canyon. Inexplicably, contrary to orders, he left his men and, accompanied by a single unarmed civilian known only as Betts, the major rode at a fast clip four miles into Canyon Bonito.

There he was felled by a single bullet fired from ambush and fell to the ground. Betts recovered the officer’s loose horse and his pistols, then retreated to report the news.

Capt. Eben Everett, who was keeping a diary of the campaign, wrote that a party was sent to recover the body.

“Major Cummings,” he added, “was beloved by fellow officers and his many friends. He had $4,200 on his person at the time. His death was the result of rashness, in rushing into a dangerous place, an act he had been repeatedly warned against.”

These circumstances seem mysterious in the extreme, the more so when we note that in his official report Carson stated that actually $5,301 had been found on the major’s body. Since no formal military inquiry was ever conducted, questions surrounding the episode remain unanswered.

At the request of family members, Cummings’ corpse was sent to Santa Fe for burial in the Masonic and Odd Fellows Cemetery with full military honors.

Oddly, Maj. Joseph Cummings was the only member of Carson’s command to be killed. That may help to explain why two months later a new fort established in southwestern New Mexico (east of Deming) was named Fort Cummings in honor of his memory.

The adobe-walled installation with an impressive sally port has today melted away, leaving only faint traces of its existence.