Press "Enter" to skip to content

A military appraisal of Anza’s 1779 campaign

Article by Christopher Rein

History – February 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

IN AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER OF 1779, the Spanish Governor of New Mexico, Don Juan Bautista de Anza, led a remarkable military campaign into an uncharted realm of the Spanish Empire, fought two battles against the Comanche, and returned safely with his command after almost four weeks in hostile territory. As a direct result of this campaign, Anza eliminated the Comanche leader whose personal hatred had rallied his tribesmen against the Spanish. In subsequent years, Anza continued to deal such damaging blows to the Comanche that by 1786 they formally ended hostilities against both the Spanish and their Ute allies, ushering a thirty-year period of relative peace and prosperity in the New Mexico.

By any judgment, Anza’s campaign should be classified as a masterpiece of military planning and execution. A full appraisal of the operational and logistical difficulties Anza encountered reveals the full measure of Anza’s military accomplishments, and places him firmly in the ranks of early American history’s “Great Captains.”

Relations between Spanish New Mexico and the native inhabitants of North America have a long and checkered history. Early Spanish efforts and colonization and conversion were almost completely eliminated by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Perhaps the most successful and enduring nativist revolt in colonial American history, the Pueblos forced the Spanish to pay particular attention to the capabilities and intentions of the native tribes.

Following the return of the Spaniards to New Mexico in the early eighteenth century, Spanish administrators concentrated their attention on the hostile Apaches. When the Comanche moved southward from present-day Wyoming through the Rockies in the late seventeenth century, they pushed the Jicarilla and Lipan bands of the Apache further into New Mexico, in turn causing more problems for the Spanish.

The Comanche then adopted the Apache practice of alternately trading with and raiding Spanish settlements, multiplying the problems for the colony’s administrators. These raids enabled the Comanche to acquire large bands of horses, which thrived on the southern plains, and made the Comanche “the plains’ most feared and adept horseback warriors.”1 From the beginning, the appearance of the Comanche represented a new and most unwelcome threat to Spanish control of New Mexico.

When Juan Bautista de Anza arrived at Santa Fé in late 1778, he inherited a colony beset on all sides with hostile natives, but supported by an administration firmly committed to securing the northern border of its vast empire against Russian, French and English incursions. In 1776, Anza had led a colonizing expedition to northern California, a feat which demonstrated his considerable skills as both an administrator and military commander.

He applied his talents to the situation in New Mexico, and quickly deduced that the Spanish must first deal with the Comanche if they hoped to knit tightly together the string of isolated presidios across the northern frontier. While Anza could have attempted to placate the Comanche, and somehow negotiate a peace, he recognized that success was much more likely if he negotiated from a position of strength.

Correctly surmising that a severe defeat would be much more likely to get the Comanche’s attention and acquiescence, Anza planned a campaign into the Comanche heartland for the late summer of 1779. The timing of the raid was designed to coincide with the season when natural forage would be readily available for his horse herd of over 1,000 animals, and when his forces would most likely encounter large numbers of Comanche in the field, mounted on horses likewise fattened on summer grasses and supplied with stocks of buffalo meat from the summer hunts.

Striking the Comanche just before the winter storms arrived would deprive them of the sustenance and shelter they had labored through the summer to accumulate, making the campaign doubly effective.

TO ENSURE THAT THE Comanche would not flee upon the approach of his superior column, Anza devised an ingenious, roundabout approach that would place his force squarely across the Comanche’s line of retreat onto the southern plains. By traveling through the San Luis Valley and South Park and debouching onto the plains near present-day Colorado Springs, Anza surprised and defeated an unsuspecting Comanche camp on Fountain Creek, just east of present-day Fort Carson in southern El Paso County.

Following the survivors of this engagement, Anza next encountered the main body of Comanche under their famed leader, Cuerno Verde, or Green Horn, in the Wet Mountains near present-day Rye in Pueblo County. In this battle, Anza isolated Cuerno Verde’s party from the bulk of the Comanche warriors and killed the famed chief and a number of his most capable lieutenants. The Comanche, deprived of their most capable war chief and sufficiently chastised, were unable to effectively raid Spanish settlements in the years that followed and eventually agreed to a peace with their Spanish and Ute enemies that lasted over 30 years.2

Modern military historians have a variety of frameworks available to analyze military campaigns. One of the simplest and most useful is to consider the tactical, operational and strategic levels of warfare, and to measure success in each of these areas.

The tactical arena encompasses the employment of units in combat. It includes the ordered arrangement and maneuver of units in relation to each other, the terrain, and the enemy to translate potential combat power into victorious battles and engagements. This includes activity out of enemy contact that is intended to directly and immediately affect such battles and engagements.

Anza excelled tactically by carefully reconnoitering the battleground, and then luring Cuerno Verde into a trap in a concealed gully, where he and his closest associates were killed.

THE OPERATIONAL LEVEL of war is the level at which campaigns and major operations are conducted and sustained to accomplish strategic objectives within theaters or areas of operations. Operations are the link between strategy and tactics. As a result, operations are concerned with using available military resources to attain strategic objectives in a specific theater of war. Anza’s 1779 operation used two tactical successes to eventually achieve his desired strategic result.

The strategic level is that level at which a nation determines national security objectives and guidance and develops and uses national resources to accomplish them. Strategy is the art and science of developing and employing armed forces and other instruments of national power in a synchronized fashion to secure national objectives. It is the long-range plans and policies for distributing and applying resources to achieve specific objectives. By ensuring that Anza had the resources he needed to complete his campaign, Spain achieved the strategic goal of freedom from Comanche raids and a more secure northern frontier.

Anza’s tactics, operations and strategy demonstrates success in all three areas. Tactically, his avenue of approach ensured that his opponent could not escape, and his dispositions and use of terrain guaranteed his forces a victory over an opponent with a style of fighting that frequently frustrated other European adversaries.

Operationally, Anza’s decision to raise, equip and lead a formidable force into hostile territory at the end of the resource-gathering season ensured that his tactical victories would have the maximum possible impact. While several years of such campaigns might have been necessary to achieve the strategic goal of a cessation of hostilities on the Comanche’s part, Anza’s 1779 campaign was so decisive that further operations were rendered unnecessary.

In 1786, he consummated the strategic victory with a peace treaty in which the Comanche declared an end to hostilities between themselves and New Mexico. In a subsequent ceremony, the Comanche further agreed to peaceful relations with the Ute nation and, in a ceremony reminiscent of today’s professional soccer matches, exchanged clothing with their erstwhile adversaries, much as international players today swap jerseys after a hard-fought match to display an end to animosity towards their opponents. Anza’s campaign was undoubtedly a tactical, operational and strategic success.

ANOTHER MEASURE of military success is based on the nine “Principles of War.” While not guarantors of success, commanders who have addressed each principle have generally prevailed, while those who have ignored one or more of the principles have often met with failure. The Nine principles are: Mass, Objective, Offensive, Surprise, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Simplicity and Security. In briefly examining each of these principles, it is clear that Anza, though unaware of their existence but undoubtedly familiar with the concepts, meticulously adhered to each, thereby attaining success.

The first principle, Mass, requires that a commander achieve a sufficient concentration and then keep his force together in order to deploy the maximum force at the critical point. This Anza did, by collecting a mixed force of regulars, militia and Indians, and then resisting the temptation to scatter this force across a variety of routes in pursuit of his quarry.

He also clearly defined his Objective — Cuerno Verde and his warriors–rather than the numerous Comanche camps scattered across the plains. He realized that he could only attain his goals by the destruction of his opponent’s fielded forces, and not by a futile search across the plains.

Having identified his Objective, Anza then took the Offensive, by leading his force out in pursuit, rather than placing it in a presidio where it would be invulnerable, but also much less likely to encounter the enemy. In Anza’s case, fortune indeed favored the bold.

PERHAPS THE MOST important principle to Anza’s campaign was Surprise. By leading his army up the San Luis Valley, across Poncha Pass and South Park, and through the Front Range, Anza placed his forces across Cuerno Verde’s line of retreat. When confronted with Anza’s column, Cuerno Verde was deprived of the opportunity to flee and was forced to fight, and eventually die, where he stood.

Economy of Force caused Anza to take only the troops he could supply. By equipping each soldier with spare animals from his large herd, he guaranteed the mobility of his column and spared himself the burden of a lengthy supply column. He also included Ute allies who compensated for their lack of European-style discipline with an intimate knowledge of the surrounding area, making them far more valuable than their relatively meager numbers.

Anza effectively employed Maneuver twice during the campaign, first in choosing his route of march, and again tactically in his encounter with Cuerno Verde’s forces. By taking a position across a steep ravine, flanked by woods through which he could move flanking columns unobserved, Anza cut off Cuerno Verde and his entourage and rapidly destroyed them. Tactical and Operational use of Maneuver decisively influenced the campaign.

By keeping his force together, and retaining command personally, Anza eliminated any potential difficulties with Unity of Command. As the provincial governor, Anza could easily have exercised his prerogative of directing the command from his headquarters in Santa Fe, but that might have exposed his command to quibbling among his captains. By taking the field personally, he ensured that the force was united and capably led.

The entire campaign is a model of Simplicity. It involved a fairly direct approach, a clear objective, and an uncomplicated scheme of maneuver. Anza could have divided his command into separate columns, charged with resupplying and rendezvousing at separate places and times, but instead kept his plan simple and easy to explain and execute.

By marching across the San Luis valley at night, Anza eliminated the telltale dust clouds that would have given away his column’s location to Comanche scouts watching during daylight hours. With Security thus retained, Anza achieved the Surprise so critical to the successful conclusion of the campaign.

By scrupulously adhering to all nine Principles of War, Anza successfully executed a campaign that future commanders would do well to emulate.

A final test of Anza’s military abilities would be to compare him to other “Great Captains” of history, and see how he fares. On the day Anza left Santa Fé, half a world away, a young Corsican marked his tenth birthday. In the following half-century, Napoleon Bonaparte would conquer most of Europe and forever change the face of warfare.

In fact, his campaign against guerilla resistance in Anza’s native Spain remains in vogue today among scholars of counterinsurgency warfare. Napoleon’s success rested on his ability to mobilize the French state, and rapidly move his army via an indirect approach into a position in his enemy’s rear, a technique historians have labeled a manoeuvre sur les derrieres, or a movement towards the rear.

Napoleon employed this most successfully in the 1805 Battle of Ulm, when he unexpectedly moved his army through the Black Forest and placed it in the rear of Austrian forces still concentrating in Bavaria, forcing their surrender. Anza’s indirect approach to the central plains demonstrated a similar movement, more than twenty-five years before Napoleon, albeit on a much smaller scale.

NAPOLEON ENJOYED the full support of the French state, thanks largely to the levee en masse, that placed a nationally motivated army of unprecedented size at his disposal. While Anza did not enjoy similar resources in sparsely populated New Mexico, his stature and previous record of success did earn him a motivated populace that had suffered from Indian raids for generations, as evidenced by the large numbers of militia in Anza’s force.3 This force was undoubtedly popularly motivated and committed to a successful campaign, relieving Anza of any significant disciplinary problems on the march.

Despite a decade of active campaigning, Napoleon was never able to vanquish the various coalitions arrayed against France. Here Anza exceeds Napoleon, as his 1779 campaign directly contributed to a lasting peace for New Mexico while France was eventually exhausted by Napoleon’s wars. In planning and execution, Anza’s campaign ranks alongside any of Napoleon’s, and is eclipsed only by the scale on which European armies fought.

In researching this campaign, one aspect continued to gnaw at me. It was not immediately evident just how Anza forced Cuerno Verde to fight. If the Comanche were aware of Anza’s location and the size of his force, as the presence in the Comanche camp of a rifle captured from the Spanish in the earlier engagement on Fountain Creek suggests they were, why didn’t Cuerno Verde skirt Anza’s column and escape on to the plains?

IN THE ABSENCE of a recorded event from the Comanche side, we are left to several hypotheses. One is that Cuerno Verde’s hatred of and disdain for the Spanish caused him to act recklessly, an event not without precedent in military affairs. Perhaps Cuerno Verde intended only a show of force that would rock the Spanish back on the heels, ceding him the initiative that would allow him to escape.

Another possibility is that the Comanche, just returning from a lengthy and unsuccessful raid to Taos and a difficult trek across the Sangre de Cristos at La Veta Pass and down the Huerfano river drainage, were too exhausted to effect a rapid escape across the arid Plains.

But it was not until last weekend, when I visited the site of the battle, that I considered a third possibility. In examining the topography around the assumed site of the engagement, I was struck by a short but very steep canyon just to the west of Greenhorn Meadows. If the Comanche were following Greenhorn Creek towards the Arkansas River, they would have passed through or alongside this canyon. If Anza was able to halt the Comanche at the mouth of this canyon, the only options for the Comanche were to either retreat up the canyon, allowing the Spanish to pursue from atop the canyon walls, or to try to fight their way out.

If Anza intended to meet the Comanche at this point, it was a very shrewd tactical maneuver. If however, as the evidence suggests, the battle was a meeting engagement and both forces met by chance, then Anza was very lucky. It has been said that great commanders create their own luck, but far too often the role of chance has weighed heavily on the outcome of military engagements. Either way, Anza was able to profit from the opportunity presented and prevailed decisively.

It is just as clear that, by any measure, Juan Bautista de Anza’s 1779 campaign against the Comanche ranks as one of the most successful ever conducted in the New World. When placed alongside other efforts to subdue Native Americans, especially during the Indian Wars period, his campaign achieves even greater significance, given the paucity of resources and the relative brevity of the campaign.

When coupled with his keen diplomatic skills essential to solidifying a peace won by force of arms, Anza emerges as a warrior-statesman who, according to one historian, “won respect, impressing the Comanches as no white man had done in a hundred years,” and who, by himself “was worth a regiment to Spain on the frontier.”4 Already an accomplished explorer and administrator, in these hills and valleys, Anza solidified his legacy as a military commander, and ensured that his 1779 campaign would remain for centuries after, a shining example and well worthy of emulation today.

Lt. Col. Christopher Rein is assistant professor of military history at the United States Air Force Academy. This was his presentation for Anza Day on Aug. 24, 2007, in Poncha Springs.

1 Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers and the Rush to Colorado, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998) 64.

2 Alfred Thomas, Forgotten Frontiers: A Study of the Spanish Indian Policy of Don Juan Bautista de Anza, Governor of New Mexico, 1777-1787, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1932) 83.

3 Ron Kessler, Anza’s 1779 Comanche Campaign, (Monte Vista, Colorado: Adobe Village Press, 2001) 72.

4 T. R. Fehrenbach, Comanches: The Destruction of a People (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974) 223, 4.