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Espinosas Scapegoating Goes Awry

The Strange Case of Capt. E. Wayne Eaton

Part Two

By Charles F. Price

Maj. Archibald H. Gillespie and Capt. Ethan Wayne Eaton seem to have openly clashed first in early February 1863, days before Carleton’s order for the re-arrest of the Espinosas arrived. The issue was relatively trivial—Gillespie felt the escort for his census of the Fort Garland area should be mounted, but Eaton contended the major’s orders from Carleton didn’t specify a mounted escort and assigned him dismounted men instead. The dispute may have been a minor one but it inspired in Gillespie a strong dislike for Eaton.

The major began an “investigation,” which soon focused more on the grievances of his new friend Lt. Lewis and on perceived irregularities in Eaton’s personal life than on the circumstances of the Espinosas’ escape. He formed an opinion that Eaton had behaved improperly toward Lewis in the New Year’s Eve incident and then, in a letter of February 18 to Carleton, also accused the captain of immorality, claiming he kept a mistress at the fort next to quarters inhabited by his wife and, when he left for the Conejos, posted a sentinel at night outside his mistress’ room.

Gillespie’s opinions may have been clouded by alcohol. Eaton later wrote that “during his stay at Fort Garland (Gillespie) scarcely drew a sober breath.” For his part, Gillespie leveled the same charge at Eaton in a letter of February 7 to Carleton, contending Eaton was not fit to command the post due to his heavy drinking. Eaton refuted such rumors but Gillespie implied it was well known the captain was often drunk.

Ever since receiving Carleton’s order personally to direct the search for the Espinosas, Eaton had been conducting numerous patrols. On February 16, continuing these efforts, he temporarily relinquished command of the post to Lt. Lewis, “in order to continue the scout without interruption.” He organized a detail of 25 mounted men and a teamster.

However, before the patrol could commence, a dispute broke out between the captain and Lewis over the use of the teamster’s horse. Again conflicting stories are advanced. Lewis, now considering himself Eaton’s superior, refused Eaton permission to take the horse and began personally to unsaddle it. Eaton re-assumed command so he could order Lewis not to interfere. Lewis contended Eaton then violently grabbed and slugged him, while Eaton explained Lewis’s “ungentlemanly language, manner and acts…took me wholly by surprise, and so aggravated me that my next act was rather hasty.” Eaton doesn’t say what that act was, but perhaps it was the drubbing Lewis complained of, for it caused Lewis to furnish himself with a revolver and return to face an unarmed Eaton and assert in a threatening manner that the captain had “taken advantage” of him, “which was false,” Eaton later insisted, “and I told him so in plain, strong terms.”

Two days after this, Gillespie wrote Carleton two letters—one charging that Eaton, in his treatment of Lewis, had showed himself unfit to command troops and had been guilty of “arbitrary conduct” toward an inferior officer; and the other about Eaton’s supposed misbehavior with a mistress. Eaton was back at Garland by February 27 but his time in command there would soon be cut short; Gillespie had thoroughly poisoned Carleton against him.

At some point during this period Carleton had finally acknowledged the transfer of the San Luis Valley from his own Department of New Mexico to Chivington’s District of Colorado under G.O. 11. On February 28 he posted a letter to Chivington, Eaton’s lawful superior, saying, “From a report which I have received from Major Gillespie…I have reason to believe that Capt. Eaton the present commander of Fort Garland, is entirely unworthy of his position.” He urged Chivington to send an officer to Garland “to look after the important interests of the Government.” Accordingly, on April 18 Eaton was shocked to learn in a letter from Chivington that he had been removed from command and dishonorably dismissed from the service—by order of President Lincoln.

Eaton had been “found guilty of neglect of duty, disregard and contempt of army regulations, and conduct unbecoming of an officer and gentleman.” Capt. Joseph C. Davidson of Company C, First Colorado Cavalry replaced the beleaguered captain. There is no notation of a court martial or of a disciplinary hearing of any sort in Eaton’s files—only a record of his dismissal. If he was given an opportunity to offer evidence in his behalf, no sign of it has turned up.

Before leaving the post, Eaton fired off an indignant letter to Chivington defending his handling of the Espinosa and Lewis affairs, blaming his difficulties on innuendos made “unofficially” rather than through “proper channels” by “a whining sniveling coward that resorts to means that are dishonorable to attain his ends.” Furthermore he blasted Chivington for heeding unverified rumors of misconduct rather than investigating them as military custom dictated. He officially requested an inquiry “which should have been had before I was deprived of a command,” referring Chivington to the relevant section of the Articles of War. But no action was taken on this request. Eaton’s dismissal seems to have been an entirely administrative act by Chivington, perhaps at Carleton’s behest. Though Chivington was a sure-fire hard case in his own right, in this instance he appears to have deferred to the ferocious commander of the Department of New Mexico rather than give justice to a dutiful junior officer.

By June 22 Eaton was in Santa Fe, writing letters to Carleton defending himself against Gillespie’s and Lewis’s charges. An extract from one such letter will suffice: “As to my being a suitable person to command a company of troops, let the condition of my old company, and officers, and citizens that are not continually under the influence of liquor, and that are unprejudiced, that have had opportunity to form an opinion, decide. I do not fear the decision of honest men.”

Oddly, on June 27, at Eaton’s request, Chivington reversed course and offered a written statement of support saying he “saw nothing wrong that Capt. Eaton had done but on the contrary found that he had administered the affairs of (Fort Garland) much more satisfactorily than his predecessor had done.” But even the belated intervention of the commander who had relieved him could not extricate Eaton from his dilemma.

In a way it was fortuitous for Eaton that the imbroglio was diverting everyone’s attention away from the initial cause of Carleton’s ire—the bungled arrest of the Espinosas. For while the officers wrangled among themselves, Felipe and Vivián left the San Juans and began murdering their way across the Pike’s Peak country and into South Park. It was not until May 21, in reporting the death of Vivián at the hands of possemen, that the Denver Weekly Commonwealth linked the string of previously mysterious killings to the Espinosas. By then no one seemed to remember that they had broken loose on Eaton’s watch—or that Carleton’s policy of conducting a military census in a volatile region he no longer commanded may have helped incite their murder spree. At least in the army hierarchy, pursuing the rivalries of rank seemed more important.

In July at New York City Eaton laid his case before his old Civil War commander, Brig. Gen. E.R.S. Canby, Carleton’s predecessor at the head of the Department of New Mexico. Canby endorsed a letter from Judge John S. Watts, lately New Mexico’s delegate to Congress, asking President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to revoke Eaton’s dismissal. By this time Carleton too had seen the light; he also endorsed the recommendation. In the face of these high-powered appeals, Lincoln and Stanton revoked the dismissal. But reinstatement proved impossible because Eaton’s old vacancy had already been filled. In a letter of September 29 to Carleton, Eaton, back in Santa Fe, suggested he be promoted major in place of a retiring officer of that rank. It wasn’t long before Carleton and the Governor of New Mexico obliged him. In fact, according to a statement Eaton made near the end of his long life, in an ironic twist of fortune he became such a favorite of Carleton’s that at war’s end the general offered him Kit Carson’s rank and command as an inducement to keep him in the army.

It seems clear that Eaton finally helped discredit both Gillespie and Lewis. In his letter to Canby he says Gillespie has already been “discharged,” and in fact the General Orders of the Adjutant General’s Office for 1863 do show Gillespie dismissed from the service on June 4. As with Eaton, there is no record of a court martial. He died in 1873, his past glories dimmed. Lewis, says Eaton, “has been tried by court martial, and I believe if justice is done cannot escape being cashiered.” The charges against him are not found in the record, but Lewis was indeed forced to resign unconditionally on August 15, though he later reenlisted in the First New Mexico Infantry, only to be court-martialed again at Fort Union in 1865, for embezzlement and falsification of records; it was his third court martial in as many years. Signing up as a private in the First New Mexico Cavalry on May 18, 1865, Lewis served a one-year enlistment without incident, then dropped from sight. In 1866 Gen. Carleton simply self-destructed; he was relieved of command, victim of his own tyrannical ways and the conspicuous disaster of his Navajo policy. Chivington, both praised and vilified for the Sand Creek affair, never lost his popularity with the Methodists of Colorado and passed away quietly and in evident contentment in 1894.

Eaton’s robust self-defense and the downfall of his accusers were not enough to reverse his dismissal. Yet he was allowed to receive a new commission from the governor of New Mexico and, on November 23, 1863 was readmitted to the service with the rank of major. By January 31, 1864 he was commanding at Fort Wingate—back in Carleton’s department. On the return of February 1865, again moved up in grade, he was a lieutenant-colonel, still commanding at Wingate.

On March 13, 1865, with the Civil War drawing near its close, Eaton resigned his commission. He returned to Galisteo, operated one of the great ranches of New Mexico and raised a family of nine children. In 1880 he relocated to Socorro to engage in mining and smelting. Lawlessness broke out there and when the constituted officers proved unwilling or unable to act, Eaton formed and led a vigilance committee which enforced lynch law until peace was restored. He later became deputy sheriff of Socorro County and then a deputy U.S. marshal.

When one of the Socorro outlaws threatened his life, Eaton marched into a saloon where the fellow waited and braced him in a stand-up, Wild-West-style gunfight. The outlaw beat the nearly sixty-year-old Eaton to the draw and with his first bullet broke Eaton’s right arm in two places. But Eaton shifted his own weapon to his left hand and coolly shot the man dead.

In 1882, during an outbreak by hostile Indians, Eaton took command of a volunteer unit called the Socorro Rangers, helping quell that incident. In 1889 he was named to the Board of Trustees of the New Mexico School of Mines (now the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology). He passed away in 1913 at the age of 86, an honored citizen.

No man to mess with, this Wayne Eaton.

But a mystery remains. In the file of Eaton’s personal papers at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library of The New Mexico History Museum at Santa Fe is the following letter:


Not knowing whether I will ever rise off my sick bed, I hope whatever I have done by word or deed, you will except my humble apology, and if the Almightyallows me to return to my duty once more, I hope it will be as brothers.

I am, Captain

With much Respect

John Lewis

N.M. Vols

The letter is addressed to “Captain E.W. Eaton, Co. ‘D,’ 1st N.M. Vols., Comm’g Post” and seems dated February 12, 1867 at Fort Garland. It appears to be genuine; the handwriting strongly resembles that of Lewis’s other correspondence. But by 1867 Eaton had been out of the army for almost two years and Fort Garland was commanded by Lt. Col. Kit Carson. Though the “7” in “1867” is somewhat scrawled and could conceivably be interpreted as a “2,” the year 1862 doesn’t fit either, because both Eaton and Lewis were in New Mexico then.

A final possibility is that Lewis misdated the letter and meant to write February 12, 1863. But this is hardly credible; that would place the letter amid the whitest heat of their dispute, only two days before they came to blows—and perhaps close to shooting— in their argument over the teamster’s horse.

When did Lewis write? Why? Did he recover from the sickness he feared would be his last? What eventually happened to him?

We don’t know.

What we do know is that Eaton kept the letter to the end of his long life. It had significance for him. Perhaps, whenever it was written and whenever it was received and read, for him it had healed many an old wound.


The author is especially indebted to Jerry D. Thompson, Regents Professor of history at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, TX for generously furnishing an abundance of military documents from the Civil War period in Colorado and New Mexico, gathered both for his excellent book cited below and for a forthcoming work on the New Mexico Volunteers. This article could not have been written without his help. Also offering invaluable assistance were my wife Ruth E. Price; Wanda Edwards, Collections Manager, Palace of the Governors, The New Mexico History Museum; and Tomas Jaehn, Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, Palace of the Governors.istHH


Connor, Daniel Ellis, A Confederate in the Colorado Gold Fields, edited by Donald J. Berthrong and Odessa Davenport, University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

General Orders, Adjutant General’s Office for 1863, with an Index, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1864.

Jensen, Joan M. and Darlis A. Miller (Editors), New Mexico Women: Intercultural Perspectives, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1986.

Keleher, William A., Turmoil in New Mexico, 1846-1868, The Rydal Press, Santa Fe, 1952.

Lass, Virginia Jeans, Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee, University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Mednick, Cristina Singleton, San Cristóbal: Voices and Visions of the Galisteo Basin, Office of Archaeological Studies, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, 1996.

O’ Brien, Thos. and Oliver Diefendorf, Military Attorneys, General Orders of the War Department, Embracing the Years 1861, 1862 & 1863, Vol. I, Leavenworth, KS.

Perkins, James E., Tom Tobin: Frontiersman, Herodotus Press, Pueblo West, 1999.

Secretary of the Navy, Navy Register of the United States for the Year 1855, Washington, DC, 1855.

Sides, Hampton, Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, Anchor Books, New York, 2006.

Simmons, Virginia McConnell, The San Luis Valley: Land of the Six-Armed Cross, University Press of Colorado, 1999.

Thompson, Jerry D., New Mexico Territory During the Civil War: Wallen and Evans Inspection Reports, 1862-1863, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2008.


Hodge, Betty L., “Fort Garland: A Window onto Southwest History,” The San Luis Valley Historian, Vol. XXIV No. 2, 1992.

Potter, Chester W., edited by Paige W. Christiansen, “Reminiscences of the Socorro Vigilantes,” The New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. XL, No. 1, January 1965.

Price, Charles F., “The Rampage of the Espinosas”, Colorado Central Magazine, October 2008, November 2008.

Tobin, Thomas T., “The Capture of the Espinosas,” The Colorado Magazine, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1932, The Historical Society of Colorado.


E.W. Eaton Papers, Fray Angélico Chávez History Library, The New Mexico History Museum, Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, NM.

U.S. Army Adjutant General’s Office and U.S. War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Broadfoot Publishing Company, Wilmington, NC (CD-ROM).

Record Groups 94 and 393, Adjutant General’s Office, National Archives and Records Adminstration, courtesy of Jerry D. Thompson.


The Colorado Weekly Commonwealth and Republican, 1863

The Rocky Mountain News Weekly, 1862-63

The Los Angeles Times, January 14, 2007.

Internet Sources:

Christiansen, Paige W., College on the Rio Grande: The Story of a Small School, web edition, accessed at 1.htm

Charles F. Price is a freelance writer in North Carolina with many in-laws in Salida. His most recent book is Nor the Battle to the Strong, a novel of the American Revolution in the South.