“To A Distant And Perilous Service”


Earlier in 1846 Polk had dispatched several smaller forces to California. A squadron of one hundred dragoons from the Army of the West was marching overland by way of New Mexico. A battalion of Mormon volunteers was en route from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego. An artillery company was rounding the Horn by ship. Already on the Pacific coast were several naval vessels and an armed survey party headed by the quarrelsome gadabout of the Western frontier, Captain John C. Frémont. Stevenson’s volunteers, getting a late start, obviously could serve no useful purpose except as an army of occupation; but Polk was eager to conceal his territorial ambitions. To this end, he asked Secretary Marcy to send a confidential letter to General Thomas Sidney Jessup, letting him in on the plans and cautioning him to be quiet in handling the logistics so that news of the expedition would not trickle out.


Colonel Stevenson, however, was giddy at the prospect of leading bayonet charges and liberating mission Indians. He rushed back to New York, full of winks and nudges. On the Fourth of July, at a get-together of militia officers of New York City at City Hall, he elbowed up to the speaker’s platform and blurted out the happy news that he had been called “to a distant and perilous service” on the northwest coast of Mexico, where his regiment of volunteers would be discharged at the end of the war.

To the Free Soilers in Congress, who had been saying all along that the war was only an excuse to annex four or five new slave states carved out of former Mexican territory, this announcement sounded like an official admission of guilt. Representative George Ashmun, a Whig from Massachusetts, flushed out Marcy’s correspondence about the regiment and indignantly read it to the House.

“It is no longer pretended that our purpose is to repel invasion,” Ashmun said. “The mask is off; the veil is lifted; and we see in the clearest characters invasion, conquest, and colonization emblazoned on our banners.… We behold an expedition about to sail from New York to a distant region of the globe, which it cannot possibly reach in less than four to six months, commanded by a mere political fortune-hunter of not the highest character, and destined to accomplish the conquest and dismemberment of a sister republic whose weakness seems to make her a ready prey to men whose purposes are those of plunder!”

Colonel Stevenson did not reply to this gratuitous slur on his character, made in the privileged sanctuary of the Congress. He was fully occupied trying to enlist, equip, and train more than seven hundred men in one month for a strategic expedition that would have done credit to Hannibal—for, of course, the regiment was by no means “about to sail.” It existed only in Colonel Stevenson’s patriotic dreams. The day after his announcement, the colonel put a notice in the New York papers, inviting volunteers to come down to the state arsenal on White Street and sign up; and, on the sixth, a militia captain named Seymour Steele set up a recruiting desk at Stoneall’s Hotel, a favorite meeting place for Democratic ward heelers. Governor Silas Wright, although he disliked Stevenson almost as much as he did Polk and Marcy, agreed to assign to the regiment several volunteer companies that had been forming upstate.

But recruiting was slow, the weather was stifling, and to make things worse, Marcy kept sending reminders that this was supposed to be an elite corps: “The President expects, and indeed requires, that great care should be taken to have it composed of suitable persons—I mean persons of good habits—as far as practicable of various pursuits.…”

The colonel did succeed in corralling an entire family of such “suitable persons” as a result of stopping to have his watch repaired by a German jewelry maker named Emanuel Charles Christian Russ, who was nursing a grievance against New York. A year and a half earlier, while Russ and his family had been out watching a memorial parade in honor of President Jackson, burglars had broken into his shop and stolen Russ’s life’s savings, twenty thousand dollars. Since that time, Russ repeatedly had declared that he would rather live in the wilderness than remain in this urban jungle, and Colonel Stevenson’s crusade sounded like an ideal opportunity to emigrate to the end of the earth. In return for free passage to California, Russ volunteered his own services and those of his oldest son, Adolph, as a private soldier; his two younger sons, Charles and Augustus, as fifer and drummer, respectively, of the regimental band; and his wife, Christiana, and six younger children, as laundresses, cooks, and scullery moppets.