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Lincoln Promotes Officer in Frontier Regiment in New Mexico
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This commission, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, promotes 2nd Lieutenant Henry B. Bristol of the 5th United States Infantry to the rank of captain, effective June 1, 1862.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Partially Printed Document Signed, Commission of Henry B. Bristol as Captain in the 5th United States Infantry, June 8, 1863. 1 p., 14 x 18 in.

Inventory #25790       Price: $9,500

Bristol spent most of his two-decade career with the U.S. Army in the frontier West. At the beginning of the Civil War, the 5th U.S. Infantry was ordered to assemble at Albuquerque for transfer east, but the department commander persuaded authorities in Washington to leave the regiment on the frontier. Portions of the 5th U.S. Infantry played a pivotal role in thwarting Confederate General Henry H. Sibley’s attempt to capture the gold mines of Colorado for the Confederacy and isolate California, from which he hoped to create a supply route that would bypass the Union blockade of Atlantic and Gulf ports. Although Confederates gained an early success at the Battle of Valverde on February 21, 1862, and captured Albuquerque and Sante Fe, they were repulsed at the Battle of Glorieta Pass on March 28, 1862. The 5th U.S. Infantry remained in New Mexico for the remainder of the war, alert for another Confederate incursion that never came. Although John F. Reynolds and later Daniel Butterfield became colonels of the 5th U.S. Infantry officially, they were engaged in service with the Army of the Potomac and did not join the regiment during the war, leaving it in the command of junior officers like Bristol.

In 1862, 2nd lieutenant Charles A. Curtis was transferred to the west to Company F of the 5th U.S. Infantry. He arrived in New Mexico in July 1862. He soon learned that Captain Henry B. Bristol was the “regimental joker, the man who always kept the mess tables in a roar and spent a great part of his time in planning and playing practical jokes.” When Curtis arrived at a camp one afternoon, he noticed a long line of dead snakes leading to the officers’ tents, then into his tent, and then into a hole in the hillside just below where his pillow had been placed. Knowing of Curtis’ fear of snakes, Bristol came to him and said, “We killed all we could, Curtis, but the bulk of them got down the hole.” Of course, Curtis later learned that Bristol had sent the men to pick up all of the dead snakes they had killed and arrange them in a line leading to Curtis’ tent.[1]

From 1863 to 1866, Bristol served as the military superintendent of the Navajo, chief commissary officer, and sometimes commander at Fort Sumner on the Pecos River in east-central New Mexico Territory. The fort was charged with the internment of nine to ten thousand Navajo and Mescalero Apache on the nearby 1,600-square-mile reservation of Bosque Redondo from 1863 to 1868. The Mescalero Apache were relocated there by the end of 1862, but the Navajo had to endure the three-hundred-mile Long Walk to Bosque Redondo from their Arizona lands in the spring of 1864.

The stated purpose of the reservation was to teach the Mescalero Apache and Navajo to be modern farmers. Corn production in 1865 and 1866 was adequate, but it was a total failure in 1867, forcing the Army to abandon Bosque Redondo because it had too little water and firewood for the number of people living there. By 1868, the Mescalero had run away and the Navajo were permitted to return to their native lands in Arizona.

In 1865, Bristol sent a Mescalero Apache vocabulary, a Navajo vocabulary, and notes on Navajo customs to Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.

After the Civil War, the 5th U.S. Infantry was under the command of Colonel and Brevet Major General Nelson A. Miles, who led the regiment in many of the major Indian wars of the next twelve years, from Texas to Montana, including the Red River War, and the pursuits of separate bands led by Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Chief Joseph.

Henry B. Bristol (1838-1904) was born in Detroit, Michigan. Through the influence of family friend Secretary of State Lewis Cass (1792-1866), Bristol received a commission as 2nd lieutenant in the 5th U.S. Infantry in 1857 and was sent to frontier duty in Kansas, Nebraska, and Utah. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant in May 1861, and to captain in June 1862. He received brevet promotions to major in 1865 and lieutenant colonel in 1867 for his service in New Mexico “and particularly for his untiring zeal and energy in controlling the Navajoe tribe of Indians at the Basque de Dondo, and for his praiseworthy efforts in advancing their condition from that of savages to one of civilization.” In 1868, he married Cornelia Magden Jenkins (1846-1883). After the Civil War, he participated in recruiting service before returning to frontier duty in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Montana. He retired in 1879 and died in New York City.


[1] Alan D. Gaff and Donald H. Gaff, eds., Ordered West: The Civil War Exploits of Charles A. Curtis (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2017), 162, 117-18.


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