History Saturday – The Two Samuels

(OK, so I am late with the my usual History Friday segment. Stuff to work on in the real world, you know.)

The annexation of Texas to the United States – the culmination of nearly a decade of mostly-back-stairs campaigning by Sam Houston – kicked off a war with Mexico, which had never really gotten over the loss of Coahuila-Tejas. Nearly half the Mexican states had rebelled violently when General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had abrogated the Mexican constitution of 1824 and established himself as dictator. Santa Anna put down the resulting rebellion with particular brutality, but thanks to the luck and skill of Sam Houston, and Santa Anna’s own miscalculations, Texas slipped from his grasp, maintaining a precarious state as an independent republic. Mexico threatened war, if annexation was accomplished and when it was, practically everyone directly involved was spoiling for a fight. (Although many Americans were anti-war in this particular case, including many northern Whigs like soon-to-be statesman Abraham Lincoln, and abolitionists, all of whom detested the addition of a slave-state to the union.)

Among those most keen to have it done and get it over with were the volunteer Texas Rangers. Jack Hays had recruited a Texas force to serve along with Zachary Taylor’s command as spies and scouts. Two veterans of Jack Hays’ legendary Big Fight were along with him – Samuel Walker and Robert Addison ‘Ad’ Gillespie – when Taylor’s army took Matamoros and Camargo, and converged in several columns on Monterray. That city-stronghold was protected by fortified heights; Independence Hill, Fort Soldado, the Bishop’s Palace – and there the U.S. Army fought a savage battle at the gates of the city and in the surrounding heights, until the Mexican commanders offered an 8-week long truce. They would surrender the city, if they would allow the American army to allow them to evacuate their surviving troops. At the start of the siege, the Rangers were reported to have amused themselves by riding out to the walls, making flamboyant demonstrations of their horsemanship, provoking the Mexican gunners into firing, and then skillfully dodging the resulting cannon-balls aimed at them. By the time the truce was over, many of the Rangers’s limited enlistments were up, and they returned home to Texas. (So did Ad Gillespie – fatally wounded in the assault on the Bishop’s Palace fortifications. His body was returned for burial in a cemetery in San Antonio; Gillespie County, in the Texas Hill Country, is named for him.)

Samuel Walker and Jack Hays were offered commissions in the regular US Army for a newly-organized unit – the Regiment of Mounted Rifles. This was a singular honor for officers of the irregular and spectacularly unmilitary organization that the Rangers were at that time. Round two of the war with Mexico was about to begin, with Winfield Scott’s landing at Vera Cruz and the taking of Mexico City. Jack Hays turned down the offer, but Samuel Walker did not. Soon he was promoted, and tasked with recruiting, training and outfitting volunteers in the eastern United States – with particular attention to researching and purchasing additional weapons for his unit.

The Rangers of Jack Hays’ company had used the marvelous new revolving pistol invented and developed by Samuel Colt ever since a quantity of them had been sold to the short-lived Texas Navy. The Paterson Colt turned out to be a fantastically useful weapon for fighting at short-range from horseback – and Walker had wrangled authority from the Secretary of War to order 1,000 repeating pistols from Colt for the use of his mounted riflemen. The Chief of the Ordinance Department sent an inquiry to Sam Colt; could he furnish that quantity? There might be the possibility of an order for another 2,000. If Sam Colt had been baldly truthful, the answer would have been not just no, but not in your wildest dreams. The Paterson armory had been closed for years, the necessary tools and dies sold at auction, the skilled workmen long-employed elsewhere, and Sam Colt himself off to pursue other interests, such as waterproof telegraph cable and marine explosives. Sam Colt did not even have a working model left to him, but he was a man who had longed to see his patent weapons in use by the military, and given this chance, he would move heaven and earth to get into small arms manufacturing enterprise again. He immediately struck a deal with manufacturer Eli Whitney, Junior, who did have a facility and workforce able to handle such a large order.

And by chance, the two Sams – Samuel Walker and Samuel Colt met and hit it off. Sam Colt had sent a letter, asking for Sam Walker’s thoughts on the use of his patent revolvers by the Rangers. Perhaps it was one of those bread-and-butter requests for testimonials, as Sam Colt used such relentlessly for promotional purposes. But Sam Walker answered with enthusiasm, expressing his gratitude and enthusiasm for Colt’s invention. But he added, “ …with improvements I think they can be rendered the most perfect weapon in the World for light mounted troops which is the only efficient troops that can be placed upon our extensive Frontier … I doubt not you would find sale for a large number at this time.” They were both of an age, both Yankees, bound by an interest in the outcome of the war – and also by an interest in all things mechanical. In temperament they were complimentary opposites; Sam Colt – outgoing, gregarious and flamboyant, Sam Walker – an introvert, soft-spoken and fearless. Perhaps they saw in each other the qualities lacking in themselves. Sam Walker knew that Colt’s invention had saved his life and the life of others many times over, and Sam Colt might have wished to be a little of the soldier that Walker was.

Over the next month, they reworked Colt’s original design – which for all of Walker’s enthusiasm had many weaknesses. The folding trigger mechanism was mechanically complicated and delicate, it had to be disassembled to be reloaded, and it was a lightweight and underpowered weapon. The resulting improved revolver was a massive weapon, intended to be carried in saddle holsters rather than on a gun belt; it weighted nearly five pounds, and fired a .44 caliber bullet with a powder charge three times that of the Paterson – sufficient to kill a man or a horse with a single on-target shot. It did have certain faults, which were addressed in later iterations of what became known as the Walker model Colt Dragoon. By dint of heroic organizational effort on the part of Sam Colt the contract for them was filled by July, 1847.

Captain Samuel Walker was in Mexico by then, among the American forces slashing their way inland from Vera Cruz towards Mexico City. Sam Colt had a special presentation set of Colt Dragoons ornamented, engraved, and sent to him, but before Walker received the set, he was killed in action near Puebla. Long after Walker’s death and long after the Dragoon Colt that he had helped redesign was improved and refined, the pistol cylinders continued to be stamped with USMR – for US Mounted Regiment. That redesign and the Army contract for them, made Sam Colt’s fortune and fame as a manufacturer. At the time of his own death, a decade and a half later, he was one of the richest industrialists in the United States.

4 thoughts on “History Saturday – The Two Samuels”

  1. “the marvelous new revolving pistol invented and developed by Samuel Colt”: come now, it was based on a revolver used by the Indian Army. (Spots not feathers, as people like to say.)

  2. I mentioned that he may have seen one of those Indian Army weapons in an earlier post about Colt, Dearieme. Colt’s version was different enough – and mass-manufactured – so as to constitute a significant advance.

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