The Path to Hembrillo

John Conline
“The Most Unlikely Officer…”

John Conline, commanding the 9th Cavalry’s Troop A during the Battle of Hembrillo. Photo from the US Military Academy.

Historian Charles Kenner calls John Conline “The most unlikely officer in the history of the Ninth Cavalry,” with good reason. John Conline was born into poverty in Rutland, Vermont in 1846, son of an alcoholic father. At age twelve, he found himself having to fend for himself, as his mother suffered a nervous breakdown – something Lt. Conline would suffer himself numerous times during his military career. In 1859, he submitted an application to West Point with recommendations from eight citizens of Northampton, Massachusetts, where he was working for an express company. By 1860, he had not heard back on his application, so he joined the 4th Vermont Volunteer Infantry at age 14 – the Civil War began before he could reapply.

Conline fought in over twenty engagements during the Civil War, including Antietam, Gettysburg, and Fredericksburg – never giving up his hope of an appointment to West Point. Taking a holiday pass during Christmas 1862, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to see Secretary of War Edwin Stanton personally. In August 1863, he was appointed to West Point and took seven years to complete the program in an academic career marked by trouble. Like his mother, he suffered a mental breakdown and was confined in Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. for nine months.

The Center Hall and Administration Building of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, circa 1900. Photograph from the National Archives.

After several years of strife, in which he was suspended and almost removed from his studies, Conline was commissioned on 16 June 1870 and assigned to D Troop, 9th Cavalry, at Fort Stockton, Texas, moving to Fort Concho, Texas by 1874. At this time, his performance as an officer must have been exceptional because he was chosen to serve as campaign adjutant for Colonel George P. Buell’s expedition (11th Infantry) in the Red River War.

In 1872, he married Emma Leland, whom he met while still at West Point. Emma was the daughter of W. W. Leland, a wealthy New York businessman who, as a Major during the Civil War, had served on General Grant’s staff. Shortly after the marriage, her family went bankrupt and she began to show her own emotional and mental issues. The marriage was troubled from the beginning as she was not suited for life on the frontier – these troubles would cause problems throughout his career.

Prior to the 9th’s movement to New Mexico, Emma had suffered a very bad pregnancy and, though mother and baby were okay, her health was such that Conline sent her back east. She later joined him at Fort Garland, Colorado, once her health returned, but a larger issue raised its head. Conline had been sent to western Colorado to inspect conditions relating to increased tensions between the Ute and the settlers in the area. Satisfied the situation was calmed, he returned to Fort Garland to Hatch’s commendation of “the manner in which you have conducted the delicate and important duty entrusted to you.” However, the situation regarding his wife was tense. Emma was pregnant, and, fearing another difficult delivery, asked Post Surgeon Justus Brown for an abortion. When he said no, she went to the nearly town of La Veta for one – a scandalous act during the time, especially for the wife of an officer. A request was made to send her back east, to which Conline refused, and a list of charges was brought up – including that she was insane. Post Surgeon Brown rendered the diagnosis and Conline continued his refusal to send her away – he spent the next forty days under arrest. The situation was soon brought to General Pope, who ordered her removal, and it is here that Conline’s troubles really began. Kenner writes:

Not one of Conline’s superiors considered the financial impact the order would have on the lieutenant or offered him aid. In contrast, the men of his troop rallied to his support. As First Sergeant Joseph Braodus recalled, “I asked him how much did he want. He said seventy-five or eighty dollars if I could spare it. I said…he could get a hundred if he needed it and keep it…to the expiration of my term of service.” Broadus later “deposited” another hundred dollars with Conline. Similarly, Private Samuel Kirkely entrusted eighty-three dollars to him, and others, smaller amounts. None expressed any concern about the safety of their loans.

Emma berated Conline for not defending her more fully during the trip east and they later divorced. The year 1877 saw Conline brought up on charges for a drunken order to burn down a saloon in Del Norte, Colorado – charges he and his men denied. Before he could be court-martialed, he had a nervous breakdown and was again institutionalized. Recommended for retirement by Hatch and others upon his release, the order was superseded by President Rutherford B. Hayes, a personal friend of Emma’s family. Hatch was incensed and ordered Conline to immediately retire or face charges, to which he refused. Hatch brought charges against Conline for taking his men’s money and not paying it back – almost all of the witnesses defended the lieutenant, to Hatch’s chagrin. Other charges were brought, acquittals followed, and Conline was finally able to resume duty in time for the Hembrillo engagement, in which he was “especially commended for gallant conduct.”

Conline would be institutionalized once more in 1884 but would return to duty, becoming a record-setting marksman in the Department of the Platte, later captaining the marksmanship team which competed in the Division of the Missouri competition. Remarrying in 1887, Conline’s life was finally at peace, but he would soon be forced to retire. He later moved to Detroit, serving as Police Commissioner, then to Washington, D.C. He was in France when World War I broke out, and helped hundreds of distressed Americans leave Europe for home. He died of a heart attack in 1916 after being admitted to Saint Elizabeth’s for a final time. Conline’s men trusted him completely and throughout his career always defended his honor.

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