By BGen Edwin H. Simmons - Originally Published November 1968
President Polk signed the travel orders for a swashbuckling Marine whose destination was a campfire in Oregon Territory.
It was the end of summer, 1845. First lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie, then 33, was just returned from a two-year cruise to the Orient as commander of the Marine detachment in the 44-gun frigate Brandywine.
"In consequence of the delicate state of my health," he wrote from Hampton Roads, Virginia, ". . . I am induced to request orders to take charge of the Clothing Store at this place. . ."
Crusty BGen Archibald Henderson, fifth Commandant of the Marine Corps, was not sympathetic to the request for shore duty. A terse order came back: "Lt Gillespie, U.S. Marine Corps, you will report yourself to the Hon. Secretary of the Navy for such duty as he may assign you."
Accordingly, Gillespie came to Washington and presented himself to the Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft, eminent historian and Democratic politician. Gillespie spoke and wrote good Spanish? Yes. Well, good, those were the qualifications that were needed. What was the mission? Oh, yes, there were dispatches to be carried to California, and the messenger was to go by way of Mexico, observing conditions there. All right then, it was agreed. Go to New York and book passage for Mexico. By the time you get back the dispatches will be drafted. Perhaps also the President will want to see you.
President James K. Polk of Tennessee was in the first year of his administration. Polk knew the American public wanted not only Texas (annexation was in process of being ratified) and Oregon (get the British out; fifty-four, forty, or fight) but also California. No map-maker could have drawn precise boundaries. "Oregon" was the whole Northwest, "California" the whole Southwest. How to get California? Well, maybe the Mexicans would sell it. If not, perhaps a Texas-style revolution and subsequent annexation could be arranged.
Gillespie got back from New York and was fitted out with a set of credentials establishing him as a merchant travelling for health and business (Scotch whisky, some accounts say). On 30 October 1845 he did see the President. The entry in President Polk's diary is cryptic:
"I held a confidential conversation with Lt Gillespie of the Marine Corps, about 8:00 o'clock p.m. on the subject of a secret mission on which he was about to go to California. His secret instructions and the letter to Mr. Larkin, U.S. Consul at Monterey, in the Department of State, will explain the object of his mission."
Before leaving Washington, Gillespie was given, in addition to his State Department dispatches, a packet of personal letters for Capt John C. Fremont, then in California, or perhaps Oregon, from his beautiful wife, Jessie, and his father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, powerful Chairman of the Military Affairs Committee.
Gillespie sailed from New York City in the brig, Petersburgh, spending part of the 24 days of stormy passage in memorizing the dispatches to Larkin, which he then destroyed. This turned out to be a good idea. When he arrived at Vera Cruz the customs officials gave his baggage a good going-over; American visitors were suspect. Gillespie found Vera Cruz bleak and desolate, much of it fire-blackened from the revolutions which had passed through it. Rumors of war with the U.S. were strong. The quality of the Mexican troops that he saw, mostly Indians, some Negroes, did not impress him. The day after his arrival, the government put clown a pocket revolution whipped up over dinner by the officers of the 8th Regiment in favor of ex-President Santa Ana.
The government in power was that of President Jose Joaquin Herrera who was suspected of softness toward the United States. Gillespie reported that General Mariano Paredcs in command of the Army was at San Luis Potosi and that a revolution against Herrera was expected daily, if in fact, it had not already begun.
Having gotten off his first report to Secretary BancroCt, Gillespie now had to arrange transportation to Mexico City. He took a seat in a "diligence," a coach of sorts drawn by two mules; the fare was fifty dollars. Baggage limitation was twenty-five pounds; the rest of the luggage had to follow by mule train.
It was a four-day journey over badly kept roads to Mexico City. On the day of Gillespie's arrival in the capital, General Paredes' expected ervolution broke out and Herrera was deposed.
Gillespie learned that General Paredes had been given funds by President Herrera to equip an expedition against Don Pio Pico, governor of California, who was in a state of semi-revolt, but that Paredes "instead of using these funds for the purpose intended, applied them to the payment of troops who were to march upon this city, thus leaving California apparently independent."
Nevertheless, Gillespie did not think the Mexican government could be persuaded to sell California because "one of the strongest reasons given for the overthrow of the Herrera Government was, its having thought of entering into a Treaty with U. States for the sale of Texas."
Gillespie estimated that there were about ten thousand soldiers in Mexico City. They were, he wrote, ". . . the most miserable Troops I have ever seen."
The revolution caused a break-down in communications, the roads were closed, the stage lines shut down. It was 20 January before Gillespie got on with the next leg of his journey, this one a seven-day stint in a diligence to Guadalajara, fare $95.00. He also bought a sombrero, sash, and scrape for $36.00 and a saddle and bridle for $53.75.
Half-way to Guadalajara he passed an understrength division of infantry on its way to Texas and duly noted its bedraggled condition. Guadalajara was quiet. Gillespie rented a horse and a mule and rode on to Tepic, visited awhile, then witli fresh horses and mules made the six-day ride to Mazath'm. Next day he reported to Commodore John D. Sloat, the elderly Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Squadron.
How then to move on to California? To allay Mexican, and possibly British, suspicions, Sloat decided to send Gillespie to Honolulu in the Sandwich Islands in the 18-gun sloop-of-war, Cyane, Captain William Mervine, ostensibly as a merchant bound for China, then Cyane could double back to Monterey. They sailed from Mazatlan 22 February, arrived in the Islands on 13 March. Cyane was to have remained in Honolulu only 48 hours to take on fresh stores; the delay stretched out to six days, the first of many problems Gillespie would have with Captain Mervine.
It wasn't until 17 April that Cyane arrived at Monterey, about a hundred adobe-walled, redtile roofed houses strung along the crecent-shaped bay, Gillespie sent off a note to Larkin, enclosing a letter of introduction from Secretary of State James Buchanan.
Larkin came aboard Cyane, They then went together to Larkin's house. Gillespie relayed the memorized instructions from the State Department, the gist of them was that Larkin was to intrigue peaceably to get California to secede from Mexico and then to guide them into asking for annexation. He was to do his best to detach California from Mexico but he was to do it with the good will of the Californians. And he was to watch out for British or French efforts to gain a protectorate. Gillespie also added his own impressions of the state of affairs in Mexico. Don Pio Pico's control of the provincial government was none too secure; he would take American help as long as he needed it, but basically he was anti American.
Don Juan Alvarado, a former governor, gave the officers of Cyane a fiesta. Liquor flowed generously. General Jose Castro, Military Commandante, tried to loosen up Gillespie's tongue. Gillespie eased out of the party about one in the morning, rounded up his servant and a guide and rode leisurely toward Yerba Buena, the village that vais to become San Francisco. Here he met with the Vice-Consul, William A. Leidesdorff, an old friend.
Leidesdorff told him that the 20-gun sloop-of-war Portsmouth, Captain John B. Montgomery, had come up from Mazatlan to Monterey, and that Larkin had sent a note forward stating that Commodore Sloat was expecting by the next mail notification that the United Slates had declared war against Mexico.
Gillespie left Yerba Buena the afternoon of 25 April to find Fremont, moving by small boat up the Sacramento to Sutter's Fort. Here his thin disguise as a commercial traveller was permanently exploded. A Mr. Loker at the Fort told John A. Sutler that he had seen Gillespie many times at the Washington Navy Yard. Sutter, that extraordinary Swiss-American, checked a register of officers previously serving in Brandywine and found Gillespie's name. A ripple of conjecture swept through the Valley as to why a Marine officer should be seeking Fremont.
Gillespie moved on northward to Lassen's ranch at the edge of hostile Indian country. He recruited his party up to a strength of six counting himself and plunged on. It was rough country; horses wore out and rations went thin. He sent two locals, Sam Neal and Levi Sigler, on ahead on the best horses to find Fremont while he and the remaining three continued on fool.
On 9 May at the Klamath River, Gillespie met up with a party of Modoc Indians, or maybe they were Klamaths, eight braves and three squaws. They seemed peaceable enough. They gave Gillespie a large salmon and ferried him and his companions across the river in their canoe.
About dusk, as Gillespie's group was making camp for the night, Fremont came pounding up after a hard day's 15-mile ride, with Neal and Sigler, and ten of his own men including the redoubtable Kit Carson.
John Charles Fremont, 33 years old and Brevet Captain, U.S. Topographical Engineers, was on his third exploration of the West. He had left St. Louis in June 1845 with sixty men, most of them experienced mountain men. Best known, of course, was Kit Carson, his second-in-command. He had reached Sutters' Fort on 9 December 1845 having broken a trail across the Salt Desert and making a winter crossing of the high Sierras. In January he had oscillated between Oregon and California, taking scalps now and then from horse-stealing Indian raiding parties. He had then gone to Monterey where he had seen Larkin. The Mexican authorities had been suspicious: why was an American Army officer at the head of an armed party in California? Fremont had replied it was a peaceable expedition. He was looking for trade routes. Don Jose Castro had given him permission to winter in San Joaquin valley. Instead Fremont had gone into winter camp near San Jose.
In late February a ranchero had found some horses in Fremont's remuda which looked like his own. Fremont had ignored the alcalde's summons, and had starled south. On 5 March, a California militia lieutenam had caught up with him near Salinas with letters ordering him out of California at once. Fremont ran the lieutenant out of camp, nailed the American flag to a tree, and fortified his position. Castro had come up with his militia. For three days there had been a Mexican stand-off. Castro's lancers couldn't get at Fremont's riflemen behind breastworks but given time they could have starved him out. A deal was made. Castro had allowed him to move out, re-fit at Sutter's and then move north to Oregon.
There were about 800 Americans in northern California and the slightly garbled word had gone out that Fremont had raised the American flag anil all good citizens were to assemble at Sonoma, armed and equipped for service.
Gillespie and Fremont talked long and late that night around the campfire. What was said was later much debated, cross-examined in subsequent courts-martial and Congressional hearings, and exhumed forty years later in memoirs written by aging men. It is impossible to say with certainly what was said because both men, Gillespie and Fremont, said different things at different times later on.
Best course then seems to be to recount what Gillespie could have told Fremont. First off, he repeated, probably verbatim, the instructions he had delivered to Larkin in Monterey. Second, he delivered the private letters from Fremont's father-in-law and wife. (There is a romantic but unsubstantiated claim that these letters contained instructions written in a secret family cipher.) Third, based on his own observations, he could have told Fremont that the Mexican government was not of a mind to negotiate away California but at the same time was in no position to reinforce California effectively. He undoubtedly gave Fremont his own low opinion of the Mexican Army. He also could speak with some certainty that war with Mexico was imminent, if, in fact, it had not already begun. Finally, he could report that the British Pacific Fleet was off the California coast and that its flagship, Collingwood, was probably even then at Monterey.
We have the fire-lit picture of Fremont, thin, wiry, long-haired, bearded, pacing back and forth, and coming to his decision. In his own words, remembered later:
"The time has come. England must not get a foothold. We must be first."
Then the two men turned into their blankets for the night.
Filled with great and heady thoughts, Fremont failed to check his security. No watch was set. Even the great Kit Carson was remiss; he had gone to sleep with his rifle unloaded. Such carelessness was not wise in Indian country.
The camp was awakened by the thunk of an axe coming on the skull of Basil Lejeunesse, one of Fremont's mountain men. The half-breed Denny, struggling out of his blankets, was hit by half-a-dozen arrows. Crane, a Delaware Indian, was also killed as the war party came whirling through the camp. It was arrows and tomahawks against rifles in the firelight. The attackers were beaten off leaving behind one dead brave.
Kit Carson turned him over; held a torch close to his face. Gillespie recognized him as the Indian who had carried him across the river earlier in the day. Carson picked up the Indian's half-ax, remarked that it was English and so were the razor-edged steel tips to the arrows in his quiver. Then Carson mashed in the man's skull with the half-axe.
Next morning Fremont marched with his party to the largest Indian village within reach, burned it, and in the process killed fourteen or fifteen braves and perhaps a squaw or two. They then set off down the valley for Lassen's ranch, arriving there 24 May.
On 29 May, Gillespie started down river to Yerba Buena for supplies. On getting to Sutter's Fort, he learned from Sutter that the Indians in the Valley, until now peaceful, had become hostile, raiding the settlements. Sutter was certain that General Castro was behind it, inciting the Indians to exterminate the Americans. (Sutter, himself, was not being completely candid with Gillespie. He had been negotiating with the Californians to sell his Fort and in May had written to Castro saying that he would have it ready to house two or three hundred soldiers.)
Gillespie left the Fort on 1 June and continued down river in Suiter's launch, arriving in Yerba Buena on 7 June. Fremonts shopping lisl included 8,000 percussion caps, a keg of powder, and 300 pounds of rifle lead as well as food, salt, soap, canvas, and horseshoe iron. He got most of what he needed from Portsmouth, now anchored at Sausalito. He started back up the Sacramento on 10 June in Portsmouth's launch along with two officers and 11 men.
They arrived at Sutter's on 12 June, learned that Ezekiel Merritt and a dozen Americans had skirmished a detachment of Californian soldiers and had cut out nearly two hundred horses being taken to Castro at Santa Clara. Not quite sure of Sinter, Gillespie elected to move out of the fort and camp along the river. Fremont and his company joined him there on 15 June. Next afternoon, Merrit and his men arrived with their prisoners and captured horses. Merrit told them that on the 14th they had captured Sonoma and that Bill Ide had run up the Bear Flag-hastily made from a couple of petticoats, red flannel strips on a white field, a star in the left-hand corner, and the silhouette of a bear. Underneath was the legend: California Republic.
Fremont had some hard words with Sutter, told him to pick his course and slick to it, and left the prisoners at the Fort for safe keeping. All hands then moved off on 25 June to Sonoma. There was some light skirmishing in the vicinity and then everybody got together at Sonoma on 4 July for a celebration. The Bear Flaggers elected Fremont their captain and Gillespie his adjutant. The California Battalion, mustering 224 rifles, was organized into four companies, Fremont's company staying intact and under his immediate command. The war against Castro took the form mainly of foraging; they brought in 700 horses and 500 beef cattle.
By 10 July they were back to Sutter's Fort. The same day a U.S. flag and a proclamation reached them from Commodore Sloat. On 7 July the Stars and Stripes had gone up at Monterey. Fremont followed suit; at sunrise 11 July, the U.S. flag went up over Sutler's Fort, accompanied by a 21-gun saluate. The Bear Flag affair was over.
Gillespie was now sent on down to Monterey to meet with Sloat. He got there 16 July, found Sloat personally pleased to see him but not so pleased by his and Fremont's highly irregular actions. He wanted to know by what authority Gillespie and Fremont had acted.
But a change of command for the Pacific Fleet was in prospect. Commodore Robert F. Stockton was in the harbor aboard the 44-gun U.S. frigate, Congress. Stockton was more enthusiastic than Sloat over the turn of events.
Gillespie rejoined Fremont at San Juan Bautista. The battalion, down now to 160 fighters, was marching to Monterey and arrived there 19 July. Monterey was being patrolled by a landing force of sailors and Marines under Captain Mervine who was ordered to show no official recognition of the California Battalion.
We have the picture of Fremont at the head of the column in buckskins, moccasins, and blue sailor's blouse, his five remaining Delaware scouts close at hand. Then came the hairy, sinewy mountain men and the rest of the battalion; all sorts: trappers, ranchers, horse thieves, sailors who had jumped ship.
First official caller on Fremont was Sir George F. Seymour, Commander, Pacific Fleet, whose 80-gun Collingwood dominated the harbor. Later Fremont and Gillespie met with Sloat aboard the 44-gun Savannah. The interview did not go well, but on 23 July Stockton relieved Sloat and on the same day mustered the California Battalion into the U.S. Fremont and Gillespie got jawbone promotions to major and captain respectively.
Next on the agenda was the conquest of Southern California. The California Battalion went aboard Cyane, now commanded by Capt Samuel F. DuPont, sailed on 26 July and landed on 29 July at San Diego against no opposition. Fremont then started north with 120 men to meet Stockton at San Peclro, leaving Gillespie with 48 men to garrison San Diego.
Fremont was back on 18 August with a proposition from Stockton that he, Fremont, be governor of California, and Gillespie the Secretary of state. Gillespie had some doubts as to the propriety of the offer but said he would accept. He requisitioned horses for his company and started for Los Angeles, arriving there 31 August. Meanwhile Stockton had altered his plans slightly; a proclamation was issued naming Gillespie Military Commandant of the South.
Martial law for Los Angeles was not popular, either with the citizens or the garrison. There was a small mutiny by 10 of Gillespie's 48 men. He packed them off to Warner's Pass. Then Ezekiel Merritt siphoned off some more men to reinforce the garrison at San Diego. Gillespie was soon down to 20 men. On the morning of 23 September, a dozen Californians, fortified with aguardiente, tried to carry his headquarters, Gillespie beat them off, though, killing two. He hurriedly built up his garrison, pressing all foreigners into service, getting his company up to 59, including seven out of the brig.
The Californians, in the meantime, were up to about MO and in position on a mesa about a mile-and-a-half away. There were four aged sixpounders in Gillespie's headquarters, spiked as a result of some earlier forgotten engagement. He set two armorers to clearing them. Lead pipe from a vineyard was recast into grape shot and nails would serve as langrage. An adventuresome Swede, John Brown, belter known as "Juan Flaco," was scut oil with messages written on cigarette paper hidden in his long hair to find Stockton, believed to be at Monterey.
After these heroic preparations, Gillespie's Alamo turned out to be bloodless. There were a series of parleys, Gillespie shifted his position to a hilltop, which regrettably was without water. On 29 August he capitulated. Granted full honors of war, he and his men marched out of Los Angeles under arms, including the three six-pounders they had succeeded in getting unspiked. By Gillespie's count, his force now numbered 73 including camp followers and servants. The enemy he generously estimated at 600. At sunset Gillespie reached San Pedro where, after re-spiking the six-pounders, he and his force were lifted off aboard the 18-gun sloop Vandalia.
On the afternoon of 6 October they sighted the frigate Savannah, Capt William Mervine. Mervine decided to have a go at Los Angeles. Next morning he landed with 310 sailors and Marines along with Gillespie's volunteers. Mervine formed his landing force into a solid column with Gillespies' men as skirmishers to the front and flanks. Near Palos Verdes, Mervine (in the manner of countless Hollywood Westerns) marched his column into a narrow canyon. The Californians fired down on them from the rim. Gillespie's riflemen cleared the hill but got scant thanks from Mervine. Gillespie reports it this way:
"Capt Mervine now began to holler after me, 'Capt Gillespie you are wasting ammunition-We can't spare the caps! repeating this and a variety of like expressions of displeasure, discouraging to my men."
The line of march now led them across sandy plain, knee-deep in yellow mustard, very tiring to the men from Savannah. They camped that night at the ranch of one Pedro Dominquez. After dark, the Californians peppered the camp with sniper fire. Mervine, according to Gillespie, acted like "an insane man." There was much confusion, marching and countermarching. Later the same night the Californians shelled the camp with a light cannon. Gillespie was sent out to capture the gun. This caused more ineffectual floundering around in the dark.
Next morning the march on Los Angeles was resumed. The column ran into about 50 Californians manning a road block, their chief weapon a four-pound gun. Castro's men fired and fell bark, pulling the light gun vaquero style with their lariats. Mervine ordered his landing force to break-oil contact and withdraw to San Pedro. Gillespie was furious, called Mervine's action "disgraceful," said his men were about to capture the gun.
Everybody went back aboard Savannah. Stockton joined them with Congress on 24 October. Another landing was attempted 27 October. Gillespie's men were to land before dawn to secure the beach. They made their approach with muffled oars, then spooked by a real or imaginary enemy, failed to land.
The squadron now sailed for San Diego which was being held by 30 sailors under Navy Lieutenant George Minor and Merriu's handful of volunteers. The enemy did try an attack on 18 November; Gillespie helped drive them off with a detachment of Marines from Congress.
The expeditionary force now got itself ready to march once more on Los Angeles. Then there was news that Gen Stephen W. Kearny with an advance party from his Army of the West had arrived at Warner's ranch. With Kearny was Kit Carson who had joined him on the trail in October. Gillespie was sent off by Stockton to meet Kearny with a party of mounted riflemen and a light gun manned by some sailors. He was to tell Kearny that Don Andres Pico was in the vicinity of Rancho Santa Margarita with a hundred Californians, and Stockton suggested that Kearny "beat up the Camp."
Gillespie moved out the night of 3 December. The weather turned wet and cold. After two day's ride he reached Kearny. He was dismayed to find the dragoons almost exhausted from their long march across the desert. Most of the horses that had left Fort Leavenworth were dead behind them and they had picked up half-broken remounts from convenient Californian herds.
Nonetheless Kearny was certain the Californians wouldn't stand up to American regulars, an opinion shared by Gillespie and Carson. Pico was now at San Pascual near Escondito. Kearny decided to attack him at daybreak, 6 December.
A night reconnaissance under Lieutenant Thomas C. Hammond went sour. The dragoons were too noisy; the Californians rode out to meet them shouting: "Viva California. Bajos los Americanos, hijos de putas."
Kearny told Gillespie to stay in the rear and guard the baggage while the dragoons took care of Pico. Kearny gave his column the order to trot. Captain Abraham R. Johnson who had the advance guard thoughl the order was to charge and went off to a full gallop with his dozen men. Johnston took a bullet in the head and that ended that. Captain Benjamin D. Moore now charged with the main body of dragoons, about 50 of them. Their horses in various states of condition, the dragoons were soon strung out for about a mile. Pico and his lancers, perhaps the best light horsemen in the world, now faced about and swept down on the disorganized dragoons.
Gillespie had dismounted his riflemen and put them to work at long range. Seeing Capt Moore go down, he galloped forward himself to try to rally the dragoons. The Californiaiis recognized him: "Ya es Gillespie, adentro hombres, adentro."
Gillespie, by his own account at least, parried six lance thrusts, was hit on the back of the neck, knocked from his horse to the ground, pinned by a lance that cut him almost to the lungs, and another that went through his lip and broke a tooth. He got to his feet and cut his way back to where Kearny's two howitzers had taken position. One gun was already lost to the enemy. The other stood loaded ready to fire, but the gunners had no match. Gillespie lit off the gun with his cigar lighter and then collapsed from loss of blood. Midshipman James N. Duncan now brought up the four-pounder and cleared the field with grape.
The Battle of San Pascual, bloodiest in the California campaign, had cost the Americans 19 killed, perhaps 20 more wounded, including Kearny as well as Gillespie, out of a total of 153 The Californians had lost a dozen men and could count the engagement a victory although they had left the field to the Americans.
Next day there was an exchange of prisoners and Kearny resumed the inarch toward San Diego. Encumbered by his wounded, he could not risk being caught in column; he took up a hilltop position near San Bernardo which the Californians quickly encircled. On the night of 9 December he sent Navy Lieutenant Edward Beale, Kit Carson, and an Indian out for help. They got through; this was one of Kit Carson's legendary feats. They lost their shoes in the process; Beale's health was broken and even Carson felt poorly for several days.
On 11 December a relief force under Navy Lieutenant Andrew F. W. Gray and Marine Capt Jacob Zeilin (future Commandant) got to Kearny and Gillespie, found them subsisting mainly on mule meat. Pico now fell back toward Los Angeles and the united U.S. force marched unopposed into San Diego.
Stockton and Kearny now had some discussions as to who was in charge. It was agreed tentatively that Stockton would be commander-in-chief and Kearny field commander. They moved out of San Diego, some 600 strong, on 29 December. The march went by easy stages. They camped near Santa Ana the night of 6 January (a wind nearly blew them away). Two days later the Californians contested their crossing of the San Gabriel. Gillespie had the rear guard and baggage train. On the far bank, the Americans were charged by the Californians. There was a brief artillery duel. The Californians' powder was bad; Stockton had two well-served nine-pound guns. The Californinns broke off to the tune of the Americans' band playing Yankee Doodle and Hail Columbia. U.S. losses were two killed, nine wounded.
But the Californians were not yet through. Next morning they came back, tried again to get to the baggage trains. Gillespie was hit in the hip by a spent carbine ball and two or three other Americans were wounded. A peace delegation came out from Los Angeles offering to surrender the city in return for respect for property and persons. Stockton agreed and the U. S. forces marched into the City of the Angels on 10 Januarv 1847.
Three days later the remnants of the Californian army surrendered at Cahuenga, except for 160 caballeros who chose to ride off to Sonora.
Now the bickering between Kearny and Stockton began in earnest. Fremont was ordered back East to face court martial. Gillespie was briefly given command of the California Battalion. Then on 1 March dispatches arrived from Washington giving Kearny unequivocal authority over Stockton. Gillespie was relieved of his command the same day.
Early in April, Stockton's relief, Commodore James Biddle, ordered Gillespie to report to the flagship at Monterey. Gillespie procrastinated. A second letter, more emphatic, was delivered to him in May by Kearny's red-haired aide, Lt William Tecumsch Sherman. Gillespie started north 1 May, arrived in Monterey 26 May, and reported to Biddle aboard the 74-gun Columbus. He was relieved of all duties and placed under a sort of loose arrest. Stockton was about in the same situation. They were eventually permitted to return to Washington overland. They cleared Sacramento Valley 20 July 1847, fought Indians along the way, and reached Independence, Missouri, 27 October. Fremont's court martial was in process. Gillespie testified in his favor. Fremont was found guilty but he was a popular hero. Polk offered him a presidential pardon which he refused.
For Gillespie there was garrison duty at Marine Barracks, 8th and I Streets, Washington. He was promoted to captain in January 1848 and brevetted a major for his California services in July. He met and married Elizabeth Duane, daughter of a former Secretary of the Treasury. He next became the commanding officer, Marine Guard, Washington Navy Yard. Garrison life was pleasant but his health was none too good. There were frequent sick leaves to the New Jersey mountains. He was offered command of all Marines serving with the Mediterranean Squadron (forerunner to Landing Force, Sixth Fleet). He turned it down for reasons of health. He was ordered to Pensacola as commanding officer of the Marine Guard there. The hot, humid climate caused him trouble. A Board of Medical Examiners recommended his return to more northern latitudes. His next assignment after sick leave was as senior Marine officer with the Pacific Fleet. He was to be in the 54-gun Independence, Capt William Mervine commanding. Before the ship could sail from New York there was trouble. Captain Mervine charged that he had "swindled his messmates and brother officers out of money paid him by them for the mess stores."
Gillespie abruptly resigned, probably to escape trial by court martial. It was October 1854. His wife left him. He went to California by way of Panama, arriving there in February 1855. In November, his nemesis, Capt Mervine, published a notice in the San Francisco Chronicle calling him a thief. He held a series of increasingly obscure political appointments, living in and around Sacramento. On a Thursday afternoon, 14 August 1873, he died in San Francisco, a city he had first seen as the tiny village of Yerba Buena nearly thirty years before.
Some men live too long. Gillespie's flawed career had reached its apogee at that campfire meeting with Fremont in Oregon long ago. Or perhaps it was when at San Pascual la grita went up: "Ya es Gillespie!"