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Edward Richard Sprigg Canby
[[Image:250px|center|200px|border]]Major General E.R.S Canby
Personal Information
Born: November 9, 1817(1817-11-09)
Place of Birth: {{{place of birth}}}
Died: April 11, 1873 (aged 55)
Place of Death: {{{place of death}}}
Nickname: {{{nickname}}}
Birth Name: {{{birth name}}}
Other Information
Allegiance: United States of America
Participation(s): {{{participations}}}
Branch: Union Army
Service Years: {{{service years}}}
Rank: Major General
Service number : {{{servicenumber}}}
Unit: {{{unit}}}
Battles: Indian Wars
  • Second Seminole War

Mexican-American War

  • Battle of Contreras
  • Battle of Churubusco
  • Battle of Mexico City

Utah War
Indian Wars

  • Navajo War of 1860

American Civil War

Indian Wars

  • Modoc War
Awards: {{{awards}}}
Relations: {{{relations}}}
Other work: {{{otherwork}}}

Edward Richard Sprigg Canby (November 9, 1817 – April 11, 1873) was a career United States Army officer and a Union general in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars.

Early life[]

Canby was born in Piatt's Landing, Kentucky, to Israel T. and Elizabeth (Piatt) Canby. He attended Wabash College, but transferred to the United States Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1839. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry and served as the regimental adjutant. He married Louisa Hawkins at Crawfordsville, Indiana, August 1, 1839. Although often referred to as Edward Canby, a biographer has suggested that he was known as "Richard" during childhood and to some friends for most of his life. He was called "Sprigg" by fellow cadets at West Point, but during most of his career, he was generally referred to as E.R.S. Canby, sometimes signing his name "Ed.R.S. Canby."

Early military career[]

During his early career, he served in the Second Seminole War in Florida and saw combat during the Mexican-American War, where he received three brevet promotions, including to major for Contreras and Churubusco and lieutenant colonel for Belén Gates. He also served at various posts, including Upstate New York and in the adjutant general's office in California from 1849 until 1851, covering the period of the territory's transition to statehood. Against his own wishes, he was ordered to serve in what was supposed to be the civilian post of custodian of the California Archives from March 1850 until he left California in April 1851. The Archives included records of Spanish and Mexican governments in California as well as Mission records and land titles. Evidently, Canby had some knowledge of the Spanish language, which came in handy during this period. (The Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Kentucky holds what appears to be a document written in Canby's own hand in Spanish, in which he identifies himself as "Edwardo [sic] Ricardo S. Canby.")

He served in Wyoming and Utah (then both part of the Utah Territory) during the Utah War (1857–1858). During this period, Canby crossed paths with Captain Henry Hopkins Sibley (whom he may have known slightly at West Point) when the captain was court martialed and Canby served on the panel of judges. Sibley was acquitted. Subsequently, Canby wrote an endorsement for a teepee-like army tent that Sibley had invented. Both officers were later assigned to New Mexico where Canby coordinated a campaign against the Navaho in 1860, commanding Sibley in a futile attempt to capture and punish Navajos for "depredations" against the livestock of settlers. The campaign ended in frustration, with Canby and Sibley rarely so much as sighting Navajos, and then usually at a considerable distance that seemed impossible to close.

Civil War[]

At the start of the Civil War, Canby was in command of Fort Defiance, New Mexico Territory. He was promoted to colonel of the 19th U.S. Infantry on May 14, 1861, and the following month commanded the Department of New Mexico. Although subsequently defeated by Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley in February 1862 at the Battle of Valverde, his troops eventually forced the Confederates to retreat to Texas after the Union strategic victory at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Immediately following this battle, Canby was promoted to brigadier general on March 31, 1862. Recombining the forces he had earlier divided, Canby set off in pursuit of the retreating Confederate army, but he soon gave up the chase and allowed them to reach Texas. Shortly after the failure of the Confederate invasion of northern New Mexico, Canby was relieved of his command by Gen. James H. Carleton and reassigned to the east.

Canby's achievement in New Mexico had largely been in his planning an overall defensive strategy. He and his opponent, Sibley, both had limited resources. Though Canby was a little better supplied, he saw that defending the entire territory from every possible attack would stretch his forces too thinly. Realizing that Sibley had to attack along a river, especially since New Mexico was in the middle of a long drought, Canby made the best use of his forces by only defending against two possible scenarios: an attack along the Rio Grande and an attack by way of the Pecos and Canadian rivers. Moreover, the latter defensive force could easily be shifted to protect Fort Union if the enemy attacked by way of the Rio Grande, which they did. Canby also took initiative in persuading the governors of both New Mexico and Colorado to raise volunteer units to supplement regular Federal troops; the Colorado troops proved helpful at both Valverde and Glorieta. It was Sibley's campaign to win or lose, and in spite of occasional superior soldiering by Confederate troops and junior commanders, Sibley's sluggishness and vacillation in executing an extremely risky plan led to an almost inevitable Confederate collapse.

After a period of clerical duty, Canby became "commanding general of the city and harbor of New York" on July 17, 1863. This assignment immediately followed the New York Draft Riots. He remained in that post until November 9, not only restarting the draft, but overseeing a prisoner of war camp in New York Harbor. He then went to work in the office of the Secretary of War, unofficially describing himself in correspondence as an "Assistant Adjutant General." Looking back on Canby's record, a twentieth century Adjutant General, Edward F. Witsell, described Canby's position as "similar to that of an Assistant to the Secretary of the Army." In May 1864, Canby was promoted to major general and relieved Nathaniel P. Banks of his command at Simmesport, Louisiana. He thereafter returned to the Midwest, where he commanded the Military Division of Western Mississippi. He was wounded in the upper thigh by a guerrilla while aboard the gunboat USS Cricket on the White River in Arkansas near Little Island on November 6, 1864. Canby commanded the Union forces assigned to conduct the campaign against Mobile, Alabama in the spring of 1865, culminating in the Battle of Fort Blakely, which led to the fall of Mobile in April 1865. Canby accepted the surrender of the Confederate forces under General Richard Taylor in Citronelle, on May 4, 1865, and those under General Edmund Kirby Smith west of the Mississippi River on May 26, 1865.

Canby was generally regarded as a great administrator, but opinion was mixed as to whether or not he was a great warrior. Ulysses S. Grant thought him not aggressive enough. In a telling incident, Grant sent Canby an order to "destroy [the enemy's] railroads, machine-shops, &c." Ten days later, Grant reprimanded him for requesting men and materials to build railroads. "I wrote... urging you to... destroy railroads, machine-shops, &c., not to build them," Grant said pointedly. The story is instructive regarding Canby's character: although he could be a destroyer when he felt he had to be, he clearly preferred the role of builder. Today, he might be considered a "policy wonk" because he was expert in the minutiae of administration. If someone had a question about army regulations or even Constitutional law affecting the military, Canby was the man to see. Grant himself came to appreciate this in peace time, once complaining vigorously when President Andrew Johnson proposed to assign Canby away from the capital where Grant considered him irreplaceable.

John D. Winters in The Civil War in Louisiana (1963) writes that Canby "lacked the social amenities" of Banks and appeared to most people as stern and taciturn."[1] Winters quotes Treasury agent Geroge S. Denison of New Orleans: "General Canby is very active, but his work makes no great show as yet, because it is conducted too quietly and without ostentation. Canby is a tall man of thoughtful and kind face - speaks litte and to the point - thoroughly a soldier and his manner is very modest and unassuming and sometimes even embarrassed."[2]

Canby's father had once owned slaves. Some of Canby's cousins fought for the Confederacy, and one was taken prisoner of war. The man's father wrote to Canby asking the general to use his influence to parole his son, but Canby declined on the grounds that he felt he was not entitled to use his influence to benefit family members. Later, when Canby was a military governor during Reconstruction, he declined to favor relatives who had become carpetbaggers in his jurisdiction.

Post War assignments[]

After the war, Canby served as commander of various military departments, remaining in charge in Louisiana from 1864 to May 1866. The Department of Washington, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Alexandria and Fairfax counties in Virginia from June 1866 until August 1867, when he was appointed to command the Second Military District comprising North and South Carolina. In August 1868, he briefly resumed command in Washington, but was off to the Fifth Military District in November. There he focused primarily on the reconstruction of Texas. He left Texas for Virginia, the First Military District, in April 1869, serving there until July 1870. Each of these postings occurred during Reconstruction and put Canby at the center of conflicts between Republicans and Democrats, whites and blacks, state and federal governments. New state constitutions were either being written, ratified or put into effect in each district that he commanded, and he could not help but offend one side or the other and often both. Nevertheless, Charles W. Ramsdell called Canby "vigorous and firm, but just." Even political opponents like Jonathan Worth, governor of North Carolina, admitted that Canby was sincere and honest.

Final assignment and death[]

On July 21, 1870, Canby was awarded a doctor of laws honorary degree by Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. In August, he was posted to command the Pacific Northwest. One of the problems he soon faced was that the Modoc tribe, which had previously lived in Northern California, had been compelled to live on the same reservation in Oregon with the Klamath tribe with whom they did not get along. The government would not give them their own reservation in California, so the Modocs returned to their old territory illegally. In 1872, the Modoc War broke out. The Modocs, entrenched in Captain Jack's Stronghold south of Tule Lake, resisted army attacks, fighting to a stalemate.

General Canby received conflicting orders from Washington as to whether to make peace or war on the Modocs, but war was not working, so the federal government authorized a peace commission and assigned Canby a key position on it. The purpose of the commission was undermined by the fact that there were many lines of communication between the Modocs and whites. At one point, someone in touch with the Modoc leader Captain Jack, alleged that the governor of Oregon intended to hang nine Modocs, apparently without trial, as soon as they surrendered. This caused the Modocs to break off scheduled talks, and infuriated Canby because he believed that his federal authority trumped the governor's and made the threat irrelevant; if they surrendered to him, Canby had no intention of allowing the Modocs to be punished without a trial.

File:Murder of General Canby and the Rev. Dr. Thomas.jpg

Murder of General Canby and the Rev. Dr. Thomas, an 1873 print

On April 11, 1873, after months of false starts and aborted meetings, Canby went to another parley, unarmed and with some hope of final resolution; however, Judge Elijah Steele of Yreka, California maintained that when he warned Canby that the Modocs were volatile and apt to kill the peace commissioners at the slightest provocation, Canby replied, "I believe you are right, Mr. Steele, and I shall regard your advice, but it would not be very well for the general in command to be afraid to go where the peace commissioners would venture." The talks were held midway between the army encampment and Captain Jack's Stronghold near Tule Lake. Two members of Canby's party brought concealed weapons, but, even more of the Modocs were armed. Frustrated by the negotiations, Captain Jack, along with Ellen's Man, one of his lieutenants, shot Canby twice in the head and cut his throat. He was the first, and only, General killed during the Indian Wars. Other members of Canby's party were killed, including Reverend Eleazar Thomas. Others were wounded. According to Jeff C. Riddle, author of Indian History of the Modoc War (1914), the Modocs (believing a peace settlement that would allow them to remain in their home country impossible) had plotted to kill Canby and other peace commissioners before the meeting even began, and then "fight until we die."[3] Captain Jack was reluctant to go along with the killings, believing it "coward's work," but was pressured by other tribe members until he finally agreed. Jack's one condition was that they first let him ask Canby again to "give us a home in our country."[4] Canby did not have the authority to give this promise, so Captain Jack initiated the attack. (Riddle was the son of Frank Riddle, Canby's interpreter at the talks.)


Following Canby's death, there was a severe backlash against the Modocs. Eastern newspapers called for blood vengeance. (All except for one newspaper in Georgia that headlined the story: "Captain Jack and Warriors Revenge the South By Murdering General Canby, One of Her Greatest Oppressors." In contrast, citizens of Richmond, Virginia, where Canby had actually served as military governor, met on April 18 to express their appreciation of Canby and sorrow at his death.) E.C. Thomas, son of the murdered peace commissioner, demonstrated the extent and limitation of moderation when he accepted the inevitability and even desirability of reprisals against Captain Jack and his men, but reminded people that his father's memory would be dishonored by generalized malice toward Native Americans: "To be sure, peace will come through war, but not by extermination." Eventually, Captain Jack AKA Kintpuash, Boston Charley, Schonchin John and Black Jim were tried for murder and executed on October 3, 1873. The Modocs were sent to reservations.

File:Funeral of the Late General Canby -- the Body Lying in State.jpg

Funeral of the Late General Canby -- the Body Lying in State

The killing of Canby, and the Great Sioux War, undermined public confidence in President Grant's peace policy, according to Robert Utley.[5]

After services were performed on the West Coast, Canby was returned to Indiana and buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, Indiana on May 23, 1873. Attending the final funeral service in Indianapolis were at least four Union generals: William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, Lew Wallace, and Irvin McDowell, the last two serving among the pall bearers. A reporter noted that, although the funeral procession was generally reserved, "more than once, expressions of hatred toward the Modoc" marred the silence.

In recognition of his assassination, Canby's Cross was erected in the 1880s in the area that would later become Lava Beds National Monument. The towns of Canby in Clackamas County, Oregon, Canby in Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, and Canby in Modoc County, California, are named for him. Every year in Canby, Oregon, on July 4th, the town celebrates General Canby Days, including a pancake breakfast, car show, parade and music.

Movie trivia[]

Colonel Canby is mentioned in the script of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone's stylish Spaghetti Western, although Canby never appears as a character. (His opponent, General Sibley, does appear briefly).

The movie Drum Beat, starring Charles Bronson as Captain Jack and Allan Ladd, is based on the assassination of General Canby.

See also[]

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  1. John D. Winters, The Civil War in Louisiana, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1963, ISBN 0-8071-0834-0, p. 388
  2. Winters, p. 388
  3. Riddle, 71-72.
  4. Riddle, 72, 76.
  5. Robert Marshall Utley, Frontier regulars: the United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891‎ (1984) p. 206 online


  • Eicher, John H., and Eicher, David J., Civil War High Commands, Stanford University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8047-3641-3.
  • Heyman, Max L., Jr.: Prudent Soldier: A Biography of Major General ERS Canby, 1817-1873, Frontier Military Series III, Glendale, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1959.
  • Filson Historical Society Library: MS #118. "Canby, Edward Richard Sprigg, 1819[sic]-1873. Papers, 1837-1873." A\C214 (1 box, 146 items; includes contemporary newspaper accounts regarding General Canby's death and its aftermath).

External links[]

de:Edward Richard Sprigg Canby fr:Edward Canby ja:エドワード・キャンビー fi:Edward Canby