Edward Richard Sprigg Canby was born in Piatt’s Landing, Kentucky, on November 9, 1817. He was the first of seven children born to Israel T. and Elizabeth (Piatt) Canby. Early in Edward’s life, Israel Canby moved his family to Indiana, where he practiced medicine and was active in politics. In 1826, voters elected Canby to a three-year term as a State Senator, resigning in 1828 to make an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of Indiana.
After attending local schools, Edward Canby enrolled at Wabash College in 1834. He soon developed a desire to pursue a military career, and he received an appointment to the United States Military Academy. Canby enrolled at West Point on July 1, 1835. Among his classmates were Henry W. Halleck and Edward Ord, who became prominent Union generals during the Civil War. Not a very strong student academically, Canby ranked thirtieth in his class of thirty-one cadets, graduating on July 1, 1839.
Upon graduating from West Point, Canby received a brevet commission as a second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry. Before reporting for active duty, he married Louisa Hawkins of Crawfordsville, Indiana, on August 1, 1839. Their union produced one daughter, who was born circa 1843.
U.S. Army Officer
Following his marriage, Canby joined his regiment in Florida during the Second Seminole War (December 23, 1835–August 14, 1842). At the conclusion of this conflict, Canby took part in the forced removal of American Indians from Arkansas to Oklahoma. He next served on garrison and recruiting duties at Fort Niagara, New York at Detroit Barracks, Michigan, and at Newport, Kentucky from 1842 through 1846. On June 18, 1846, the army promoted Canby to first lieutenant with the 2nd Infantry.
Like many future American Civil War general officers, Canby’s first combat experience came during the Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846–February 2, 1848). Serving as a brigade staff officer in General Winfield Scott‘s expeditionary force, Canby received brevet promotions to captain and major for his actions at the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco in August 1847. On September 13, the army brevetted Canby to lieutenant colonel “for Gallant Conduct at the Belen Gate of the City of Mexico.”
Following the Mexican-American War, the War Department transferred Canby to California, where he served as Assistant Adjutant-General of the Pacific Division, from February 27, 1849 to February 22, 1851. After leaving California, Canby spent three years assigned to the Adjutant-General’s Office in Washington, D. C., from February 22, 1851 to March 3, 1855. On June 11, 1851, army officials promoted him to captain. From 1855 through 1860, Canby served at various stations, most of them in the American West. On March 3, 1855, he received a promotion to the rank of major with the 10th U.S. Infantry. Between 1857 and 1858, Canby took part in the Utah War.
Department of New Mexico Commander
When the American Civil War erupted, Canby was in command of Fort Defiance, in the New Mexico Territory. When the War Department began making wartime assignments, Canby received a promotion to the rank of colonel with the 19th U.S. Infantry on May 14, 1861. On November 9, 1861, the War Department issued General Orders No. 97, creating the Department of New Mexico “to consist of the Territory of New Mexico—to be commanded by Colonel E.R.S. Canby, U.S.A.” As department commander, Canby dashed Confederate designs to occupy the New Mexico Territory, when troops under his command severed Rebel supply trains during the Battle of Glorieta Pass (March 26–28, 1862). On June 10, 1862, the War Department rewarded Canby’s success when it Issued General Orders No. 62, promoting him to brigadier-general in the Volunteer Army, effective Mar. 31, 1862.
On November 7, 1862, Canby reported to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where he commanded a draft rendezvous (a military post where draftees reported). On January 15, 1863, officials ordered him to Washington, DC for special duty with the War Department. While stationed there, the army detached Canby from July 15 to November 15, 1863, and sent him to New York City to help quell the infamous draft riots in that city.
Department of West Mississippi Commander
Shortly after Canby returned from New York, Army Chief-of-Staff Henry Halleck ordered Major General Nathaniel Banks (commander of the Department and Army of the Gulf) to launch a campaign against the remaining Confederate forces in Louisiana. Despite Banks’ reservations about the operation the Army of the Gulf, supported by Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter’s United States Naval forces, embarked upon the Red River Campaign on March 12, 1864. Two months later, Banks limped back to Louisiana after suffering decisive defeats at the Battle of Mansfield (April 8, 1864), and the Battle of Pleasant Hill (April 9, 1864).
Shortly after Banks returned to southern Louisiana, officials promoted Canby to major general of volunteers on May 7, 1864. On the same day, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 192, placing the Department of the Gulf under the dominion of the newly created Military Division of West Mississippi, commanded by Canby. On May 11, Canby arrived in Louisiana and assumed command of the division.
As commander of the Division of West Mississippi, Canby oversaw the Union troops that took part in the siege and capture of Fort Spanish (March 27-April 8, 1865) and Fort Blakely (April 2-9, 1865), which eventually led to the occupation of Mobile, Alabama. Historians often cite the storming of Fort Blakely as the last major infantry action of the Civil War east of the Mississippi River. For his leadership in those engagements, officials later brevetted Canby to major general in the regular army, effective March 13, 1865.
Amid the reorganization of federal divisions and departments following the Civil War, Canby commanded the Department of the Gulf from June 3 to July 17, 1865, the Department of Louisiana and Texas from July 17 to August 5, 1865, the Department of Louisiana, August 5, 1865 to May 27, 1866, and the Department of Washington from August 13, 1866 to August 26, 1867. On July 28, 1866, the War Department promoted Canby to brigadier general in the regular army. Almost one month later, on September 1, 1866, he mustered out of volunteer service but continued his career in the U.S. Army.
For the next three years, Canby served in various administrative capacities. In August 1870, the War Department dispatched Canby to the West Coast and placed him in command of the Department of Columbia until January 1873. On April 11, 1873, Canby assumed command of the Division of the Pacific.
On that same day, Canby met with Modoc Chief Kintpuash—known to white Americans as Captain Jack—at the Lava Beds near Tule Lake, in northern California, to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Modoc War (1872–1873). During the meeting, Captain Jack pulled a revolver and shot the unarmed Canby at close range, as other Modoc warriors opened fire on Canby’s two aides. Some accounts claim that another Modoc warrior may also have knifed Canby during the attack. Canby was the only U.S. Army general officer killed during the Trans-Mississippi Indian wars. (Although George Armstrong Custer achieved the rank of major general in the volunteer army during the Civil War, his rank in the regular army was lieutenant colonel).
Following memorial services on the West Coast, the army returned Canby’s body to Indiana for burial. Generals William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, Lew Wallace, and Irvin McDowell honored their former comrade by attending funeral services in Indianapolis, where Canby was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.