The Battle of Picacho
by Marshall Trimble (with permission)
Picacho is a steep-sided titanic altar of ancient volcanic remnants, rising several hundred feet into the air some fifty miles northwest of Tucson. Through the ages, it has stood gaunt and grim above the desert floor, acting as a beacon to weary travelers—much the same as Chimney Rock and Independence Rock were for the wagon trains bound for California and Oregon.
Prehistoric Hohokam travelers stopped off on their way to and from commerce dealings further south. Their modernday descendants, the Pima and Papago, did the same. Spanish missionaries, on their way to Christianize natives along the rivers to the west and north, quenched their thirst at one of several springs near the base of the mountains. The Mormon Battalion built the first wagon road across the Southwest in 1846. They, too, stopped to rest at Picacho, a Spanish word meaning "peak." Anglos, in their eagerness to apply easily understood descriptive place names to the lands they traversed, gave it redundant Picacho Peak—or simply "Peak Peak." In the 1850s Butterfield-Overland Stage line had a station in the pass. Today, Interstate 10 and the steel rails of the Southern Pacific Railroad run through the pass connecting Phoenix and Tucson with the rest of the outside world. Lengthy winter rains transform the harsh grey-buff desert in the foothills near Picacho into one of nature's finest tapestries of variegated colors, as galaxies of wild flowers carpet the earth, heralding the coming of spring.
It was in the spring of 1862 when two American military units clashed briefly at the foot of the ancient Picacho. That skirmish is generally referred to as the westernmost battle of the Civil War.
At the outbreak of hostilities between the North and South in 1861, large numbers of Southern-born officers in the Federal Army resigned their commissions and went home to fight for the Confederate cause.
One of these, a tall, bewhiskered, swashbuckling, ex-major named Henry Hopkins Sibley went immediately to the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, and presented President Jefferson Davis a grandiose plan for making the upstart Confederacy an ocean-to-ocean power. Sibley, who had campaigned extensively in the Southwest, proposed a territorial conquest that included New Mexico, Arizona, California and the northern state of Mexico. If successful, the rich gold and silver bullion being produced in the West would fall into Confederate hands. Thousands of new recruits would be enlisted for the Southern cause. A transcontinental railroad line would link the southern states with the West Coast and the Mexican and California seaports would be in Confederate hands.
It would be impossible for the Union Navy to impose an effective blockade over such a vast area. President Davis had to agree; the plan was pregnant with possibilities. The conquest and its amenities would likely bring support from European countries, something the Confederates needed desperately. Its success could guarantee the secession of the eleven Southern states.
The campaign began in July, 1861, when Lt. Colonel John R. Baylor, a hard-bitten, frontier Indian fighter, led three hundred Texas Mounted Rifles into New Mexico and occupied Mesilla, near present-day Las Cruces. The Texans received an enthusiastic welcome from the Anglo population of the bustling community who were mostly Southern sympathizers from Texas. One of Baylor's first acts as leader of the army of occupation was the creation of a new territory which was called Arizona. This new territory did not have the same boundaries that Arizonans would later come to know, but consisted of all lands in the New Mexico territory south of the 34th parallel and ranged from the Colorado River on the west to the 103rd meridian on the east.
There were fewer than 2,500 federal troops in New Mexico. The men hadn't been paid for several months and morale was low. The commander of the New Mexico forces, Colonel E. R. S. Canby, was determined to consolidate his troops along the Rio Grande to meet the expected entrada (entrance) of Texans.
He ordered the troops stationed in Arizona to destroy what supplies they couldn't carry and march to the Rio Grande to reinforce his demoralized army.
These orders caused a great deal of resentment among the residents of Arizona who accused the federales in Santa Fe of leaving them to the mercy of hostile Apaches, especially the Chiricahuas under Cochise, who had been on the warpath for the past several months. The Arizonans had been clamoring for separate territorial status for several years, claiming their needs had been largely ignored by territorial officials in Santa Fe. Removal of federal troops from the area was the last straw.
In late January, 1862, General Sibley invaded New Mexico with an army of 2,600 men. He immediately ordered Captain Sherod Hunter to take a company of 54 mounted riflemen and occupy Tucson. Hunter's arrival in Tucson was a welcome sight to the local citizenry, as the Apaches had pretty much created a reservation for whites at the "Old Pueblo." The locals didn't care whether the soldiers wore blue or grey, as long as they offered protection from the hostile tribes.
Sibley's grand scheme to take the Southwest was two-pronged. One force would march north and occupy Santa Fe; the other, Hunter's, would join with the Californians. One of Sibley's assumptions was that secessionists in southern California would gain control and open the entire West for the Confederacy.
Captain Hunter's tactics in Arizona were to create the illusion of a much larger force than he actually had on hand. Using friendly Tucson as his base of operations, the vigorous Confederate officer dispatched troops along the Old Butterfield-Overland Trail to Yuma, destroying supplies gathered for the pending invasion of the California Column. His deception was successful. Union spies reported at least eight hundred Confederates in the Tucson area.
Meanwhile, the threat of a Confederate invasion of California had prompted Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, to authorize the raising of volunteers in that state. A flinty-eyed, hard-core regular army officer, Colonel James Carleton was selected to lead this "California Column" of some 2,000 volunteers across the harsh, inhospitable desert and re-conquer Arizona and New Mexico. For the next several months, Carleton, a professional who left nothing to chance, concentrated his men and supplies at Fort Yuma, in preparation for the long journey across the Arizona desert.
Colonel Carleton dispatched Captain William McCleave and nine men up the Gila River to the Pima villages near today's Sacaton, where he was to select a defensible site to store supplies for the Californians. A Union sympathizer named Ammi White owned a mill in the area and McCleave's orders were to locate a storehouse nearby. The officer was then to take his force on to Tucson where, under cover of darkness, he was to capture or destroy the Confederate garrison.
Before McCleave's patrol arrived, the resourceful Captain Hunter had occupied Ammi White's mill, taken the owner prisoner, and since he had no wagons to carry the large supplies of flour and wheat back to Tucson, distributed them among the Pimas. When Hunter learned that 50 wagons were coming up the trail from Yuma to pick up supplies, he decided to hang around White's mill and capture the wagon train. These plans went awry when Hunter's scouts noted the approach of Captain McCleave's tiny force riding in advance of the wagon train. Hunter quickly changed into civilian clothes and assumed the role of Ammi White.
McCleave unwittingly stumbled into a Confederate trap. When he asked the disguised Southern officer if he knew the whereabouts of a Mr. Jones, Hunter replied he didn't know any "Mr. Jones," but wondered where the rest of McCleave's troopers were. When informed that there were no more Union soldiers nearby, Hunter pulled his revolver and informed the surprised officer that he was now a prisoner of the Confederacy. At that instant, several Texas soldiers stepped out of the brush with rifles aimed and ready.
McCleave was so angered by the ruse that he challenged Hunter and his men to a bare-knuckle, winner-go-free, fist fight—Californians against Texans. Even though Texans outnumbered the Californians nearly 2 to 1, Hunter politely refused the offer and ordered Lt. Jack Swilling to take the feisty Union officer and his men to Mesilla.
A few days later, while scouting the California Column at Stanwix Station, some eighty miles east of Yuma, Hunter's troops fired upon some Union pickets, wounding Private William Semmilrogge. The skirmish confirmed Hunter's suspicions of a large army approaching. He made a hasty march back across the Butterfield-Overland Trail towards Tucson. At Picacho, he left Sergeant Henry Holmes and nine men at the pass to keep him posted on Union activities.
When Colonel Carleton learned of McCleave's capture, his ire was raised. Determined to rid himself once and for all of the troublesome Rebels, he ordered Captain William Calloway to take a force of 272 men to drive the Confederates out of Tucson. At the same time, they were to attempt to rescue McCleave and his men before they could be taken to New Mexico. Furthermore, on personal orders from Carleton, they were to capture "Mr. Hunter and his band of renegades and traitors."
In his haste to engage in combat with the Rebel force, the ever-cautious Calloway spent a couple of leisurely days at the Pima villages recuperating from his desert ordeal. After being informed by his Pima scout presence of Confederate soldiers at Picacho, Calloway ordered Lie James Barrett and Ephraim Baldwin to take a detachment to the pass was to take 12 men and circle around behind the Confederate pickets & wait, while Baldwin would advance on the pass from the west. Calloway's main force would follow Baldwin.
The route of march was up the old Butterfield-Overland road, following today's Interstate 10, southbound towards Tucson.
Sometime around noon on April 15, 1862, Barrett, a brave but reckless young officer, located the Confederate encampment in a dense thicket and attacked without waiting for support. He took three prisoners including Sgt. Henry Holmes. Although several shots were fired, there were no casualties in the first encounter. The rest of Holmes' troopers, alerted by the gunfire had retreated further into the thick brush and taken up defensive positions.
At this point, Barrett's scout, J.W. Jones, suggested they dismount his troops and enter the thicket afoot. Barrett disregarded the advice and charged single file, headlong into the regrouped Texans. A fierce volley of rifle fire greeted Barrett from the thicket and, when the smoke had cleared, four Union saddles had been emptied. Barrett rallied his small command and this time entered the thicket on foot. The furious battle lasted some 90 minutes and when it was ended, the brash young lieutenant and two enlisted men lay dead on the ground along with three wounded. At this point, the Californians broke off the fight, gathered their wounded along with the three prisoners and rode back towards the Gila. The dead were left in the field where they had fallen, One soldier, Bill Tobin, could thank the brass ornament on his hat for saving his life. He suffered a serious, but not fatal, head wound, when a lead ball ricocheted off the metal.
The Confederates suffered two casualties in the skirmish, both of whom would die from their wounds. Casualties were high—of the 24 involved, eleven were killed or wounded. After the battle, the Texans took their wounded, and rode to Tucson to warn Captain Hunter of the approach of Calloway's large force.
For reasons never fully explained, Calloway took his command with the three captives, and retreated all the way back to the Pima villages. Although it is only a footnote among the vast volumes of Civil War the Battle at Picacho Pass is considered to be the westernmost halt war.