Part two in a series.
As the infant Confederacy crawled its way west out of Texas and into New Mexico Territory, California had other plans. The Golden State was not going to join the Confederacy, despite inflamed rumors from the south–southern California. She stood true to the Union and, as such, was asked to provide her share of volunteer troops. The U. S. government needed soldiers to suppress the alleged local rebellion, and it needed to protect the transcontinental mail routes from the depredations of Indian raiders as well as Secessionists.
By August of 1861, California had raised two regiments of cavalry and five regiments of infantry for Federal service, but they did not necessarily “go East.” Because so many of the 16,000 regular army troops had been stationed in California, and in the huge territories of Arizona and New Mexico, these men replaced the regulars, who left to join the rest of the army at the “seat of the rebellion.” To the California Volunteer regiments fell the tasks of patrolling as far north as Fort Colville in Washington Territory, as far east as Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and everything in between, including northern Mexico and west Texas.
Although Confederate Colonel John Baylor had declared the western part of New Mexico Territory to be the “Territory of Arizona,” for the Confederacy, the Federal government did not recognize his actions as legal or binding. However, a small group of Confederate soldiers, under Baylor and Captain Sherod Hunter, got to the territories first, and began to seek help from Mexico to hold their land.
In December 1861, upon learning of the Confederate victories in New Mexico and the rebel “invasion” of Arizona, Brigadier General George Wright, who had succeeded Edwin Sumner as commander of the Department of the Pacific, proposed a plan of his own. He suggested that a force of California troops invade the territories, crossing the Colorado River at Yuma and proceeding to New Mexico along the Gila River on the old Butterfield Overland mail route. In Washington, General in Chief George McClellan approved the operation.
General Wright chose James Carleton, colonel of the First California Infantry and former major of the First U. S. Dragoons, stationed at Fort Tejon, to lead the column into Arizona. Carleton had served in the west for the majority of his career, and was a stickler for details such as enough water, food, fodder, and proper equipment for both his men and their animals. He even redesigned the normal uniform of the infantry to include lighter fabrics and a hat that kept the sun off the heads of his men.
When the Confederate threat in the southwest became apparent, Wright firmed up the details of his initial plan. A thrust from southern California across Arizona and New Mexico to the Rio Grande would serve several purposes: it would reopen the mail routes, garrison abandoned posts, protect the citizens of those territories, and block the movement of the Texas Rebels into California.
The men of Carleton’s California Column were healthy, educated, and independent enough to know when working as a team was the best idea. When they arrived at Fort Yuma, they were also a well-equipped, well-trained, well-provisioned professional fighting force. By March 1861, Union spies in Tucson reported to Carleton that the Confederate cavalry, renamed the Arizona Rangers, would soon be riding down the Gila River in force. In an unfortunate bit of confusion, Captain William McCleave, Colonel Carleton’s most trusted junior officer, was captured on March 9 by a small group of the Rangers.
Emboldened by this success, Confederate Captain Hunter sent a platoon of mounted Rangers down the Gila to burn Carleton’s stacks of hay, which had been collected and placed along their route as food for their stock. About eighty miles east of Fort Yuma, the Rangers encountered two members of the First California Cavalry, who opened fire on the Confederates. Hunter’s men turned and rode for Tucson without firing a shot.
When Carleton learned that McCleave had been captured, he quickly appointed Captain William Calloway, Company I, First California Infantry, to command an advance into Arizona. His force totaled 270 men, including his own company, and the mounted men of Captain McCleave and Captain Nathaniel Pishon. A young lieutenant, James Barrett, now commanded McCleave’s men.
Calloway’s soldiers prepared well for the long, dry, hot trek through the desert. Their time at Fort Yuma had accustomed them to the harsh climate, and Colonel Carleton’s insistence on survival skills proved invaluable. Small parties went out in advance of the larger force, making sure that hay and water awaited them each evening. The men marched with a ten-day allotment of rations in their haversacks.
By April 12, 1862, Calloway’s command reached the Pima villages, in the area near Stanwyx Station. During a short trading stop, Calloway learned that there was a Confederate Ranger picket post at Picacho Pass. The word “picacho” is Spanish for peak, and that is about all that it is, then and now. About forty-five miles north of Tucson, a large, red, volcanic plug rises almost a thousand feet in the air, marking the end of a small range of rugged mountains and the beginning of the arid, sandy Santa Cruz valley.
At this inhospitable place, a ten-man Confederate group guarded the pass across the valley. These were the remnants of Captain Hunter’s Arizona Ranger unit. The rest of his men had gone east to Mesilla with their prisoner, Captain McCleave. They were to deliver him and another man to the Confederate authorities at the Rio Grande.
Captain Calloway’s orders stated that he was to reach Tucson by way of Fort Breckinridge, which was abandoned. When he realized that, by taking a small detour, he could possibly capture the Rebel Picacho outpost and be able to use a faster route to Tucson, he decided it was worth the risk. The time advantage could be crucial to his chance of successfully rescuing Captain McCleave.
On April 15, he ordered Lieutenants Barrett and Baldwin to take twelve mounted men each and attempt to surround the Ranger group at Picacho, cutting off their escape to Tucson. They were NOT to engage anyone. They were merely to do a reconnaissance of the area, report back to Calloway, and block potential escape routes. The two units left Calloway’s forces, intending to join together near the mountain.
The link-up never happened. Barrett’s men travelled under the seasoned guidance of mountain man Powell Weaver, who was also known as Paulino and as John Jones. They took a shorter route to Picacho Peak, arriving at the rendezvous point much earlier than Baldwin’s men. Barrett’s detachment was unsupported, but he wanted to continue the mission, not wait until the other men arrived.
In the chaparral near the base of Picacho Peak, Barrett discovered Confederate Sergeant Henry Holmes and nine privates playing cards and relaxing in a small clearing not far from the old Butterfield stage route. The excited young officer pulled out his pistol and fired into the air, calling for the card-playing Arizona Rangers to surrender immediately. His men were still mounted, and riding single file–perfect targets for the Rangers.
Their answer was a volley of shot fired into the midst of the small group of Union cavalry. Four Californians fell from their saddles. At this point, the eight remaining riders, including young Barrett, charged into the chaparral thicket and captured three Rebels. Captain Barrett dismounted and began to tie one of the prisoners when a bullet struck his neck, killing him instantly.
The fierce and confusing fighting went on for over an hour, but finally two of Barrett’s men–one dead, the other dying–lay on the desert floor amid the mesquite bushes. Three others were wounded, but survived. The Rangers lost no one except the three men originally captured. Barrett’s choice to disobey orders had cost him his life, and ultimately the lives of two other men.
By that afternoon, Calloway’s entire command arrived. Lieutenant Phelan started to set up howitzers to protect the area, but was informed that there was no danger. The pickets had been unsupported and Captain McCleave was no longer in Tucson. The California Column was angry and upset to, once again, lose to the Confederates.
Just after midnight, the wounded man died. His agonized groans were silenced, leaving no sound to be heard in the early desert morning except the shuffling of horse’s hooves, the thud of picks and shovels filling in three graves, and the eerie howls of the coyotes. Calloway ordered his men back to the Stanwyx Station area amid the grumbling of his subordinates.
The next day dawned on all that was left of the western high water mark of the Confederacy, the Battle of Picacho Pass: three crackerbox boards that marked mounds of earth and stone.
The Civil War In the Western Territories, by Ray C. Colton
Blood & Treasure, by Donald S. Frazier
The Civil War in Arizona, by Andrew E. Masich
New Mexico and the Civil War, by Dr. Walter Earl Pittman