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The Battle of Apache Pass

Apache PassIn early 1862, Colonel James H. Carleton's force set out from Fort Yuma, for Tucson which had just recently been occupied by a Confederate unit, Company A, Arizona Rangers. After a small engagement known as the Battle of Picacho Pass just north of Tucson between a detachment of Carleton's cavalry and Confederate pickets, Carleton advanced on Tucson in three columns. His troops arrived in Tucson, Arizona, on May 20, 1862, forcing the outnumbered Confederate garrison to retreat without fighting.

After taking Confederate Arizona's Western outpost, Carleton prepared to head east with his main body in July to New Mexico via Apache Pass in Southeast Arizona. To prepare for the advance of his main force, he sent a column ahead as he had on his march from Yuma to Tucson. The column led by Captain Thomas L. Roberts of Company E, 1st California Infantry, attached were two 12-pounder mountain howitzers, a twenty-two man cavalry escort from Company B, 2nd Regiment California Volunteer Cavalry led by Captain John C. Cremony and twenty-one wagons and 242 mules and horses.

After Roberts column arrived at the San Pedro River, it became necessary to learn whether Dragoon Springs, twenty-eight miles further on, could supply both companies with water, or whether they would be forced to break into detachments. Captain Roberts took the advance detachment with his infantry, three wagons, the two howitzers and seven of Cremony's best cavalrymen to serve as scouts and couriers. Captain Cremony remained behind with fifteen cavalry and ten of Roberts' infantrymen including the detachment left as a garrison at the river, where an adobe stage station building provided shelter and a defensible position to protect the remaining wagons and animals.

Roberts found Dragoon Springs was adequate to support both detachments and Cremony caught up with him the next day. Roberts then advanced on the springs at Apache Pass in the same manner with the same forces leaving Cremony with the guard detachment.

Battle
At noon on July 15, Roberts detachment had just entered Apache Pass, after making it about two-thirds through. Roberts' force was attacked by some 500 Apache warriors led by Mangas Coloradas and Cochise. Geronimo, sometime before his death in 1909, claimed to have fought in this battle but this has never been confirmed.

The Americans were not in a good position to fight. They had just walked dozens of miles across the hot Arizona desert, they were heading for the spring at Apache Pass which was now beyond an army of well armed Chiricahua warriors.

Lacking water, and with the risk of losing dozens of men by retreating back to Tucson without water, Roberts chose to fight. The natives had constructed defenses, several breastworks made of stone. They also had set up an ambush, they waited until the Americans came within thirty to eighty yards of their positions, then opened fire.

Behind almost every mesquite tree and boulder hid an Apache with his rifle, six-shooter and knife. At first the Union troops could barely see the natives firing on them. After a few more moments of intense combat Roberts ordered retreat, so his force withdrew to the mouth of Apache Pass, regrouped and unlimbered mountain howitzers for a second advance.

This was one of the first times the United States Army had been able to use artillery against the native Americans. Roberts ordered his infantry to take the hills overlooking the pass, while he, his officers and howitzers stayed inside of the pass to direct artillery support. The skirmishers moved forward, where they came across an abandoned Butterfield Overland Mail station, which was then used to provide cover from the accurate Apache rifle fire.

The infantry was now about 600 yards from the spring, overlooking the water supply was two hills, one that overlooked from the east, the other from the south. On both of the steep hills sat the breastworks, manned by Apache riflemen, doing their best to keep back the American skirmishers.

Roberts moved his howitzers forward and commenced fire along with his infantry, the shots were not very effective because of their position some 300 to 400 feet below the Apache defenses. The artillery would have to be moved again if it was to be effective in this battle. So again the artillery was moved forward, under heavy enemy fire.

Once the guns were in effective range, the commanding sergeant ordered his artillerymen to engage. Until nightfall the Apaches were bombarded when they broke and fled the engagement in all directions, abandoning the breastworks and leaving the Union troops with a victory and access to the spring. After giving his men a drink and a meal Roberts made a return march to bring up the Cremony's detachment. The following morning the Apaches came back to contest the American passage but again they fled when shelled by the howitzers.

Aftermath
During the battle, Captain Roberts had two men killed and three wounded. Also according to a letter from Colonel Carleton to Colonel Richard C. Drum, on September 20, 1862, Apache casualties were 10. "From the hostile attitude of the Chiricahua, I found it indispensably necessary to establish a post in what is known as Apache Pass; it is known as Fort Bowie, and garrisoned by one hundred rank and file of the Fifth Infantry, California Volunteers, and thirteen rank and file of Company A, First Cavalry, California Volunteers; this post commands the water in that pass.

Around this water the Indians have been in the habit of lying in ambush, and shooting the troops and travelers as they came to drink. In this way they have killed three of Lieutenant-Colonel Eyre's command, and in attempting to keep Captain Roberts' company. First Infantry, California Volunteers, away from the spring a fight ensued, in which Captain Roberts had two men killed and two wounded. Captain Roberts reports that the Indians lost ten killed. In this affair the men of Captain Roberts' company are reported as behaving with great gallantry."

According to Captain Cremony afterword it was learned from a prominent Apache who was present in the engagement, that sixty-three warriors were killed outright by the howitzer shells, while only three perished from musketry fire.  He added, "We would have done well enough if you had not fired wagons at us."  The howitzers being on wheels, were deemed a type of wagon by the Apaches, who were obviously inexperienced in artillery tactics. Mangas Coloradas himself was wounded, sustaining a bullet wound to the chest when attempting to kill one of Roberts cavalry scouts.

A day after the battle and on the Mesilla side of Apache Pass, nine murdered and scalped white civilians were found dead. As result, commander Carleton decided that it was necessary to establish a post there to prevent white settlers from being ambushed by the natives as they passed through. On July 4, the first units of the California Column reached Mesilla, New Mexico, along the Rio Grande. With the Californians now approaching from the west, the last remnants of the Confederate army withdrew from Arizona.

Men of the 5th California Infantry began building a fort in Apache Pass, which they named Fort Bowie in honor of the regiment's colonel, George Washington Bowie. Upon reaching New Mexico, Carleton was placed in command of the Department of New Mexico where he continued to campaign against the natives in the southwest region.

The battlefield and fort are preserved today in Fort Bowie National Historic Site. The engagement was subject to the 1952 film, The Battle at Apache Pass.

Date July 1516, 1862
Commanders and leaders
Union: Thomas L. Roberts
Apache: Mangas Coloradas and Cochise
Strength
Union: 116 infantry, 22 cavalry, and 2 artillery pieces
Apache: 500 warriors
Casualties and losses
Union: 2 killed and 3 wounded
Apache: 66 killed and unknown wounded

Bibliography
Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. (1986). War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books.
Fort Bowie National Historic Site
Cremony, John Carey (1868). -Life among the Apaches. - San Francisco: A. Roman & Company

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