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« on: September 25, 2004, 03:25:38 AM »

On April 15, 1862, the western-most "battle" of the American Civil War was fought on the flanks of Picacho Peak, a rocky volcanic spire situated 50 miles northwest of a small Sonoran town named Tucson. Today, the old wagon route which passed by Picacho in 1862 is roughly traced by U.S. Highway 10, which connects the modern metropolises of Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. Only where the highway passes Picacho Peak is the view of the open desert beyond blocked by a series of solid rock ridges towering to the west. In 1862, this area was virtually deserted due to its natural desolation, and the fact that all U.S. Army troops had departed the previous year, leaving the local settlers and Indians to do as they wished. Before marching off to join the Union Army being assembled in the East, the local garrison troops had opened their supply depots to the nearby civilians, telling them "take what you need, and get out." Not all heeded this advice. Many people who had staked their lives and fortunes on the Southwest decided to remain, strengthening the local militia units which already populated this secessionist area. For their part, the local Indian tribes, mostly Apache, believed that their own efforts were what had finally chased away the "bluecoats" and naturally, they were determined to make the most of the situation.
Into this volatile scene marched the newly formed Confederate Army, whose formations had declared the entire New Mexico Territory for the Confederacy on August 1, 1861. After securing the Rio Grande Valley, the local Confederate commander dispatched Captain Sherrod Hunter to Tucson, which he occupied on February 28, 1862 after a freezing winter march. With its new garrison of 75 confederates, Tucson was now the furthest point west in the Confederate Empire. They enjoyed the earnest support of the local civilians, as long as they and their brethren helped to keep the Indians suppressed, a task which drew considerable manpower away from the tiny Confederate force.

The Union reacted quickly to the Confederate seizure of the Southwestern Territories. Indeed, these events turned out to represent the most complete takeover of Union territory the Confederacy managed during its existence. Once the Confederate threat in California subsided╣ a small force of roughly 1,400 troops under Brigadier General James H. Carleton was dispatched from Fort Yuma to march on Tucson, hundreds of miles across the Sonoran desert. Hearing word of this "California Column," Hunter pushed north to the Gila River, encountering his first Union troops when the leading detachment of California cavalry blundered into Hunter's men as they captured a flour mill. After interring the Union cavalrymen and giving the flour to the local Indians, Hunter returned to Tucson, first dispatching a small party of Confederate cavalry to ride west along the stage road, burning hay which had been left piled for the approaching Union troops. This party of rebels rode to within 80 miles of Fort Yuma, finally stopping when they encountered the first Union pickets, whom they drove off, wounding one. This little known skirmish must have been the true "westernmost" fight of the Civil War!
By early April, the California Column had reached an area near present day Casa Grande, Arizona. From there, they dispatched a group of scouts to reconnoiter the remainder of the route into Tucson. It was this detachment of the First California Cavalry which ran into Hunter's men at Picacho Pass on April 15. Hunter's strong detachment of pickets had occupied ambush positions up on the rocky slopes of Picacho Peak, from which they commanded a wide view of the stage road. Contrary to popular belief, the two sides did not stumble upon each other by accident. The Confederates were waiting in ambush, and only part of the Union cavalry troopers entered the pass via the stage road. The position itself was so obviously an ambush point, that the approaching Californians had split in two, sending part of their force to circle the dangerous position as a precaution.

These precautions were justified, because at 2 P.M., the Union cavalrymen entering the pass were fired upon by Hunter's waiting men. Two Union troopers were injured, and the rest went to the ground in disorder. At this time, the other Union force came up on the flank of the Confederate skirmish line, capturing three of Hunter's men. Encouraged by this victory, Union Lieutenant James Barrett waved his men forward against the remaining Confederate cavalry troopers, who laid down heavy fire, killing and wounding four more Union soldiers, including the impetuous young lieutenant. After withdrawing and regrouping, the Union cavalry continued trading shots with the Confederates until late afternoon, when they withdrew and slowly returned to the main body to the north.
The "battle" at Picacho Pass may only have been a tiny skirmish compared to the great conflagrations in the east, but to the men killed and wounded there it was the Civil War. As a microcosm of the greater war, local Confederate successes could not change the strategic realities of the situation. Sherrod Hunter's Confederates continued to be outnumbered, and they were too far from the main Confederate army on the Rio Grande to receive regular supply or reinforcement. Carleton's California troops finally arrived in Tucson, only to discover that Hunter had evacuated. The retreat itself became well known in western lore, and Hunter's east-bound troops were attacked repeatedly by Apaches based in the Chiricahua Mountains. The Confederates even armed their Union prisoners as the march became a fight for survival. The tired Confederates arrived on the Rio Grande River on May 27, 1862, bringing the Confederate invasion of "western" Arizona to an end.




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