The Civil War’s Last Frontier | HistoryNet

The Civil War’s Last Frontier

By Andrew E. Masich
8/27/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Don’t think that Picacho Pass, a forgotten fight in a forgotten theater, didn’t mean much in the War Between the States. Confederate control of the Pacific Southwest—and all that California gold— hung delicately in the balance during the spring of 1862.

Captain William McCleave had ridden 150 miles since leaving Fort Yuma with nine handpicked men from his own Company A, 1st California Cavalry. Everyone knew Company A was the pride of the regiment, and the wily captain could not help but admire the endurance of these young men riding beside him, some only half his age. They would have been a credit to his old Army unit, the 1st U.S. Dragoons. An Irish immigrant, McCleave had been a dragoon sergeant for 10 years before the Civil War. He had left the Army in 1860 but rejoined a year later when the war began, reckoning that his adopted country needed him now more than ever. He felt privileged to serve again under his former commander, Colonel James H. Carleton.

It was early March 1862, and the riders had been in the saddle for more than a week, stopping long enough only to eat, sleep and rest their horses at the abandoned stations along the old Butterfield Overland Mail route, which followed the Gila River across the western half of New Mexico Territory, the area popularly known as southern Arizona. The long ride allowed McCleave time to reflect.

Nearly three years had passed since he last traveled the Butterfield trail with his company of dragoons and his young bride—fresh from Ireland—en route to Fort Yuma in southeastern California. But Elizabeth McCleave, too frail for this harsh desert, had died in agony from a fever not long after reaching the adobe fort perched on a bluff at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers. William had buried her with his own hands in the post cemetery.

Relieved to be leaving Yuma and its painful memories behind, McCleave knew he needed to focus on the task at hand— Colonel Carleton was depending on him. The riders urged their horses on as they rode through the dense cottonwood stands along the sandy Gila bottoms. The party moved with greater caution as it neared the villages of the Maricopa and Pima Indians. These industrious farmers were no threat— in fact, they were the best allies the soldiers had in combating their common enemy: Apaches. Some miles back, near Burke’s Station, the Californians had paused to stare at the desiccated body of an Apache warrior bristling with Pima arrows and hanging from the limb of a mesquite tree—a warning to enemy raiders.

Little did McCleave or his comrades know at the time, but the future of the Southwestern United States hung very much in the balance in those early months of 1862. When the war broke out, the Confederacy, eager to open a quick, secure route to gold-rich California from Texas, had claimed the southern portion of New Mexico as the Arizona Territory. Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor had defeated a Union force at Fort Fillmore near Mesilla and been named Arizona’s territorial governor. In February 1862, the Arizona Rangers, under Captain Sherod Hunter, had taken Tucson, prompting a hasty response from Colonel Carleton, then busy at Fort Yuma consolidating a 2,000-man force of California Volunteers to thwart the burgeoning Rebel threat.

McCleave was on the lookout for Rangers close to Tucson. He had galloped ahead with his small force to see whether he could locate a scout, John W. Jones, who was possibly holed up at Ammi White’s flour mill near the Pima Villages. Carleton had ordered Jones to ride unescorted from Yuma to spy on the Rebels in Tucson. Not having heard from him, McCleave feared Jones had run into trouble.

At midnight the captain halted to water and rest the horses at the Butterfield stage station known as the Tanks, just 20 miles short of White’s Mill. He saw in the gaunt faces of his men that they too needed rest. These young California Volunteers were the best soldiers he had served with, but they were exhausted from the week of hard riding. Behind his back the boys had taken to calling him “Uncle Billy,” but he was confident they would do anything he asked, and more. Determined to press on in search of the missing scout, he allowed six troopers to stay behind to eat and sleep while he continued on with three others.

Four hours later, as McCleave and his companions spurred their tired horses into the corral at White’s Mill, they were challenged by a startled voice in the darkness. “We’re Americans,” McCleave responded in his thick brogue. Soon men came to unsaddle and care for the horses, and the weary travelers were escorted to the main house, owned by the miller Ammi White. McCleave and his men were given refreshments and all the hospitality of the house, even tobacco for their pipes.

It proved to be a mistake, however, that the Union captain wasn’t more suspicious of the unusually curious miller, who was asking more questions than he answered. When McCleave finally relaxed enough to unbuckle his saber belt, his hosts drew concealed revolvers and thrust them in his face. Mr. White, it turned out, was none other than Hunter. Outraged by the Rebel captain’s brazen deceit, McCleave grabbed for his pistol, but Hunter quickly threatened: “If you make a single motion I’ll blow your brains out. You are in my power—surrender immediately.”

Lieutenant James Barrett sat his horse easily, as one accustomed to the saddle. It had been a few weeks since the Rangers had captured Captain McCleave and his men at White’s Mill. Barrett still couldn’t believe it had happened. He and McCleave, a fellow Irishman, had served together proudly for more than five years in the dragoons, and he had the highest esteem for his former superior. Barrett’s black Army hat shaded his pale gray eyes as he scanned the northern horizon, hoping to catch sight of the California infantry column on the old stage road snaking through the wide valley of the Santa Cruz River. Thanks to the clean, dry Arizona air, a man could see a long way across the desert, but Barrett saw no sign of the column as he and his men hid low in the chaparral. Scrubby mesquite, greasewood and an astonishing variety of cacti grew miraculously from the rocky soil. The saguaros, in particular, captured the imagination of the soldiers from California. The men admired these sentinels of the desert, green giants rising more than 50 feet.

Sentinels were on Barrett’s mind as he turned his gaze toward the jagged red mountain that dominated the landscape midway between the Pima Villages and Tucson. He knew Rebel sentinels guarded the pass. If the Arizona Rangers knew their business—and Barrett was confident they did—they would be watching intently from El Picacho (Spanish for peak).

The Rebels attempted to slow the Californians’ advance by burning the hay that government contractors had stacked along the Gila for the Volunteers’ horses and mules. A few days earlier, when Barrett’s men were about 80 miles east of Yuma, near Stanwix Station, they had come under fire for the first time and one trooper was wounded.

Old Powell Weaver, a grizzled denizen of the desert, had been sent ahead as a scout and discovered the enemy not far from the abandoned Butterfield stage station, an adobe shack with a ramshackle corral nestled in the dense chaparral at the base of El Picacho. Now, however, Weaver decided to stay behind at White’s Mill, telling Barrett on April 14, “If you fellers can’t find the road from here to Tucson, you can go to hell!”

Barrett turned relunctantly to John Jones, the man for whom McCleave had been looking when he was captured. Jones was an experienced expressman and scout who had recently given the Rebels the slip near Tucson and found his way back to Barrett’s unit. Barrett didn’t trust Jones, who seemed much too cautious, but the lieutenant’s most pressing concern was whether he and his men had eluded the searching eyes of the Rebel pickets.

Barrett’s dismounted troopers, covered by the fine layer of dust that inevitably coated travelers in this part of the country, remained quiet and disciplined. These California Volunteers were good men, most in their 20s—tall, strong and tough beyond their years thanks to hard labor in the California gold fields.

Though only 28, Barrett felt like an old hand. He had served as an enlisted man in the 1st Dragoons ever since his ship arrived at New York Harbor from County Mayo. It seemed almost a dream that he was now an officer, leading men—this command was his alone. As a dragoon he had taken orders from hardened men such as McCleave, but now the Rebels had his former superior and it was his job to get him back.

A plan was drawn up during the night of April 14 in which Captain William Calloway would strip the white canvas covers from his wagons to make his column less visible and then march up the road to Tucson with 250 infantry and cavalry, as well as a mountain howitzer battery packed on mules. Lieutenant Ephraim Baldwin’s cavalry would circle Picacho from the west, and Barrett’s platoon would ride wide to the east through a notch in the nearby mountains, which he hoped would screen their movement. By reining in their horses to keep the dust down and walking as much as possible, Barrett intended to catch the Rebels off guard. Calloway ordered the mounted flankers to coordinate their attack, then dash in and cut off the retreat to Tucson— and ideally grab McCleave in the process, if he was there. The plan was simple, but timing was essential.

The waiting was hard on the men. It was well past noon, and the desert sun burned intensely. The tangled mesquites offered little shade. The Federals assumed that their foe must be aware of them by now—if the pickets escaped, the Confederate garrison in Tucson would be warned and the opportunity to rescue McCleave lost. Jones again urged caution, but Barrett could wait no longer for Baldwin and Calloway.

Through parched lips he ordered the men to mount and move toward the shallow water holes known as chalcos that Jones had reported just west of the stage road. It was then that he saw the Rebel rangers. They wore no uniforms, just broad-brimmed hats and the practical garb of the frontier, but were armed to the teeth with revolvers, rifles or shotguns, and Bowie knives. They looked more like a band of Arkansas horse thieves than soldiers, playing cards and lounging in a small grassy clearing. Without warning, Barrett drew his revolver and fired a shot into the air while demanding that the Rebels throw down their arms and surrender.

Those caught out in the open did so immediately, but as Barrett and his men rushed into the clearing, a volley of shots boomed from the surrounding thicket, dropping four of the Californians. Barrett’s troopers wasted no time returning fire with their carbines and revolvers, shooting wildly at phantom puffs of white gun smoke.

The lieutenant dismounted to help tie up one of three captured Rebels. Intent on flushing the remaining Rangers, he quickly remounted and shouted an order that was cut short by a rifle blast. A ball smashed through the back of Barrett’s neck, and he was dead before his body hit the ground.

The staccato crack of carbines, rifles and pistols echoed off the red rock peak that loomed over the skirmish, multiplying the sound of the gunshots until it seemed as though 100 men were engaged. The California troopers, however, soon realized that they faced only 10 Confederates—and three of them, including the sergeant in command, lay bound hand and foot. The Union men had also had casualties. Barrett and Private George Johnson, shot through the heart, lay dead where they had fallen. Private W.S. Leonard writhed in pain, clutching his throat as blood gushed from his mouth. One soldier had been knocked senseless by a Rebel bullet that struck him square in the forehead—the lead ball had been deflected by the brass crossed sabers on his cavalry hat, leaving him a bloody mess but alive. Corporal Botsford and another private had suffered shoulder wounds—in fact, the dismounted Rebels had fired their first volley from such close range that all of the dead or wounded Californians had been hit in the head or upper body.

The command now devolved upon the first sergeant, but it was Jones who took charge of Barrett’s platoon. The initial shock of the attack passed quickly, and Jones dismounted the men to fight on foot. He discovered they needed little direction. With five of their comrades out of action, the eight remaining troopers instinctively fell back on their training and deployed as skirmishers. The slightly wounded Botsford and another man held the horses and guarded the prisoners while the other six troopers cautiously advanced, loading and firing their breechloading carbines as they pressed through the mesquite.

The sharp-eyed Jones called out enemy positions as the Rebels fired and fell back toward the stage station, less than a mile away on the road to Tucson. The Confederates dodged the Californians for nearly an hour, delaying the bluecoats long enough to round up the horses picketed in the occasional patches of gramma grass scattered through the scrub alongside the Butterfield trail. The gunfire subsided, and a cat-and-mouse game continued in silence, broken only when the clattering of iron-shod hooves alerted the Californians that the Rebels were making a run for it. By the time the Union men retrieved their own horses, however, the seven Rebel riders were distant specks in a cloud of dust moving fast toward Tucson.

With wounded men to treat and prisoners to watch, Jones advised against pursuit and suggested waiting for Baldwin and Calloway. Baldwin’s mounted platoon, delayed by a circuitous route and broken terrain, arrived late in the afternoon, just ahead of Calloway’s infantry, the supply wagons and Lieutenant Jeremiah Phelan’s mountain howitzer unit, known as the “Jackass Battery.”

Calloway surveyed the scene and tried to make sense of the situation. Jones filled him in: There had only been a Rebel picket posted in the pass; the headstrong Barrett had rushed the thicket without dismounting his men; he cut off three of the enemy but did not account for their comrades in the chaparral, who opened up at close range before high-tailing for Tucson.

Calloway knew the Rebels were long gone by now, and if those horses and men could endure the 45-mile ride and Hunter could mount a counterattack, the Californians might have a real fight on their hands by daybreak tomorrow. The captain usually kept his own counsel, but now he was in a quandary. His plan to bag the Rebel sentinels in the pass and then march on Tucson in a quick thrust that would take Hunter by surprise was impossible. He had four wounded men, three days’ rations and a one-day supply of water in six-gallon kegs attached to his eight wagons.

Calloway ordered Captain Nathaniel Pishon to deploy his Company D, 1st California Cavalry, as mounted skirmishers while Lieutenant Baldwin’s Company A rested. Calloway’s own Company A of the 1st California Infantry broke ranks and collapsed under the 50 pounds of weapons, provisions and gear that each man had carried on the forced march to Picacho.

Phelan unloaded his mules and quickly assembled his two brass mountain howitzers. Selecting some high ground with a clear field of fire, he aimed the guns south toward Tucson. Lookouts scrambled up the lowest of Picacho’s jagged spires and scanned the valley below, squinting fiercely through their field glasses every time a stray wind kicked up a dust devil on the stage road.

Calloway called his officers together for a council of war. The mood was subdued—any patriotic bravado that had survived the hard march from the Pima Villages had evaporated when the men looked upon Barrett’s lifeless body and heard the piteous moans of Private Leonard as he gasped for breath. The Rebel bullet had entered between his shoulder blades and exited his mouth—no one expected him to live. Calloway’s interrogation of the Rebel prisoners only added to the gloom. They revealed that McCleave, while held captive in Tuscon, had refused to be paroled and was being taken under guard to the Rio Grande.

Phelan had taken inventory of the supplies and reported that though plenty of ammunition was on hand, there were only enough rations to get them to Tucson— assuming nothing delayed their progress. Although a light rain had fallen a week earlier, the chalcos at Picacho were almost dry and unable to quench the thirst of the dehydrated men and animals. The water in the command’s canteens and kegs would only last the 270 men another 24 hours.

Calloway also had no surgeon, not even a hospital steward, to properly treat any wounded men. Worse, they would have to be laid on top of the hardtack and ammunition boxes in the supply wagons when the command moved out.

When Calloway asked his officers if the column should press on to Tucson during the night, Pishon and Phelan gamely replied they would follow the captain wherever he chose to lead them—forward or back. Brave answers, but not much help.

Sentries ringed the encampment as the exhausted men slept. About 2 a.m. Private Leonard rattled his last breath, and soon the only sounds to be heard were the clank and scrape of the burial detail’s shovels and the howls of distant coyotes. The men spoke in whispers as they tenderly wrapped their dead comrades in gray wool Army blankets and lowered them into the graves that had been dug in the relatively soft desert earth near the stage road. Thoughtful friends placed prickly pear cacti on each of the mounds to discourage grave-robbing coyotes. A company scribe carefully inked the names of Lieutenant Barrett, George Johnson and W.S. Leonard onto pine boards salvaged from an Army cracker box. No funeral words were spoken, and there were no fifes, drums or bugles.

At 4 a.m. the sergeants roused the men, who swung their knapsacks onto their sore backs and fell into line. Only with the order, “Company, right face—forward march!” did they realize that the command was marching north to the Pima Villages—not south to Tucson. Despite some grumbling in the ranks, most of the officers breathed a sigh of relief that their commander was a cautious man. There would be time enough to whip Hunter’s Rebels in Tucson once the Californians regrouped. Colonel Carleton was pushing the 1,500-man “Column from California” up the Gila River. This force would be more than a match for anything the Rebels could throw at them.

Solemnly, Calloway’s command pulled out. The cavalrymen rode at the head and tail of the column while the foot soldiers marched in the middle, with prisoners in tow. They were followed by the wagons and Jackass Battery.

By the light of a nearly full moon, Confederate Lieutenant James Tevis cautiously guided 10 men from Tucson to Picacho. Captain Hunter had sent them to learn what the Federals would do next and to find out what had become of Sergeant William H. Holmes and the two other missing Rangers. Tevis found only the silent saguaros guarding the abandoned stage station in the pass. Riding on, he found still-warm embers in the campfires and, off to the right of the road, three fresh graves. He noted Lieutenant Barrett’s name.

Hunter would want to know. Far to the north on the stage road, he could just make out in the predawn light the white canvas wagon covers and the glint of shouldered muskets. Tevis estimated the strength of the enemy force, then returned to Tucson to report. Hunter drafted his own hurried dispatches to Confederate headquarters in the territorial capital of Mesilla. He requested reinforcements but knew they would likely never come. From what Tevis had learned at Picacho and through reports from other scouts, Hunter suspected it was only a matter of time before he and his Ranger company would have to abandon Tucson. He set about making preparations for an orderly withdrawal to the Rio Grande. By disabling the flour mills, burying the blacksmiths’ anvils and confiscating horses and supplies that might be useful to the Californians, he hoped at least to delay them.

On May 20, 1862, Carleton’s California Column finally rolled into Tucson, only to find that most of Hunter’s men had abandoned the town a week earlier. It took the Californians another month to refit the rolling stock and gather fresh horses, but eventually they pushed on to the Rio Grande and joined Union troops from Colorado and New Mexico in driving the Confederates back into Texas.

Captain McCleave rejoined the column—exchanged for two captured Confederate lieutenants—and pressed attacks against Rebel and Indian adversaries. More California Volunteers followed and regarrisoned U.S. military posts, helped establish Arizona as a Federal territory (separate from New Mexico), reinstituted overland mail service and waged a brutal war against Apache and Navajo raiders.

The Volunteers also prospected and staked claims, and even guarded the territory’s southern border against potential incursions by French Emperor Napoleon III’s army, which was stirring up trouble in Mexico between 1862 and 1867. When the Civil War ended in 1865, many of the California soldiers remained in Arizona. They became the backbone of the young territory during the postwar mining boom years and, as the new century dawned, became the staunchest advocates in Arizona’s quest for statehood.

In 1890 General Richard H. Orton, California’s adjutant general, was riding a Southern Pacific Railroad passenger train across Arizona. As the steam locomotive chugged through Picacho Pass, Orton saw the familiar jagged volcanic plug standing alone in the broad, flat valley. At the narrowest point in the pass, Picacho Peak loomed large, and the train began a slow, almost imperceptible turn to the northwest. The general’s eyes followed the dusty trace that marked the old Butterfield stage road before finally finding what he was looking for—Lieutenant James Barrett’s grave. The marker, only 20 feet from the tracks, flashed past his window in an instant and was gone.

Orton had last seen this place 25 years before, as a youthful captain of the 1st California Cavalry. He wondered why Barrett’s sister, Ellen, had never claimed her brother’s remains or had them properly buried in California. Even the two enlisted men who had died beside him had been reinterred in the military cemetery at Tucson’s Fort Lowell. When that fort was deactivated, they were moved again to the national cemetery at the Presidio in San Francisco. But Barrett, the first to fall, had been forgotten.

Orton thought of the war and the role played by the California Volunteers in the Arizona desert. Many of his comrades were active in the Grand Army of the Republic— GAR posts had sprung up everywhere, from coast to coast—but the Californians sat silent as the old soldiers from the Army of the Potomac prattled on about the great battles in the East. The march of the California Column that spring of 1862 had been all but forgotten—buried, it seemed, with Barrett.

In the mixed company of veterans from East and West, it was hard even to broach the subject of desert marches, Apache fights and saving the gold-rich territories for the Union. But when old California Volunteers got together, they remembered. Some would eagerly scan new history texts and encyclopedias for even a mention of the Civil War in Arizona—only to be disappointed.

As time passed and the veteran ranks began to thin, interest in the Civil War grew, as though the nation recognized that something precious would soon be lost. Congress authorized publication of the 128-volume Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, and in 1890—the same year the U.S. Census Bureau declared the Western frontier to be closed—the state of California commissioned a war record of its own. General Orton would compile and publish in a single volume the extant records of the California Volunteers.

This flurry of historical activity soon passed, however, and as the 20th century began, only rare mentions of the Civil War in the Far West could be found in print. Arizona achieved statehood in 1912, and stories of the California Column were still found occasionally in newspaper obituaries. Hundreds of California soldiers had stayed in Arizona or returned after the war. They had built homes and businesses, raised families and become community leaders. Newspapermen in the prosperous cities of Phoenix, Prescott, Tucson and Yuma now wrote sentimentally, even reverentially, of the passing pioneers—“the boys of ’63.” By World War II, the last GAR post in Arizona was closed and the records lost.

Today only Picacho Pass remains, a silent reminder of the Civil War in Arizona and a time when brave men fought and died in the desert.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here

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