Clash at Picacho Peak

This is a sketch of a Civil War era cavalry.

Jim Head

"Our loneliness ... [was] indescribable.  We were cut off from all communication with the civilized world, in a desert and inhospitable country.  Ahead of us was an enemy of whose numbers we knew little, and behind a forbidding desert ... To add still more to our loneliness, as the sound of the pick and shovel were heard, was the dismal howl of the wild coyote ... The graves being dug, without a word or a prayer we rolled the bodies in their blankets and laid them to rest."

The words of J. C. Hall, a Union private in the 1st California Infantry, beckon to us and ignite our desire to understand just what occurred on April 15, 1862, that brought this volunteer soldier to such a state of mind. 

In late February 1862 the Confederacy's Stars and Bars were raised above the Presidio of Tucson by Company A of Capt. Sherod Hunter's Arizona Rangers.  The local population welcomed these 100 or so trail-worn, hardened frontiersmen, likely out of fear of Indian attacks rather than any inherent loyalty to the Southern cause.  About half of the Rangers entering town were Texans, the others were from the surrounding region unofficially known as Arizona, but actually the Southern half of New Mexico Territory. 

The Rangers' mission was to secure the western flank of Confederate "Arizona" and perform governmental duties for the region, while deterring Apache raiders and defending against Union forces from California.  Little support would come from Hunter's parent command under Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley, whose New Mexico Campaign was underway.  This was a major undertaking for Hunter and his small force of Arizona Rangers.

December 1861 had brought news of the Rebel invasion to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, General-in-Chief of Union forces.  He approved a plan of establishing a "Column from California," consisting of infantry, cavalry, and artillery elements commanded by Col. James H. Carleton, a capable  regular army officer experienced in campaigning in the mountains and deserts of New Mexico Territory.  With a full strength of about 2,350 men, Carleton's command was to keep Texas Rebels out of California, reestablish the overland mail route and threaten General Sibley's flank further east in New Mexico, a truly difficult task. 

After preparing the abandoned stations of the Butterfield Overland Stage route with supplies; Carleton's main column left Fort Yuma on the Arizona border, marching for Tucson in early April 1861.  The command inched its way across the desert, with large gaps between units, leaving time for waterholes to be replenished as the column followed the stage route to resupply at previously established way stations.  Near one of these way stations was a grain mill operated by well-known Unionist Ammi White. 

Unbeknownst to the marching column, in early March, Capt. Hunter and 30 Rangers, had arrested White and dismantled the mill.  They now waited for Union troops to arrive.  When Capt. William McCleave, leading an advance party of the Californians, reached White's mill, the Confederates were posing as civilians.  He unsuspectingly gave Hunter intimate knowledge of the Federal dispositions and was captured, along with several of his troopers. 

With the new information, Hunter's Rangers burned Carleton's pre-positioned supplies.  This effort extended about 80 miles west to Stanwix Station where, on March 30th, the met two Union scouting parties.  The Rangers ordered the sentinels to surrender.  Instead, they fled amidst a flurry of Rebel fire, experiencing a single casualty.  A Federal cavalry force under Capt. William P. Calloway attempted to pursue the Rebels, but the horses were tired, and the Southerners soon outdistanced them.  This encounter marked the westernmost advance of any organized Southern force during the war. 

The Southerners continued east into the vicinity of Picacho Peak in modern Pinal County, some 45 miles northwest of Tucson.  Picacho Peak dominates the surrounding Sonoran desert filled with saguaro cacti.  This landmark is an ancient, eroded volcano plug.  A Butterfield Overland Stage station sat at the base of the impressive hill at what was also known to travelers as Picacho Pass.

In early April, Capt. Hunter placed Sgt. Henry Holmes and nine other Rangers at Picacho to give warning of any advancing Union force.  The Rangers camped at the abandoned stage station and from the pass watched the road for their oncoming enemy.

Calloway, now at the Pima Villages some 40 miles to the north, got word of the Texans at Picacho.  His orders were to capture Tucson and free Capt. McCleave, and on April 14th his command left the Pima Villages.  His plan was to have two 12-man cavalry squads, led by Lieutenants James Barrett and Ephraim C. Baldwin, circle behind the Rebels while his main column attacked the camp frontally. 

According to Calloway, Lt. Barrett acting alone rather than in concert, surprised the Rebels and should have captured them "without firing a shot, if the thing had been conducted properly."  Instead, in mid-afternoon the lieutenant "led his men into the thicket single file without dismounting them.  The first fire from the enemy emptied four saddles, when the enemy retired farther into the dense thicket and had time to reload ... Barrett followed them, calling on his men to follow him." 

Three Southerners surrendered immediately.  Barrett had secured one of the prisoners and remounted his horse when a bullet struck him in the neck, killing him instantly.  The fierce and confused fighting surged among the mequite and arroyos for more than an hour, with two more Union fatalities and three wounded troopers.  Exhausted and leaderless, the Californians broke off the fight and the Rangers, minus three as prisoners, taking advantage of the lull, mounted up and fled.  That eliminated any chance of a Union surprise attack on Tucson.

Late that afternoon, Captain Calloway's column arrive on the scene, but the Rebels had retired to Tucson.  Calloway interrogated the prisoners, but still uncertain of the number of Rebels in Tucson, he set up camp and placed his mountain howitzer battery on some high ground to await a counterattack that never came. 

The Californians attempted to rest that night, but it was difficult, as Pvt. J. C. Hall recalled:

Suddenly we were awakened by a command to turn out and help bury the dead ... [T]he moon was shining brightly ... We rose up quickly to a half dazed condition ... The scenes being enacted before us in the wild pass in the mountains, with hazy, misty light falling around and casting strange shadows upon the men as they moved about ... like so many specters, with now and then a command given in a whisper to perform the last sad duty to their comrades, seemed unnatural.

Calloway subsequently retreated back to the Pima Villages to await the Union main column; he remained a month at that location.  Although Hunter's Arizona Rangers achieved their objective of delaying the Union force, the Californians took Tucson without firing a shot on May 20, 1862.

Aware of the nearby Federal troops, Capt. Hunter had implored his commander to send reinforcements.  However, Gen. Sibley had been defeated at Glorieta Pass in late March and had stealthily retreated toward Texas.  No assistance was forthcoming, and on May 14, 1862, Capt. Sherod Hunter's Company A, Arizona Rangers, abandoned Tucson and proceeded to Mesilla, New Mexico Territory.  That, coupled with Sibley's retreat, ended the possibility of capturing the American Southwest and ultimately and ocean-to-ocean Confederacy. 

Years after the American Civil War, troops stationed in Tucson were sent to Picacho Pass to recover the bodies of the Union soldiers buried there.  Only two were found.  The body of Lt. Barrett was never recovered.  Likely, his remains are still buried in an unmarked grave presiding over the battlefield where he sacrificed his life for the unification of our great nation.  Today, Picacho Peak State Park hosts an annual reenactment commemorating the southwestern battles of Picacho Peak, Glorieta Pass and Valverde.