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Home History of the West Civil War and the West The Indian Campaigns Part Two: War Against the Apaches, Navajos

The Indian Campaigns

Part Two: War Against the Apaches, Navajos

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When the federal government at the start of the Civil War ordered regular Army troops to return to the East to fight Confederate forces, it created a power vacuum in the West.

"The Apaches watched the Army ride off, abandoning many frontier forts as they left, and they [the Apaches] thought they'd won, so there was a major increase in raids against the settlers," said Bob Spude, National Park Service historian in the agency's Intermountain Regional Office in New Mexico.
 
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But like a tsunami wave that first pulls back, only to quickly return with devastating effect, Federal troops and state militias became determined to end the Indian attacks. The fighting in the Southwest proved at times to be not only vicious, but costly.

For the Navajos, the fighting would bring an end to their way of life as they knew it. Hunger, starvation and even death was the price for the many who surrendered and took the Long Walk to Fort Sumner and the Bosque Redondo Reservation.

For the Apaches, the war was just a prelude to fighting that would last off and on for more than 20 years.

The South Invades New Mexico Territory

When Confederate Texans marched into the Southwest in 1861, the Apaches had no problem turning their war skills against them. To the Indians, Southerners were just one more group to be fought, and they didn't care if the white men wore blue or gray clothing.

John R. Baylor was one of those Texans. Baylor had been a Texas rancher, farmer, slave owner, and Indian agent, and was someone who fiercely hated-and hunted-Indians. After Texas seceded from the Union, Baylor joined Confederate forces, was presented with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and given command of the Second Texas Rifles. Baylor's initial responsibility was to occupy a couple of forts near El Paso, Texas.

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Baylor wanted more, however. After successfully piercing the Southwest, Baylor made himself governor of the new Confederate Territory of New Mexico. Feeling his oats, and angry that the Indians were fighting his troops whenever they could, Baylor decided to eliminate the Apaches. Besides, Union Colonel James Carleton and his California Column were heading east from Yuma, and Baylor didn't want to fight two enemies at the same time.

When Apache chiefs Cochise and Mangas Coloradas made a successful raid on Confederate lines with the end result of hundreds of horses being stolen, Baylor pursued the Indians until he finally was able to capture several Apache men, women and children. He killed the men and women, and made the children prisoners.

After receiving a request for talks from Mangas Colorado, Baylor issued a very special order to his men:

"The Congress of the Confederate States has passed a law declaring extermination to all hostile Indians. You will therefore use all means to persuade the Apaches or any tribe to come in for the purpose of making peace, and when you get them together kill all the grown Indians and take the children prisoners and sell them."

When word got back to Confederate President Jefferson Davis about Baylor's order, Davis was so repulsed that he relieved Baylor of his command and revoked his commission.

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Baylor's order, and Davis' subsequent firing of Baylor, had little effect on the Apaches. Even as Confederate forces were retreating from the Southwest, the tribes kept on fighting.

Now it was Union's turn to feel Apache fury.

The Bascom Affair

In late January, 1861 (the actual date is uncertain) Indians raided a ranch south of Tucson owned by John Ward and made off with maybe two dozen cattle and Ward's stepson. Ward complained, and (somewhat reluctantly) the US Army sent a second lieutenant, George Bascom, and maybe 50 troopers to recover the boy and the livestock.

Bascom met with Apache leader Cochise and accused him of being responsible for the raid. Cochise denied the charge, and said he would help find Ward's stepson and return in 10 days. The young lieutenant tried to hold Cochise, his other and other Apaches, but Cochise grabbed a knife, cut his way out of Bascom's tent and escaped.

Cochise came back the next day to try and negotiate, but Bascom was firm, and would only let Cochise's brother and the other Apaches go if the boy was returned.

What followed was a series of escalations that included Cochise capturing a small party of white men, offering them to Bascom for the Apache hostages, but again Bascom refusing. The Apaches then attacked a wagon train and a few more white captives were taken. Later, Cochise attacked some of Bascom's troops who had been sent to water mules near Apache Pass.

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In the end, the frustrated Apaches killed the white captives and fled. Troopers later hanged the Apache hostages near the graves of the whites who had been killed by the Apaches.

The Bascom Affair, as it later was called, is regarded as the spark that started a war with the Apaches that would last until the early 1870s.

Just after the Bascom incident, the Apaches would face another threat from another of the Union's Civil War officers: James H. Carleton.

In 1862, Carleton was driving east, leading the California Column (a force of about 2,000 militia) to push the Confederates back into Texas. As part of his effort to keep the Texans from coming back, Carleton founded
Fort Bowie (in what is now eastern Arizona) near Apache Pass, a landmark on the important Overland Stage road. It was here that about 100 members of Carleton's First Infantry California Volunteers was ambushed by about 150 Apache warriors, led by Cochise.

Fighting between the two forces over July 15-16 was fierce, and if it hadn't been for two mountain howitzers brought up by the troops that kept up a steady fire, the Apaches might have won the day. The Apaches were never able to regain control of Apache Pass and Apache Springs, an important source of water for the area.

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Following upon his successes early in the Civil War against the Texans, Carleton was promoted to brigadier general and placed in charge of the Department of New Mexico. Carleton wasted no time in turning his attention to the Navajos.

A fierce and violent tribe, for more than 300 years the Navajos had been fighting not only the Spaniards but other Indian tribes in the region. Their raiding was now causing a problem to white settlers.

Carleton recruited Christopher Houston "Kit" Carson to the job of defeating the Navajos and ending the tribe's threats once and for all.

Carson, a legend of the American frontier, had been a fur trapper, guide to General John C. Fremont, a lieutenant in the War with Mexico, and a federal Indian agent. When the Civil War began, Carson resigned as an Indian agent and joined the New Mexico volunteer infantry. When Carleton was given the job of defeating the Navajos, Carleton turned to Carson, who gave him the title of colonel.

Appalled at Carleton's plan to wage a brutal campaign by killing as many Apache men as possible, Carson reluctantly accepted Carleton's assignment, but conducted a scorched earth policy instead, saying that by destroying the Navajo's food stores, corn fields and villages, it would accomplish Carlton's goal.

Carson was proved right, although his scorched earth policy was devastating. The campaign culminated in the winter of 1863-1864 with Carson attacking the last Navajo village in
Canyon de Chelly, now a national monument. The Navajos surrendered, and as a result more than 3,000 were marched to the Bosco Redondo reservation, with many (some say at least in the hundreds) dying along the way.

Except for some continued Apache raiding, the Indian threat in the Southwest was ended. The war against the Indian tribes in the West was far from over, however, and some of the worst fighting was yet to come, including the massacre at Sand Creek.


 
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