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Some Awful Moment
... the most dangerous thing in the world is a second lieutenant with a map and compass.
—Old service adage, quoted by Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War
But who, if he be called upon to face
Some awful moment to which Heaven has join'd
Great issues, good or bad, for humankind,
Is happy as a Lover, and attired
With sudden brightness like a Man inspired;
—William Wordsworth, "Character of the Happy Warrior"
WARRIORS WHO GO IN HARM'S WAY AND STAY THERE LONG ENOUGH will almost inevitably be confronted with a defining moment, one that can forever alter their view of themselves—for good or ill. In rare cases, those moments also affect the course of history. The tensions of these moments, along with the excitement, are intensified for someone in command, especially a young officer, not only because he has to make a decision with little experience to guide him, but also because he has to make it in front of his troops—men whose good opinions he values, whose loyalty he depends on, and whose lives he is responsible for. Worse yet, there rarely is much time in these situations to think the matter through or to seek counsel, assuming any is available. One of the most difficult questions a young officer ever has to answer is "What should we do, Lieutenant?" It's the same question he is asking himself, and the more anxious the moment, the less sure he is of the answer.
To a romantic poet like Wordsworth, with no experience of war, the "happy warrior" greets these moments cheerfully and with confidence and inspiration. No doubt such heroes have existed. After all, Wordsworth was writing about Lord Nelson, who fit the image and made decisions that generally worked out well, for the British, at any rate. But Nelson and people like him are not necessarily the norm. Closer to the norm is Lieutenant George Nicolas Bascom, West Point, class of 1858. When faced with his own defining moment, Bascom made a decision that started a war with Cochise and his Chiricahua Apaches that would cost thousands of lives and end with the virtual eradication of a people and their culture. The incident certainly qualifies as "some awful moment to which Heaven has join'd great issues, good or bad," although Bascom did not know that at the time. Faced with a difficult situation, Bascom did what he thought was right. Unfortunately, events proved he made a tragic mistake, a mistake that let slip the proverbial dogs of war.
Why did Bascom do what he did? Why did Cochise, an older man, wise in councils and respected by his tribe, respond the way he did? What historical forces combined to bring them together in Apache Pass, a remote and rugged corner of southern Arizona?* And if what happened was a tragedy, does that mean it was inevitable?
* * *
While eyewitnesses, both Apache and U.S. army troops, disagree on some of the details of the incident, all agree on the prevailing outline of the story:
In 1860, John Ward was living with his Mexican common-law wife and her twelve-year-old son, Felix, on a ranch in the foothills between Tucson and the Mexican border. Like many men living on the edges of civilization, Ward was forced to scramble to make ends meet. If his scrambling now and then included snatching some cattle from across the border, it did not bring him much in the way of prosperity. His ranch was nothing more than a ramshackle house, a few cattle, a patch of garden, and some chickens scratching in the yard. When and if he had anything to sell, his only markets were the army post, Fort Buchanan, a few working mines, and the sleepy adobe villages along the Santa Cruz River, Tubac and Tucson. But Tubac and Tucson were many miles away. To supplement his meager income, Ward could hunt, for the country was rich in game—deer, antelope, elk, javelina, and even bear. There were also quail and, in season, the occasional migrating duck. If desperate, he could hunt coyotes and wolves for their pelts. There were plenty of them. Mountain lions too. But it was a difficult life, and Ward was far from prosperous. Or comfortable.
Despite the presence of the fort a dozen miles away, Ward and his family, like all the scattered settlers in the area, were in more or less constant danger from marauding Apaches, as well as from Mexican desperadoes who came across the border to steal what little there was to be had in the tiny settlements and remote ranches of southern Arizona. Perhaps the settlers' poverty should have made them unappealing targets, but there was always the risk that a raider had even less than they did, or wanted to raid simply for the sake of raiding. There were such people. So if Ward and the few others like him felt they were out on a limb, they had good cause. To get an inkling of a settler's emotions, you only need to sit quietly in this still remote corner of Arizona and imagine, especially in the darkness, that there is not a friend for miles; there's no one to call on for help in any emergency, no one to help in case that movement you hear in the tall grass is something more sinister than just a prowling coyote or javelina.
Despite the exposure and its risks, Ward did have some aesthetic compensations, assuming he was able to appreciate them. His ranch was in the beautiful Sonoita Valley, thirty miles or so from the Mexican border and fifty miles south of Tucson, on the eastern side of the tall Santa Rita mountain range. Sonoita Creek, a spring-fed stream that flowed all year long, was a reliable source of good water. "Sonoita" is a Papago word meaning "place where the corn grows." With good water and abundant grass, it was possible to make a living, albeit precarious, as a farmer or rancher in this country. Were it not for the Apaches and bandits, one might do very well, in fact. The elevation of Ward's ranch was about four thousand feet above sea level, so the weather was generally moderate and grasslands and timber abundant. (Western weather and vegetation are as much a function of elevation as of latitude, if not more so.) Daily temperature swings of forty degrees or more were common all year, and winter temperatures could reach single digits, while summers were comparatively mild and seldom got much above ninety degrees. Technically, the area was part of the Sonoran Desert, but it was not desert as most people think of it. Rainfall averaged eighteen to twenty inches a year, and the rolling land and foothills were dotted with mesquites and cottonwoods and live oaks that were green the year-round, except in spring when the leaves turned yellow and dropped off to make way for new ones. It was the opposite of autumn, and an easterner might be excused for being disoriented. The land was covered with grama grass, a particularly nutritious forage for grazing animals, and from a distance the stirrup-high blades made the rolling hills and canyons look soft and welcoming. Until you entered them. Then you understood that the grass was growing on hard and rocky soil. Loose stones made the footing difficult for men and animals. Still, it was beautiful country. The air was generally clear and dry. It was always sunny, except during the summer monsoons—a vital rainy season that replenished the grass that Ward's cattle and most of the game animals depended on. Then vast clouds would gather above the mountains, and Wagnerian lightning bolts and rolling thunder would light up the night, and the rain would come, necessary and wished for and yet dangerous when it gathered in flash floods and swept through the canyons and arroyos. And then the grass, which most months was the tawny color of a mountain lion, turned green, and the valleys and canyons changed character and the air smelled from the perfume the grasses and the sage let loose. Washed by the rain, the oaks and junipers, the cottonwoods and sycamores, and the mesquites shone forth in various shades of green that said this land was renewing itself and undergoing a cleansing and necessary cycle.
Northwest of Ward's ranch, the Santa Rita Mountains rose to almost ten thousand feet, their summits above the timberline. Many a winter morning the mountains would be dusted with snow. Now and then a foot or so of snow would fall in the lower elevations, though the sun would melt most of it by early afternoon. It was welcome moisture, because there was no runoff, and nothing was lost from erosion.
The Santa Cruz River Valley lay to the west of Ward's ranch. The Santa Cruz flowed north from Mexico along the west side of the Santa Ritas, dropping down through Tubac and Tucson, and on to its juncture with the Gila River just south of what is now Phoenix. Then it was nothing but desert except where the Pima Indians and their friends and allies the Maricopas had dug irrigation canals for their crops. Land that looked utterly barren could and did become bountiful when irrigated. To the north and east of the Santa Cruz and Gila River Valleys lay rugged mountain ranges, well forested and watered. These mountains were the home of the western Apache tribes.
The Santa Cruz Valley was a major highway for Apache raiders on their way into and out of Sonora, and for Mexican bandits coming north on their forays. The Apaches, some of whom lived in the mountains north of Tucson, kept the tiny outposts of Tucson and Tubac under virtual house arrest. Other bands lived in the mountains to the east. The Apaches lived primarily by raiding, and they terrorized not only the Mexicans in the valley and in Mexico, but also the peaceful Arizonan Indian tribes—the Pimas, Papagos, and Maricopas. These tribes were farmers, and the Apaches regularly extorted harvests from them, leaving enough to keep their vassals alive to bring in future harvests. Now and then these tribes would strike back, for although they were peacefully inclined, they were not docile. But as a rule, the Apaches held them in a kind of thralldom, because the Apaches were manifestly not peacefully inclined and not only lived by raiding but defined themselves by it. They were warriors. And warriors obviously need someone to fight with.
Aside from Tucson and Tubac, there were some scattered ranches in the Santa Cruz Valley. The redoubtable Pete Kitchen lived in a veritable fortress near the borderline, where he and his Mexican wife and in-laws and their Indian and Mexican vaqueros did their ranch work, always alert to the possibility of Apache ambush. They had good reason—Apache raiders had killed Kitchen's twelve-year-old adopted son—and they periodically attacked the ranch, killing animals or running off stock.
The Apaches had no fear of the recently arrived U.S. Army. Fort Buchanan, established near Sonoita Creek in 1856, was a pitiful excuse for a post, exposed and undermanned. In fact, the Apaches probably welcomed the presence of the fort, because it meant another potential supply of horses, mules, and the occasional rifle and ammunition of a careless soldier who wandered too far from the fort.
The Apaches' primary raiding territory, though, was Mexico. And they did not raid merely to acquire livestock for their own consumption; they were also in the business of trade. There were active illegal markets on both sides of the border—Bent's Fort, Taos, Santa Fe, Chihuahua City, Janos, as well as a number of smaller, even ad hoc markets—where Apache raiders could meet Mexican and American traders who were interested in acquiring stolen stock. Apaches could and did steal cattle and horses in Sonora and sell them in the neighboring state of Chihuahua—and vice versa. Buyers were not hard to find. These traders had what the Apaches needed more than anything—arms and ammunition. But the markets were not just for cattle. Apaches also sold captives into slavery, or for ransom. Kidnapping was therefore an element in the Apache economy. Sometimes, though, they would adopt captives, especially small boys, into the tribe. And now and then they would keep Mexican women as slaves. Having no proscriptions against polygamy, an Apache man might add an attractive captive woman to his household, although she would most likely suffer the displeasure of the warrior's other wives. But Apaches invariably killed Mexican adult males. If lucky, the Mexicans were killed during the raid. If unlucky, they were taken back to the Apaches' camp and killed there, slowly, or turned over to the women for execution in their own particular style.
The Mexicans reciprocated in the slave trade by attacking Apache (as well as Navajo) rancherias and capturing women and children, whom they would sell to wealthy landholders in Mexico and along the Rio Grande Valley. The 1850 census of the Territory of New Mexico, which included what became Arizona, showed sixty-one thousand people living mostly in the settlements along the Rio Grande. In other words, there were plenty of potential buyers of Indian children to be baptized and then raised as peons. (Baptism might seem a rather thin fig leaf to cover trade in human chattel, but it's worth remembering that Catholics were told by their priests that baptism meant saving the immortal soul of a savage who would otherwise be damned.) This two-way trafficking in captives is at least a partial explanation of the inveterate hatred Apaches felt for Mexicans. Mexicans returned that hatred with interest. This enmity was the result of centuries of fearsome warfare and cruelty, including not only slavery but scalp bounties and uncountable raids and murders, both suffered and committed.*
Needless to say, the borderland between Mexico and Arizona was a dangerous place.
* * *
In January of 1861, Apaches raided John Ward's ranch. They stole a few cattle and captured Ward's twelve-year-old stepson, Felix. Ward was away at the time, but when he discovered what happened, he rode to Fort Buchanan, a dozen miles from his ranch, and reported the incident to the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Pitcairn Morrison. Ward accused Cochise's band of Chiricahua Apaches. He had no real evidence for naming Cochise. In fact, the Chiricahuas' homeland was seventy miles to the east—in and around the mountain range of the same name. But the Chiricahuas ranged far and wide in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico, so the accusation was not entirely far-fetched. And the trail of the raiders led east. What's more, two years before, Cochise's band had been guilty of a similar raid near Sonoita Creek, when the raiders stole a few horses. That problem was solved by the diplomatic efforts of Captain Richard S. Ewell. He led a contingent of soldiers from Fort Buchanan into Cochise's territory and, through a show of force combined with an offer of trade goods, resolved the possible crisis. Cochise returned the captured stock and as a bonus released a captive Mexican boy. So although in the Ward case, Cochise and his band were innocent, Ward's suspicion was not unreasonable. By this time too, along with Mangas Coloradas, Cochise was the most famous, or notorious, Apache chief, and so was often accused of depredations he had no part in—though he was far from an innocent bystander. Like Jesse James later, who was accused of every train robbery, Cochise's name naturally came up whenever there was an Apache raid. And as with James, sometimes the accusations were legitimate.
(Ewell, by the way, went on to become a Confederate general; he commanded Lee's left wing at Gettysburg. In Arizona, though, he was still a captain after nearly twenty years of service. Promotion came slowly in the peacetime regular army.)
There was little, if any, civilian law in the area, so the army acted as the frontier constabulary as well as a military force. Some of Morrison's troops were out on patrol, and he was not able to organize enough men to go in search of the raiders for several weeks. Also, he had only infantry at his immediate disposal and therefore needed to assemble enough mules to provide transport. Finally, in February, he sent Lieutenant George N. Bascom along with fifty- four soldiers toward Apache Pass in search of Cochise's camp. Ward went along as interpreter. He didn't speak Apache, but he knew some Spanish, and many Apaches were Spanish speakers, as a result of their long years of raiding, warfare, and trading in Mexico.
In modern histories that touch on this incident, Bascom is portrayed as the stereotypical "shavetail" lieutenant, fresh from West Point and eager to make a name for himself. (The term shavetail comes from the army's practice of shaving the tails of young and untrained mules to distinguish them from the older, more reliable animals.) Charles D. Poston, a Kentuckian, who was in southern Arizona at the time of these events, remembered the young lieutenant: "Bascom was a fine-looking fellow, a Kentuckian, a West Pointer, and, of course, a gentleman; but he was unfortunately a fool...." Historians also regularly note that Bascom finished twenty-sixth out of twenty-seven in his class at West Point.
Excerpted from The Wrath of Cochise by Terry Mort. Copyright © 2013 Terry Mort. Excerpted by permission of Pegasus Books LLC.
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