Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Civil War Battlefield / Picacho Pass

At the onset of the American Civil War, the Territory of New Mexico spanned from the Texas border all the way west to California. The present state of Arizona was then part of the New Mexico Territory.

The Civil War in the West

Often times when people think of the Civil War they tend to recall the great battles in the east such as Gettysburg, Shiloh and Appomattox. There was however a fair amount of activity in the southwest. Texas as an example sympathized with the Confederacy and fielded a cavalry which battled Union forces mostly in it's own territory and in Arkansas. The Territory of New Mexico's largest battle was at Glorietta Pass in 1862 southeast of Santa Fe where Colorado Union volunteers defeated a Confederate force trying to advance north.

The Westernmost Battle

What was recognized as the westernmost battle of the Civil War occurred on April 15th, 1862 at Picacho Pass in present day Arizona, 50 miles northwest of Tucson.

That extreme southwest corner of the continent, while far removed from Dixie, was a Confederate sympathizer stronghold. The majority of the people who had migrated there were from the Old South and from Texas. The area was fairly neglected by the federal government and for the most part lawless so there were few reasons for strong allegiance to the Union.

John Robert Bayler, pictured to the right, was a key Confederate military figure in the New Mexico Territory. In 1861 he organized troops to fight southwest Union forces and after some success overtaking Union outposts declared himself military governor of the"new" Arizona Territory, which represented the southern part of present day New Mexico and Arizona.

Baylor appointed a cabinet and the Confederate Congress confirmed his position. He referred to Tucson as the western capitol of the Arizona Territory and Mesilla (present day Mesilla NM) the eastern capitol. . The image below is of mid 1800's Tucson.

Indians React to the lack of Union Troops

One big problem however after driving the Union forces out was that there was no protection for the settlers from the fierce Apaches.

The Apaches had a history of raiding white settlements and with the confusion of the Civil War they had even more opportunities to do so. The Apache problem was a major concern of Baylor's and this is where he made, what many believe, was the most controversial decision of his military career.

After Baylor succeeded in driving out much the Union force from the southern part of the territory and establishing his own government he had his hands full keeping them out. He requested reinforcements but they weren't sent. Concerning his other problem, he ordered his commanders to seek treaties with the Apaches but without much success.

 In March of 1862, after being totally frustrated, he ordered his commanders to bring together as many Indians as possible under the guise of peace and friendship and gifts, separate the women and children, and when the time was right slaughter all the males. It's not clear how many of his commanders obeyed these orders. Certainly there were mixed feelings within the ranks.

As the story goes, when Confederate President Jefferson Davis heard of the extermination orders issued by Baylor, he immediately relieved him of both his military and civilian commands. Davis went as far as revoking Baylor's military commission. The image at right is of Geronimo and three Apache warriors in the 1860's.

There was an overall Confederate strategy in annexing the southern New Mexico Territory. Firstly, it was westerly adjacent to Confederate Texas. Secondly, it offered an entrance into southern California thus a possible port on the Pacific Ocean.

California became the 31st state in 1850 but had a secessionist movement of it's own going on particularly in the Los Angeles area.. In fact the legislature approved a bill for southern California secession but Union forces prevented it's implementation. Below is an image of a California secessionist flag.

Union forces were able to quell the southern California movement after their secessionist militia went east to fight in Texas. Several Union bases were established in southern California, one of them being Fort Yuma. It's purpose was to check Confederate advances into California and to launch expeditions eastward. Often thought of being in Arizona, Fort Yuma was actually on the west side of the Colorado River in California.

The Confederates are Driven Out

The initial Confederate successes in Arizona turned against them due to the efforts of a Union general by the name of  James H. Carleton, pictured right. In 1862 Carleton marched the 1st California Volunteers from Fort Yuma eastward toward Texas. He linked up with Union General Canby in New Mexico and the Confederate threat in the territory was largely eliminated.

It was during this expedition that the Battle of Picacho Pass took place. On April 15th, 1862 twelve troopers and a scout of the 1st California Volunteer Cavalry led by a Lt. James Barrett was scouting the pass looking for rebels. They came across three Confederate pickets and, against his orders to wait for the main Union column to join him, attacked the pickets. Barrett failed to see seven other Confederates hiding nearby and when they opened fire Barrett and two of his men were killed.

Barrett made the same mistake that George Armstrong Custer made 14 years later but on a much smaller scale. After the ninety minute fight both the Union cavalry and the rebels retreated. The rebels retreated east to Tucson and warned of the advancing Union forces. Rather than stay and fight, the Confederates retreated eastward and left the strategic town of Tucson wide open for Union occupation.

An interesting side note regarding John Baylor... a few years after his dismissal by Jefferson Davis Baylor rejoined the Confederate forces as a private, fought in Texas and rose to the rank of colonel. He wanted to raise troops to retake the Arizona Territory, but with the war ending never had the chance.

Visit Picacho Pass Historic Site

The battle site is very easy to reach located off Interstate-10 between Phoenix and Tucson. The site is just south of the Interstate and about 50 miles northwest of Tucson.  It offers a step back into history as well as an excellent photo opportunity in beautiful southern Arizona. The web site below gives you information to plan your visit.


Sites with additional details of the battle.



An excellent site with more information about John Robert Baylor.


(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)

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