Western Trips

Western Trips

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Fort Bowie Arizona and The Battle of Apache Pass

A visit to the Fort Bowie National Historic Site takes you back to the period when the U.S. Military fought a decades long war against the Chiriicahua Apaches.

Fort Bowie was the center of actions by the U.S. Army against the Chiricahua Apaches for twenty years. The fort was first established in 1862 by the California Column of Volunteers on its way to New Mexico during the American Civil War. 

apache pass arizona
Apache Pass
The site of the fort was at one time a stagecoach station along the Overland Mail route. The Overland stage station at Apache Springs was also the site in 1861 of a confrontation between Apache leader Cochise and a Lt. George Bascom. This encounter would be the trigger for an Apache War that would not officially end until the surrender of Geronimo in 1886.

After Geronimo's surrender the fort was no longer necessary and was abandoned in 1894. You'll find that many of the old west frontier forts were closed beginning in the late 1880's.

Hiking to the Fort Bowie Ruins

Today, hikers can take a trail that leads to the site of the fort ruins. Your hike will also take you to the ruins of the old Butterfield stagecoach station. These are two key sites to visit regarding the historic Butterfield cross country route and the Apache War. The westbound Butterfield stages in this region went to San Simon, Apache Pass, Ewell Springs and Dragoon Springs. From there it was to Benson Arizona, Tucson and to Yuma on the Colorado River. Apache Pass was considered the most vulnerable spot along the 2,900 plus miles of the Butterfield route.

confederate tucson
Confederate flag raising at Tucson
The Fort Bowie Historic Site is open all year except on Christmas Day. The site is very popular with tourists despite its remote location. Some of the markers along the trail included the names of local plant life, an Apache campsite and the Fort Bowie graveyard. Inside the Visitors Center you'll find photos, plenty of artifacts as well as old military uniforms. The Fort Bowie Historic Site and the hiking trail to the Fort ruins make a fine family vacation stop.

To arrive at the hiking trail head take Highway 186 south from Willcox Arizona for about twenty-two miles  to Apache Pass Road. Follow Apache Pass Road for about eight miles until you get to the parking lot. The hiking trail is three miles long round trip.

See our Western Trips articles on the links below...

The Battle of Picacho Pass

Fort Apache National Historic Site

A Visit to Willcox Arizona

fort bowie arizona ruins
Ruins of Fort Bowie
The Battle of Apache Pass

The California Column of Volunteers started out from southern California in 1861 for two purposes. They were to take back what was then called Confederate Arizona and then head eastward to reinforce Union troops in present day New Mexico. 

At that time the Territory of New Mexico was what today are the present states of New Mexico and Arizona. The Confederate forces, most of which were from Texas, took control of the southern sections of both present day states. Tucson was it's western capital and this was another target of the California Column of Volunteers led by General James Henry Carleton.

The California Column of Volunteers traveled through southern Arizona like everyone did. They traveled from spring to spring. Water availability was essential and there just happened to be a well known spring near Apache Pass. 

general james henry carleton
Gen. James Henry Carleton
While the California Volunteers were sent to fight the Confederates, the Battle of Apache Pass was a battle against the Apache tribes. The troops under General Carleton were not on the trail of Apaches but were merely traveling eastward toward New Mexico on their campaign against the rebels. The battle was an offshoot of the bloody war which began in earnest a year earlier by Cochise. 

The battle of Apache Pass took place July 15-16, 1862.  This battle led directly to the erecting pf Fort Bowie which began near the end of July. 

Cochise kept small bands of warriors on horseback all throughout Apacheland. Indian smoke signals or lights seen mountain to mountain would often send forth two or three Apache groups against a moving column of soldiers. Typically, the Apaches avoided a head to head battle but rather would leave their horses behind and place the,selves behind rocks along the trail ready to spring an ambush.

Interestingly enough, the Apaches did not fully understand the Civil War and they thought that the absence of soldiers, most of which were transferred east, was a sign that they were effectively chasing them out of Apacheland. As a result, most of their depredations were targeted at white settlers. 

dragoon mountains cochise
Arizona's Dragoon Mountains and Cochise Stronghold
The Battle of Apache Pass began when a forward advance of the California Volunteer column was searching for much needed water. The 88 man detachment found themselves boxed into a canyon that had Apaches high on the rocks above them raining fire down. The soldiers finally went through a breech and  made their way to the water but it took their howitzers to dislodge the Apaches from the overhead rocks. 

Without the howitzers the detachment could have been wiped out. The last shot of the battle struck Apache leader Mangas Coloradas in the chest and this event caused the Apaches to break away from the attack. Mangas Coloradas did survive his serious wound. 

An Excellent Western Trip Stop

The Battle of Apache Pass was a significant event during the Civil War. With General carleton able to push through to the east he was able to hook up with Union forces in New Mexico. Visiting this site takes you to both a historic site and one which saw more than it's share of violence both during the Butterfield Overland Mail days and during the Civil War. 

Visiting the Fort Bowie Visitors Center and taking the relatively short hike to the fort and stage station ruins is a fun and inexpensive way to learn more about the Apache Indians, old Arizona and the Civil War in the West. If your travels take you to southern Arizona along Interstate 10 the Fort Bowie National Historic Site is a fine addition to your western trip planner. Apache Pass is located about 106 miles east of Tucson Arizona and about 25 miles west of the New Mexico border.

(Article copyright 2014 Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)


1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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