The Battle of Apache Pass

Captain Thomas L. Roberts, First Infantry California Volunteers, with 126 men, was ordered to march east from Tucson to San Simon (about 175 miles) to set up a supply depot for the Column from California. Captain John Cremony was in charge of the cavalry escort and the wagon train consisting of 21 wagons and 242 animals--both mules and horses. The following is Cremony's description of the battle of Apache pass, as found in his 1868 book, Life among the Apaches.

Remington, Cavalry Charge

[The Column from California advances to Apache Pass--July, 1862]

In consequence of the report made by Lieut.-Col. E. A. Rigg, Gen. Carleton again ordered me in advance, with Capt. Thomas Roberts, Co. E, First California Infantry. Arriving at the San Pedro river, it became necessary to learn whether Dragoon Springs, some twenty-eight miles further on, could supply both companies, at a time, with water, or whether we would be obliged to break into detachments. Capt. Roberts took the advance with his infantry and three wagons, having also selected seven of my best mounted men to serve as scouts and couriers. I remained behind with fifteen of my cavalry and ten of Roberts' company, including the detachment left as a garrison at the river, where a tolerable adobe building, erected by the Overland Mail Stage Company, afforded decent shelter, and a defensible position.

[July 14, 1862] The night after Roberts left was one of the most stormy I ever witnessed. The rain descended in floods. Earth and sky appeared thunder riven; blazing lightnings leaped from the inky clouds, and absorbed the Cimmerian darkness with their blinding flashes. The San Pedro roared and foamed, the animals quailed and bent before the storm, and all nature seemed convulsed. I was in charge of sixteen wagons with their mules and precious freight, and my chief attention was elicited to secure their safety. Experience had taught me that the Apaches would select exactly such a time to make a bold attempt, and I doubled my sentries. Throwing myself on the earthen floor, without removing my side arms or any portion of my clothing, I endeavored to obtain some repose. About two o'clock a.m., I was aroused by the Sergeant of the guard, who informed me that strange lights were visible coming down the hills on the west, north, and south sides. A hasty survey showed me four lights, as of large burning brands, on three different sides of the compass, and apparently approaching the station. I felt convinced from this open demonstration, that no attack was meditated, for, in that case, the greatest secrecy and caution would have been observed by the Apaches. Nevertheless, the garrison was summoned and disposed to the best advantage. All fires were extinguished, and all lights shrouded from observation. In the course of a few minutes seven or eight more lights made their appearance and seemed to be carried by persons walking at a rapid pace. Some of them approached within, what I considered, two hundred yards of the station, and at one time I felt greatly inclined to try the effect of a chance shot from my rifle, but gave up the idea from the conviction that no Apache would carry a torch within that distance, and maintain an erect position, while my fire might expose the persons of my men and draw a more effective return. After an hour and a half of anxious watch, the lights gradually united and faded away toward the east.

It was not until more than a year had elapsed that I learned the meaning of this occurrence. A celebrated leading man of the Mescalero Apaches, named Gian-nah-tah, or Always Ready, gave the desired information, which precisely tallied with succeeding events. He said that, as the Apaches are a dispersed and perpetually wandering race, it is impossible for one detachment to know where others might be at any time; but that when a great body of them was needed for any joint undertaking they made smoke signals of a certain character by day, and signals of fire by night. That, on the occasion of which I write, the nature of the country prohibited fire signals from being seen except from very short distances, and runners were hurried through the district, bearing torches, which would indicate that the aid of all within sight was required. In fine, it was the "speed, Malise, speed," of the Apache. This explanation will account for what followed.

Between three and four o'clock a.m., just after the lights had disappeared, the sound of horses advancing at a fast gallop was heard approaching the station. The sentinel challenged, and was immediately answered with the round Saxon response, "Friends." It proved to be two of my own company, who had been sent back by Captain Roberts with the information that there was abundance of water at Dragoon Springs, and instruction to join him with the train without delay. The poor fellows had ridden twenty-eight miles through that terrible storm, and in the heart of a country swarming with hostile and ever vigilant savages. Two days subsequently they had a splendid opportunity to test their gallantry, and most nobly did they respond to the appeal. In obedience to order, we set forward before daylight to join Captain Roberts, and reached Dragoon Springs, without incident, at three o'clock p.m. A long and fatiguing march of forty miles had to be made before reaching Apache Pass, where the next water was to be had, and as we were in doubt as to the quantity, it was agreed again that I should remain at Dragoon Springs until next morning, while Captain Roberts was to push ahead with his infantry and seven of my company, leaving the train under my charge. At half-past five o'clock p.m. he set out, and the strictest vigilance was maintained in camp the whole night. By daylight next morning we were again in the saddle, and the train duly straightened out for the long and dreary march. Had we not been encumbered with wagons my cavalry could have made the distance easily in seven hours; but we were compelled to keep pace with those indispensable transports of food, ammunition, clothing and medicine. A little before dark we arrived at Ewell's Station, fifteen miles west of [Apache] pass, and I determined to park the train, as the mules had almost given out, and were quite unable to accomplish the remainder of the march without some rest. Just as I had come to this conclusion we perceived several riders coming toward us with all speed, and they soon proved to be the detachment of my company which had been detailed to act with Captain Roberts. Two of them were mounted behind two others, and all had evidently ridden hard. Sergeant Mitchell approached, and saluting, said: "Captain Roberts has been attacked in Apache Pass by a very large body of Indians. We fought them for six hours, and finally compelled them to run. Captain Roberts then directed us to come back through the pass, and report to you with orders to park the train and take every precaution for its safety. He will join you tonight. On leaving the pass we were pursued by over fifty well armed and mounted Apaches, and we lost three horses, killed under us, and that one--pointing to a splendid gray--is mortally wounded. Sergeant Maynard, now present, has his right arm fractured at the elbow, with a rifle ball, and John Teal we believe to be killed, as we saw him cut off by a band of fifteen or twenty savages, while we were unable to render him any assistance."

The wagons were ordered to be parked; every man was supplied with ammunition and posted to the best advantage; proper attention was paid to my wounded sergeant, and the camp arranged in such a manner as to insure a warm reception to a large body of savages. We remained on the qui vive until one o'clock a.m., when to my extreme surprise and sincere gratification we were joined by John Teal, who was supposed to have been killed. He brought with him his saddle, blanket, saber and pistols, having lost his horse and spurs. His narrative is so full of interest, and so well illustrates a phase in Apache character, that it is worth recording.

"Soon after we left the pass," said he, "we opened upon a sort of hollow plain or vale, about a mile wide, across which we dashed with speed. I was about two hundred yards in the rear, and presently a body of about fifteen Indians got between me and my companions. I turned my horse's head southward and coursed along the plain, lengthwise, in the hope of outrunning them, but my horse had been too sorely tested, and could not get away. They came up and commenced firing, one ball passing through the body of my horse, just forward of his hindquarters. It was then about dark, and I immediately dismounted to fight it out to the bitter end. My horse fell, and as I approached him, he began to lick my hands. I then swore to kill at least one Apache. Lying down behind the body of my dying animal, I opened fire upon them with my carbine, which being a breech-loader, enabled me to keep up a lively fusillade. This repeated fire seemed to confuse the savages, and instead of advancing with a rush, they commenced to circle round me, firing occasional shots in my direction. They knew that I also had a six-shooter and a saber, and seemed unwilling to try close quarters. In this way the fight continued for over an hour, when I got a good chance at a prominent Indian and slipped a carbine ball into his breast. He must have been a man of some note, because soon after that they seemed to get away from me, and I could hear their voices growing fainter in the distance. I thought this a good time to make tracks, and divesting myself of my spurs, I took the saddle, bridle and blanket from my dead horse and started for camp. I have walked eight miles since then."

It is needless to add how gratified I was to receive this brave and loyal soldier again, and find him free from wound or scar. We subsequently ascertained that the man he shot was no less an individual than the celebrated Mangas Colorado, but, I regret to add, the rascal survived his wound to cause us more trouble.

About an hour after Teal had come in, I was joined by Captain Roberts with thirty men, and then got a full description of the fight. I omitted to mention that two twelve-pounder mountain howitzers were with our little force, and to these guns the victory is probably attributable. It seems that about one hundred and thirty or forty miners had located themselves at the Pino Alto gold mines, or the same mines mentioned in a former portion of this work as the scene where Mr. Hay and his family were attacked and their cattle stolen by the Apaches, and also where Delgadito got badly scored by Wells. This was the great stronghold of Mangas and his band, and finding himself unable to dislodge the unwelcome intruders without help, he had dispatched messengers to Cheis [Cochise] the principal warrior of the Chiricahui Apaches, to assist him in expelling the miners. Cheis was too much occupied by the advancing column of American troops to give heed to this call, and failed to attend. Such want of faith was inexplicable to Mangas, who knew nothing of our approach, and at the head of two hundred warriors he visited Cheis, to inquire the reason for his apparent defection from the Apache cause. In reply Cheis took Mangas to the top of the Chiricahui and showed him the dust made my our advance guard, and told him that it was his first duty to defend himself, and that if Mangas would join in the affair, they could whip the "white eyes," and make themselves masters of the spoil. This arrangement was immediately agreed to by Mangas, and their united forces, amounting to nearly seven hundred warriors, so disposed as to take Roberts by surprise and insure his defeat. But "the best laid plans of men and mice, aft gang aglee," and these finely fixed schemes were doomed to be terribly overthrown.

[The Battle of Apache Pass, July 15, 1862, about noon]
Roberts, unsuspecting any attack, entered the pass with the ordinary precautions. He had penetrated two-thirds of the way, when from both sides of that battlemented gorge a fearful rain of fire and lead was poured upon his troops, within a range of from thirty to eighty yards. On either hand the rocks afforded natural and almost unassailable defenses. Every tree concealed an armed warrior, and each warrior boasted his rifle, six-shooter and knife. A better armed host could scarcely be imagined. From behind every species of shelter came the angry and hissing missles, and not a soul to be seen. Quickly, vigorously, and bravely did his men respond, but to what effect? They were expending ammunition to no purpose; their foes were invisible; there was no way to escalade those impregnable natural fortresses; the howitzers were useless, and the men doubtful how to attack the foe. In such strait, Roberts determined to fall back, reform and renew the contest. The orders were given and obeyed with perfect discipline. Reaching the entrance to the pass the troops were reorganized; skirmishers were thrown out over the hills so as to command the road; the howitzers were loaded, and belched forth their shells whenever found necessary. In this manner the troops again marched forward. Water was indispensable for the continuance of life. Unless they could reach the springs they must perish. A march of forty miles under an Arizonian sun, and over wide alkaline plains, with their blinding dust and thirst-provoking effects, had already been effected, and it would be impossible to march back again without serious loss of life, and untold suffering, without taking into account the seeming disgrace of being defeated by seven times their force of Apaches. What would it avail those brave men to know that the Indians were as well armed as they; that they possessed all the advantages; that they outnumbered them seven to one, when the outside and carping world would be so ready to taunt them with defeat, and adduce so many specious reasons why they should have annihilated the savages?

Apache warriorsForward, steadily forward, under a continuous and galling fire, did those gallant companies advance until they reached the old station house in the pass, about six hundred yards from the springs. The house was built of stone, and afforded ample shelter; but still they had no water, and eighteen hours, with a march of forty miles, including six hours of sharp fighting, had been passed without a drop. Men and officers were faint, worn-out with fatigue, want of sleep and intense privation and excitement; still Roberts urged them on, and led the way. His person was always the most exposed; his voice ever cheering and encouraging. Immediately commanding the springs were two hills, both high and difficult of ascent. One is to the east, and the other overlooks them from the south. On these heights the Apaches had built rude but efficient breastworks by piling rocks one upon the other so as to form crenelle holes between the interstices. From these fortifications they kept up a rapid and scathing fire, which could not be returned with effect by musketry from three to four hundred feet below. The howitzers were got into position, but one of them was so badly managed that the gunners wee brought immediately under the fire from the hills without being able to make even a decent response. In a few moments it was overturned by some unaccountable piece of stupidity, and the artillerists driven off by the sharp fire of the Apaches. At that juncture, Sergeant Mitchell with his six associates of my company made a rush to bring off the howitzer and place it in a better position. Upon reaching the guns, they determined not to turn it down the hill, but up, so as to keep their fronts to the fire. While performing this gallant act, they were assailed with a storm of balls, but escaped untouched; after having righted the gun, brought it away, and placed it in a position best calculated to perform effective service. So soon as this feat had been happily accomplished, the exact range was obtained and shell after shell hurled upon the hills, bursting just when they should. The Apaches, wholly unused to such formidable engines, precipitately abandoned their rock works and fled in all directions. It was nearly night. To remain under those death-dealing heights during the night, when campfires would afford the enemy the best kind of advantage, was not true policy, and Captain Roberts ordered each man to take a drink from the precious and hardly-earned springs, and fill his canteen, after which the troops retired within the shelter afforded by the stone station house [see photo below], the proper guards and pickets being posted.

Remains of the stone Overland Stage station house at Apache Pass,
Fort Bowie National Historic Site, photo courtesy National Park Service

In this fight Roberts had two men killed and three wounded, and I afterwards learned from a prominent Apache who was present in the engagement, that sixty-three warriors were killed outright by the shells, while only three perished from musketry fire. He added--"We would have done well enough if you had not fired wagons at us." The howitzers being on wheels, were deemed a species of wagon by the Apaches, wholly inexperienced in that sort of warfare.

[Some students of Apache warfare have questioned Cremony's claim of a total of sixty-six Apaches dead in this battle, but several factors need to be considered: 1) Cremony does not claim first-hand knowledge but is reporting what an Indian told him later; 2) the Indian force consisted of warriors of both Cochise and Mangas Colorado and as such was probably more numerous and, perhaps, less coordinated than usual; 3) these Indians were trying their hand for the first time (that we know of) at fighting from behind a stationary breastwork of rocks; and 4) probably most important, this was the first time that these warriors were vulnerable to the fire of the mountain howitzers. Thus the number of dead was probably less than sixty-six, but still considerably larger than what the Apaches were accustomed to. Find out more about the mountain howitzer here.]

Captain Roberts suffered his men to recruit their wasted energies with supper, and then taking one-half his company, the remainder being left under command of Lieutenant Thompson, marched back to Ewell's Station, fifteen miles, to assure the safety of the train under my command, and escort it through the pass. As before stated, he reached my camp a little after two o'clock a.m., where the men rested until five, when the march toward the pass was resumed. Several alarms were given before his arrival, and we heard the Apaches careering around us; but they made no attack, and kept out of sight. At five o'clock a.m., the train was straightened out with half my effective cavalry force three hundred yards in the advance, and the other half about as far in the rear, while the wagons were flanked on either side by the infantry. In this order we entered that most formidable of gorges, when the bugles blew a halt. A considerable body of the infantry were then thrown out on either side as skirmishers, with a small reserve as the rallying point, while the cavalry were ordered to guard the train, and make occasional dashes into the side canyons. "Up hill and down dale" went the skirmishers, plunging into dark and forbidding defiles, and climbing steep, rocky and difficult acclivities, while the cavalry made frequent sorties from the main body to the distance of several hundred yards. Being without a subaltern, General Carleton had assigned Lieutenant Muller, of the First California Volunteers, to service with my command. This officer soon gave sufficient proof of his gallantry and zeal, for which I now gratefully return thanks.

In this manner we progressed through that great stronghold of the Apaches and dangerous defile, until we joined the detachment under Lieutenant Thompson, at the stone station house, where we quartered for the remainder of that day. Let it be borne in mind that Captain Roberts company of Californian infantry had marched forty miles without food or water, had fought for six hours with desperation against six times their numbers of splendidly armed Apaches, ensconced behind their own natural ramparts, and with every possible advantage in their favor; had driven that force before them, occupied their defiles, taken their strongholds, and, after only one draught of water and a hasty meal, had made another march of thirty milesl, almost absolutely without rest. I doubt much if any record exists to show where infantry have made a march of seventy miles, fought one terrible battle of six hours' duration, and achieved a decided victory under such circumstances.

The shrill fife, the rattling drum and the mellow bugles sounded the reveille before dawn of the next day. The campfires were soon throwing up their lively jets of flame and smoke, while the grateful odors of frying bacon and browning flapjacks saluted the appreciative nostrils of the hungry troops. But we had no water, and without water we could have no coffee, that most coveted of all rations. There was reason to believe that the Apaches intended to put our metal to another trial. They had again occupied the heights above the springs, and also the water sources, which were thickly sheltered by trees and willow underbrush. Roberts again made plans to dislodge the savages, and ordered his howitzers into the most favorable positions. Just then I saluted him and said, "Captain, you have done your share of this fight; I now respectfully ask for my chance. If you will throw your shells on the heights above the springs, I will charge the latter with my men, and clean out the Apaches in a very few moments. I certainly think this concession due me."

Roberts reflected a few moments, and replied--"I am truly sorry that your wish cannot be granted. Yours is the only cavalry I have, and their safety is indispensable to ourts. We are going to the San Simon river, where I am ordered to establish a depot and await the arrival of other troops with supplies. You are to take back this train for those supplies, and you will have enough to do in your proper turn. I cannot, under the circumstances, grant your request."

To this I replied: "Your objections appear cogent, but I cannot perceive why all these things cannot be accomplished, and still permit my men, who are burning with anxiety, to charge those springs and disperse that wretched horde of savages. They are already cowed, and will immediately flee before a vigorous assault."

Captain Roberts replied: "You have had my answer, Captain, and it should be enough. I do not intend to jeopard my own men, but will shell the heights and springs, and effect a bloodless vidtory, in so far as we are concerned."

After this rebuff I could make no further personal appeal, but instructed Lieutenant Muller to beseech Captain Roberts, and, if possible, induce him to change his mind. Muller argued for half an hour, until Roberts told him either to obey or be placed under arrest. This ended the colloquy. The howitzers then opened fire--the shells burst splendidly; large numbers of Apaches were observed to decamp from the heights in the most hurried manner; the springs also underwent a similar cleaning, and in less than twenty minutes the troops were permitted to advance and fill their canteens, while my cavalry, without awaiting further orders, made a rush after the retreating savages until the rapid rise and terribly broken nature of the ground checked their career. The hillsides were covered with fleeing Apaches, who seemed imbued with supernatural powers of locomotion. Upwards they sped with the celerity of Alpine goats, until they disappeared behind the crests of tall mountains and rugged hills. In peace and quiet we partook of the precious fountain. Our horses and mules, which had not tasted water for forty-eight hours, and were nearly famished from so dusty a road and so long a journey under the hottest of suns, drank as if they would never be satisfied. An hour later we moved through the pass, entered upon the wide plain which separates it from the San Simon river, and reached our camp on that creek, without further trouble, about four o'clock p.m.

Aftermath of the Battle of Apache pass

But short breathing space was afforded me at the San Simon. On the morning of the third day after our arrival, and the trying tests to which we had been subjected, I received orders from Captain Roberts to escort the train of twenty-six wagons back to the San Pedro in order to furnish the required transportation for the provision, ammunition, clothing and other supplies of the column. For this duty I was assigned fourteen of my troopers and seven men of Roberts' company. The intervening country had been well examined through fine field glasses, and on two occasions a thorough reconnissance had been made by the cavalry, which showed that a very excellent passage existed to the north of the Chiricahui range, over nearly a level plain, and that the distance would be only some seven miles longer. This route, with the approbation of Captain Roberts, was at once selected for our return, and for the following reasons: The safety of our train was of the very first importance, as upon it depended the success of the unprecedented march the "Column from California" was then attempting. In the next place, if the Apaches had given us such a strong and determined fight when we mustered one hundred and twenty-nine men and two mountain howitzers, what great chance would I have of safely conducting a train of twenty-six wagons with only twenty-one men, and without artillery, through such a terrific stronghold? In the third place, nature provided a passage nearly as short, much less laborious for men and animals, well supplied with water, wood and grass, and by its open character, affording the very best field for the operations of cavalry, and the widest range for our splendid breech-loading weapons of long reach. It was not a question whether we should again fight the Indians, but whether we could forward the main object of the expedition. Indeed, strict orders had been given to refrain from Indian broils as much as possible, to suffer some wrong rather than divert our time and attention from the great purpose contemplated, which was to liberate Arizona from Confederate rule and effect a junction with General Canby as soon as possible. Had we been exclusively on an Indian campaign, other means would have been adopted.

Having taken a final survey, I started in the evening just after sundown, to prevent the Apaches from seeing the dust raised by the column, and directed our course over the open plain, north of the Chiricahui range, and between it and the mountains from which it is divided some four miles by an open and elevated piece of clear land, without trees or rocks, and thickly covered with the finest grama grass. We traveled all night with the cavalry covering the front and rear, and the seven infantrymen sleeping in the empty wagons, with their weapons loaded and ready at a moment's warning. Every little while the cavalry were required to patrol the length of the column, to ward off any sudden and unforeseen attack. The infantry were allowed to sleep, in order that they might be fresh to keep guard throughout the day. In this manner we progressed until five a.m. next day, when I ordered a halt, had the wagons handsomely corralled nearly in a circle, with the animals and men all inside, except the guard, and the camp properly prepared against surprise. We were then exactly north of the Chiricahui mountains, and south of another range, each being about two miles distant. I could distinctly see large numbers of Apaches riding furiously up and down the steeps of those heights, and sometimes advancing on the plain, as if to attack. But experience had taught them that our carbines and Minnie rifles were deadly at nearly a mile of distance, and they did not approach within their reach. Our horses were tied to the picket rope which extended across the open end of the corral, and covered by a sufficient guard. Fidning that the Apaches did not care to make an onslaught, the cavalry and teamsters, all of whom were well armed, retired to rest, after partaking of a hearty meal. Next evening, at dark, we again hitched up and pursued our journey as before. I was in the advance with Sergeant Loring, when our horses suddenly jumped to one side and our ears were greeted by the spiteful warning of the rattlesnake, coiled up directly in our path. To avoid this malignant reptile the train diverged about twenty yards from the road, and after a little while entered it again. This sort of thing occurred many times during the night, until we again struck the regular highway nearly due west of Apache Pass. Our next halt was made six miles from Ewell's Station, and we had come seventy miles in two nights. That day we saw no Indians, although the same precautions were adopted as if we were surrounded by large numbers. Our next march was to the Ojo de los Hermanos, or the "Brothers' Springs," so as to avoid stopping to water at Dragoon Springs, which were two miles up a deep and dangerous canyon, where the enemy would possess every possible advantage, and where the animals would have to be led to water a mile or more from the wagons, with the delightful prospect of not finding anything like a sufficiency.

In due course of time, we regained the San Pedro river, where General Carleton had arrived with a considerable body of troops. I turned over my train, and was ordered to advance once more with headquarters. Apache Pass was again entered and traversed; but it seemed as if no Indian had ever awakened its echoes with his war-whoop--as if it had ever been the abode of peace and silence. I rode beside Dr. McNulty for a while, and described to him the terrible conflict which had taken place there only eight days previous. That true soldier and soldiers' friend frequently exclaimed--"By George, I wish I had been here!" "What splendid natural breastworks are these, old fellow!"--a peculiar expression of his--"I am glad you came out of it all right!" Next day we emerged from the pass without molestation, or seeing an Indian sign; but, instead of directing our course toward the San Simon, diverged by another route toward the Cienega, a flat, marshy place, at the foot of the next easterly range of mountains [the Peloncillo mountains], of which Stein's Peak is the most prominent. The San Simon creek, as it is called, sinks about a mile south of the station bearing that name, and undoubtedly furnishes the supply of water which is to be had at the Cienega, located on the same plain, and about eight miles south of the spot where the creek disappears.

Source: John C. Cremony. Life among the Apaches available here as a free e-book.

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The drawing of Apache warriors shown above is from Southwest Indians Coloring Book, by Peter F. Copeland, published by Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-27964-2. This book and others in the series provide high quality black and white drawings that may be used royalty-free. Each drawing is based on careful research and is accompanied by an explanatory caption.

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