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Posted Apr 15, 2012, 1:31 pm
It’s the proverbial wide spot in the road now: a freeway exit and a few buildings. Many of us stop off there on the way to Phoenix for a Peanut Buster Parfait or to look at the ostriches. Some of the more adventurous of us hike up the peak to check out wildflowers in the spring.
One hundred and fifty years ago Sunday, long before there was a Dairy Queen or an ostrich ranch, this little spot was the scene of a fierce but small engagement between Union and Confederate troops. Known as the Battle of Picacho Pass, it is regarded as the westernmost battle of the Civil War.
“It’s a small battle, let’s put it that way,” says historian L. Boyd Finch, author of "Confederate Pathway to the Pacific: Major Sherod Hunter and Arizona Territory, C.S.A."
Readers of Civil War history would be forgiven for dismissing its significance: The battle involved less than two dozen troops on both sides. That would make it a far cry from the nearly 114,000 involved at Antietam later that year, or even the 2,400 who fought at New Mexico’s Glorietta Pass weeks earlier.
So, what were Union and Confederate soldiers doing battle out here so far from the main action?
The part of Arizona South of the Gila River had only been purchased from the Mexican government less than a decade before and the population of Tucson was exceedingly low: the 1860 Census recorded a population of 915. The answer has more to do with what was around the region rather than what was in it.
“The main thrust of the Confederacy when they first came West was to go north to Santa Fe,” Finch said of the mostly Texas troops that invaded the New Mexico Territory, which then included Arizona and a slice of Nevada. “They set this group to Tucson to see how far they could go.”
Sherod Hunter's Push to California
Tucson had been largely abandoned by the Union at that time. Many of the Hispanic merchants harbored anti-Union sympathies because of the neglect, and much of the Anglo population were migrants from Texas and Missouri. It made the “conquest” of Tucson rather easy for the gray-coated soldiers under Capt. Sherod Hunter on Feb. 28, 1862.
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“They were hoping to get to California,” Finch said.
California was a Union state, but there was a hope that anti-Union sympathies of some in the political and military structure of the state could become something more if the Confederates got there.
“They got within 80 miles and then they went back and established their outpost at Picacho,” Finch said.
Although they did not make it to California, they did something that their brethren in the East never did: They captured, held and controlled a slice of Union real estate. Although it didn’t last long, they established Arizona (albeit with different borders than today) as a Confederate Territory.
The California Column
Confederate activity in the upper Rio Grande Valley, uncomfortably close to the mines of Southern Colorado, led to the formation of what was known as the California Column. Troops under Col. James Henry Carleton were dispatched to Fort Yuma, just on the California side of the Colorado River. Their aim was to drive the Confederates out of their newly formed Arizona Territory and back to Texas.
The route they took was an abandoned, but well established one: The Butterfield Overland Stagecoach's route. The Confederates had been sending out small patrols to destroy supplies along the route, which led to one small skirmish at a place called Stanwix Station on March 30.
The effort slowed down the California Column and enabled the Confederates to make some preparations for the Union advance. That laid the groundwork for the encounter between Union and Confederate troops at Picacho Pass.
“They (the Confederate soldiers) established a sentinel on the peak … along the main road,” Finch said. “The Californians sent a ‘company’ of men towards Picacho Pass, and that’s where the battle occurred.”
‘Company’ is not in the strictest military sense. The Union detachment sent to capture a reported Confederate picket in the area consisted of twelve cavalry troopers and a civilian scout (a Tucsonan named John Jones) led by Lt. James Barrett. The Confederate picket was even smaller, nine Arizona Rangers plus their leader, Sgt. Henry Holmes.
On April 15, Jones had gone ahead of the rest of the detachment and reported that the Confederates were not ready for an attack. Jones suggested encircling them and asking for surrender, advice Barrett dismissed. Jones pointed out the terrain and the inexperience of the horses in combat and advised that Barrett have the troops attack dismounted. Barrett disregarded the advice, as well, and chose to charge — single file — into the Confederate troops.
Three Confederates were captured, including Holmes, and the rest withdrew into the cover of mesquite trees and rocks. Barrett dismounted to secure a prisoner and was killed instantly by a shot to the neck. Two of his men also died while securing the prisoners.
The fighting continued for an hour, with the Union troops dismounted and chasing Confederates through the arroyos at the base of the peak.
Had the Confederates been captured as was the original hope, the California Column would have quickly advanced for a surprise attack on Tucson. Instead, the remainder of Barrett’s detachment, along with a second detachment sent to cut off the Confederates, retreated to a place along the Gila River known as Pima Villages.
What ended up driving the Confederates from Tucson wasn’t the Californians but events elsewhere.
The campaign in the Far West was already collapsing by the time of Picacho Pass, and on May 20, the California Column advanced into Tucson to be met with no resistance from the 10 Confederate soldiers in the city. Capt. Hunter had ordered the city abandoned a week earlier to retreat to Mesilla and eventually to Texas.
It didn’t officially mark the end of the Confederate Territory of Arizona: there continued to be Confederate troops fighting under an Arizona banner until the end of the war and a “government in exile” in Texas continued to send delegates to the Confederate congress.
Still, there were some in the U.S. Congress who had been anxious to separate Arizona from New Mexico. However, the east-west line that had been suggested before the Civil War — one that would have made Arizona a strip of land stretching from the Colorado River to Texas — was abandoned. It was too associated with the Confederacy. Arizona was declared a separate territory, cut off from New Mexico on the north-south line we know today, in February of 1863.