The Battle of Apache Pass
early 1862, Colonel James H. Carleton's force set out from Fort
Yuma, for Tucson which had just recently been occupied by a
Confederate unit, Company A, Arizona Rangers. After a small
engagement known as the Battle of Picacho Pass just north of
Tucson between a detachment of Carleton's cavalry and
Confederate pickets, Carleton advanced on Tucson in three
columns. His troops arrived in Tucson, Arizona, on May 20, 1862,
forcing the outnumbered Confederate garrison to retreat without
After taking Confederate Arizona's Western
outpost, Carleton prepared to head east with his main body in
July to New Mexico via Apache Pass in Southeast Arizona. To
prepare for the advance of his main force, he sent a column
ahead as he had on his march from Yuma to Tucson. The column led
by Captain Thomas L. Roberts of Company E, 1st California
Infantry, attached were two 12-pounder mountain howitzers, a
twenty-two man cavalry escort from Company B, 2nd Regiment
California Volunteer Cavalry led by Captain John C. Cremony and
twenty-one wagons and 242 mules and horses.
After Roberts column arrived at the San Pedro
River, it became necessary to learn whether Dragoon Springs,
twenty-eight miles further on, could supply both companies with
water, or whether they would be forced to break into
detachments. Captain Roberts took the advance detachment with
his infantry, three wagons, the two howitzers and seven of
Cremony's best cavalrymen to serve as scouts and couriers.
Captain Cremony remained behind with fifteen cavalry and ten of
Roberts' infantrymen including the detachment left as a garrison
at the river, where an adobe stage station building provided
shelter and a defensible position to protect the remaining
wagons and animals.
Roberts found Dragoon Springs was adequate to
support both detachments and Cremony caught up with him the next
day. Roberts then advanced on the springs at Apache Pass in the
same manner with the same forces leaving Cremony with the guard
At noon on July 15, Roberts
detachment had just entered Apache Pass, after making it about
two-thirds through. Roberts' force was attacked by some 500
Apache warriors led by Mangas Coloradas and Cochise. Geronimo,
sometime before his death in 1909, claimed to have fought in
this battle but this has never been confirmed.
The Americans were not in a good position to
fight. They had just walked dozens of miles across the hot
Arizona desert, they were heading for the spring at Apache Pass
which was now beyond an army of well armed Chiricahua warriors.
Lacking water, and with the risk of losing
dozens of men by retreating back to Tucson without water,
Roberts chose to fight. The natives had constructed defenses,
several breastworks made of stone. They also had set up an
ambush, they waited until the Americans came within thirty to
eighty yards of their positions, then opened fire.
Behind almost every mesquite tree and boulder
hid an Apache with his rifle, six-shooter and knife. At first
the Union troops could barely see the natives firing on them.
After a few more moments of intense combat Roberts ordered
retreat, so his force withdrew to the mouth of Apache Pass,
regrouped and unlimbered mountain howitzers for a second
This was one of the first times the United
States Army had been able to use artillery against the native
Americans. Roberts ordered his infantry to take the hills
overlooking the pass, while he, his officers and howitzers
stayed inside of the pass to direct artillery support. The
skirmishers moved forward, where they came across an abandoned
Butterfield Overland Mail station, which was then used to
provide cover from the accurate Apache rifle fire.
The infantry was now about 600 yards from the
spring, overlooking the water supply was two hills, one that
overlooked from the east, the other from the south. On both of
the steep hills sat the breastworks, manned by Apache riflemen,
doing their best to keep back the American skirmishers.
Roberts moved his howitzers forward and
commenced fire along with his infantry, the shots were not very
effective because of their position some 300 to 400 feet below
the Apache defenses. The artillery would have to be moved again
if it was to be effective in this battle. So again the artillery
was moved forward, under heavy enemy fire.
Once the guns were in effective range, the
commanding sergeant ordered his artillerymen to engage. Until
nightfall the Apaches were bombarded when they broke and fled
the engagement in all directions, abandoning the breastworks and
leaving the Union troops with a victory and access to the
spring. After giving his men a drink and a meal Roberts made a
return march to bring up the Cremony's detachment. The following
morning the Apaches came back to contest the American passage
but again they fled when shelled by the howitzers.
battle, Captain Roberts had two men killed and three wounded.
Also according to a letter from Colonel Carleton to Colonel
Richard C. Drum, on September 20, 1862, Apache casualties were
10. "From the hostile attitude of the Chiricahua, I found it
indispensably necessary to establish a post in what is known as
Apache Pass; it is known as Fort Bowie, and garrisoned by one
hundred rank and file of the Fifth Infantry, California
Volunteers, and thirteen rank and file of Company A, First
Cavalry, California Volunteers; this post commands the water in
Around this water the Indians have been in
the habit of lying in ambush, and shooting the troops and
travelers as they came to drink. In this way they have killed
three of Lieutenant-Colonel Eyre's command, and in attempting to
keep Captain Roberts' company. First Infantry, California
Volunteers, away from the spring a fight ensued, in which
Captain Roberts had two men killed and two wounded. Captain
Roberts reports that the Indians lost ten killed. In this affair
the men of Captain Roberts' company are reported as behaving
with great gallantry."
According to Captain Cremony afterword it was
learned from a prominent Apache who was present in the
engagement, that sixty-three warriors were killed outright by
the howitzer 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 type of wagon by the Apaches, who were obviously
inexperienced in artillery tactics. Mangas Coloradas himself was
wounded, sustaining a bullet wound to the chest when attempting
to kill one of Roberts cavalry scouts.
A day after the battle and on the Mesilla
side of Apache Pass, nine murdered and scalped white civilians
were found dead. As result, commander Carleton decided that it
was necessary to establish a post there to prevent white
settlers from being ambushed by the natives as they passed
through. On July 4, the first units of the California Column
reached Mesilla, New Mexico, along the Rio Grande. With the
Californians now approaching from the west, the last remnants of
the Confederate army withdrew from Arizona.
Men of the 5th California Infantry began
building a fort in Apache Pass, which they named Fort Bowie in
honor of the regiment's colonel, George Washington Bowie. Upon
reaching New Mexico, Carleton was placed in command of the
Department of New Mexico where he continued to campaign against
the natives in the southwest region.
The battlefield and fort are preserved today
in Fort Bowie National Historic Site. The engagement was subject
to the 1952 film, The Battle at Apache Pass.
Date July 15–16, 1862
Commanders and leaders
Thomas L. Roberts
Apache: Mangas Coloradas
116 infantry, 22 cavalry, and 2 artillery pieces
Apache: 500 warriors
Casualties and losses
Union: 2 killed and 3 wounded
Apache: 66 killed
and unknown wounded
Alvin M., Jr. (1986). War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi
West. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books.
Fort Bowie National
Cremony, John Carey (1868). -Life among the
Apaches. - San Francisco: A. Roman & Company