08 June 2010

What Surprised Me: Picacho Peak

By Lorelie Brown

Mention the US Civil War and I pretty much think of the Eastern Seaboard. South Carolina, Virginia, Mississippi. You know, the South, with all the images that invokes.

So imagine my surprise on moving to Arizona and discovering I'm living in the vicinity of the westernmost Civil War battle, fought in the sand and cacti and rocks. Huh.

Now where the westernmost battle was kinda depends on your definition of "battle."

But lemme back up really quick. Arizona didn't exactly exist before the Civil War broke out. The land it now encompasses was actually part of the Territory of New Mexico. But as military officers were called back to the various folds and had to decide where their loyalties laid, someone got the bright idea to carve out part of New Mexico and call it the Arizona Territory--and claim it for the Confederacy.

They really wanted Southern California, to give the Confederacy access to the Pacific Ocean, but that never really happened. Instead California troops fought for the Union, including driving the Johnny Rebs back pretty handily into the desert. (Johnny Rebs don't belong in the desert. Didn't anyone tell them that?)

Control of the stagecoach routes fed into this back-and-forth. Each side wanted 'em, naturally, because who wouldn't want the established, easy-to-navigate routes? So here we come back to our original topic--the farthest west battle.

There was an engagement at Stanwix Station, near Yuma, but calling it a battle is a little bit of a stretch. Confederate troops were burning hay meant for California cavalry horses and they got busted. Whoops. There was a small shoot out, but the only casualty was one Union soldier who healed up just fine apparently. But Stanwix Station is still up for consideration because bullets passed back and forth.

But then we come to Picacho Peak Pass, which is kind of the leader for the title of "westernmost Civil War battle." On April 15, 1862, Lieutenant James Barrett lead approximately a dozen men, looking for the Confederates reported to be lurking nearby, though they weren't supposed to actually engage. Well, they found them. From what I can tell, they kind of stumbled onto three of the Confederates and promptly captured them. But they sort of missed the seven other men, who opened fire. And Barrett kept his men pursuing the Johnny Rebs even into a thicket. Perhaps not his best decision, and it has the unfortunate distinction of being his last. He died in the hour and a half long battle, along with two Union privates.

Every year, Civil War re-enactors show up at Picacho Peak Pass and play out the skirmish. But over the years, the event has grown and more than the needed two-dozen men show up. They've had to expand into New Mexico battles to fill their time. But I hear it's a grand old time. The Picacho Peak State Park was slated to be shut down to help Arizona make up their huge budget shortfalls, but it's been saved by an arrangement with local governments to take over the costs. So I do believe I might have to check it out next year.