Civil War Skirmish in Arizona Desert

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In August 1861, a small Confederate army of Texans occupied portions of the vast New Mexico territory and claimed it for the Confederacy. Six months later, a force of 75 Southern troops commanded by Capt. Sherrod Hunter marched to Tucson, which became the westernmost outpost of the Confederacy.

President Jefferson Davis intended for the Confederate States of America to occupy southern territory from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean, which was rich in minerals. One Confederate colonel stated that “The vast mineral resources of Arizona, in addition to affording an outlet to the Pacific, makes its acquisition a matter of some importance to our government.” President Abraham Lincoln was equally determined to prevent that from happening.

Upon learning of this troop movement, Union commanding Gen. George McClellan ordered 1,400 troops from California (the so-called “California Column”) under the command of Brig. Gen.l James Carleton to march across the Sonoran Desert to meet this Confederate challenge. The Union plan, as described by Ray Colton in his book The Civil War in the Western Territories, was for Union forces to march along the Gila River and establish a base at the Pima Villages.

“From there,” Colton writes, “the cavalry were to dash forward into Tucson by a cross-country route and surprise the Rebels.” When Captain Hunter learned about the Union troop movement, he advanced from Tucson northwest to the Gila River. In early April 1862, Union forces arrived at present-day Casa Grande, Ariz. The stage was set for the westernmost “battle” of the American Civil War.

About 45 miles northwest of Tucson and 70 miles south of present-day Phoenix along present-day Interstate 10, steep mountains rise on both sides of the road. To the west, Picacho Peak rises more than 3,000 feet from the desert floor. The base of this mountain is known as Picacho Pass, and it was here among the cacti, weeds, scorpions and rattlesnakes of the desert, that Union and Confederate forces clashed on April 15, 1862.

Captain Hunter and his small detachment of Confederate troops established defensive positions along the slopes of Picacho Peak. As a force of 13 Union cavalry scouts approached the Pass in the early afternoon, Confederate troops fired on them, immediately wounding two scouts and sending the remaining Union force scurrying for cover. Additional Union troops under the command of Lt. James Barrett attacked through the pass, suffering more casualties. The skirmish, described by Colton as “fierce fighting,” continued until late afternoon. In this 90-minute engagement, the Union suffered three killed (including Barrett) and three wounded, while Confederate forces lost three captured and two wounded.

The Federals spent the evening on the field where they buried their dead. In the wake of this “battle,” Union forces marched to the Pima Indian villages where they constructed Fort Barrett (in memory of their deceased officer). The fort, according to Colton, served as both a military base and trading post. In mid May, Union troops occupied Tucson; the main Confederate force had fled.

Geographically, Picacho Pass is the high water mark of the Confederacy in the Far West. Never again in the war would Confederate forces occupy territory further west of this point. A few weeks before the skirmish at Picacho Pass, a much larger Confederate force failed to achieve its strategic objectives at Glorieta Pass, near Santa Fe. Meanwhile, further east, a week before the clash at Picacho Pass, huge Union and Confederate armies clashed near the Tennessee River and a small chapel named Shiloh.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of "Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War," and "Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War." He has written on historical topics, including the Civil War, for The Washington Times, The Diplomat, Orbis (the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute), the University Bookman, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and other publications.

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