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Picacho Pass: Westernmost Battle of the Civil War

I've lived in Arizona for 70 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

Picacho Pass on the Peak was the battle site.

Picacho Pass on the Peak was the battle site.

For many Arizonans and visitors who travel on the Interstate 10 highway in Southern Arizona, Picacho Peak is an imposing 1,500 ft peak of rock with Sonoran Desert trees and cacti surrounding its base. Many travelers know that Picacho Peak is an Arizona State Park with camping and hiking trails and that in the spring months, beginning in February, the Peak is covered with beautiful desert wildflowers. If Picacho Peak is viewed from the South, it appears as a praying figure. Those of us who love Arizona history marvel that Southern Arizona was once under Confederate authority and that the Battle of Picacho Pass was the westernmost battle of the Civil War.

In 1861 when the War Between the States or Civil War began, the only towns of significant size in the New Mexico Territory in the area known as Arizona were Prescott, Yuma, and Tucson. A question might be: Why would the Confederacy want the area that would later become the state of Arizona? One explanation was that the area was rich in precious minerals such as copper, silver, and some gold.

Another reason was to extend the Confederacy across the entire southern part of the United States from ocean to ocean. If California could be reached, the Confederacy could establish ports on the Pacific Ocean and create a path to the California gold fields. Some historians have written that because the entire New Mexico Territory, which included the area known as Arizona, had indigenous peoples, the Confederacy could possibly expand slavery.

Capt. Sherod Hunter, a First Lieutenant with a Confederate Company of fifty-four men, marched from Texas and occupied the city of Tucson on February 28, 1862. Most of the citizens in Tucson welcomed the soldiers as protection from the Apache Indians. The Confederates declared that any land below the 34th parallel extending to the border of Mexico in the Territory was now part of the Confederacy. When this news reached the First California Federal Infantry, they began preparing for a battle

Southern soldiers were to wear grey, but lack of supplies forced soldiers to wear what was at hand

Southern soldiers were to wear grey, but lack of supplies forced soldiers to wear what was at hand

The California Federal Infantry, or The California Volunteers

When the news that the Confederates had arrived in Tucson reached California, the Union Federal Infantry, sometimes called the California Volunteers, prepared for a battle.

The Union Federal Infantry was led by Brig. General James H Carleton and his officers were experienced military men. Enlistments for the unit of California Volunteers were for a three-year period. While the Confederate soldiers were a rather "ragtag" outfit, some without uniforms or modern weapons, the men of the California Infantry were fully equipped.

The California men had wool uniforms, 44 Colt revolvers, Carbine rifles, bayonets, sabers and a knife. Their personal gear included a canteen, a tin cup, a blanket, an extra uniform, a tin cup, plate, spoon, and fork. Their horses were shod with iron shoes.

The men arrived at the Colorado River Ferry Crossing at Fort Yuma, and the unit consisted of foot soldiers, horse soldiers, contractors, teamsters, and surgeons. A 600-gallon rolling water tank with a tin lining was constructed in Yuma. They planned to travel over the old Butterfield Overland Mail Route to take advantage of the water available at the way stations. To use the element of surprise, they spread the story that the campaign was to invade the Tonto Apaches.

The Battle at Picacho Pass

When an advance of California Infantry Column of Federals reached the Pima Indians to trade for wheat, they learned of a Confederate Outpost near the Southern Pacific Rail Road tracks at Picacho Pass. On April 15th, 1862, or possibly the 16th, according to some accounts, the intent of the California soldiers was to surprise the Confederate soldiers, but Lt. James Barrett fired and yelled for the "Rebs" to surrender.

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His foolish action caused the Confederates who were hiding in the brush to shoot and kill three California Federals and wound three more. Those killed were buried where they fell, and wooden crosses were constructed. Years later, in 1892, the soldiers at Ft Lowell in Tucson were ordered to move the remains to the National Cemetery in the San Francisco California Presidio.

Two of the fallen were moved, but the remains of Lt. James Barrett were never found. The victory at Picacho Pass belonged to the Confederates, but information from Confederate spies and the news of recent losses in the New Mexico Territory prompted Capt. Hunter to exit from Tucson. When the California Infantry arrived in Tucson on May 20th 1862, they found that the Confederates had left Tucson on May 4th.

A Sad Incident and a New Beginning

After their exit from Tucson, while on their way back to Texas, the Confederates were attacked by Apaches near Dragoon Springs (Now Southern Arizona near the New Mexico border). The attack resulted in the loss of four men, 25 horses, and 30 mules.

On June 8th, 1862, Tucson and the western area of the New Mexico Territory, known then as Arizona, was declared a United States Territory and would be governed by Martial Law. Any dissenters, thieves, and other criminals were sent to the prison at Ft. Yuma. Gambling halls and saloons would be taxed to pay for the new government.

Besides having removed the Confederates, the California Infantry also fought hostile Indians, opened the mail route to the Eastern United States, mapped the Arizona Territory, and many of the men invested in the local businesses of mining and freighting.

The Civil War Battle at Picacho Pass continues to be remembered by reenactment groups.

President Lincoln Visiting Union Officers at Antietam

President Lincoln Visiting Union Officers at Antietam

Sources and Further Reading

Arizona During the Civil War; The Impact of the California Volunteers 1861-1866. Andrew Edward Masich. University of Arizona Press 1984

Picacho Pass; Arizona's Civil War Story. Larry Hedrick. The Superstition Historical and Research Society 1981

The Civil War in Apache Land; Sgt. (George) Hand's Diary; Edit Neil B Carmony.

Civil War in the Southwest; Recollections of the Southwest Sibley Brigade. Henry Hopkins Sibley. Edit Jerry Thompson.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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