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On April 15, 1862, the western-most "battle" of the American Civil War was fought on the flanks of Picacho Peak, a rocky volcanic spire situated 50 miles northwest of a small Sonoran Desert town named Tucson. Today, the old wagon route which passed by Picacho in 1862 is roughly traced by U.S. Highway 10, which connects the modern metropolises of Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. Only when the highway runs by Picacho is the open desert view blocked by a series of sheer ridges towering to the west. In 1862, this area was virtually deserted due to its natural desolation, and the fact that all U.S. Army troops had departed the previous year, leaving the local settlers and Indians to do as they wished. Before marching off to join the Union Army being assembled in the East, the local garrison troops had opened their supply depots to the nearby civilians, telling them "take what you need, and get out." Not everyone heeded this advice. Many people who had staked their lives and fortunes on the Southwest decided to remain, strengthening the local militia units which already populated this secessionist area. For their part, local Indian tribes like the Apache thought they had finally chased away the "bluecoats" and they were naturally determined to make the most of it.

Into this volatile scene marched the newly formed Confederate Army, whose formations had declared the entire New Mexico Territory for the Confederacy on August 1, 1861. After securing the Rio Grande Valley, the local Confederate commander dispatched Captain Sherrod Hunter to Tucson, which he occupied on February 28, 1862 after a freezing winter march. With its new garrison of 75 confederates, Tucson was now the furthest point west in the Confederate Empire. They enjoyed the earnest support of the local civilians, as long as they and their brethren helped to keep the Indians suppressed, a task which drew considerable manpower away from the tiny Confederate force.

The Union reacted quickly to the Confederate seizure of the Southwestern Territories. Indeed, these events turned out to represent the most complete takeover of Union territory the Confederacy managed during its existence. Once the Confederate threat in California subsided¹ a small force of roughly 1,400 troops under Brigadier General James H. Carleton was dispatched from Fort Yuma to march on Tucson, hundreds of miles across the Sonoran desert. Hearing word of Carleton's approach, Hunter pushed north out of Tucson to the Gila River, encountering his first Union troops when the leading detachment of California cavalry blundered into Hunter's men as they captured a flour mill. After interring the Union cavalrymen and giving the flour to the local Indians, Hunter returned to Tucson, first dispatching a small party of Confederate cavalry to ride west along the stage road, burning hay which had been left piled for the approaching Union troops. This party of rebels rode to within 80 miles of Fort Yuma, finally stopping when they encountered the first Union pickets, whom they drove off, wounding one. This little known skirmish must have been the true "westernmost fight" of the Civil War!

Northwest view
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By early April, the California Column had reached an area near present day Casa Grande, Arizona. From there, they dispatched a group of scouts to reconnoiter the remainder of the route into Tucson. It was this detachment of the First California Cavalry which ran into Hunter's men at Picacho Pass on April 15. Hunter's strong detachment of pickets had occupied ambush positions up on the rocky slopes of Picacho Peak, from which they commanded a wide view of the stage road. Contrary to popular belief, the two sides did not stumble upon each other by accident. The Confederates were waiting in ambush, and only part of the Union cavalry troopers entered the pass via the stage road. The position itself was so obviously an ambush point, that the approaching Californians had split in two, sending part of their force to circle the dangerous position as a precaution.

These precautions were justified, because at 2 P.M., the Union cavalrymen entering the pass were fired upon by Hunter's waiting men. Two Union troopers were injured, and the rest went to the ground in disorder. At this time, the other Union force came up on the flank of the Confederate skirmish line, capturing three of Hunter's men. Encouraged by this victory, Union Lieutenant James Barrett waved his men forward against the remaining Confederate cavalry troopers, who laid down heavy fire, killing and wounding four more Union soldiers, including the young lieutenant. After withdrawing and regrouping, the Union cavalry continued trading shots with the Confederates until late afternoon, when they withdrew and slowly returned to the main body to the north.

North view
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The "battle" at Picacho Pass may only have been a tiny skirmish compared to the great conflagrations in the east, but to the men killed and wounded there it was the Civil War. As a microcosm of the greater war, local Confederate successes could not change the strategic realities of the situation. Sherrod Hunter's Confederates continued to be outnumbered, and they were too far from the main Confederate army on the Rio Grande to receive regular supply or reinforcement. Carleton's California troops finally arrived in Tucson, only to discover that Hunter had evacuated. The retreat itself became well known in western lore, and Hunter's east-bound troops were attacked repeatedly by Apaches based in the Chiricahua Mountains. The Confederates even armed their Union prisoners as the march became a fight for survival. The tired Confederates arrived on the Rio Grande River on May 27, 1862, bringing the Confederate invasion of Arizona to an end.

Arizona Pioneers Historical Society - Southern Pacific plaque
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Visiting Picacho Peak
Anyone who has driven between Tucson and Phoenix will know about Picacho Peak. It is a major landmark in that part of the Sonoran Desert and can be seen from Casa Grande to Northern Tucson. The peak itself is the eroded remnant of a volcanic plug, which explains the solid stone walls which tower above Interstate Highway 10. At the peak there is an off-ramp which leads to commercial businesses at the base of the mountain. The same ramp passes the historic site entrance, where there is a small booth staffed by park rangers. The site itself is rather small, and can be visited in a short but pleasant break from what is probably the middle of a very long desert drive. Certainly your lunch break will be more pleasant than any had by the gentlemen who were forced to spend weeks at a time out in this area. Potential visitors from outside the Southwest should be warned that summer temperatures easily exceed 110 degrees F (43 degrees C) and that travellers should always carry several liters of extra water when traveling across the desert.

¹ - At the beginning of the Civil War, California was not an obvious member of the Union. The senior Army commander in California was Albert Sydney Johnston, a Southerner. Also, many secessionist groups throughout the state appealed to the local Hispanic population in their push for secession. Only when Johnston resigned and headed east without surrendering California to the Confederacy did the Union Government there begin to breathe more easily. Even then it took a while for the situation to settle.

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