APACHE BATTLE RESULT OF INEXPERIENCED OFFICER - The Explorer: Import

APACHE BATTLE RESULT OF INEXPERIENCED OFFICER

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Posted: Wednesday, February 13, 2002 12:00 am | Updated: 7:46 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Ed. Note: This is the 11th in a continuing series on the 200th anniversary of the United States Military Academy. West Point will celebrate the bicentennial next month. The following continues the overview of the impact West Point grads had on Arizona in the 19th century.

When the United States came into possession of what we now refer to fondly as Southern Arizona, all the troubles associated with this territory also became the government and military's headaches.

The government of Mexico had managed to maintain a somewhat functional peace accord with most of the Apache bands. The two most powerful leaders, Mangas Coloradas of the eastern tribe and Cochise of the central tribes, pledged peace with the American government. But these were just the two most powerful bands that had indicated peace, and not all the bands.

The Apache were made up of many groups and were not one centralized controlled tribe with one all powerful leader. Those who lived out here understood this. But young Second Lieutenant George Nicholas Bascom did not understand this, and not having done his homework, managed to irritate an important Apache leader to the extreme.

The Civil War was brewing back East when a few renegades made off with cattle and John Ward's stepson on Feb. 3, 1861. Bascom was ordered to locate the boy and the cattle and bring them back to the Ward ranch. He was to parlay with some of the Apache in an attempt to possibly speed up the process.

Bascom thought he was doing things in a logical manner by talking with Cochise and then grabbing him and a few of his company to hold hostage until the Ward boy and the cattle were returned. This was definitely the wrong thing to do. Cochise attempted to convey to this West Point lad that he was not the problem, but it became very apparent to the Apache leader that he was waging a losing battle.

As the other hostages were being moved to another location, Cochise managed to secure a knife and sliced through the wall of the tent he was being held in and made his way through a cordon of shocked soldiers and up into the safety of a mountain side of scrub brush and rocks.

The following day, Cochise and a large contingent of warriors approached the Apache Pass mail station under a flag of truce. Bascom also came out under such a flag. Bascom was probably realizing he had messed things up and was willing to parlay with Cochise about the release of Cochise's hostage relatives and warriors. But Bascom also wanted to discuss the release of the Ward boy as well.

Bascom still had not gotten it though his head that Cochise really had nothing to do with the kidnapping of the Ward kid and the rustling of the cattle. Since Cochise had been on friendly terms with the whites of the area, three of the station hands moved closer to Cochise and his band members.

Bascom was smart enough to hang back a ways. Suddenly, several of the warriors made a dash for the whites and managed to grab James F. Wallace and another man. Well, all hell broke loose with Apache and soldiers exchanging gun fire. One of the bullets killed a station hand who had just managed to escape the clutches of an Apache warrior.

Using Wallace and the other captive, as well as several stolen mules as bargaining chips, Cochise once more attempted to parlay for the release of his six comrades. Bascom said the Ward child would have to be part of the bargain.

This would have been possible if the Apache bands were one entity, but they weren't. I guess we now know why Bascom was the second to last in his class. Had Bascom done some quick study between the time Cochise escaped and returned under the flag of truce, the whole affair could have been put to rest and the original offer by the Apache leader could have been accepted (to go out and negotiate the release of the boy).

As it was now, a more horrible situation was unfolding. The thing was Cochise and his band were capable of committing some pretty heinous acts. The night before this final standoff, a small freight train (wagons in those days) had entered the Apache Pass area from the West and was captured by the Apache, with several of the occupants, in this case Mexicans, bound to the wheels and burned along with the wagons.

Instead of there being a few bands causing trouble, the situation was developing into a full-scale war, with everything on the table for the taking.

It was already dark by the time the parties had departed one another with their hostages. Now the stagecoaches that traveled east and west were about to find themselves in the middle of this war. Cochise and his band had set up in Apache Pass, building up huge mounds of grass to set ablaze for use in lighting up the area to pick off the occupants of these hapless coaches.

However, the westbound stage was running ahead of schedule and made its way through the canyon area before Cochise could get his men in place.

The eastbound stage was not so lucky. Entering the pass area at midnight, the hills erupted with gun fire as bullets took down the lead mule and hit the driver in the leg. The passengers, not stopping to ask any questions, cut away the dead mule before setting off at breakneck speed. They had to stop several times to remove rocks placed in the road by the Chiricahua band.

To add insult to injury, Cochise and his band had also torn away most of a stone bridge that crossed a deep arroyo, but the stage was going so fast the animals almost flew across it with the stage dragging its axles on the remnants of the bridge. The eastbound stage limped its way into the Apache Pass mail station with no further problems, except maybe a few missed heart beats from passengers and animals alike.

Cochise next struck a group of soldiers as they were watering their mules, making off with 29 of the animals. The soldiers chased the band and were even successful in killing a few of the raiders, but the majority got away.

By Feb. 10, Bascom's cries for help were answered by the arrival of Lt. Isaiah N. Moore and two companies of dragoons from distant Fort Breckenridge.

Four days earlier, Assistant Surgeon Bernard J D Irwin and his military escort from Fort Buchanan had come across some Coyotero Apache warriors (the same who probably kidnapped the Ward child) as they were driving stolen cattle. Irwin and his men captured the warriors.

These three captives were soon combined with the other hostages held by Bascom. With an increased force, the army set out to find Cochise, but kept stumbling into deserted camps instead.

Eventually, the soldiers came across the burned out remains of the Mexican wagon train and its occupants, and moving on to where vultures were circling, found the mutilated body of James F. Wallace and the other hostage.

Bascom wasted little time in retaliating. Leading six of the male Apache hostages to oak trees that stood near the newly dug graves of Wallace and his companion, Bascom hung the warriors and left their bodies as a warning to Cochise and his band.

As a result of this initial misunderstanding between Bascom and Cochise and the ensuing tit for tat, the Arizona territory erupted into a spasm of bloody ambushes and confrontations that lasted for another two decades.

Once the forts were abandoned in Arizona in July of 1861 due to the conflagration which erupted between the states, Bascom went east to serve in the New Mexico territory.

He was promoted to first lieutenant May 14 and to captain on Oct. 24 of that same year. He was killed during the battle of Valverde in New Mexico on Feb. 21, 1862 and a fort would later be named in his honor in the New Mexico territory.

But what would eventually bear his name, the "Bascom affair" would haunt the people of Arizona long after his death.

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