Chief of the Chiricahua Apaches: Victorio
The United States Army in the West feared the Apaches as much as they feared any Indian. Perhaps the Comanches commanded that much respect, but the Apaches were not just fearsome in the movies and on TV. They expunged any feelings of sympathy from settlers with their habit of torturing captives. These noble warriors showed a marked degree of sociopathy once they had a prisoner. They loved to torture people. They burned them slowly. Beat them regularly, cut off ears and fingers and scalps, even the bottoms of feet. Many Apache tribes made the torture and execution of prisoners a family affair, where men and women and children al cheered the suffering. It’s odd how we see Indians as people living close to God. In fact, Columbus called them Gen En Dios, or quite literally ‘people living in God’. The fact is they were not monolithic. Some were peaceable. Some were horrid neighbors.
To the Americans, the Indians were a scourge that occluded the easy conquest and settlement of the West. No one made the argument that the land we settled already had owners. To the Europeans looking for Leibenstraum, there was no going back, and a land this massive with so few indigenous people rendered it up for grabs.
The Apaches were no strangers to warfare, such as it was, manifesting itself in fast fierce raids. Remember also that the Apaches and Comanches battled the Spanish for 300 years. But once the US heeded calls for its own Manifest Destiny, it would be only 40 years before the Apaches were militarily defeated. This day the leader of the Eastern Chiricahua Apaches was on the warpath because the US Government refused them the terms of the treaty they were forced to sign: the reservation at Ojo Caliente. The US was dragging its feet because we never intended to honor the agreement.
In 1880 the US 9th Cavalry went in search of a band of Chiricahua Apaches and Mescaleros at a place called Hembrillo Basin. On April 6th and 7th, the 9th Cavalry cornered the Chiricahua Apaches under Chief Victorio. The US Army was convinced after a bloody war with the Confederacy that they had the soldiers and the tactics and the weaponry to make short work of Victorio. The mixed band of Apaches were making a point of protest by attacking settlers, and burning buildings and stealing. Before White people came to the New World, Indian bands raided each other with regularity, and took slaves. The oft-repeated raids staved off massive large-scale wars that the Europeans were used to. The Indians in North America just didn’t have the manpower to conduct war on a larger scale. In the vast Western desserts and the rolling mountainous foothills, there were plenty of opportunities for revenge.
The Apaches also had a method of fighting that imbued them with natural advantages. First all they knew the lands that they fought on. They had a mix of weapons, muskets and repeating rifles and flintlocks. Most of these they purloined in raids, but they knew how to use these weapons. They had bows and arrows that they could fire at twice the rate of the Cavalry rifles. The Apaches also liked to fight with a mountain at their back. This means that they liked to have their enemies in front and below them. Thusly, when Carroll led his troops into the Hembrillo Basin, located near White Sands, New Mexico they were headed uphill, in thickly forested hills. This area was difficult for man and horses alike and provided perfect cloak in a thousand boscages on the trail up.
On the 6th of April 1880, this band ambushed two companies of buffalo soldiers under the command of Captain Henry Carroll and Lt. Blackjack Davidson. The 71 Buffalo Soldiers held off the attack that lasted though the night, taking only 7 casualties, 2 fatal. The Buffalo Soldiers were of course Black, and so had to face a crucible against which only they would be judged. The first day of fighting found the Buffalo Soldiers reeling from the fierceness of the attack and exhaustion trying to fight an enemy they could barely see. They were thirsty and the Apaches defended the natural springs available up the mountain, which forced the cavalrymen to dig holes into the stream beds to find water. The Buffalo Soldiers fought until the next morning when it looked like Victorio was going to deliver a coup de grace. Just in time, two more cavalry companies appeared to reinforce them.
Historians believe that the ambush might not have happened as Victorio’s warriors were trailing and reconnoitering the Cavalry from the hills. Many think Lt. Blackjack Davidson rushed his troopers of the 10th Cavalry up the hill for the glory of the win. Blackjack’s attack backfired and the troops had to be relieved by reinforcements. Lt. Davidson had been appointed brigadier General by Abraham Lincoln himself with purview over nits in the Army of the Potomac. Davidson distinguished himself in the Seven Days Battles, the Peninsular Campaign and eventually he led a large Union ground contingent on the embattled Confederates at Vicksburg. He then took command of the Southeast Missouri district. Davidson was one of the few Union Generals who won on the battlefields of the Civil War. That year the Army flushed these Apaches out of the hills and killed Victorio in open battle where he was gunned down by Mexican troops.
This campaign was one of the first in history to involve all four major racial lines on the continent: White, Mexican, Indian, and African American. The campaign wound down at the Battle of Cieneguilla in 1854 when the Apaches themselves were fatigued with war.
Finally, the technicians around White Sands conducted forensic research on the battlefield on bullets and abandoned or lost equipment for 10 years and have discover that 147 different long arms and 39 pistols. It is amazing was over 50 volunteers found real evidence, marked with GPS, Examined in labs, even distinguishing even tiny century old percussion caps, fired and not fired. With this, they have reconstructed the events fairly accurately.
Wiki, http://anthrocivitas.net, archeology.org, The Book Of The American West, Jay Monaghan, 1965.