WSMR Museum Hosts Battle Site Visit to Hembrillo Basin for Soldiers of 5-4 ADA

By Jenn Jett, Museum Specialist

On Tuesday, 24 November 2020, Soldiers from 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment attended a battlefield tour of the Battle of Hembrillo Basin led by WSMR Museum Director/Curator Darren Court.

The day began with an overview in the WSMR Museum, detailing the events leading up to the Battle of Hembrillo Basin, the largest battle in Victorio’s War, in which Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry Regiment, along with other US Army cavalry units and Apache Scouts, faced warriors under the command of Victorio, Chief of the Warm Springs Apache, in early April 1880.

The entrance to Hembrillo Canyon.

Following the battle overview, the group made the 45-minute drive up to Hembrillo Canyon. The unpaved road made for a rocky ride, but the surrounding landscape more than made up for this minor inconvenience. As the convoy continued further into the canyon, an oryx stood observing from the top of a slope.

An oryx watches the convoy pass by in Hembrillo Canyon.

The first stop was in front of an inconspicuous line of markers next to the road. With the Soldiers gathered around, Mr. Court explained the significance of the site, identified by archaeologists as an agave roasting pit. At this location, native peoples, most likely of the Apache culture, deposited agave harvested from the surrounding area into pits and roasted them for days. All parts of the agave plant, which looks like the top of a pineapple above ground, are edible or otherwise usable. Carbon dating on the pits put its usage at around 1,200 CE.

Darren Court explains the significance of the roasting pit and the process by which the Apache people turned the agave into cooked product.

The next stop on the trip was at the site of the first engagement in the battle. The skirmish began near the entrance into Hembrillo Canyon when a scouting party of 9th Cavalry Soldiers, led by Lieutenant John Conline, encountered a numerically superior force of Apache Warriors advancing forward and blocking further entrance into the valley. One member of Lt. Conline’s party stated that he was able to hear Chief Victorio on the top of the ridge, directing his forces below.

Mr. Court paints a mental picture using the terrain and points out the positions of both the Apache Warriors and the 9th Cavalry of Conline’s Skirmish.

Deeper into the basin, the group stopped at a rock face just off the gravel road. The site, called “Bloody Hands,” features pictographs dozens of feet up, the most prominent of which are the red hand prints from which the site gets its name.

The red hand prints from which the “Bloody Hands” pictograph site got its name. Photo by Bob Gamboa, Dona Ana County Historical Society.

Resuming the battlefield tour, the group reached their goal: Carroll’s Ridge, where Chief Victorio’s forces fired on 9th Cavalry forces led by Captain Henry Carroll, beginning the Battle of Hembrillo Basin in earnest.

The group receives a brief terrain layout prior to the hike up to the location where elements of Chief Victorio’s forces fired down on Captain Carroll’s position.

After a quick terrain orientation, the group made their way single-file up Carroll’s Ridge and to the site of the battle’s memorial, located on a small ridge commanding a total view of the 9th Cavalry’s two avenues of approach from the north and northwest.

Soldiers read the memorial plaque to the Battle of Hembrillo Basin. The plaque overlooks the draw through which Captain Carroll entered the basin and walked into an Apache ambush.
Victorio Peak stands in the southern end of the basin. Just to the west, behind the ridge on the right, lay the Apache camp whose population numbered in the hundreds, many of them women, children, and the elderly, but also included more than one hundred males of fighting age.

After completing the battlefield visit, the group made the return trip back to the eastern entrance to Hembrillo Basin. On the way, the group stopped for lunch at Rock Art Spring, the site of a rock face containing petroglyphs and pictographs attributed to the Apache culture. The strongest evidence for this comes from the far-left figure on the main image, which shows a figure riding a horse. The other primary peoples from this area, the Jornada Mogollon, appear to have moved out of the Tularosa Basin prior to contact with the Spanish, who brought horses to the Americas, leading archaeologists to infer that the rock art is likely of Apache origin. In addition to identifying a rider on a horse, the horned figure in the center is attributed to a local mountain spirit.

The figure on the left is identified as a a rider on a horse, while the horned figure in the center is attributed to an Apache mountain spirit.

Following lunch, the Soldiers returned to the White Sands Missile Range Museum to close out the day.

The 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery is a subordinate unit of the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, comprised of five battery-level units.

The 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery was constituted on October 16, 2018 in the Regular Army and its headquarters is located on Shipton Kaserne, Ansbach, Germany.

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