The Battle of Hembrillo Basin
First Encounter – Conline’s Skirmish
In late afternoon on 5 April, Lt. Conline and his troops were patrolling the Tularosa Basin on the eastern edge of the San Andres Mountains. Noticing a great number of horse and cattle tracks in the sand of the arroyo leading into the canyon, he immediately sent 6 men forward and sent a courier back to Captain Carroll.
The company went up the canyon to a point where it “boxed up,” 1½ miles from mouth, when I halted, dismounted, and formed a concave line of battle, towards the Indians in open order as skirmishers, right and left flanks resting against the steep walls of the canyon, to prevent flanking by Victorio (these were 29 men, 1 officer, and 2 citizens all told) Vidette were posted on front and left rear.
The archeology of the battlefield shows a different picture than what Conline actually reported, however. Archeologist Karl Laumbach writes “It is apparent that his troops had their hands full defending their position from a superior, if less well-armed, force of Apache.”
Captain Carroll thought he was arriving late. A problem at the well at Aleman, on the Jornada del Muerto just west of the San Andreas Mountains, had delayed Hatch/Morrow’s First Battalion and Captain Curwen McClellan’s 6th Cavalry and Apache Scouts. Hatch’s Special Field Orders 18, written at Aleman, never made it to Carroll so, as far as he knew, 5 April was still the date Colonel Hatch planned to attack Victorio’s camp in the mountains. Having left Tularosa on 4 April, Captain Carroll’s Second Battalion, with 155 men from A, D, F, and G Troops overnighted at Malpais Spring; the next morning Lt. Conline left to scout ahead with A Troop.
Conline writes “I made a rapid march of about 37 miles nearly due south to Mimbrillo Canyon, San Andres Mountains, and at 4:20 P.M. I struck a fresh trail of about 50 horses and 10 or more cattle, heading up the canyon a short distance from its mouth.” This statement has led one historian to posit that Conline struck directly for Hembrillo, knowing Victorio’s band was there – this is doubtful, however. The statement above was from an article Conline wrote over two decades after the engagement. Conline had rewritten his narrative at least three times, changing certain aspects of his story. A narrative written just after the engagement states that A Troop was, “ordered in advance to ascertain the whereabouts of Victorio’s band of hostile Indians,” and found the fresh stock trail (in this case, with 50 horses and about 100 head of cattle) at the mouth of Hembrillo.
It is more than likely that Colonel Hatch and his Battalion commanders, Morrow and Carroll, had a rough idea of where in the San Andres Mountains Victorio was encamped, having engaged them in the area earlier in 1880 only to have them disappear in the mountains. Throughout March 1880, Victorio struck numerous targets throughout the Rio Grande valley, in many cases retreating toward the east and the San Andres. The historical and archeological records taken together provide a clear view of what occurred in Hembrillo Canyon on 5 April.
Lt. Conline and A Troop entered Hembrillo Canyon after discovering the tracks of both horses and cattle leading west into the canyon. At a point 1.7 miles into the canyon, at a location in which it narrows, Conline stopped, dismounted his troops, and had the animals unsaddled – he sent six men to scout ahead and a courier back to the mouth of the canyon to report to Captain Carroll what he had seen. Conline’s The Order of Palestine Bulletin article states:
Here the troop was halted and dismounted, and, owing to the strong impression gained that the Indians were not far away, a small guard was placed over the horses in the rear, and the company on foot, was immediately formed in a concave line of battle, in open order, with right and left flanks resting against the steep sides of the canon and facing toward the head. I posted a Vidette about 400 yards in front and the men in line were posted behind rocks and small boulders. I also sent two citizen guides and four soldiers up the canon to examine and report, and upon their return no Indians were reported in sight…I felt morally certain, however, that the Indians were in the neighborhood.”
About 5:00 P.M., Conline saw two Apache coming down the hillside on the left side of the canyon. Scanning to the right, he saw thirty-five to fifty more who then fired upon them at a range of 250-300 yards. The forward vidette was pulled back to the skirmish line, while a vidette posted to Conline’s left-rear stayed in place. The Apache poured fire into the skirmish line initially, then intermittently as they advanced. Conline writes “The Indians made several attempts to turn my flank, but their efforts in this direction were repelled.” In addition, Conline heard Victorio himself personally directing his fighters during the attack on the cavalrymen. The identity of Victorio was made by Jose Carillo, one of Conline’s guides. The Apache kept up a harassing fire until just after dark, about 1930 hours, then retreated. Conline retreated some fifteen minutes later with one soldier, Corporal Hawkins, and a civilian guide, William Eubank, slightly injured. He had lost two horses killed and one injured. The archeology tells a far different story than Conline.
The forward vidette was less than half the distance mentioned by Conline – 400 yards would have placed it out of view. Cartridge cases from the same rifle were found at the vidette site, as well as several locations between there and the skirmish line – showing that the trooper stopped to fire as he made his way back to the line. Conline does state that the Apache tried to turn his flank but fails to state that, had darkness interceded, they would probably have been successful. Conline’s position was only on the south side on the canyon, rather than both sides “resting against the steep sides of the canyon.” To his left was high ground from which at least two Apache were firing down into his line. To Conline’s right (north), was a wide arroyo with large boulders and good concealment.
Through this arroyo, several Apache made their way past his right flank to attack from the rear. Two metal arrowheads were found in the location where the troopers’ horses were held, probably fired in an attempt to injure and scare the animals into stampeding. Other Apache began firing upon Conline from this arroyo and the number of cartridge cases found along the right flank demonstrates that Conline did, indeed, have to move troopers to his right along the small ridge overlooking the arroyo to be able to repel those firing upon him from this location. Another critical fact in understanding the skirmish is the low ground directly in front of the skirmish line. This low ground allowed the Apache to move to within 30 yards of Conline’s troops. Again, the arrival of nightfall, as well as the steadfastness of Conline’s men – kept the troop from being overrun.
The position Conline chose was far from ideal – high ground overlooked his left flank, dead ground directly in front allowed very close Apache approach, and the arroyo allowed the Apache to flank his right and get behind him. Once Conline retreated east to the Tularosa Basin, he quickly located Captain Carroll and rejoined the battalion, briefing Carroll and revealing both the location of the Apache as well as another important factor – they directly engaged the cavalry and stood their ground. Carroll now felt certain the Apache camp was at the head of the canyon.
Pinned Down at Hembrillo
There is discussion of whether Carroll knew the Apache were in Hembrillo Basin. Contemporary accounts seem to indicate the troops rode blindly into the canyon, unaware of the Apache presence. Indeed, a spring at the head of Sulphur Canyon, where Carroll intended to gain water for his men and stock, was dry at the time of his arrival, according to later comments by Thomas Cruse – hence the belief Carroll had moved into Hembrillo for the water at Rock House Spring. However, Carroll’s actions demonstrate otherwise — though he did underestimate the number of fighters Victorio had (between 150 and 200). After receiving Conline’s report, Carroll decided to approach Hembrillo from a different direction, rightfully believing the Apaches would be expecting them to approach through Hembrillo Canyon again. In addition, he sent A and G Troops, under the command of Lieutenants Conline and Cusack, respectively, to move back toward Hembrillo and patrol the eastern entrance of the canyon to prevent Victorio’s escape while he entered the basin with Lt. Hughes’ D Troop and Lt. Taylor’s F Troop.
Carroll moved south into Hembrillo with 71 men, almost immediately noticed by an Apache sentry on a high point in the northwest part of the basin. Sometime between 1600 and 1800 hours, he started taking fire from Apaches emplaced on both Carroll’s Ridge to the west and Apache Ridge to the east. In addition, just to the south of Carroll’s position Victorio had stationed a number of fighters on Victorio Ridge, overlooking the location of Rock House Spring and protecting the camp further south where hundreds of women, children, and the elderly had been living for months.
Carroll immediately advanced toward a semi-protective ridge and ordered his command to dismount, with every fourth man handling the stock, and formed two skirmish lines – back-to-back – on a small rise on Carroll’s Ridge. This precarious location had high ground to the west where the Apache had built stone breastworks from which to fire, and low ground to the east. The dead space directly before the low ground allowed the Apache to advance closely on Carroll overnight. Archeologist Karl Laumbach writes:
Archeological evidence (the clusters of cartridge cases) is telling. Several clusters of .45-55 cartridge cases were found. Each of the clusters reflects a single weapon that was fired several times from the same position. The troopers clearly were pinned down, firing, ejecting, and reloading. That the fighting was close at times is amply illustrated by an approximately sixty-meter-long skirmish line defined by cartridge cases from twenty .45-caliber pistols and one .41-caliber rimfire pocket pistols. The effective range for these pistols is less than 100 yards.
Gallery of images showing different locations and positions used during the Battle of Hembrillo Basin.
The Apache typically did not like to fight at night. They had a fear of rattlesnakes, which normally hunted at night, but they also had traditional beliefs which precluded night fighting. Still, at Hembrillo they crept closer to Carroll’s troops, firing throughout the night to prevent them from reaching the water. In addition, during an engagement in Mexico with Major Morrow and Second Lieutenant Charles Gatewood, the Apache had kept up chanting and drumming throughout the night – they employed the same tactics at Hembrillo.
Lieutenant Finley also recalled the night in Mexico in a letter to his mother, of the Apache women “making medicine – singing and howling at great rate – and Victorio shouting continually that he could whip the whole Ninth Cavalry.” During the night, most of the Carroll’s stock was moved up onto the ridge itself from a position just below; even so, approximately twenty-five percent of the command’s animals were lost.
The Apache were armed with the following weapons during the battle, as shown by the archeological survey:
|Gun Type||Caliber||No. of Guns||No. of Cases|
|Rifles and Carbines|
|Ballard||.44 extra long||1||1|
|Wesson||.44 extra long||1||1|
|Henry/1866 Winchester||.44 rimfire||3||27|
|Colt Cloverleaf/1871||.41 rimfire||1||4|
|Colt 1873 Army||.45 centerfire||30||63|
|Colt 1872||.32 rimfire||1||1|
|Royal Irish Constabulary||.44 centerfire||1||1|
|Smith and Wesson||.44 centerfire||1||1|
From Karl Laumbach’s Hembrillo Battlefield Report 9730.
The variety of weapon type and caliber is typical of what is seen not only during the Apache Wars, but throughout wars with Native Americans in the west. Multiple trade routes and locations, as well as raiding for weapons, supplies, and livestock both in the US and Mexico meant that a large variety of weapons were used. However, these were often not maintained well and in one instance a cartridge case found in an Apache position at Hembrillo shows over thirty firing pin marks; a patient Apache kept slightly turning the round a bit, blowing dust from it, reinserting it, and repeatedly attempting to fire it before finally being successful. Concerning the variety of weapons, Watt writes:
The Apaches knew the varying capabilities of the different models of breech-loading rifles, and deployed these weapons in an attempt to frustrate attempts by Carroll’s men to reach water running down from Rock House Spring. Victorio concentrated most of those warriors armed with shorter-range but higher-rate-of-fire repeating rifles around the nearest source of water, while the ridgelines were occupied by warriors armed with longer-range single-shot breech-loading weapons.
This is a plausible supposition, and one which can be extended. If groups of warriors operated together in battle, they may also have done so in acquiring weapons. Even if they were able to find an illicit arms dealer, they would not necessarily have been able to pick out a particular make of rifle. However, within the limited range of weapons and ammunition they had access to through raiding or trading, the Apaches were quite capable of modifying their tactics to take advantage of the best features offered by the various models of breech-loading rifles. (Chiricahua Apache) Betzinez also noted that the older Apache warriors, no longer quite so active, preferred longer-range weapons; whereas the younger warriors tended to favour repeating rifles.
Victorio’s warriors were mainly successful in preventing the men from getting to the spring for water. Guide Jose Carillo, who had identified Victorio during the skirmish with Conline, made an attempt and was able to fill at least two canteens but refused to make another attempt. Carroll and several men were seriously wounded in trying to reach the spring. At first light, while a mist lay over the basin, the Apache attempted to close with the pinned-down troopers on Carroll’s Ridge, focusing on twenty troops holding the north-east facing line. In a 2002 email to Watts, Laumbach wrote:
Early in the fight we have cartridges/weapons on Apache ridge that were also found near to Carroll’s position, suggesting that they were involved first from long range and then moved closer. The 3 Henry’s are a case in point but several .45-55’s appear to have joined that manoeuvre. So it is logical to posit a movement from Apache Ridge down to area H (near Carroll) especially as Hatch talks about the Apache closing in.
Colonel Hatch’s column had been delayed. In its account of the battle, the Thirty Four stated:
Morrow’s battalion to which McClellan belongs was delayed a day by breaking of pump at Aleman and non-arrival of supply train. Thus Carroll got into the fight a day too soon, and without the cooperation expected from Morrow and Hooker. The latter was to have come down to east side of the mountain and gotten to the fight at same time as the others, but did not arrive until after fight was over. Carroll’s two companies did nobly and deserve credit.
Indeed, they do deserve credit – they maintained their line overnight, pinned down from all sides, with no water and panicking livestock against a numerically superior force who had come to within pistol range of them during a very dark night. Laumbach writes:
Consultation with the Naval Observatory revealed that darkness was indeed a factor in the night battle. The sun set on the evening of April 6, 1880, at 6:31 P.M. MST and twilight ended twenty-five minutes later. After that it was very dark. The moon did not rise until 4:25 A.M. on April 7. When it did rise, it was a waning crescent with only eight percent of the moon’s visible surface illuminated. Sunrise followed a little more than an hour later, at 5:46 A.M.
During that same very dark night, McClellan and his Apache Scouts – who had been pushed forward by Hatch – lost the trail, only picking it up again with the moon rise. Colonel Hatch had taken personal command of the troops in the field for the Hembrillo Campaign and was leading the First Battalion as his combined forces gathered at Aleman, west of the San Andres Mountains. The combined force consisted of Captain McClellan’s company of 6th Cavalry from the Department of Arizona, with three companies of Apache Scouts – Company A under Lieutenant Charles Gatewood; Company L under Lieutenant Touey, and 12th Infantry Company O under Lieutenant Stephen Mills. In addition, from the 15th Infantry were Lieutenant James Maney’s Apache Scouts and Lieutenant Humphrey’s Hotchkiss Gun detachment. From the 9th Cavalry, Major Morrow had Troops H, I, and L of the First Battalion – each with approximately 25 men. Each Apache Scout company consisted of approximately 25 men, as well.
As the command gathered at Aleman Well, it was discovered that the pump was in poor order. After the Apache Scouts had their fill, Hatch ordered the 6th to water and sent the Apache Scouts forward to traverse the 14 miles to the San Andres Mountains – the rest of Morrow’s command would water and follow on, leaving early in the morning of 7 April. Major Morrow wrote:
On the evening of the 7th [actually the 6th] all of the Indian scouts and Captain McClellan’s company were ordered to make a night march and endeavor to strike the hostiles at daybreak; the balance of the command was to follow at daybreak, but owing to the breaking of the pump we were delayed until about 1 o’clock P.M. when we started accompanied by the District Commander.
Surgeon Dorsey M. McPherson later wrote an account of the night march, partially reproduced in Laumbach’s Hembrillo monograph:
Remained in camp until 6 P.M. next day, when command consisting of “L” Sixth and detachment of Indian Scouts Co. “A” [Gatewood’s], Maney’s Fifteenth Inf., and Mills 12th Inf.; moved towards the San Andres mountains where Victoria [sic] was supposed to be. We marched all night with an occasional halt to cinch up and about 2 A.M. during a halt we lost our guide who not being aware of the halt had gone on – and the troops were obliged to wait until the moon had arose so we could proceed. Our Chief of Scouts [possibly Henry Parker] with Lt. Mills and Mexican guide who were ahead, missing the command, waited at the mouth of the pass. We met there about daylight and had marched about 2 miles when our Scouts reported hostiles in large force occupying the rocks. Occasional shots were heard and it was some time before we could tell for whom the shots were intended.
At this time of the morning, when the 6th Cavalry units under McClellan had located the battle, Second Battalion Lieutenants Conline and Cusack were entering the Hembrillo Basin from the north – following Carroll’s trail of the night before. Indeed, McClellan and Lieutenant Thomas Cruse – who later wrote about the battle in his memoirs – fail to mention Carroll’s other two troops arriving that morning. McClellan reported:
I at once proceeded to put my pack train and animals into a secure position and ordered the Indian Scouts to the attack and gallantly they went into action. In less than half an hour we discovered Captain Carroll with his company in a helpless condition, he being wounded twice and eight of his men also wounded through some misapprehension of orders given he got into the pass one day too soon and was when discovered completely at the mercy of the Indians. The enemy was strongly posted and had full control of what little water was in the pass. At 7:30 every available man of my command was engaged.
Lieutenants Conline and Cusack had begun patrolling in the Tularosa Basin the previous day when a courier from Captain Carroll approached them:
A courier overtook us with orders to take Captain Carroll’s trail and rejoin him, which we at once proceeded to do, marching until 10 P.M., when the trail was lost in the darkness, and we were obliged to go into camp at midnight. In the morning at daylight, on the 7th, having found the lost trail we moved forward and joined Capt. Carroll’s command at the head of Membrillo [sic] canon, at 8:30 A.M. While marching up the hillside to the position occupied by Capt. Carroll, the Indians opened fire upon us from the opposite hills [Victorio Ridge] but did no damage to Troop A.
With both Carroll’s newly-arrived troops arriving from the north, as well as McClellan’s Apache Scouts coming over the ridge to the west, Victorio began to pull his fighters back – occupying positions on the north and west edges of Victorio Ridge to provide protection as Nana and others evacuated the families from the camp toward the southeast. The Apache Scouts began to flank Victorio Ridge from the west while Conline and Cusack conferred with Carroll, with Cusack taking command.
Warm Springs Apache James Kaywaykla, a child at the time, later recalled, “The troops were easily beaten back until more cavalry came in from the Tularosa Basin.” This indicates it was the other two troops of the 9th Cavalry, rather than the Apache Scouts of the 6th, that turned the battle. Regardless, Lieutenant Cruse’s account, published in 1941, presents the view that it was McClellan’s command who saved the day.
In its 14 April account of the battle, the Thirty Four states, “It is universally admitted that but for the arrival of [Capt.] McLellan with Co. ‘L’ of the Sixth and the scouts on Thursday morning Carroll would have been badly whipped and most of his men killed.” The paper does give brief mention to Conline and Cusack’s troops but only to state they had become lost during the night and finally showed up, only to be fired upon accidentally by the 6th Cavalry as they came over the ridge the morning of 7 April. Captain McClellan’s report of the battle makes the following statement:
It gives me great pleasure to hear testimony to the gallant conduct of Lieuts. Touey, Gatewood and Cruse, Sixth Cavalry, Mills of the 12th and Maney of the Fifteenth Infantry during the engagement and to these officers I claim the credit of this decisive victory over the Indians in the San Andres Mountains.
The morning of 7 April, Conline’s Troop A and Cusack’s Troop G entered Hembrillo from the north, taking the same route with which Carroll had entered the previous day. At approximately the same time, McClellan’s command arrived in the basin from the western ridge – after hearing gunfire and seeing movement in the mist below. The 6th began to fire upon the 9th, mistaking them for Victorio’s fighters and quickly realizing their mistake. Conline writes:
Soon after 9 A.M. Companies A and G, Ninth Cavalry, Lt. Cusack commanding, with part of the Indian Scouts, deployed as skirmishers covering a front of about 700 yards, advanced and drove the Indians from the hill nearly east of the water and from which they opened fire on us in the morning. The Indians retreated in a southeasterly direction up the side of a high mountain. After remaining some time in the skirmish line Lieut. Cusack left me in command and went back to confer with Carroll.
Note the mention of a 700-yard front. Typical Apache skirmishes occurred in narrow canyons or other locations without room for maneuvering. Hembrillo Basin is roughly two miles across in either direction, allowing the Cavalry and Scout units more room to move to engage and flank the Apache. However, this also allowed more time and space for Victorio to ensure the families and elderly were removed safely from the battle. James Kaywaykla recalled that, “Nana took the women and children up the arroyo and around a point to the Jornada.”
Carroll’s additional troops quickly pushed the remaining Apache from atop Carroll’s Ridge to the south and Victorio’s Ridge, which “controlled access to the spring and offered a tremendous field of fire to the north and west.” With the appearance of the additional 6th Cavalry troops and the Apache Scouts, Victorio’s men retreated fully from around Carroll’s position back to the south around Victorio Ridge – in a rearguard action now as the families continued to move out of the basin.
The four companies of Carroll’s command were now on the eastern edge of Carroll’s Ridge, with the 6th Cavalry detachment and the Scouts moving in from the west. The northern face of Victorio Ridge was a steep, rocky precipice and Victorio felt confident the soldiers would not attack up the ridge; however, the western approaches were sloped gradually toward the west and a large open area in which the Apache Scouts began a flanking movement toward the southeast – the location of the Apache camp. As Gatewood and Mills led the Scouts out of range far to the south, Haney’s Scouts and McClellan’s 6th Cavalry troops began a direct assault on the ridge. At this time, two of Carroll’s troops moved south toward the Ridge, reaching the base while the other two companies still on Carroll’s Ridge kept up a steady fire across the arroyo at Victorio Ridge.
Gatewood and others were much puzzled at the large numbers of hostiles present, as it was well known that Victorio never at any time had over seventy-five warriors, while here we found at least two hundred ranged around us. At about ten o’clock McClellan determined on a frontal attack to clear the spring. Gatewood and his Scouts were directed to go quietly up one of the canyons leading to the south. He was to turn a ridge that covered the spring and from which the hostiles kept up a hot fire on anyone who showed himself.
Touey and myself were to take charge of all the enlisted men and, when Gatewood had gained his objective, advance in skirmish formation and capture the bluff (Victorio Ridge). McClellan – the dour old Scot! – added:
“I want you to get it, too!”
Soon we heard firing from Gatewood’s direction, and I ordered our Number One’s to rush. I went with them. Then we dropped and the Number Two’s came rushing past us. We fired steadily at the crest – perhaps six hundred yards distant – and the Indians presented us with everything they had in stock! They had plenty of men scattered along that crest too!
Having covered about four hundred and fifty of the six hundred yards, the line was halted and we rested for ten minutes, lying down behind such cover as the ground afforded. I passed the word along that at the command the advance was to be continued on the run, the men firing at will until the hostile line was reached. There would be no halts for any purpose.
When we rose to make the rush, only a few scattering shots met us and we gained the objective to find it abandoned. But at once terrific firing broke out where Gatewood and the Scouts were.
It developed that, when we halted preparatory to charging, the Indians had begun to withdraw on the run. This movement was plainly seen from Gatewood’s position and he turned on them, speeding their fight until they were hidden in the sheltering canyons.
This rearguard action by Victorio’s warriors continued as they pulled back to the southeast, toward Victorio Peak and Geronimo Peak. By then, the battlefield was mostly cleared and the Scouts had moved through what had been the camp. The Mescalero fighters escaped through Hembrillo Canyon, on the run east back to their reservation across the Tularosa Basin. Lieutenant Walter Finley, in a letter home, wrote:
I had two wagons loaded with water barrels and I camped out on the plains about three miles from the mountains in which the fight took place. I only had a guard of three men at first, afterward I picked up two stragglers. Of course with such a small guard was rather uneasy. If the Indians had chosen they could have “scooped” me without much trouble. The day after the fight I saw fifty or sixty Indians come out of the mountains some 10 miles below me and make across the plain toward the reservation. If I had had fifty men on good horses I could have captured their stock and killed a good many of them, but with my five men (four of whom were mounted on broken down horses and the fifth had none at all) I could do nothing but watch them closely.
By the morning of 8 April, Carroll’s command had suffered the following:
Hatch stated that Carroll was wounded twice but that only one of those wounds was dangerous. He also noted that eleven enlisted men were seriously wounded. In Carroll’s case, the surgeon’s report on is injuries states that, “The course of the ball seriously endangered the axillary artery, the brachial plexus, the head of the humorous and glenoid fossa, and indeed it is difficult to understand how these parts escaped destruction. Two troopers, Privates Johnson and Lyle, were still out of action by the end of June. Lyle needed to have his left leg amputated, and he was medically discharged from the Army on 11 January 1881. Another soldier, Trumpeter Guddy, was shot in both legs. Three of Carroll’s men subsequently died of their wounds: Isaac James and William Sanders, who died in April and July respectively, and Private Morgan of D Company was also recorded as having died from wounds received at Hembrillo Canyon during April 1880.