The Path to Hembrillo

Aftermath of Hembrillo

After Hembrillo, Victorio and his band once again made their way west, entering the Black Range before moving into the Gila and on to Arizona, causing Major Morrow even more headaches. Later that year, they attacked the now run-down Fort Tularosa, where they again clashed with the 9th Cavalry. The true turning point for Victorio and his band, though, happened on 23 May, when Major Morrow’s scouts picked up Victorio’s trail near Ojo Caliente, following it on to the head of the Palomas River. A significant engagement there cost the Apache approximately thirty killed and the loss of seventy-four head of livestock and much of their camp goods. Victorio could never recover from this fight.

“The lost trail – Apache,” circa 1903. Photograph by Edward S. Curtis. Photo from the Library of Congress.

After that, they moved east into Texas, where General Sheridan had assigned the 10th Cavalry the task of assisting in the capture of Victorio. The 10th’s commander, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, devised a plan to deny the Apache the use of water holes and passes. A number of skirmishes occurred when Victorio and his band – usually unaware – attempted to replenish themselves. On May 12 at Bass Canyon, west of Fort Davis, eight Mescalero fighters attacked a wagon train, killing two settlers and wounding two. Captain Carpenter and H Troop pursued them to the Rio Grande and was convinced they were on their way to join Victorio.

In late July, Lieutenant Henry Flipper, the first African-American graduate of West Point, and three soldiers rode ninety-eight miles in twenty-one hours to inform Captain Gilmore that Victorio’s advance guard had been located. This information was forwarded to Colonel Grierson, who thought Victorio and his group would head for Eagle Springs. His men marched sixty-eight miles in twenty-four hours to get there ahead of Victorio. To their disappointment, Victorio had turned to the northwest, and Rattlesnake Springs. That same night, Grierson’s troopers then marched the sixty-eight miles to Rattlesnake Springs, but failed to intercept them. Grierson knew that Victorio and up to 150 of his group were again in the US, headed either for their former reservation or seeking refuge in the Guadalupe Mountains. Once again, Grierson posted soldiers at known watering holes and crossings. After an engagement at Tinaja de las Palmas, near present-day Sierra Blanca, the group fled south over the Rio Grande but soon returned.

On 6 August, forty miles north of Van Horn, Texas (just east of El Paso) the last significant engagement between the Apache and the Buffalo Soldiers occurred. On 3 August, Corporal Asa Weaver of H Troop and small detail of soldiers and scouts skirmished with the Apache near Alamo Springs, between the Eagle and Van Horn mountains. That evening Colonel Grierson marched northeast from Eagle Springs to intercept the Apaches near Van Horn’s Wells. Learning that Victorio had changed course, at 0300 hours on 5 August, Grierson broke camp ten miles southeast of the wells and set out in pursuit with five troops of the 10th, numbering 170 officers and men. Captain John Gilmore and twenty-five men of Troop H, 24th Infantry, remained behind to protect the supply train. Screened by mountains of the west, the cavalry paralleled the Apache line of march, covering sixty-five miles in less than twenty-one hours. Around midnight the soldiers arrived at Rattlesnake Springs, in the broad valley that separates the Sierra Diablos from the Delaware and Apache mountains. Colonel Grierson, accompanied by his seventeen-year-old son Robert, his aide-de-camp Lieutenant William Beck, and surgeon B.F. Kingsley, two ambulances, and a wagon, caught up with his command at 0330 hours and set up camp at the spring.

The fight unfolded haphazardly. While Captain Nicholas Nolan’s Troop A scouted the passes through the mountains, Captain Charles Viele positioned Troops C and G in Rattlesnake Canyon guarding the approaches to the spring. At two o’clock in the afternoon, his men opened fire at a distance and halted the cautious advance of Victorio and his people. The Apache reorganized and started working their way around the soldiers when Captain Louis Carpenter arrived with Troops B and H, driving the Apache back into the hills and arroyos. About 1600 hours, Captain Gilmore and the supply train rounded a point of mountains to the southeast, where a small group of Apache attacked but quickly withdrew under fire. An attempt was made to scatter the soldiers pack mules near the springs – this also failed. Victorio then retreated into the mountains. Private Wesley Hardy, of Troop H, was reported missing, with several soldiers killed. Reports on Apache losses varied with estimates of four killed to thirty injured.

Victorio and his people fled into Mexico, and the Mexican government gave the US Army permission to cross the border in pursuit, with Grierson placing several companies along the Rio Grande inside Mexico to prevent the Apache from crossing back into the US. The 10th Cavalry and Mexican Colonel Joaquin Terrazas’ Mexican Army soldiers located Victorio in October 1880. Grierson was informed he was no longer needed and returned north, with Terrazas giving pursuit to Victorio and his people. Without ammunition, Victorio and his band were almost wiped out, losing 78 people. Though Victorio had been killed, Nana continued the fight until 1881. The band eventually surrendered with Geronimo and faced imprisonment in Florida and later Alabama. The survivors later joined the Chiricahua in what is now Oklahoma and the Mescalero in southern New Mexico.

“The council between Gen. Crook and Geronimo,” at his camp in the Sierra Madre at Canon de los Embudos, Mexico, 25 March 1886. Photograph by C. S. Fly. Photograph from the Library of Congress.

In a letter Colonel Hatch wrote to General Pope on 25 February 1880, he stated succinctly the challenges his men had faced in pursuit of Victorio and his fighters:

The work performed by these troops is most arduous, horses worn to mere shadows, men nearly without boots, shoes and clothing. That the loss in horses may be understood when following the Indians in the Black Range the horses were without anything to eat five days except what they nibbled from pinon pines, going without food so long was nearly as disastrous as the fearful march into Mexico of 79 hours without water, all this by forced marches over inexpressibly rough trails…

The 9th Cavalry left New Mexico having performed their various missions to a high degree of competence. Victorio and the Warm Springs people would no longer depredate in the state, the Mescalero had ceased their raids, the Lincoln County War had come to a close (though its repercussions would be felt for decades), the Cimarron “troubles” had ceased, and the Ute in southern Colorado had remained peaceable. Throughout all of this, the officers and men had faced numerous challenges – challenging terrain and environment, a chronic lack of supplies, an enemy born to the land, and the discrimination black troops faced throughout their time in the west. Historian Frank Schubert writes, “Because of white racism and the discrimination that it spawned, they performed their duties and lived the lives of soldiers that were particularly trying. They endured [indignities] large and small…”

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