The Path to Hembrillo

Into New Mexican Territory

Upon its entrance in New Mexico Territory, the 9th Cavalry was authorized approximately 840 men – at any one time they might have had roughly half of that number. The regiment faced four main problems in New Mexico:

• Undermanned. Chronic shortages of troops were a problem facing the 9th Cavalry throughout their time in New Mexico. In Buffalo Soldiers and Officers of the 9th Cavalry, 1867-1898, Charles Kenner writes, “As a commander, Hatch carried out his assignments efficiently, never questioning a superior’s judgement or complaining of a lack of resources. Since he made few demands of his superiors, it was easier to ignore his needs than those of more strident officers. Colonel Grierson, in contrast, was a notorious complainer. He may have been held in less esteem by superiors, but his demands were not ignored.” In 1878, Hatch finally complained to his superiors about his lack of troops – now numbering less than 300. Grierson’s 10th Cavalry had been receiving replacements regularly, to the detriment of the 9th.

• Distance. Unitswere distant from one another, with individual troops posted to various locations throughout the territory — two were at Ft. Bayard, one at Ft. McRae, two at Ft. Wingate, three at Ft. Stanton, one at Ft. Union, one at Ft. Selden, and one at Ft. Garland, Colorado.

• Landscape. Unfamiliar and hostile terrain and environment. Though far west Texas was similar to the New Mexico environment they found themselves operating in, the altitude, aridity, and harsh landscape combined to make operations difficult. In a 20 January 1880 letter home, Lieutenant Walter Finley wrote “People in the East cannot realize the disadvantages against which we have to contend, the Indians choose their own positions on almost inaccessible peaks and when we have driven them out by hard fighting, they have just as good positions two or three hundred yards behind.”

Landscape view of mountainous terrain typical of west Texas and New Mexico. WSMR Museum photo.

• Lack of adequate Apache provisioning. This was a constant source of conflict, as the Warm Springs and Mescalero people expected to receive sufficient supplies from the US government in return for ceasing raids on goods and livestock. Upon his arrival in New Mexico, Colonel Hatch “wrote angrily to General Sheridan that the source of the trouble was simply a lack of food, which the [Indian] Bureau should have supplied.”

In addition to these four serious issues, the 9th was tasked with providing protection and keeping the peace during both the Colfax County and Lincoln County wars, as well as maintaining the peace between the Ute and US citizens of southern Colorado during the Ute Uprising and the Meeker Massacre.

As previously described, after 1860 the relationship between the Apache and the Americans had been strained to the breaking point many times. By 1876, several troops of the regiment were pursing small bands led by Geronimo and Juh, often accompanied by young Mescalero and Warm Springs men. In September, Colonel Hatch traveled to the Ojo Caliente reservation to meet with Victorio, who explained that the Army had acted in bad faith in not supplying provisions — meat especially — for over a month. Victorio said it was better to raid for livestock than see his people starve – a sentiment Hatch grudgingly agreed with and was determined to find resolution to.

An incident in September 1876 further soured relations between the Warm Springs people and the Army. Major Albert Morrow, commanding military operations in southern New Mexico, ordered Lieutenant Henry Wright to track down a band a Warm Springs Apache which had fled the Ojo Caliente reservation. Wright encountered a small group led by Cuchillo Negro near the reservation and attacked. Victorio complained to agent J. M. Shaw that the soldiers attacked the camp on the reservation unprovoked, destroying all of the Apaches property. Wright defended himself, claiming the camp was off the reservation and the Apache shot first. He also stated they only took a few items as “souvenirs.” Major Morrow investigated and, with Wrights men backing his claim, considered the incident closed. Victorio was greatly angered by what he saw as an injustice to his people.

Also in September 1876, General of the Army William T. Sherman wrote a paper delivered to Secretary of War and President of the Commission for the Reorganization of the Army J. D. Cameron. The paper discussed Sherman’s ideas for reorganizing the Army and included such actions as the reorganization of all Army branches and the abolition of Army chaplains, with each post hiring their own chaplain according to its needs. General Sherman also had ideas about African-American troops:

I will also say that I believe the time has come when the words “white” and “black” should be omitted in all military laws; that recruits should be enlisted and distributed to all companies and regiments without reference to color or previous condition. Time would soon, in the Army as it already has in the Navy, obliterate the old prejudice that led to the formation of the regiments of colored cavalry and infantry. All should be alike.

Unfortunately, his ideas fell upon deaf ears and the units would stay segregated. In early 1877, Lieutenant Wright again tracked a band to the Florida Mountains, south of Ft. Bayard. Forty to fifty Chiricahua Apache surrounded his six Troop C soldiers and three Navajo scouts. Corporal Clinton Greaves shot open a gap, allowing the men to flee with no casualties. Commendations for the action were later awarded to Privates Richard Epps, Dick Mackadoo, and John Adams, as well as Navajo Scout Jose Chavez. Greaves, originally from Madison County, Virginia, received the Medal of Honor, with his citation reading:

While part of a small detachment to persuade a band of renegade Apache Indians to surrender, his group was surrounded. Cpl. Greaves in the center of the savage hand-to-hand fighting, managed to shoot and bash a gap through the swarming Apaches, permitting his companions to break free.

Although there are no official photographs of Corporal Clinton Greaves, this statue of Corporal Greaves was erected and still stands at the Fort Bayard Historic District near Santa Clara, New Mexico. Photograph by the Wandering Lizard.

By March it was apparent that Geronimo was in the Ojo Caliente area attempting to influence the Apache there to flee and join him — First Lieutenant Austin Henely of the 6th Cavalry observed him there demanding supplies. The following month, Troops A, B, and C moved into the area from Fort Bayard and at the request of San Carlos agent John Clum helped move the Warm Springs people to the large reservation at San Carlos; Hatch was directed by General Pope to assist. On April 17, Clum received instructions from Washington to remove ALL Apache from the reservation and move to San Carlos, not just the Chiricahuas who had taken refuge there. About 27 April, Hatch had reached the Arizona border with his men, guarding the Warm Springs and Chiricahuas (who were in leg irons) and requested the Department of Arizona to take control of the captives. By May, 453 Warm Springs people had moved to San Carlos, with Victorio and many of his warriors having previously fled. John G. Bourke, who would serve as an aide to General George Crook during the Geronimo Campaign, would later write:

The Warm Springs Apaches were peremptorily deprived of their little fields and driven away from their crops, half-ripened, and ordered to tramp to San Carlos; when the band reached there the fighting men had disappeared, and only decrepit warriors, little boys and girls, and old women remained.

Captured Apache at Fort Bowie, Arizona, 1884. Many Apache fighting men had escaped to join Victorio and other leaders who were determined to resist resettlement. Photo from the National Archives.

Colonel Orlando Willcox succeeded General Augustus Kautz as commander of the Department of Arizona in 1878 and wrote:

It is believed by many that Victorio was unjustly dealt with in the first instance, by the abrupt removal of his people from Ojo Caliente [Warm Springs], New Mexico, to San Carlos; and that such a removal, if not a breach of faith, was a harsh and cruel measure, from which the people of New Mexico have reaped bitter consequences.

Jason Betzinez described San Carlos:

The agency consisted of a few adobe buildings situated on the gravelly flat between the two streams, with a few scraggly cottonwoods offering the only shade in a temperature which often reached 110 degrees or higher. Dust storms were common the year round and in all seasons except the summer the locality swarmed with flies, mosquitos, gnats, and other pesky insects. The place was almost uninhabitable but we had to stay there.

The removal to San Carlos was the final act forcing Victorio to go on the warpath. Military officers throughout both Arizona and New Mexico disagreed with the decision to move Victorio and his people, understanding what was to come. Even after the Victorio Campaign’s conclusion, many officers and men of the 9th Cavalry expressed the sentiment that Victorio and his people were only doing what anyone would do – protecting their land, lifestyle, and families. General Pope wrote:

Victorio and his band have always bitterly objected to be placed at San Carlos, one of the reasons given by him being the hostility of many of the Indians of that agency. He always asserted his willingness to live peaceably with his people at the Warm Springs agency, and, as far as I am informed, gave no trouble to anyone while there. I do not know the reasons for the Interior Department for insisting upon the removal to San Carlos agency, but certainly they should be cogent to justify the great trouble and severe losses occasioned by the attempts to coerce the removal.

Early 1878 found Victorio and those who had remained free with him once again surrendering and being told to move to the Mescalero reservation with their wives and children, who would soon follow from San Carlos. Again they fled, this time to Mexico for a brief time before moving back north of the border, resulting in the 9th going to the field once more in pursuit, with infrequent skirmishes throughout the Black Range and Gila areas. The skirmishes in which the 9th engaged were with small bands of Apache, who attacked the troopers as they approached, then quickly fell back and retreated, with Victorio eventually returning to San Carlos. From August 17 to September 23, Troop C was encamped outside the town of Mesilla, where the local newspaper praised them for having gained an “enviable reputation wherever stationed … quiet, sober, polite and unobtrusive,” and having perfect discipline. Also in September, Victorio and some 300 Warm Springs people again fled the reservation at San Carlos, resulting in eight troops taking to the field in pursuit.

By October, Victorio – with his people lacking clothing, supplies and food – surrendered yet again at Fort Wingate to Colonel Peter Swain. Stating his hatred for San Carlos, Victorio and a large number of his people were allowed to return to Ojo Caliente as prisoners, with additional small groups arriving throughout September 1878. In a February 14, 1880 letter to the assistant Adjutant General, Department of the Missouri at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Hatch was clear on the lack of provisioning for those at the reservation, “They were held as prisoners of war at Ojo Caliente until October 1878, receiving nothing from the Indian Bureau it was with difficulty we clothed them.” In numerous instances, he would state a lack of supply being one of the most crippling concerns for Victorio and his people, and their subsequent flight. In the same letter he mentions the situation shortly after his arrival in New Mexico, “Victorio, then informed me that he would remain on the Reservation if rationed…these Indians remained quiet while fed.” October 1878 found the group being forced once again to the San Carlos reservation. Victorio and seventeen men escaped, with the families being moved to Arizona.

“Apache Indians packing up their rations. San Carlos, [Arizona].” Photo source unknown.

By mid-February 1879, they had surrendered to the commanding officer at Ojo Caliente, with a total of about 50 men eventually coming in. Upon being notified they would be taken to Mescalero, they bolted once more – heading south. After skirmishes with troops under Beyer, they eventually surrendered at Mescalero in June – fleeing again two months later. Victorio became aware that an arrest warrant had been issued against him in Arizona and the sudden appearance in Lincoln County of men from Arizona spooked him and forced his flight. James Blazer owned a mill and general store in the area and had befriended Victorio – pleading with him to remain, as he would be pursued and probably killed. Blazer offered to provision Victorio’s people himself, all to no avail. James Kaywayklah was a child during this time, step-son of Kaytennae. He would later recall:

I remember that mad flight from the reservation. I rode behind grandmother, followed by Mother with little Chenleh in a tsach (cradle) on her back. We took everything that could be packed on the horses, went over the saddle and down the west slope of the White Mountain, taking the trail between the White Sands and the Malpais toward the San Andres. With us were a number of Mescaleros, Lipans, and a Comanche. Victorio knew well that there were cavalry scouring the Tularosa Basin for us, and he did not let us stop except for short intervals until we reached the Sacred Mountain. There at our old camping place we rested and slept.

September 4, 1879 found Captain Ambrose Hooker’s E Troop at Camp Ojo Caliente, the small military outpost on the reservation. Suddenly, Victorio and about 60 of his men attacked the camp and horse herd, killing five men – Sergeant Chapman, and Privates Graddon, Hoke, Murphy, and Percival. In addition, 3 civilians guarding the herd were killed. Eighteen mules and 46 horses were stolen and the Apache disappeared as quickly as they struck.

“Apache Indians Crossing The Gila River At San Carlos, [Arizona].” Photo source unknown.

Charles Kenner writes that Hooker “mistrusted the black troops from the beginning…” calling them a “treacherous…race utterly devoid of…honorable or truthful instincts.” After the engagement at Ojo Caliente, his vitriol toward his men became even more angry and bitter; he wished that they were all “…in hell and that the Indians would kill every God damned one of them.” For the soldiers killed, he had one single large grave dug and threatened to add to it anyone who complained.

As a result of Hooker’s hostility and racism, seventeen of his men sent an anonymous letter to Hatch, who then sent it on to General Pope. Infantry Captain Charles Steelhammer was sent to investigate, but no action was taken. However, Hooker was shown the interviews taken of the men, which effectively ended the careers of over twenty men by early 1880. The engagement at Ojo Caliente marked the true beginning of what became the “Victorio War.” Given another chance in the field, Hooker showed poor performance and failed to engage the Apache when given the opportunity. Even so, he would take command of the Third Battalion during the battle in Hembrillo – though he would play no direct role – in 1880, and would die of a stroke in 1883.

Hooker was unusual as a commander of African-American troops in the field. Most racism and discrimination against the Buffalo Soldiers during their time in New Mexico was shown by the white soldiers and officers from other units, like the 6th Cavalry in Arizona, the settlers they were tasked with protecting, and – as described by Billington – some of New Mexico’s newspapers of the Territory during the 9th’s tenure:

Many manifestations of the civilian population’s racial prejudice and discrimination against black soldiers occurred in New Mexico. Local newspaper editors did not help the situation when they published derogatory statements. The editor of one New Mexico newspaper was sharply critical when Chief Victorio was frustrating the Army in the late 1870’s. He wrote, “The experiences through which the people of Southern New Mexico have passed during the past two months are sufficient to convince any sane man that the portion of the United States Army known as the Ninth Cavalry is totally unfit to fight Indians… We simply state the concrete fact that negro companies in Southern New Mexico have been whipped every time they have met Indians, except when the instinct of self-preservation has caused them to run away just in time to keep from being whipped.” The editor concluded his diatribe by writing, “Let the Ninth [Cavalry] be dismounted or disbanded… [so that its members] might contribute to the nation’s wealth as pickers of cotton and hoers of corn, or to its amusement as a travelling minstrel troupe. As soldiers on the western frontier they are worse than useless – they are a fraud and a nuisance.

By 10 September, nine settlers had been killed by Victorio’s band and other groups of Apache had joined in the conflict in southern New Mexico. All units of the 9th were in the field, as well as Apache and Navajo scouts – always two steps behind Victorio, who avoided unnecessary conflict when possible and easily moved back and forth across the Mexican border, confounding most attempts to locate him and his group. On 16 September, in the Battle of Las Animas, Lieutenant Colonel Dudley, with Captain Dawson’s B Troop and Captain Hooker’s E Troop, were ambushed and pinned down by Victorio’s fighters. They were relieved by Captain Beyer and Lieutenant Hugo of C and G Troop and broke contact after a full day of fighting. Four soldiers, five scouts, and thirty-two horses lay dead on the battlefield.

Second Lieutenant Stephen Mills and Apache Scouts of Company D, 12th Infantry Regiment, Camp Thomas, Arizona, March 1880. Photograph from the Arizona Historical Society/Tuscon.

First Sergeant John Denny, Troop B, 9th Cavalry, received the Medal of Honor, as was Lieutenant Matthias Day. Denny, of Elmira, New York, “removed a wounded comrade, under a heavy fire, to a place of safety.” Throughout the fall and winter of 1879, the 9th would continue its pursuit of Victorio and his band.

By November, Victorio and his people were in Mexico’s Candelaria Mountains, where they killed fifteen citizens from the town of Carrizal. Groups of Apache would normally raid south of the border for livestock and supplies, taking their bounty back north to the United States. 

A long history of cross-border raids existed; normally this was accomplished with little to no loss of life. In this particular instance they caught the men from the town who had been out looking for them. After those men failed to return, eleven more were sent out and were also attacked and killed. Mexican officials telegraphed their American counterparts with a warning that Victorio was in the area — they would drive him back north.

By January, they had returned to the United States and while Victorio’s fighters were raiding throughout southern New Mexico the Warm Springs people — children, women, and the elderly – were safely tucked into the San Andres Mountains, at the west end of Hembrillo Canyon.

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