By Dr R.N. Watt – The University of Birmingham
This starts with a map I found in the National Archives, Washington D.C., in June 2014. It concerned what I had thought to be a minor skirmish between a detachment led by Captain Leopold O. Parker, Fourth Cavalry and a small raiding party of Apaches. This map (pictured left) was accompanied by several reports of which I had not previously been aware.
Summary of Events 6-8 September, 1880
On the evening of 6 September, 1880, Captain Hale in command of his company of Sixteenth Infantrymen, escorting a group of surveyors/engineers for the AT & SF Railroad, found the remains of a stagecoach two miles from their camp. They also discovered the driver and one passenger killed. Hale immediately sent a courier westwards to Fort Cummings who arrived around 11pm that night. It was assumed that the perpetrators were Apaches from Victorio’s following.
Colonel George P. Buell immediately ordered Major Noyes to take his company and 10 Apache scouts south to the Florida Mountains to intercept the Apaches (should they have gone in that direction). At the same time, Buell ordered Captain Parker to take his company eastwards to the scene of the attack and to take up the trail of the assumed Apache raiders. Both companies departed Fort Cummings between midnight and 12.30am on 7 September, 1880.
Parker reached Hale’s camp during the hours of darkness. He waited until first light before proceeding to the site of the ambush where they found the body of an additional passenger. Apache scouts confirmed that the perpetrators were Apaches. His scouts also determined that the raiders had come up from the south and had also departed southwards.
At 8am Parker sent his scouts in pursuit – they having estimated that they were pursuing 10 to 15 Apaches – and followed with his company. However, he reported that his scouts appeared to be reluctant to pursue the trail and several times overtook them and questioned them as to the number of Apaches they were pursuing. Parker does not mention this in his report, but the implication being that he was concerned that this reluctance to pursue the trail might reflect a stronger force of Apaches being present. However, the scouts reiterated their estimate.
By around 11am, Parker’s command was starting to ascend a very gentle ridge between higher hills. When he stopped to consult with his scouts again, he received a volley from his left and centre at a range of between 45-50 yards, immediately followed by a volley from his front and right from a large number of concealed Apache warriors. Two Apache scouts and one soldier were instantly killed and another three soldiers were wounded. Lt. James Lockett, in his first action, was even closer to the Apaches and had his horse wounded and received between three and four bullet holes through his coat but was miraculously not hit by hostile fire.
Confusion reigned and the surviving Apache scouts retreated (or in Parker’s words ‘disappeared’ along with their interpreter and mule packer) and took no further part in the battle. Parker rallied his company after a retreat of about 150 yards. After organising horse holders he had about 30 troops available and deployed them in a skirmish line. Each man was 10 yards apart so the skirmish line was approximately 300 yards wide. The line advanced and, as they came within easy range, the Apaches opened up a heavy fire.
Parker noted that the Apaches were still flanking him on both sides which indicated a force considerably larger than the 10 to 15 Apaches whose trail they were following. Parker fell back and re-aligned his skirmish line to the right in order to attack the slightly higher ground but again found the Apaches to be flanking him on both sides and in no mood to vacate their positions.
Moreover, he and one of his sergeants realised that some of the Apache warriors were using adjacent arroyos in an effort to not only surround his skirmish line but to threaten his horse-holders that had been sent to the rear with the company’s horses. Parker withdrew and regrouped again, making a final advance with his skirmish line. Finding that the Apaches were still willing to hold their positions to his front and simultaneously making efforts to surround the skirmish line, Parker withdrew to his horses and withdrew to a ridge a mile-and-a-half distant.
Parker then withdrew towards Hale’s company having sent in a courier to ask for their help. Realising the strength of the enemy, he decided that Hales 25 men might be vulnerable to an attack and withdrew about eight miles until he joined them.
As one can see from the summary of the overall operation below and the appended reports, Buell – on receipt of the news of Parker’s ambush – organised a battalion of Ninth Cavalry and a battalion of Fifteenth Infantrymen (the latter loaded in wagons), from the large garrison at Fort Cummings to go to the rescue.
This map was drawn by the author and is based upon the 1:250,000 US Geological Survey Map. Each grid square measures approx. 27.5km by 27.5km. The original was drawn on A3 paper so it is recommended that the reader use the zoom to enlarge the picture to a more readable magnification.
Parker was subsequently criticised for not keeping in contact with the Apaches and I would agree with Dudley and Buell that his retreat of eight miles was excessively cautious. Equally, Buell’s statement that had Parker remained in contact with the Apaches until the arrival of the reinforcements from Fort Cummings would have led to the destruction of the Apaches is ludicrous. Faced with such opposition, the Apaches would have simply scattered. Parkers’ decision to withdraw from the fight was correct.
The mere fact that the Apaches were holding their line and then going on the offensive round both of his flanks suggests that they had weighed the odds and found that both their numbers and the terrain were heavily in their favour. If this is the case, and Parker’s surviving scouts later estimated that they had been attacked by Victorio’s main following, which could mean that Parker, with just over 40 troopers, was facing as many as 80 to 100 experienced Apache warriors.
This engagement constitutes Victorio’s last military success against the US army before being trapped and killed at Tres Castillos by Mexican state troops on the 14/15 October, 1880.
||A Stagecoach is ambushed and the occupants killed 16 miles east of Fort Cummings. The wreckage is discovered by a detachment of 16th Infantrymen escorting a railroad survey team. Their commander, Capt. Hale, sends a courier to Fort Cummings who arrives there at 10pm.
||At midnight Capt. Parker, with Co. A., 4th Cavalry and 10 Apache scouts proceeds from Fort Cummings to the site of the ambush. He is ordered to pursue the hostile Apaches from that point.
||At 12.30am Major Noyes departs Fort Cummings with Co. H., 4th Cavalry and 10 Apache Scouts for the Florida Mts. in an attempt to intercept the Apache raiders, should they make for that point. He is also ordered to contact Lt.’s Maney and Goodwin who are currently scouting in this area with their Apache scouts and put them in pursuit of the Apaches. He arrives at the Little Floridas at dawn and works his way down the Floridas but find insufficient water and returns to the Little Floridas.
||Parker’s detachment reaches the site of the ambush. At 8am he pursues the trail southwards, probably along the eastern side of the Goodsight Mts. until, at approximately 11am, he is ambushed at the southern end of these Mountains. He loses three men killed and three wounded in the ambush. Parker sends a courier to Capt. Hale requesting that he telegraph for reinforcements from Fort Cummings. Unable to shift the Apaches from their positions on the ridge Parker pulls back approximately 8 miles to regroup.
||This request is received at about 1.30pm and Lt. Col. Dudley mounts up a large battalion of the Ninth Cavalry and sets out at about 2.15pm. Col. Buell also mounts some Fifteenth Infantrymen in wagons and sets off with them on the road at 2.45pm.
||Capt. Hale marches to the aid of Parker and arrives just before the Ninth Cavalry arrive from Fort Cummings.
||On the approach of reinforcements the Apaches scatter and re-congregate at a nearby camp in a canyon running down out of the Goodsight Mountains.
||Col. Dudley takes command and pursues the Apaches to a point two miles beyond their camp before darkness makes if impossible to follow the trail.
||Seeing that they are still being pursued, the Apaches poison the water at their camp using horse entrails and then retreat into Mexico. They are earlier spotted by Dudley, from the southern escarpment of the Goodsight Mountains, 15 miles distant making for Mexico.
||Major Noyes, finding no signs of Apaches in or around the Florida Mts., is met by a courier from Buell and ordered to march to the Goodsight Mountains. By dawn on the 8 September he was approximately 10 miles from these mountains.
||Buell and Dudley return to Cummings via Hale’s railroad surveying camp. They are joined by Major Noyes who, on reaching the Goodsight Mountains, had spotted their dust and followed them. Buell and Dudley had both concluded that to pursue the Apaches further would be futile given their lack of supplies sufficient to sustain a prolonged pursuit of Victorio. It would also involve a premature entry into the Republic of Mexico.
Finding the Battlesite
The map I recently unearthed in the archives (see below) gives a very clear indication of the broad location of the engagement and pinpointed it at the southern end of the Goodsight Mountains. This was already clear from the reports of which I was aware. Nevertheless, the specific details given of the hills immediately surrounding the site suggested to me that there should be a good chance of spotting the exact location on the modern maps.
I consulted with my local contacts Daniel D. Aranda and Eric Fuller, and the latter was confident that he could pinpoint the locations using this map and large scale topo maps. We (myself, Dan Aranda, Eric and Kathy Fuller) set out on 9 July, 2014, in an effort to locate the site.
Arriving at the broad location, it looked promising and we split up to look over the site. The description had mentioned bushes, soapweeds and small breastworks. At first, while I could see plenty of small bushes and soapweeds, I could not see any breastworks and no sign of spent cartridges – though the absence of the latter isn’t necessarily surprising. I eventually realised we were in the wrong spot when I crested the low ridge and found myself looking down the Goodsight escarpment to the plain some way below. While this afforded an excellent view of the Potrillo and Florida Mountains, it also demonstrated that I had clearly gone too far south.
Dan and I spent about an hour casting back down and along the low ridge. Dan found signs of what looked like metal detecting but the immediate area still did not look right to me. I sat down with the map and once again tried to match up the surrounding hills. looking back north from where I was sitting I saw a very low hogback coming down from what I think is the small hill to the left and below the crossed sabres on the map.
If I am correct then we had actually driven through the ambush site and parked just beyond the centre-right (from the Apache point of view) of the ambush position. Having arrived there, travelling in the broad line of march taken by the army, and not noticing the spot, shows what a good potential ambush position this might constitute.
I climbed to the top of this hill and looked at the map again and could fit all the hills marked to the west, south and east of the crossed sabres. However, the hill to the left and north was present but appears to be bigger than marked on the map. That was the only anomaly between the map and my looking around the site.
Moreover, while we could not see any constructed breastworks, there were along the top of this hill a number of natural low outcroppings which would have provided perfect cover for prone Apache marksmen. (See Photos One and Two above).
Photo Three (left) is taken from the same high ground but overlooks the area where I think Parker withdrew after he was first attacked (Red solid arrow marking rally point).
The Blue arrow outlines his suspected line of retreat.
The Green Line shows one of the flanking arroyos where the Apaches started to infiltrate around Parker’s right flank when he subsequently moved forward with his skirmish line.
Photo Four (below) is taken from almost the top of the ridge on the edge of the Goodsight escarpment, looking north down to the Apache positions. The cloud shadow actually marks where I think the Apache positions were (pure accident on my part as I took this picture about an hour before I spotted what I thought to be the ambush site).
The Red arrow marks the hill with the natural breastworks.
The Yellow line marks the low hogback which I think the Apaches also used for cover. This also extends into a low arroyo which the Apaches could use to work their way around Parker’s left flank.
The Green arrow marks Parkers’s probable line-of-march into the ambush.
Photo Five (left) is taken from lower down the ridge looking north. One can see how the hill drifts down into a quite innocuous hogback which the Apache warriors could have used for cover.
Photo Six (below) is broadly looking south and gives Parker’s view of the ambush site as he approached from the north. The terrain does not look dangerous and the crest of the hill beyond the Apache positions is just visible.
The Red arrow marks the hill with the natural breastworks and the blue line marks the broad location of the Apaches hidden behind the hogback: but note that the lie of the land from where this photo was taken actually hides the hogback from view until one moves into very close proximity. It should be recalled that we travelled through this position without spotting its potential.
Reconstruction of Parker Fight, 7 September, 1880.
||Point where Parker’s detachment was probably ambushed
||Arroyo to Parker’s left
||Arroyo to Parker’s right
||Rallying point after the ambush
||Spot where Parker probably stationed his horse holders.
||Parker’s first advance
||Parker’s second advance
||Parker’s third advance
||Possible location of Apache Camp
||Direction of water ‘rock tanks’ at the bottom of Goodsight Mountains escarpment
‘I Will Not Surrender the Hair of a Horse’s Tail’. The Victorio Campaign 1879 by Robert Watt is available to preorder here.