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Cruisin’ Arizona – Picacho Peak

If you’re a student of the American Civil War, names like Fort Sumter, Shiloh, and Bull Run will all be familiar to you. But what about the Battle of Picacho Pass?

 

If you’ve ever traveled between Phoenix and Tucson, you’ve surely noticed Picacho Peak. The distinctive formation rises in a narrow cone some 1500 feet from the desert floor on the west side of Interstate 10, and has served as a landmark for centuries. If you look at it from the right angle, it bears a striking resemblance to a howling dog with its head thrown back, nose pointed at the sky.

 

Picacho Peak - Carol Cox

 

Back in 1861, the area we now know as Arizona was part of New Mexico Territory, an enormous tract of land with its capital in Santa Fe. That was fine for the people who lived in the northern part of the territory, but those living in the southern section felt overlooked by a government that was centered so far away.

 

Over time, public sentiment built up so much that a new territory calling itself Arizona seceded from New Mexico and set up its own capital in Mesilla, less than 50 miles north of El Paso. If you compared that to the outline of present-day Arizona, you wouldn’t see many similarities, since the boundary ran east-to-west below the 34th parallel, dividing the original territory into northern and southern halves.

 

The new territory fit neatly into the plans of the recently formed Confederate government. Acting under orders from Confederate president Jefferson Davis, troops set out to invade the Southwest. If they succeeded in taking over land routes through New Mexico, Arizona, and California, access would be opened to the seaports of southern California, allowing the South to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

 

By February of 1862, Captain Sherod Hunter and his company of Arizona Rangers were on their way to establish a Confederate post in Tucson when Union officials in California got wind of the plan. Worried that Confederate troops might travel along the Gila River all the way to California, the Union officers sent troops to Arizona.

 

A contingent of Union soldiers encountered the Confederates near present day Sacaton and were captured by the Rebels without a shot being fired. Knowing more Federal troops would soon be on their way, the Confederates stationed scouts in the pass near the base of Picacho Peak, along the route between the Gila River and Tucson.

 

Battle at Picacho Pass - Carol Cox

 

When the Union soldiers learned the Confederates were waiting in the pass, they sent out detachments of cavalry to capture them. But instead, the tables were turned on April 15 (some say April 16th), during an hour and a half of brutal fighting in the dense mesquite thickets.

 

By the time it was over, three Union troops lay dead, and three Confederates had been taken prisoner, giving the victory for the engagement to the South.

 

Only a handful of men took part in this fight, making it a minor episode in the War Between the States as a whole, but it holds a place in U.S. history as the largest Civil War clash to take place in Arizona.

 

Next time you’re traveling along Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix, why not take time to pull off at Exit 219 and stop at the visitor’s center, where friendly volunteers will point out the spot where it all took place. Then you can spend some time enjoying the beauty of the desert landscape while walking through the site of a Civil War battle…in Arizona!

 

Picacho Peak State Park Visitor Center - Carol Cox

Picacho Peak State Park - Carol Cox

Until next time…

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2 Comments

    I had heard that there was military action here during the Civil War, but I never knew the details. Thanks for sharing!


    Kathy Roeth

    Jan 22, 2014 | Reply

    I’ve heard bits and pieces about the conflict at Picacho Peak for years. The last time we passed by, I knew I had to make a stop and get all the details. I believe that and the skirmish at Stanwix Station (near Yuma) were the westernmost battles of the war. Love those little bits of AZ trivia! 🙂

    Carol Cox
    Carol Cox

    Jan 22, 2014 | Reply



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