June 22, 2015

1866: Mexican Volunteers Fight the Battle of Five Caves

Fort Whipple

The Buffalo Soldiers were not the only segregated minority group fighting in the Indian Wars.  Companies E and F of the Arizona Volunteers were made up of Mexicans.  Although they spent much of their time in the Verde Valley at Fort Lincoln (later Fort Verde), they were initially stationed at, and finally mustard out, at Prescott's Fort Whipple.

Many openly questioned the effectiveness of using Mexicans to protect area settlers.  However, once tested in battle, the office of the Governor of the Arizona territory stated: "Those who doubted the ability of our native troops to do good service are now convinced of their error." (*1)

It started on the evening of February 12th, 1867 and Company E was preparing for its most lauded victory in what would become known as "La Batalla de Cinco Cuevas" (The Battle of Five Caves).

Why They Volunteered:

At the time, there was a civil war going on in Sonora, Mexico. Some men volunteered to get away from that strife.  Since Apaches were also conducting devastating raids in Sonora, many of the volunteers had personal vendettas and wanted to fight the Apaches on this side of the border.

Their Tough Journey to Get Here:

Hiram Storrs Washburn, was assigned to recruit several units of volunteer infantry to help protect settlers in the area in the summer of 1865. (*2)  Knowing that most anglo men of fighting age were involved with the American Civil War, Washburn focused on recruiting others using his own funds.  Company B was made up of Maricopa Indians and Company C was made up of Pima Indians; both of whom hated the Apaches.

Companies E and F were all Mexican units; some recruited from the mines in Southern Arizona with most recruited from villages in Sonora, Mexico. (*2)

From the start, their provisions were extremely poor.  "Throughout the fall of 1865 Captain Washburn wrote letter after letter to the governor pleading for shoes, clothing, blankets and guns for his units, and orders to put them into action against the Apaches. The one hundred men he had only four axes, two spades, and six mess pans as the only cooking utensils." (*2)

On December 4th, they were given orders to move to Fort Whipple.  The march there was extremely trying.  It took a month in terrible winter conditions.  Two men lost their lives.  They trudged on hoping for better conditions at Fort Whipple.  When they arrived, their hopes were dashed.  Washburn wrote: "the cold was extreme, no quarters for the men, whose condition was truly pitiable.  (Yet) they bore all patiently and manfully…" (*2)

Indians at Fort Verde
(Originally Fort Lincoln)
The following month, Company E was transfered to the new and highly primitive Camp Lincoln (later Camp Verde).  The extremely wet winter weather continued and it took two weeks to march the 60 miles from Fort Whipple to the small little camp in the Verde Valley.  When Company E did arrive at Camp Lincoln on the 16th, “some had their feet tied up in rags… The condition of these men was wretched beyond description.” (*2)

It's difficult for us to imagine what it was like in the Verde Valley back in 1866.  There were only 17 anglo men living in the entire valley at the time!  They desperately needed protection, but their small number and the need for soldiers back east for the Civil War, left them in dangerous need.  For the Indians part, they did not kill the encroachers outright.  Instead, they raided their crops and took their livestock; something that could be equally as fatal.

Company E's orders in the Verde Valley were both simple and stark: scout for Apaches and kill them.  However, this proved to be easier said then done.  The Native Americans knew every nook, cranny, and cave on their land giving them a decided advantage in avoiding the troops.  True to their fighting form, the Apaches instead used gorilla tactics of ambush to destroy supply trains when numbers were greatly in their favor.  Many parties searched, but little was found.

The Death of Mangas Colorado: "The Greatest Wrong Ever Done to the Indians"
The story of one of the worst episodes in the Indian Wars.

The Battle is Met

Finally, the evening of February 13th, advance scouts found an Indian camp.  The next night, they marched using hand-made moccasins to keep silent.  They got close enough to see the Indians' fires and plan an attack. (*1)

A first-hand account of the battle was communicated in a letter published in the February 28th, 1866 edition of the (Prescott) Arizona Miner:

Camp Lincoln, Arizona, February 15th, 1866
"This has been a day of great rejoicing here.  A party of Company E, Arizona volunteers, under Lt. Gallegos which left here on the 11th...returned reporting a great slaughter of Apaches.
"After travelling two nights and resting by day, they found Apache signs and scouts were sent out from the main body to ascertain the exact position of the enemy.  When found, they returned and the whole body moved to within sight of the Apache fires, but occupied a secluded position until 2 o'clock in the morning when the command was formed into three divisions and moved in front of certain caves where the savages were sleeping.  These were arranged one above the other...and when the attack was begun at daybreak, the fight became desperate.
"The Apaches were taken by surprise, their dogs not even hearing the approach of the troops, so stealthy was their march.  Some of the Indians declared that they would not surrender, and one who called himself a captain, constantly defied the troops from an elevated and secure position whence they could not dislodge him.  All of the caves that were accessible were filled with dead and wounded.  Some 30 are believed to have been killed outright..."

The wet winter of 1915 brought a new resident to the Prescott National Forest: the white-tail deer.

"Thirteen scalps were brought to camp and 12 prisoners, 2 squaws and 10 children, one of the later has since died.
"Seven of the volunteers were wounded, but none dangerously.  When it is remembered that these men had only rough rawhide sandals of their own make, packed their provisions on their backs, and traveled nearly 100 miles in so short a time, the results are greatly to their credit." (*1)

Territorial Judge Joseph Pratt Allyn wrote of these soldiers: "One of them is worth two American soldiers." (*2)

With their distinction as soldiers suffering in the worst conditions, these Mexican volunteers silenced their critics and changed minds back in 1866 Prescott.

Tourist Tips:

Visit the Fort Whipple Museum located on the VA Medical Center grounds off 89, just north of the 69 junction.
If you are an historic house enthusiast, you will enjoy touring the first and second floor rooms for their architectural interest alone. If you want to learn the history of Fort Whipple from its beginning in 1864 to the modern-day hospital, it is all there in riveting exhibits with crisp text, historic photographs and compelling artifacts. Friendly, knowledgeable docents will give you a tour of the exhibits and answer any questions you might have.

(*1) Arizona Miner, February 28th, 1866 Page 3, Col. 3
(*2) Arizona Volunteers in the Verde Valley, 1866 By Stan Brown
(Well researched and recommended for further reading.)



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  1. The Battle o Five Caves, for its time, was instrumental in bringing control back to the settlers and Verde Valley. My GG Grandfather was with Company 'E' almost just finished the Forced March from Tubac, some 285 miles; the Army wanted constant pressure on the Apaches.
    These caves provided shelter and concealment bu none the less, they were totally oally surprised by the barefoot Scouts as they caught them off guard.RE:
    "Andres and Delfina, A Hispanic Settlement in Arizona by Stanley C. Brown

  2. Many of these troops were 'newly minted' American citizens, and thus were not "segregated." According to Army records, there were at least nine 'Euro American' enlisted men serving within the ranks of these two companies. Due to the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexicans were the only racial minority which enjoyed full Federal citizenship in the 19th Century. However, the Hispanic Officers were forced to muster out following the termination of the Civil War, despite protests by Captain Washburn.
    Thanks for posting this,
    Rob Estrada