The California Column and the March to Tucson, 1862


At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 the United States withdrew all regular U. S. Army troops from the west and southwest to the east, leaving only local militia and volunteers to defend the frontier. The State of California and the Territory of New Mexico, which included the present-day states of New Mexico and Arizona, remained with the Union, while the State of Texas joined the Confederate States of America.

With the Union Army gone, Jefferson Davis the new Confederate President wanted to seize the opportunity to try and win the entire American southwest and even the northern Mexican states for the south.

This fact was not lost on Washington and Colonel Edward Richard Sprigg Canby and a force of 4,000 New Mexico and Colorado Volunteers occupied Santa Fe in December 1861.

1908_CaliforniaColumn-CarletonThat same month, Colonel James Henry Carleton received orders to organize, train, and equip a Union Volunteer Army of Californians. Ordered to march and occupy Fort Yuma on the California side of the Colorado River plus the town of Yuma on the Arizona side which at that time was the second largest settlement in Arizona, population 1,400.

In 1861 the Territory of New Mexico was divided into two districts along present state boundaries*. The capitol of the territory was Santa Fe, the capitol of the district of New Mexico was Albuquerque and the capitol of the district of Arizona was at Tucson. The largest settlement in Arizona was Tucson with a population of 8,400, 70 percent Spanish or Mexican.

In January 1862, Colonel Carleton with 2,000 California Volunteers, 15 companies of infantry, 5 companies of cavalry, and one artillery battery, occupied Fort Yuma, and the Town of Yuma. The volunteers were not fully trained, Carlton stopped there to complete their training.

In February 1862, a force of 4,000 Texans under Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley invaded the Territory of New Mexico from El Paso.

On February 21, 1862 Sibley’s troops defeated Canby's forces at Valverde along the Rio Grande River and continued north capturing Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Sibley also sent Captain Sherod Hunter and 200 mounted rifleman west, and on February 28, Hunter and his troops occupied Tucson without firing a shot. Hunter then issued a proclamation making Arizona a territory of the Confederate States of America. On March 1st Colonel Carleton started his march from Yuma to Tucson. The column was led by mountain man and Chief of Scouts, Paulino Weaver.

Due to the serious problem of a desert march, Carleton ordered his units to marchEngraving of White’s Mill, 1864. (Public domain) one or two days apart to conserve the desert well water along their sun-blasted route. He also made plans to establish a sub depot near the friendly Pima and Maricopa Indian villages along the Gila River, south of present-day Phoenix. Ammi White a flour mill and trading post owner who lived among the Indians, had busily stockpiled a large supply of grain and flour for the column. Carleton ordered a squad commanded by Captain William McCleave to protect the villages.

Meanwhile Capt. Hunter, having heard of the supplies, marched north from Tucson with 40 men and took trader White prisoner, confiscating 1500 sacks of wheat and partially destroying his mill.

On March 6, McCleave and two of his men knocked on White's door and were admitted. Hunter, dressed as civilians and pretending to be White, asked the whereabouts of other union troops in the area and McCleave replied, "I have six more at the next station!" Captain Hunter than leveled a gun at McCleave's chest and captured him and his men.

The southerners also captured the remaining Union soldiers. Hunter sent 10 of his men back to Tucson with the captured solders. He and 30 men rode along the Gila River burning haystacks that were left for the column at abandoned Butterfield Stage stations. In late March the rebels ran into two Union sentinels 80 miles east of Yuma near Stanwix Station and ordered them to surrender. Instead the two took to their heels amid the whizz of confederate bullets and warned the captain at Stanwix Station. The captain ordered his 60 cavalrymen who just arrived from Fort Yuma to pursue the Texans. However, the California horses were tired and Captain Hunter and his men escaped and made it back to Tucson.

Picacho PassOn April 15, a Union patrol of 20 troopers located a Confederate patrol of 14 mounted rifles camped in a thorny thicket of Saguaros and Mesquite near Picacho Pass, a 1,500 foot monolith 40 miles north of Tucson. The rebels had left three riflemen in camp while they went to get their horses. During this period, the Union patrol rode into the camp and took the 3 rebels prisoner. The young Lieutenant Barrett, seeing the other 11 led his mounted patrol on a charge in single file through the chaparral shooting his pistol and ordering the rebel to surrender. The Confederates cut down several of the bluecoats with a hail of deadly fire before fleeing, three Union soldiers were killed, and the rebel sergeant was badly wounded and died a day later. Among the federal dead was the impetuous Lt. Barrett. The Union patrol returned to the main column with the 3 prisoners.

The skirmish at Picacho Pass was the only Civil War battle fought in Arizona. The Picacho Pass skirmish warned Capt. Hunter of the California Column's approach, plus it delayed the Union Forces, preventing a surprise attack on Tucson. Col. Carleton had the column regroup at the Indian villages and the delay frustrated mountain man and scout Paulino Weaver who left the troops growling, "If you fellers can't find the road from here to Tucson, you can go to hell!"

Carleton who knew he would need Weaver, sent two of his friends after him and they talked him into returning. He remained chief of scouts until the end of the war.

In the meantime, Hunter received word on May 1st that Sibley had been beaten badly at the Battle of Peralta on April 15 and was retreating toward Texas.

Faced with the Union Column's superior numbers, Hunter released McCleave, White and the other prisoners, gave them horses and told them to ride northwest to link up with the California Column. On May 4th. Hunter withdrew from Tucson and traveled southeast to link up with the Sibley’s retreating Confederate Army.

glorietamap01On May 20th, Sibley lost a final battle at Glorieta Pass, and was forced out of New Mexico for good, while Carleton’s Californians liberated Tucson without a fight.

On June 8th, Carleton who had just gotten word he was a Brigadier General, proclaimed Arizona a Union Territory, declared martial law and named himself military governor. Carlton also levied taxes on the locals to help pay for the war. 20 Confederate sympathizers who had worked with Hunter were rounded up and incarcerated along with 17 outlaws.

Also arrested were ne'erdowells who after Hunter left had declared themselvesTucson in 1862 the Tucson "Militia" and took over the town in order to "protect it," but spent all their time drinking whiskey and all other alcohol they could find while eating free meals. All 37 were sent to Fort Yuma and held there until September of 1865. Carleton also sent 3 Union couriers to inform General Canby of what had happened in Arizona. Two were ambushed and killed by Chiricahua Apaches and the third was captured near Mesilla by some of the last confederates in New Mexico and taken to Texas.

As a result, General Canby had no idea what was going on in Arizona until July 5th, when. Lt. Col. Edward R. Eyre and 140 men occupied Fort Thorn in New Mexico. General Carleton did a wonderful job moving 2,000 men over 400 miles of hot dusty trail with little water, losing only 6 men.

The California Column and most of the other California Volunteers went on to guard the southwest and west for the Union. Some not being mustered out until 1867, most never seeing a Confederate soldier.

(by Mr. Robert Flaherty)


* In 1861, the New Mexico Territory was not divided along the present state lines as noted above. The territory was approximately divided east to west just north of the Gila River (34th parallel) Map_of_New_Mexico_Territory_in_1859

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