The Buffalo Soldiers Monument at Fort Leavenworth is dominated by an equestrian statue dramatically posed over an artificial waterfall. Busts of various distinguished individuals and archetypes (who knew there was a black parachute regiment?) scattered around the small park below. Col. Grierson of the 10th has a place in the pantheon, but there’s no sign of the 9th’s Hatch or any of the other white officers and I noticed George Burnett’s name was omitted from the list of the MoH winners. I was surprised there’s no mention of either the 24th or 25th Infantry, who might have been mere “walks-a-heap” but were Buffalo Soldiers nonetheless and served with the black cavalry in the same wars.
“I like a good story, well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” – Mark Twain
For me, Lt. George Burnett’s account of the Cuchillo Negro fight is one such tale. It’s the best first person account by a participant on either side of the raid that I’ve found, although I’m pretty sure others exist somewhere. Placida’s corrida is moving and poetic and I believe you hear her authentic voice through the lyrics, but the events retold are filtered through the composer’s dramatic sense and so are less likely to be factually reliable. (Which is why few if any historical movies are true to the known facts.)
Although written 15 years after the event in support of his old first sergeant’s bid for a Medal of Honor, Burnett’s letter is a trained soldier’s straightforward account of what was almost certainly the worst day of his military career (until his horse fell on him 10 years later). He’s careful not to directly indict his commander, but the bare facts are sufficiently damning.
According to Lt. Burnett, Lt. Valois failed to come up in support as previously agreed, was separately engaged by the hostiles and might well have been overwhelmed had not Burnett come to his rescue. As it was Valois was driven from the field. What’s far worse, in his retreat he abandoned three wounded men as well as a number of his horses.
If that was the case it’s hard to understand why Col. Hatch didn’t bring him up on charges. There may have been mitigating circumstances, so I’d like to see Valois’ report before I made up my mind as to either his tactical skill in the field or his personal courage. But if Burnett’s version of the day’s events is at all accurate – and it’s confirmed by the subsequent MoH citations – it’s unlikely the men of the 9th ever trusted Valois again. Abandoning your wounded to the enemy was the one unforgivable sin on either side of the Apache Wars.
Paging through a back issue of True West (June 2016) I came across an interesting coincidence I missed on my first pass through the magazine last year. On August 13, 1881, while Nana was halfway through his famous raid through New Mexico, Newman Haynes Clanton and six companions were ambushed far to the south, close to where the New Mexico and Arizona borders meet the Mexican line.
“Old Man” Clanton was the 65-year-old patriarch of the “Cowboy” gang who would make themselves famous two months later by shooting it out with the Earps and Doc Holliday at Tombstone’s OK Corral. In the summer of ’81 they were already notorious on both sides of the border as rustlers and murderous bandits. Clanton and his companions were driving a herd of cattle west out of the Animas Valley when they were jumped by Mexican rurales in Guadalupe Canyon on the southern end of the Peloncillos. The old man and four others were killed and two escaped in the dawn attack; there were apparently no Mexican casualties .
Nana and his raiders were far to the north that day, still riding away from their own successful ambush of Captain Parker and his men in Carrizo Canyon on the 12th. But the trail Clanton was on along the border was well-known and frequently used by the Indian raiders. It’s tempting to imagine what might have happened if Old Man Clanton had encountered Nana instead of the Mexicans. They were both very tough old men, equally experienced in the dark arts of border warfare, and they would have made formidable opponents. Perhaps instead of fighting each other they might have united against the hated Mexicans.
Speculation aside, the coincidence of dates is a reminder that not all the violence in Apacheria was committed by the Apaches, and it’s likely more was laid to their account than they were due.
Finally completed my last column for NM News Service. I had fun doing it, but turning out 600 words every 2 weeks proved to be a surprising drain on my time and energies. Now I hope to be able to devote more of my efforts to updating and revising this website.
Although Nana’s war party is said to have crossed the Rio Grande into Texas on the 13th, the old man didn’t announce his presence in New Mexico until July 17, when his warriors jumped Lt. Guilfoyle’s miniature pack train in Alamo Canyon. It was the first in puzzling episodes in the raid. How and why the two packers separated, one of them wounded and both presumably afoot, is just one unanswered question about the episode.
I recently wrote a column on one of my youthful heroes, astronaut Jack Schmitt, and on June 20 we marked the birthday of another boyhood idol who I’ve never written about. But I have my old-age role models as well. Nana is one and another is 19th Century newsman, author and world-class cynic Ambrose Bierce, who would be 175 today if still alive. I say “if” because aside from the standard actuarial tables there’s no reason to suppose he’s deceased. Bierce disappeared into the maelstrom of revolutionary Mexico in 1913 and hasn’t been seen since.
He was 71 years old, severely asthmatic and suffering the usual aches, pains and losses of advancing age, depressed by the deaths of his two sons and his estranged wife. After a tour of the Civil War battlefields he had fought over as as a young man, he crossed the border at Juarez and apparently accompanied Villa’s forces as they drove south to Ciudad Chihuahua. In his last communication from that city in December, he closed the letter with, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
Despite his prickly personality and sarcastic, biting wit, Bierce was not without influential friends and admirers, including long-time boss William Randolph Hearst. Inquiries were made at the time, but the chaotic conditions in northern Mexico made it impossible to conduct anything like a thorough investigation.
Numerous intriguing theories persist to this day. He may be buried in a mass grave at Ojinaga, across the river from Presidio, Texas, or Villa may have had the old man shot in a moment of anger, or Bierce may have ended as god of a tribe in the jungles of Central America. A bronze plaque in the campo santo of a remote village in the Sierra Madre Oriental in Coahuila is said to mark the grave of an old gringo killed by drunken federales. But nobody knows.
In one of his last letters he wrote:
Good bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease and falling down the stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia!
I’ve added the presentation I offered at last month’s Arizona-New Mexico History Convention and the accompanying paper on Apache Trails Across the Border to the Resources Section.
I spent St. Patrick’s Day at the Albuquerque Anitiquarian Books & Maps Fair (highly recommended; I believe it’s the third weekend of every March). Some beautiful maps I would love to own if I had the $ and the space to display them. But I contented myself with just one: a nice copy of Disturnell’s Treaty Map. From Dumont Maps & Books in Santa Fe, it comes with an informative 20-page pamphlet on its provenance.
Disturnell’s 1847 map of Mexico was used in drawing the new international boundary agreed to by the parties to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and it’s hard to think of another map in American history that caused so much confusion and controversy, leaving a legacy of misunderstanding and ill will that lingers today.
Looking at it, it’s hard to believe this was the most reliable representation the Americans had of the vast territory they had just seized from their southern neighbor. (The Mexicans may have had a better map of their northern domains but chose to base the Treaty negotiations on the Disturnell version because its inaccuracies furthered their own goals.) The controversy over where the real border line lay on the ground continued for five years and was only finally settled by the Gadsden Purchase in 1853.
People new to the history of the Southwest are sometimes surprised to discover that the scar tissue left by that contentious settlement still itches. In a recent emotional (and virulently anti-Trump) NYT op-ed, historian Enrique Krauze argues that the Mexican government has a solid case for nullifying Guadalupe Hidalgo before the International Court of Justice.
Kiser’s Turmoil on the Rio Grande explores the issues as part of the history of the Mesilla Valley in southern New Mexico, and I’ve just picked up Griswold de Castillo’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to dig deeper into the subject.
I’ve been traveling both sides of the border in preparation for my April 22 presentation at the AZ-NM History Convention in Flagstaff. Also gathering information on current conditions along the U.S.-Mexico line and sharing what I’ve learned with papers subscribing to NM News Svc.
I’m re-reading Hatfield’s Chasing Shadows, an excellent, in-depth history of a century of border disorder as viewed from the Mexican side. It’s a thoroughly researched (and extensively footnoted) work of scholarship with a unique perspective so far as I know. All our popular histories necessarily address the long and bloody conflict in the Southwest from the American point of view. Hatfield draws heavily on primary Mexican sources and to provide new insights into incidents like Captain Crawford’s death, for example. Plus the book places the Apache Wars in the context of all the Indian depredation, banditry, foreign invasion and rebellion occurring along the whole length of the border, beginning before the Mexican-American War and continuing into the 20th Century. Exploring the significance of the Yaqui and Mayo rebellions in shaping Mexican efforts to suppress the Apache menace really helps in understanding the whole period.