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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Apache way of war

"You want us to ride around your wagon circle making perfect targets while you shoot at us? I don't think so, paleface!"

In the movies we're told that the Apache were pretty dumb. As soon as our heroes, the settlers, put their wagons in a circle, the Apaches would ride around it, whopping and waving their guns over their heads, making perfect targets.

Not likely. The Apache defied the U.S. government for a century despite the Americans having greater numbers and better weapons. They did this by launching a classic guerrilla campaign.

The Apache offset their numerical inferiority by focusing their forces on isolated army detachments, giving them a localized superiority in numbers. They were also quick to adopt the latest weaponry, whether through illegal trading or by capturing guns from the enemy.

Their greatest ally was the land itself. Arizona and New Mexico, where the greatest number of Apache lived in the 19th century, is a rugged place, with scarce water and countless mountains and ravines in which to hide. The Apache knew the land well and could strike fast from unexpected directions and disappear into the wilderness.

"This is more like it!"
They also used the scarcity of water to their advantage, as they showed in the Battle of Apache Pass on July 14, 1862. An advance column of Federal troops had marched from California to repulse the Confederate invasion of Arizona and New Mexico. After a brief skirmish at Picacho Peak just outside Tucson, often called the westernmost battle of the Civil War, they continued east, chasing the fleeing rebels.

On July 14, they marched 40 miles to Apache Pass, arriving exhausted and thirsty. The Apache had been watching their movements and waited for them on cliffs overlooking the only water hole within miles, which was at the base of the pass. When the soldiers tried to go to drink, they were suddenly fired upon from above by several hundred Apache under Chiefs Cochise and Mangas Coloradas.

Luckily for the soldiers they had some artillery along, which soon dislodged the Apache. If it wasn't for that, the commanding officer said in his report, the entire column could have been wiped out.

I'm currently researching a book proposal on the Apaches fight with the U.S. Cavalry, so I'll be talking more about this subject in later posts.

Top image is a still from an old movie courtesy the South Fork Companion blog. Bottom image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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