Remembering the Day the Civil War Came to Arizona

The south face of Picacho Peak in Arizona. The annual Battle of Picacho Pass reenactment held in late March draws a few thousand spectators. Aznebulae33/Wikipedia Commons

To find the most recognizable landmark in southern Arizona, take Interstate 10 to Exit 219. Just east of the turnoff you may find yourself either at a Dairy Queen or a service station that also holds a Subway. Tumbleweed rolls across the dual tracks of the Union Pacific line, which run parallel to the interstate. West of the turnoff is a blend of the exotic and the erotic: the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch, with some 600 head of the world's largest avian species, is located just down the frontage road from the M Passion adult boutique, which also attracts some strange birds.

Just a quarter-mile up the road from M Passion, where an anatomically correct doll will set you back $499, is the entrance to Picacho Peak State Park. Here, $7 provides access to perhaps the most treacherous hike in the Grand Canyon State. Though it is but a two-mile trip from the base of Picacho Peak to its summit, the ascent involves Indiana Jones–level degrees of difficulty—and danger. You will climb steel cables up 70-degree rock faces (gloves are a must). Worse, you will eventually climb down them. "Most of the people who do Phoenix-area hikes would get a rush out of climbing Picacho," says Jay Ream, the deputy director of Arizona State Parks. A rush of adrenaline or a rush of fear? "Usually, both."

The Picacho ascent remains a relatively well-kept secret, hidden in plain sight although it's visible 50 miles away. Far more popular is the annual Battle of Picacho Pass reenactment held in late March, which draws a few thousand spectators. "The Civil War reenactment is the biggest event we do at any state park," says Ream. "We have three rangers based at the park, but we bring in 20 for that weekend."

Yes, a Civil War battle took place in southern Arizona. It was waged on April 15, 1862, and was the western-most conflict in the War Between the States that involved fatalities (even if it did not occur in a state). And whereas the actual skirmish involved 13 men from Company A, 1st California Cavalry (Union) and 10 Arizona Rangers (Confederacy), the annual reenactment involves as many as 10 times that number. "A lot of our Civil War reenactors will do anything to put on a uniform," says Ream.

Andrew Masich posing at a Battle of Picacho Pass reenactment in the early 70s. Andrew Masich

Andrew Masich is not such a reenactor. Nor is he a "Farb." "It's a derogatory term for an inauthentic reenactor," explains Masich, who has partaken in about a dozen Picacho Pass reenactments since the early 1970s. "You know, the kind of guy who orders his uniform online and wears Foster Grant sunglasses in battle."

Masich makes his own saddle and stitches on his own uniform emblems. He adheres to a 19th century diet for the day, hiring bakers to bake hardtack and butchers to cure salt pork for field rations. At his reenactment debut in 1973, Masich roasted a rabbit by using his officer's sword as a spit. "You learn so much more when you do it the right way," says Masich. "I always wanted to be a historical archaeologist. I literally wanted to dig up the past."

Masich is arguably the foremost authority on what has come to be known as The Battle of Picacho Pass. He is the author ofThe Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865, and produced a five-minute educational film on the battle, more of a skirmish in truth, for the Arizona Historical Society. Now the president of the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Masich is better versed in this arcane and remote Civil War skirmish than any man alive, and he probably knows more about it than most of the soldiers who fought in it.

When Masich was 10 years old, he was rooting around in his grandparents' attic in Lake Chautauqua, New York. In a trunk he happened upon a small iron ball. "I wrote to the Smithsonian to ask what it was. To my surprise, they responded. It was a Minie ball, the .69-caliber Civil War bullet that revolutionized warfare."

Back home in Yonkers, New York, Masich transformed his bedroom into a Civil War museum—visitors seeking entry were required to take a brochure. He converted his Boy Scout togs into a Confederate uniform and constructed facsimiles of the Monitor and the Merrimac out of Popsicle sticks. At the age of 13 he had business cards made that read "Stonewall Masich," and one year later he purchased his first musket. "When I was a kid," says Masich, "I had a soft spot for the rebels because they were so much better soldiers than the Union army. As I got older, I learned how morally bankrupt slavery was. But the Confederates were deft with maneuvers."

Puberty failed to dampen Masich's ardor. As a freshman at the University of Arizona in 1971, at the height of undergrad unrest over the Vietnam War, he posted army recruiting posters around campus, seeking volunteers to enlist in Company D, the California Volunteer Infantry, a Civil War–era outfit that had last seen active duty more than a century earlier. "Company D had a reputation as a bunch of ne'er-do-wells," he says. "It had a high desertion rate and a reputation for trading cartridges for beers."

More than a dozen students signed up. "In the early '70s," he says, "it wasn't that difficult to find a dozen guys who were willing to buy a musket, put on a wool uniform and walk around in the desert."

In the early '60s—1860's, that is—it wasn't, either. On February 14, 1862, Confederate president Jefferson Davis claimed Arizona as a Confederate territory. Two weeks later a Confederate force of 76 men that had marched west from El Paso under the command of Captain Sherod Hunter occupied Tucson.

When news that the Rebel Stars and Bars flag flew over the Old Pueblo reached California, a volunteer army of 2,000 men was formed (Union troops had headed East to join the war in 1861). Known as the California Column, it marched to Fort Yuma, on the Arizona-California border, under the command of Colonel James H. Carleton.

Reenactors taking the trail that Lieutenant Barrett once took. Scott Amonson

The first encounter between the two sides occurred at a flour mill along the Gila River and involved a brilliant display of chicanery by the Confederate commander, Hunter, who had arrived at the mill of Ammi White one day in early March with a small company of men. "White is a government contractor, stockpiling 1,500 sacks of wheat for the California Column," says Masich. "He is captured and the rebels disperse the wheat to the locals [i.e., Indians]. Hunter and his men decide to stick around to see what happens."

Not long after Hunter captured White's Mill, Captain William McCleave of Company A, 1st California Cavalry, who was riding eastbound with a few troops on a reconnaissance expedition, arrived. It was after midnight.

"Who goes there?" a voice shouted from the darkness.

"We're Americans!" McCleave replied.

The four Union soldiers, dusty and fatigued, were welcomed into White's main house and given coffee. McCleave relaxed, answered all of the curious questions of the man he assumed was White, and at last unbuckled his saber belt. Only then did Hunter, who had been posing as White, reveal himself by drawing a revolver on McCleave and thrusting it in his face.

McCleave took umbrage. "Give us our arms back," he demanded, "or we'll shoot it out right here."

"If you make a single motion," Hunter replied, "I'll blow your brains out."

McCleave and his men were taken prisoner and led back to Tucson for internment.

Back at Fort Yuma, Colonel Carleton organized a rescue mission. He dispatched 276 men under the command of Captain William Calloway to Tucson. It was late March.

"The story of travel in the old Southwest," says Jay Van Orden, a longtime curator at the Arizona Historical Society and a Civil War reenactor as well, "is the story of the distance from water to water. Your mounts, your troops, travel from water station to water station, at an outside range of 20 miles."

Every station was a step along the route followed by Calloway: Sacaton Station...Oneida Station...Blue Water Station. The next station, approximately 14 miles to the south and lying in the shadow of the 3,347-foot spire known as El Picacho ("The Peak"), would be Picacho Station. Calloway knew it was the ideal spot for the rebels to post scouts. On April 14, he devised a plan to vanquish the Southerners he assumed were awaiting his arrival. He sent one lieutenant, Ephraim Baldwin, with 13 men to circle to the west around Picacho Peak. Calloway sent another, James Barrett, with 12 men to head east through the Picacho Mountains. The two units would meet behind the rebels' position and cut off a rear escape to Tucson as Calloway, the remaining 250 Union troops and two Howitzers proceeded directly toward them.

"Calloway wanted prisoners, not fatalities," says Van Orden, who nearly lost his right eye at the Battle of Antietam—well, at the 125th anniversary of said battle—due to a muzzle flash from his musket. "Dead men can't talk, and Calloway needed information. He wanted to know how many troops were stationed in Tucson. Besides, he had no idea whether McCleave was with them."

Reenactors, as the First Cavalry, gallop into the foreground. Scott Amonson

It was a classic pincer movement, solid military strategy by Calloway. And it might have worked if Barrett had been more patient. "Barrett arrives first, at about two in the afternoon, and he has to wait," says Masich. "His men are thirsty. It's hot. It's hard to wait in the desert, and, honestly, Barrett cannot be certain that he has not already been spotted."

It is mid-April. The desert is in full bloom. The palo verde and mesquite trees, the creosote bushes, even the cacti, provide far more cover than a Yank might expect. In Barrett's service is a local scout named John W. Jones. He has spotted a few of the Confederates playing cards and drinking coffee in a clearing, but he advises Barrett to wait.

"But Barrett is a risk-taker," says Masich. "He's a 28-year-old who was born in Ireland and has already made it out to California, so by definition he is a risk-taker."

Baldwin and his men are nowhere in sight. Barrett leads his men, all on horseback, into the clearing in single file. "He's brash and bold," say Van Orden. "He discharges his pistol and growls, 'Hands up, you secessionist bastards!'"

Three Confederate soldiers surrender on the spot but the other seven are either not present or scamper into the brush. Shots are fired and four of the Union soldiers are dropped from their saddles. Barrett dismounts to help tie up a rebel soldier and then climbs back up on his horse. He shouts an order that is interrupted by a rifle blast. Barrett is shot through the neck and falls.

"He was probably dead before he hit the ground," says Masich.

In the next hour a cat-and-mouse gunfight was waged between the thick desert undergrowth and around a shallow volcanic rock outcropping. All in the shadow of Picacho Peak. Private George Johnson was felled by a gunshot wound to the heart. Private William Leonard was shot between the shoulder blades, the Minie ball exiting his mouth. He died the next morning, his gurgling sounds haunting his fellow soldiers throughout the night.

Three other Union soldiers were wounded but not fatally. Among them, Private William C. Tobin was the most fortunate. He was shot in the forehead but the brass insignia on his hat deflected the bullet, leaving him with an ugly scar as opposed to a fatal wound.

The seven remaining Confederate soldiers (and their mounts) returned to Tucson to warn Hunter of the approaching Union force. Calloway, having lost the element of surprise and, more important, having only a day's water supply, returned to the Gila River to regroup.

Five weeks later, on May 20, the Union soldiers marched on Tucson without incident. Hunter, aware that he was far outnumbered, had retreated back to El Paso six days earlier.

Somewhere in the shadow of Picacho Peak, not too far from that Dairy Queen sign, the remains of Lieutenant James Barrett rest in an unmarked grave. And if Masich or Van Orden know the spot, they're not saying. When I ask Masich how it is decided who will play the role of Barrett during Picacho Pass reenactments, he quips, "I think you just pick the guy who can fall off his horse the best."

Masich pauses. "Barrett's last moment...the tragedy of it is poignant," he says. "The fact that he is still there in an unmarked grave is poetic."

It may be 2015, but a new Battle of Picacho Pass may be brewing. The Union Pacific railroad, which sponsors the annual staging of the Civil War reenactment at Picacho Peak State Park, is lobbying to construct a rail changing yard just east of El Picacho. The yard would be 20 rails wide and six miles long and erected on land currently owned by a state of Arizona land trust, which has an option to sell it

"As it was explained to me by a retired state senator, this railroad track from Long Beach to El Paso is equivalent to the Panama Canal," says Ream. "And since the United States no longer controls the Panama Canal, the expansion of this railroad is vital to commerce.

"I'm told that this is the biggest, emptiest, flattest space," says Ream. "Trains love flat. And frankly, the land's for sale."

Masich claims that the diesel fumes could kill much of the floral topography of Picacho Peak, including the iconic Saguaro cacti. It is likely that the rail yard might be built directly over the battle site—which is not formally designated. The tracks might be laid directly over Barrett's grave.

"It could be moved 20 miles in either direction," argues Masich. "It's sad. Jobs trump history. And the Civil War played a defining role in shaping Arizona's history. It was strategically vital then and now as a link between the Pacific and Texas. It became a state on February 14, 1912, exactly 50 years to the date after Jefferson Davis declared Arizona a Confederate territory. That isn't a coincidence."

No, but there is irony lurking in the shadow of Picacho Peak: the irony of covering the tracks of the state's history with...tracks.

Correction: This article misquoted Andrew Masich in describing John W. Jones as a "risk-taker." Masich was referring to James Barrett. Additionally, this article misspelt the last name of Jay Van Orden.