The California Column and the
March to Tucson, 1862
by Mr. Robert Flaherty
At the begining 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 northen
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
That 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 distrist
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 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, occupied Tucson without
firing a shot. Hunter then issued a proclamation making Arizona
a territory of the Confederate States of America. On March 1
st 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 march 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
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 McCeave 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.
On 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 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 men prisoner. The young Lieutenant seeing the other 11led 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.
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. Meantime
Hunter got word on May 1st that Sibley had been beaten badly
at the Battle of Peralta on April 15 and was retreating toward
Faced with the Union Column's superior
numbers, Hunter released McCleave, White and the other prisoners,
gave horses and told them to ride northwest to link up with the
California Column. On May 4th. he withdrew from Tucson and traveled
southeast to link up with the retreating Confederate Army.
On May 20th, the same day Sibley lost a final battle at Glorieta
Pass, and was forced out of New Mexico for good, the 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 themselves 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 was going
on in Arizona until July 5th, when. Lt. Col. Edward Reyere and
a 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 solder, but that is another story.
For a more detailed history of the California
Column by one of its officers, CLICK HERE