The Battle of Picacho Peak
By Matt Marine
March 17, 2013
The Civil War cannon roared, spewing smoke and flame just as it had done over 150 years ago. But this time, it wasn't fired in anger. It was part of the artillery demonstration during Picacho Peak's Civil War in the Southwest event.
Demonstration or not, it was extremely loud and even from 100 feet away, I felt the shock wave ripple through body. My ears were ringing and my first thought is that I should have listened to announcer. He'd warned our group onlookers to cover our ears, but I didn't expect 150 year old technology to come with such a kick. And I'd wanted to take a picture of the cannon firing. Yep, got the picture, though I didn't know if I would leave with my hearing. This was just the demonstration, the battle hadn't even started yet!
Every year thousand of Civil War aficionado, history buffs and kids of all ages come to Picacho Peak State Park to witness three of the southwest's significant battles of the Civil War: The Battle of Valverde, New Mexico, the Battle of Glorieta, New Mexico and of course, the Battle of Picacho Peak.
Now, to be fair, these were minor skirmishes (especially Picacho Peak itself) compared to the battles in the east with only a few thousand at most involved. Nonetheless, they were significant in the southwest. None of this really matters if you're here for the fun and history.
After the cannon demonstration, I went back to the main encampment to explore. There's lots to see:
- A fashion show demonstration how women put on over 7 layers of clothing - two hours to get dressed and hot!!!
- Cotton spinning
- Bullet making
- Social graces of the 1860s
- Civilian living
- Traveling theater
- Soldier's marching, dress and loading a musket for kids
- Regimental band
- Old fashioned sarsaparilla
- Civil war shops, dress and uniforms
About ten minutes prior to the re-enactment of the Battle at Valverde (February 21, 1862), the Union troops gathered for their march to the battlefield. I enjoyed the drummer keeping the rhythm of the march (see video below) and the splendor of their uniforms.
The Confederates came next. Compared to their Union counterparts, they were a ragtag, but tough looking bunch. I followed them to the battlefield and took up a position to watch the action, though not as close to the artillery as before.
I spent the next twenty minutes hearing the cannons roar, seeing the smoke drift across the battlefield and watching the two opposing armies fire volley after volley of fire at one another.
At one point, a person next to me wondered why there had been few, if any, "casualties" on either side. As if answering this person's question, the announcer came on, telling the crowd the reason we weren't seeing many "dead" on the battlefield was that the re-enactors come here to fire their weapons and their uniforms costs a lot of money so they don't "die" unless they really have to, bringing laughs from the crowd.
Watching the battle was fun and I was close enough to hear the commands given by leadership on both sides, which I found very interesting.
The Confederates were the victors at Valverde, but that would be fleeting feeling for them. Defeats would be coming shortly.
For now, the cannons are silenced once again. At least until next year when they do it all again. And my hearing is back to normal!
Video and additional pictures taken at the event can be viewed at the bottom of this page
History of The Battle of Picacho Peak
The Battle of Picacho Peak began on April 15, 1862 when twelve union cavalry troopers of the 1st California Cavalry and one scout made a sweep of the Picacho Pass area where they had heard Confederate troops were lurking.
The Union troopers were lead by Lieutenant Barrett who was under orders not to engage the enemy if he encountered them, but instead of waiting for the main column to arrive, "Lt. Barrett acting alone rather than in concert, surprised the Rebels and should have captured them without firing a shot, if the thing had been conducted properly."
At first, all seemed to go well and Barrett captured 3 Confederate soldiers. Just as Barrett remounted his horse, a bullet struck him in the neck, killing him. More than a hour of fierce fighting erupted in the thickets and arroyos around Picacho. Two more union soldiers fell dead and three more were wounded. Tired and leaderless, the Union patrol fell back to the Pima Indian Villages and hastily built Fort Barrett at White's Mill.
The Confederates, who were lead by Sergeant Henry Holmes, retreated back to Tucson to warn of the Union advance. The Confederates had no reinforcements, and vacated Tucson when the main column from California arrived.
Although compared to the battles of the east this battle may seem strategically insignificant, it was important to the history of the southwest. The Confederates dreamed of making a southwestern pipeline from Texas to the southern ports in California. The Confederates had proclaimed Tucson the capital of the western district of the Confederate Arizona Territory, which comprised what is now southern Arizona and southern New Mexico and wanted to influence Confederate sympathizers in southern California.
The Battle of Picacho Peak put an end to their dreams and it was the high water mark for the Confederates in the southwest.
Many people state that the Battle of Picacho Peak was the most western battle fought in the Civil War, but not the most western of the fighting. That was at the Stanwix Station, about 80 miles east of Yuma. The Stanwix Station fighting is called a "skirmish" due to the very light casualties (no dead). Others also call the fighting at Picacho a skirmish due to the low causality count. But that's a detail better left for the historians to fight about. All you need to do is go out and enjoy the action!
Picacho State Park is north of Tucson, between Tucson and Casa Grand along interstate I-10. It cost $10 per car (up to 4 people) to attend the event.