Editor’s note: This is the first in an intermittent series of articles on Arizona history by Roundup News Editor Peter Aleshire.
Lt. Thomas Cruse crouched behind a tree on the brink of the most vivid, deadly day of his life, a few hundred yards from the Apache war party at the very center of a thrilling, tragic history.
The young, courageous, fair-minded, lieutenant had already fought in several key battles and chased raiding Apache warriors thousands of miles back and forth across rugged wilderness since his arrival in the Southwest three years before. Cruse, who later became a general, left a compelling account of that conflict in his “Apache Days and After,” one of the most important primary sources on that conflict.
But now his daring would be put to the ultimate test at the Battle of Big Dry Wash, July 18, 1882 on the Mogollon Rim.
The battle stood as a singular exception to the endless succession of hit-and-run raids and brief, violent clashes that typified the decades-long effort by the United States Army to crush the outgunned, outnumbered, but rarely outfought Apaches — perhaps the most skilled guerrilla warriors in history.
The battle was triggered by the Army’s bungled attempt to arrest an Apache religious leader named Nocadelklinny. Shots had broken out, soldiers had executed Nocadelklinny, and even the Apache scouts in Cruse’s company had turned on the soldiers. The Army often used warriors from one band of Apaches to fight others, and many White Mountain Apache scouts served the Army loyally in campaigns against the Tonto Apaches or the more infamous Chiricahua Apaches. Indian agents and Army officers felt threatened by Nocadelklinny in part because he was able to unify previously hostile bands.
The incident prompted many warriors to flee the reservation, including a war leader named Na-ti-o-tish and perhaps 75 followers, including several scouts who had served under Cruse.
Na-ti-o-tish’s band stole horses and ammunition as they fled the San Carlos Reservation, killing several settlers along the way. Army units from three different forts set out after the fleeing Apache, converging from several directions.
Unfortunately for Na-ti-o-tish, two of the Army units that converged on him were mounted on white horses. This caused a fatal miscalculation. The Apache almost never gave battle unless they had the upper hand. But Na-ti-o-tish’s scouts reported only a small trailing force of soldiers on white horses, not realizing that a larger, but similarly mounted, column had joined their enemies. Therefore, Na-ti-o-tish decided to stand and make a fight on the rim of a 1,000-foot-deep gash of a canyon, reasoning he could ambush the soldiers as they struggled out of the canyon. However, the Army’s scouts led by the legendary Al Sieber spotted the ambush, and the Army commanders laid a trap of their own.
One force held the Indians in place by feigning a frontal assault, while two other columns flanked the Apache position after crossing the deep gash of a canyon.
“As our line pinched the renegades, they fired furiously and with effect,” wrote Cruse.
Cruse closed in with Sieber and soon found himself exchanging fire with some of the Apache scouts who had served the Army loyally until the tragic attempt to arrest the Medicine Man.
“Sergeant Conn of Troop E, the Sixth, was a wisp of a Boston Irishman, twenty years in the regiment,” wrote Cruse, and quoted in the book “Apache Days and After.” As the ration sergeant, the scouts had tagged him with the derisive name “Coche Sergeant” or “Hog Sergeant.” Now, hearing his unmistakable Irish brogue, they shouted out the nickname he detested.
“Aaaiiah! Coche Sergeant! Come here and I will kill you!”
“Conn screamed something in reply, and the Indian fired at the sound of his voice. The big bullet struck Conn in the throat, fairly pushed aside the jugular vein, then grazed the vertebrae and emerged, making a hole the size of a silver dollar. All this in a wizened neck that was loose in size thirteen collar!” wrote Cruse.
“Captain Kramer, standing a yard or so away, remarked to First Sergeant: ‘Well, I’m afraid they got poor Conn.’
“Afterward, Conn said that he was conscious when he fell. ‘Sure I heard the Capt’n say I was kilt. But I knew I was not. I was only spa-a-achless!”
Cruse, Sieber and the other soldiers then closed in on the trapped warriors, hoping to finish them off before darkness fell and they made their escape. Seeing a gully 75 yards away from which a group of soldiers could cut off the Indians’ retreat, Cruse resolved to make a dash across open ground.
“No! Don’t you do it, Lieutenant! Don’t you do it,” objected Sieber. “There’s lots of Indians over there and they’ll get you for sure!”
Nonetheless, Cruse charged the gully with seven or eight soldiers. “They were not worried in the least by a hot fight, and we were going slap-bang when a hostile appeared not two yards away, leveling his gun directly at me. It seemed impossible for him to miss at that point-blank range, so I raised my own gun and stiffened to take the shock of his bullet. But he was nervous and jerked just enough as he pulled the trigger to send the bullet past me. A young Scotchman named McLellan was just to my left and slightly in the rear. The bullet hit him, and he dropped. I shot the Indian and threw myself to the ground ... McLellan was sprawled beside me and I asked if he was hurt.
“Yes sir,” he answered. “Through the arm. I think it’s broken.”
When the firing slackened, Cruse rose and began dragging the dying McLellan toward cover. Warriors rose to fire, which prompted the soldiers some 200 yards away to begin firing also — catching Cruse in a crossfire.
Remarkably, he made it back to cover. Cruse received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Na-ti-o-tish lay dead on the field, and only 15 of his 75 warriors reportedly survived. It represented one of the only effective concentrations of force against the elusive Apache, and the last major pitched battle of the Apache wars that raged off and on for 20 years before ending with Geronimo’s surrender in 1886.
It was a tragic, avoidable struggle. The inrushing American settlers had pushed the Apache out of prime hunting grounds, and the increasingly desperate Apache had responded with raiding, murder and theft. The blundering, corruption-prone U.S. government had responded with a vacillating combination of force and promises.
The Apache, who quickly concluded they stood little long-term chance against the guns of the seemingly limitless soldiers, initially agreed to settle on reservations that included fragments of their home ranges. But just when peace had seemed possible, the government concentrated on a single reservation thousands of Apache warriors, many of whom were longtime enemies. Even that might have worked, but for the bungled arrest of the medicine man and on-going corruption that diverted the barely adequate rations of the reservation Apache into the coffers of an unscrupulous ring of government contractors.
Honorable, courageous, and insightful officers like Lt. Cruse found themselves fighting a desperate war against a fierce but often admirable enemy. Cruse’s thrilling, first-person account includes dramatic descriptions of battles like Big Dry Wash and the arrest of the Medicine Man at Cibecue, but it also provides a telling reflection on the moral dilemmas of that terrible conflict.
Still, Cruse and his fellow professional officers did their duty — helping to crush the culture and the warriors they had come to admire.
He ranged back and forth across the Southwest, mostly chasing the cooling trail of warriors he never saw through blizzards, thunderstorms, canyons, mountains, and appalling hardships. He recalled with perhaps the most pride one mission where he prevented a war by intervening when the tough but peaceful Pima Indians living near present-day Phoenix threatened to make war on the settlers who had diverted the flow of the Salt and Gila rivers. This withered the Indians crops and pushed them to the brink of starvation. After three weeks of tense negotiation, the settlers agreed to leave enough water in the river for the Indians and the Pimas “cheerfully went back to their fields.”
But one of Cruse’s closest calls came while looking down the gun barrel of one of his own soldiers. His company had spent three months on the trail chasing the ghostly signs of renegade Apache, passing finally through a terrible blizzard to reach Fort Bowie. The soldiers immediately embarked on a bender with three-months’ of back pay. Just when the drinking reached its peak, Cruse received orders to take his men eight miles from the fort to set up camp.
“That march from Bowie to Hay Camp stands out as the very worst that I ever tackled,” recalled Cruse since the officers spent much of their time putting drunken soldiers back into their saddles.
Then one soldier galloped away from the column. Cruse soon overtook him.
“When I ordered him to rejoin the command, he said he would do no such thing and, furthermore, there was no one in that vicinity who could make him ... I reasoned with him until he stepped to the side of his horse and started to draw his carbine from the boot. Then reason seemed inferior to force, so I whipped out my revolver and jammed it against his breast. I told him that if he moved in the slightest I would kill him at once and without compunction, adding that I was entirely sober and knew exactly what I was talking about.”
The sobered soldier put away his gun, climbed back on his horse, and rejoined the column. Later, the soldier himself received a Congressional Medal of Honor for gallantry in action.
Cruse spent his whole life in the Army, but the battle of Big Dry Wash remained the most vivid day of his military career. The Army finally stamped out the Apache resistance in 1886, the last of the major Indian wars. Cruse languished in the lower ranks of a peacetime Army that numbered only 25,000, commenting gloomily on the discovery that political connections seemed to have more to do with promotion than merit or seniority.
He was ultimately promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
But his life yielded some hard blows. One of his sons attended West Point, the other graduated from Annapolis. But his son was killed when a shell exploded prematurely in the gun turret of a battleship in 1902. Although fatally burned, the boy crawled out of the turret, got a fire hose, and returned in an attempt to rescue those still inside. Cruse was forced into early retirement as a result of the military politics he was never good at playing. He also suffered brief humiliation in 1917 when newspapers unjustly accused him of corruption after he helped a contractor get the government to accept 25,000 well-made blankets that were an inch too short. Ironically, another government agency was poised to buy the same blankets at three times the price. Then in 1936, his beloved wife of 54 years died.
Disappointed, shunted aside, and scarred by grief — you can’t help but mark his chance meeting with his old arch enemy — Geronimo — at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1913. Geronimo had become a celebrity, one of several hundred Chiricahua Apache who spent 28 years as prisoners of war — including the Apache scouts who had served the Army loyally.
Geronimo and Cruse met there, anachronisms who had walked barefoot across the glowing coals of history and outlived the times they helped to create.
Roundup News Editor Peter Aleshire has written nine books including four books on the Apache wars: The Fox and the Whirlwind, Cochise, Warrior Woman and Reaping the Whirlwind. Some of the material for this story came from Apache Days and After.