Traveling east on the Crook Military Road, FR 300, we see Forest Road 123 going off to our left, and it will take us out to the site of the Battle of Big Dry Wash.
After 10 miles the road branches on Forest Road 1232A and in a few more miles we come to a parking area. A short hike will take us to the large monument commemorating this last of the pitched battles between Apaches and the U.S. Cavalry.
I have dealt at length with this battle in earlier articles, but today we are going to walk about 200 feet southwest of the monument. There, we find the stones and military marker for the grave of the only soldier to die in the battle, Private Joseph McLernon of Company E, 6th Cavalry.
He was 24 years old when he died; he had gray eyes and a fair complexion and was 5 feet, 7 inches tall with brown hair. He was born in Antrim County, Ireland. His home was across the North Channel from Scotland in the northernmost part of Ireland. The population of his homeland was declining and many Irish youth were fleeing to America for economic opportunity. Joseph joined the great migration to America in 1880 arriving at Baltimore, Md. Almost immediately he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
After a brief training, Company E was moved to Fort Apache and soon McLernon was involved in the Battle of Cibecue. The next months were filled with scouting expeditions and in the summer of 1882 he found himself caught up in the Battle of Big Dry Wash. A rather cold entry in the 6th Cavalry muster roll tells what happened.
“In compliance with orders No. 136, Ft. Apache A.T. the troop consisting of Captain Adam Kramer, Lt. Cruse and thirty-four enlisted men left post July 10, 1882, in pursuit of hostile Indians traveling a northwesterly direction to North Fork of Chevelon Fork, A.T. where the troops and Indians fought against each other for five hours; lost one man who died on the field from wound, and one wounded.”
The “one man” of course was McLernon, who had been standing just behind and to the left of Lt. Cruse while they were engaging a large group of Apache warriors in the pine forest. An Apache stepped out from behind a tree about six feet in front of Cruse and pointed a rifle directly at him. Cruse knew the Indian could not miss and braced himself, raising his own gun to his shoulder. An Indian fired, but jerked his weapon as he pulled the trigger. The bullet missed Cruse and hit McLernon. Cruse killed the Apache and threw himself on the ground beside the bleeding private.
The battle raged, bullets splintering trees, and Cruse dragged the soldier to a slope that offered some protection. The bullet had smashed a rib and passed through both lungs, and McLernon lost consciousness. During a lull in the battle the soldiers covered him with a blanket from the Indian camp they had overrun. He died in the night, and his fellow soldiers took his body across the canyon in an exhaustive effort. His body was wrapped in the blanket and placed in a shallow grave that had been dug by the men using their mess kits and knives.
For more than 90 years this grave was unmarked. Then in 1976 retired forest ranger Fred Croxen and his friend Harry Martin located the site using metal detectors and records of the battle. They replaced the scattered rocks and with the political help of Senator Barry Goldwater, got the Veterans Administration to provide the military marker for the grave.
Since then another battle has raged between the Army and some history buffs insisting that the body is not really there. This search for McLernon’s body continues to our own day, when cadaver-sniffing dogs were brought to the site and definitely identified there is a body in there. But is it McLernon?
When you visit the site yourself you can feel the history of the place. Perhaps take with you my in-depth study of the issue, “Whatever Happened to Joseph McLernon, killed at the Battle of Big Dry Wash?” Available at the Rim Country Museum, Payson.