Friday, December 29, 2017

A walk at Picacho Pass, the westernmost Civil War battlefield

Desert cactus near Picacho Mountain and the Picacho Pass skirmish site.
        In video, I reference 200 Rebels fought here. The correct figure is about a dozen.

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To reach the site of the westernmost “battle” of the Civil War, I pass the nearby Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch -- it's billed as “The Darndest Place You’ll Ever Visit!” -- and park my rented Jeep on a gravel frontage road near a Dairy Queen. Then, I deftly cross two railroad tracks and gingerly lift a barbed-wire fence, carefully slipping under it without snagging my clothes. I scurry down and then up a large gully, avoiding menacing-looking plant life. Feeling a tad guilty, I finally make my way to a vast expanse of desert.

All this is legal, mind you — I had purchased the state permit required for access to the seldom-seen Picacho Pass battlefield, a footnote in Civil War history. On April 15, 1862, a dozen soldiers in the 1st California Cavalry, led by Lieutenant James Barrett, and an advance party of a like number of Confederates clashed in the desert about 50 miles northwest of Tucson, in the Territory of Arizona. Three were killed — all Yankees — including Barrett, who died instantly from a bullet to his neck. The desert outpost was an early-warning system of sorts for a Confederate garrison in Tucson.

You won't find this vegetation at Gettysburg.
Much as it did in 1862, the landscape today more closely resembles the surface of the moon, not what we typically think of when we envision a Civil War battlefield. The impressive Picacho Mountains, which tower more than 1,500 feet,  loom near the battleground. Scrub, mesquite, greasewood and cactus dot the desert, where the occasional pronghorn antelope leaps away as I slowly walk the largely open ground. Odd-looking tracks, surely from animals, sprinkle the landscape. Although this stroll in the desert has an in-the-middle-of-nowhere feel, the constant hum of traffic on nearby Interstate 10 makes it clear civilization is oh-so-close.

About 30 minutes earlier, a ranger at Picacho Peak State Park visitors center across that super-busy interstate had told me the general area where the long-ago battle was fought.  “Do you see those telephone poles?” he said, pointing into the far distance, about a mile or so away. “It took place there. If you go past the poles, you’ve gone too far.” If I look closely enough, he said, I might even be able to make out the trace of the old wagon road, near where the skirmish was fought.

But there is no evidence found of the road or any other sign of the 1862 battle on this visit. No Minie balls. No horseshoes. No Civil War-era metal at all. And no battlefield markers or memorials, either. There's nothing here but the beauty of the Sonoran desert: a deep-blue sky, a massive, ancient rock formation in the far distance and unusual flora and fauna you will never see at Gettysburg.

On the return to my vehicle, I wonder about the commander of the ill-fated Union attack at this lonely outpost. Apparently ignoring orders, James Barrett was not supposed to attack that spring day in 1862. Never recovered, the lieutenant's body may be buried near the railroad embankment I cross to leave this little-known Civil War site.

Or he may rest somewhere else in this remote, beautiful landscape.

                           PANORAMA: Click at upper right for full-screen experience.

Unusual plant life on the seldom-visited battleground.
The bleak landscape where a skirmish was fought on April 15, 1862.
Parched earth at Picacho Pass, about 50 miles northwest of Tucson, Arizona.

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