Today, Picacho Peak serves as a familiar landmark along a stretch of Interstate 10 that connects Tucson and Phoenix. An unmistakable cluster of volcanic remnants juts hundreds of feet from the desert floor, greeting a constant flow of drivers who whiz past the site, completely unaware of its historical significance.
Some 2150 years ago, this was actually the scene of “the westernmost battle of the Civil War.” In Arizona Adventure, state historian Marshall Trimble explains how it happened:
[In 1861, an ex-major from the Federal Army, Henry Hopkins Sibley, joined the Confederacy and] presented President Jefferson Davis with a grandiose plan for making the upstart Confederacy an ocean-to-ocean power. Sibley, who had campaigned extensively in the Southwest, proposed a territorial conquest that included New Mexico, Arizona, California and the northern state of Mexico. If successful, the rich gold and silver bullion being produced in the West would fall into Confederate hands. [President Davis agreed to the plan.]
…In late January, 1862, General Sibley invaded New Mexico with an army of 2,600 men. He immediately ordered Captain Sherod Hunter to take a company of 54 mounted riflemen and occupy Tucson.
…Meanwhile, the threat of a Confederate invasion of California had a prompted Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, to authorize the raising of volunteers in that state. A flinty-eyed, hard-core regular army officer, Colonel James Carleton was selected to lead this “California Column” of some 2,000 volunteers across the harsh, inhospitable desert and reconquer Arizona and New Mexico.
…Sometime around noon on April 15, 1862, (Union Lt. James) Barrett, a brave but reckless young officer, located the Confederate encampment in a dense thicket and attacked without waiting for support. He took three prisoners including Sgt. Henry Holmes. Although several shots were fired, there were no casualties in the first encounter. The rest of Holmes’ troopers, alerted by the gunfire, had retreated further into a thick brush and taken up defensive positions.
…At this point, Barrett’s scout, J.W. Jones, suggested they dismount his troops and enter the thicket afoot. Barrett disregarded the advice and charged single file, headlong into the regrouped Texans. A fierce valley of rifle fire greeted Barrett from a thicket and, when the smoke had cleared, four Union saddles had been emptied. Barrett rallied his small command and this time charged the thicket on foot. The furious battle lasted some 90 minutes and when it was ended, the brash young lieutenant and two enlisted men lay dead on the ground along with three wounded.
…The Confederates suffered two casualties in the skirmish, both of whom would die from their wounds. Casualties were high – of the 24 soldiers involved, eleven were killed or wounded.
Fallen Soldiers Remembered
After the battle, the three Union soldiers were buried and a cross was erected where they had fallen. The site is some 20 feet from where the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad runs today. The graves remained undisturbed until 1892 when a detachment from Fort Lowell, near Tucson, was sent to remove the remains and rebury them at the Presidio, in San Francisco. The burial detail recovered the bodies of the two enlisted men, Pvts. George Johnson and Wm. Leonard, but were unable to locate Lt. Barrett. They left the cross in place and the incident, along with the dashing young cavalry officer, were nearly forgotten.
Many years later, in the early 1920s, a group of concerned citizens and history buffs decided to erect a bronze plaque commemorating the site. During construction of the monument, workers discovered a human skeleton wrapped in an old army blanket. At long last, the body of James Barrett had been located. The fragmented blanket was taken to the Arizona Historical Society and the remains of Lt. James Barrett, Co. A. 1st Cavalry Volunteers, lies buried, on a the field of battle where he so gallantly gave his life.