above the surrounding Chihuahua Desert, the Guadalupe
Mountains mark the highest point in Texas. And McKittrick Canyon,
dissected by a spring-fed, trout-filled creek flanked with pines
and Douglas firs, is one of the state's most remote and attractive
It's no wonder that the Mescalero Apaches viewed the rugged but
beautiful mountain range as their holiest of places. Indeed, they
considered it the land of their origin. Ultimately, as their nomadic
lifestyle neared its end, they looked on that high ground as their
But while the Mescaleros still ranged free in New Mexico and Texas,
with the opening of the Butterfield Overland Mail in 1858, the Indians
began using the mountains as a base for attacking the stagecoaches.
The route, which stretched from St. Louis to California, passed
just below 8,749-foot Guadalupe
"They owned nothing and everything," historian C. L. Sonnichsen
wrote of the Mescalero. "They did as they pleased and bowed to no
The mail operation shut down at the start of the Civil War and the
U.S. Army pulled its troops out of Texas. For all practical purposes,
that returned the Trans-Pecos to the Mescalero. The Indians raided
in New Mexico, Texas and down into Northern Mexico, often returning
to the sanctuary of their sacred mountains.
Following the war, federal forces reoccupied Texas and New Mexico
and soon began dealing with the Mescaleros. Still, the formidable
Guadalupes loomed as a virtually impenetrable stronghold. Pursuing
the Apaches to a remote, rugged landscape they knew well took courage
bordering on foolhardiness. That pretty well described Howard Bass
Cushing, only he also had a mean streak and a demonstrated propensity
to do things the way he thought they should be done, regardless
of regulation or even the law.
A native of Wisconsin who grew up in Illinois, Cushing joined a
volunteer artillery regiment early in the Civil War. Later assigned
to a regular Army artillery unit, he survived the bloody Battle
of Shiloh and other engagements as well as a court martial for drunkenly
springing his commander from jail in Washington, DC. In 1868, he
transferred to the Third Cavalry and took station in New Mexico.
Thin and only 5 feet, 7 inches tall, Cushing had penetrating blue-gray
eyes and light-brown hair. He wore a goatee and kept his cap jauntily
cocked on the side of his head.
"His bravery was beyond question, his judgment, as I had good reason
afterwards to learn, was not always to be trusted," fellow officer
John G. Bourke later wrote of Cushing. "He would hazard everything
on the turn of the card."
In the late fall of 1869, Lt. Cushing, in command of 32 men in Co.
F, rode from Fort Stanton, NM in search of Apaches who had stolen
some 300 head of cattle from a ranch only a few miles from the military
garrison. On November 18, Cushing and his men found the Apaches
and the stolen livestock in the northern portion of the Guadalupe
Mountains in what is now known as Last Chance Canyon. Killing
two warriors, the soldiers recovered most of the stolen cattle and
captured the Indians' horses and mules.
A month later, Cushing -- his force augmented by a body of civilian
volunteers -- marched again from Fort Stanton to the Guadalupes.
On the day after Christmas, the soldiers attacked a large Mescalero
village. As the lieutenant later reported, they killed "a good many
Indians" and made "no particular effort to take any prisoners."
Four days later, he led an attack on another village in the Indians'
mountain sanctuary, seizing or destroying the Apaches' food and
Cushing and his troopers had prevailed in the Guadalupe Mountains
campaign, but the bold young officer would not live to old age.
Three years later, by then stationed at Camp Lowell near Tucson
in Arizona Territory, the 32-year-old Cushing once again rode out
in search of hostile Apaches. That happened in the spring of 1871,
when a Chiricahua Apache headman named Cochise left the reservation.
On May 5, about 15 miles northwest of Fort Huachuca near Bear Spring
in the Whetstone Mountains, Cushing's small command found the trail
of one Apache leading an un-mounted pony. The lieutenant dispatched
Sgt. John Mott and two privates to follow the tracks, which Mott
soon realized were way too easy to read. Clearly, the Indians hoped
to led the soldiers into a trap.
About the time Mott realized this and started to pull back, the
Apaches opened fire. Hearing the shots, Cushing and the rest of
his men galloped to the rescue of the sergeant and the other cavalrymen.
At this point, the lieutenant might still have been able to extract
his men from the situation and lived to fight another day. Instead,
with only eight men, he ordered a charge even though outnumbered
15 to 1.
As Cushing and his troopers rushed forward afoot, the Apaches fired
a volley. The lieutenant suddenly grabbed his chest and yelled,
"Sergeant, I am killed!" Soon, a second bullet to his head finished
the job. One private and a civilian who handled the company's pack
mules also died in the ambush. The rest of the company managed to
Initially buried at Camp Lowell near Tucson, Cushing’s remains later
were reinterred in the National Cemetery at San Francisco.
Army record reflects that the lieutenant died "while gallantly leading
his command in an attack against...Indians," Cushing came to be
remembered less flatteringly as “the Custer of Arizona.”
© Mike Cox
- December 16, 2015 Column
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