Battle of Cibecue Creek
Near this location the Battle of Cibecue Creek was fought in August 30, 1881 between the United States and White Mountain Apaches in Arizona, at Cibecue Creek on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. After an army expedition of scouts and soldiers arrested a prominent medicine man, they were taking the prisoner back to the fort when ambushed by hostile Apaches. During the conflict, soldiers killed the wounded medicine man, and most of the twenty-three Apache scouts mutinied, in the largest such action in United States history. The soldiers retreated to Fort Apache and on the following day, the Apache mounted a counterattack. The events sparked general unrest and led Apache warriors to leave the reservation and join Geronimo.
Backstory and Context
PRELUDE TO BATTLE:
Nock-ay-det-klinne was a respected Apache medicine man among his people and chief of the Cañon Creek band of the Cibecue Apaches, a group of the Western Apache. He often counseled leading warriors such as Cochise and Geronimo. Due to corruption and unhealthy conditions at the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona, Nock-ay-det-klinne began holding ceremonies known as ghost dances at the village of Cibecue. It was part of a late nineteenth-century spiritual revival among native Americans struggling to deal with the disruption of their societies as they were pushed onto reservations. The ceremonies often included heavy drinking and the use of hallucinogenic plants, such as peyote. Through them the Apache expressed and united under their discontent with conditions of reservation life. The American settlers of the region grew alarmed about the dances, which they thought were related to preparations for war. The United States Army came to investigate the situation and remove the medicine man from his followers.
The soldiers stationed at Fort Apache included Troops D and E, 6th Cavalry; Company D, 12th Infantry; and Company A, Indian scouts. Captain Edmund Clarence Hentig was transferred to Fort Apache in 1876. He was the Captain and commanded company D. Second Lieutenant Thomas Cruse commanded Company A. Of his twenty-five scouts, twelve were from Chief Pedro's band and thirteen were Cibecue Apache; Nock-ay-det-klinne was one of their own chiefs and medicine men. With the permission of the military, the scouts serving with the troops often attended Nock-ay-det-klinne’s dances near Fort Apache.
On about August 10, Colonel Eugene Asa Carr asked Cruse for his opinion of the loyalty of the scouts. Cruse had noticed their changes in attitude and conduct. He also told Carr that the main participants in any local uprising would be friends and relatives of the scouts and, even if the scouts did not turn against the military, they would be of no use in conflict. Most officers at the post and Sam Bowman had the same opinion.
Permission was granted for the discharge, but the telegraph line went down before Carr received it. He did not hear from the department for two and a half weeks, after he and his troops had returned from being ambushed at the Cibecue.
Routinely, every Sunday morning the officers inspected the scout company. Carr directed Cruse to take the scouts’ guns after the August 14 inspection. Cruse was to tell the scouts that he would keep their arms in his office to protect them from the rain. The guns were regularly kept in the orderly room; the officers issued them only to men on herd duty, soldiers and scouts sent out on detached service, and to all men on Saturday evenings for Sunday morning inspections. The scouts took the removal of the guns as a sign of distrust, but Cruse tried to have the interpreter smooth the matter over, and thought they were satisfied.
Carr decided to take his cavalry and Cruse’s scouts to the Cibecue and leave the infantry at Fort Apache. He did not feel comfortable bringing the scouts but had little choice.
On Sunday morning, August 28, shortly after the scout Chapeau returned to Fort Apache without Nock-ay-det-klinne, Carr told Cruse to let the scouts keep their guns after their inspection and to prepare to leave the next morning to arrest the medicine man. John Byrnes, a Dublin-born Irishman assigned to Company A, knew of the respect which the Apache scouts had for Nock-ay-det-klinne and was alarmed. Byrnes warned Cruse that the scouts should not be armed, as they could not be trusted. Byrnes had earlier counseled Carr against permitting the scouts to keep their guns. Cruse told Byrnes he was acting under Carr's orders.
About 10:00 am the next day, Carr left Fort Apache with five officers, seventy-nine enlisted soldiers from Troops D and E, 6th Cavalry, and twenty-three scouts from Company A, to make the arrest. Cruse took Byrnes as his guide. Carr also took Charles Hurrle, interpreter; Charles "Nat" Nobles, chief packer; one cargador, the principal assistant to the chief packer,; four packers; and Clark Carr. Sixty soldiers, mostly of Company D, 12th Infantry, and several civilians remained at Fort Apache, with Major Cochran in command of the post. Just before they left. Carr scribbled a message for General Willcox: "I sent word to Nock-ay-det-klinne that l wanted to see him. He does not seem likely to come and I am searching for his place on Cibicu to try to catch him." Because the telegraph line was down, Willcox did not receive the message until three days later. It was not generally known that an expedition to Nock-ay-det-klinne's camp was planned. Carr had been secretive about the purpose and destination of the march. The scouts were not told which way to go until the force was moving out. After they were notified they were going out on a march, the scouts suspected the destination was the Cibecue.
After the columnn crossed the White River, just outside Fort Apache, and reached the mesa on the other side, some Apaches living along the river rode up and spoke to the scouts. Carr called these natives and the scouts together and told them where the command was going and what he was going to do. He said he was not going to hurt Nock-ay-det-klinne, but wanted him to come in with him. He told the curious natives to go and tell their friends not to be alarmed as he was not going to bother them and there would be no trouble. Stanton were ordered out on a scout under Colonel Eugene A. Carr, directed to go to Cibecue Creek and arrest the medicine man. The command arrested the Indian then camped for the night on Cibecue Creek, despite the general excitement the operation had aroused among Apache followers of the medicine man.
Carr took the Verde Trail to the Cibecue. Although this was the shortest route, the trail was rough, passing through mountainous country covered mostly with timber. The trail may have been boggy at places, but the region was then in the third day of a nine-day period without rain. On the first day, Carr and his battalion traveled about twenty-nine miles. They were winding through deep canyons with rocky sides. They camped for the night in a canyon where the trail crossed Carrizo Creek. That evening, after supper, Carr issued each scout twenty rounds of ammunition.
About one and a half miles from the Cibecue and three miles from Nock-ay-det-klinne‘s village, a trail branched from the Verde Trail. This secondary trail ran diagonally up the valley, across high, open ground, through a grassy slope that stretched from the hills to the timber along the Cibecue. It was the shorter route to Nock-ay-det-klinne's village. From this fork, the Verde Trail crossed rocky and rolling country directly to Cibecue Creek. The place where it crossed the creek was known as the Verde Crossing.
On the other side of the creek another secondary trail ran up the creek, just outside the bushes and undergrowth of the creek bottom, to Nock-ay-det-klinne's lodge. In this area, cornfields were scattered about in the creek bottom. Where the Indians had not cleared the bottom for cultivation, there was brush. In many places it was thick. The banks of the creek, which were sometimes steep, extended ten to twelve feet above the creek bottom, on top of which was an open plain with a scattering of junipers but no heavy timber or thick bushes.
About one or two o'clock in the afternoon, Cruse, Byrnes, and the scouts reached the fork. The Apache scouts urged Cruse to take the Verde Trail. John Byrnes, the troop's guide who was suspicious of the scouts, cautioned Cruse to be wary. Cruse decided to wait until Carr's approach, but before Carr arrived, Cruse changed his mind and started his command along the Verde Trail. When Carr reached the fork, he realized Cruse had taken the longer route, having learned the previous night from Mose that Nock-ay-det-klinne lived two or three miles above the Verde Crossing. Carr had thought the Indian scouts just wanted to stay on the Verde Trail to get to water more quickly. He did not know they had stopped to drink when they passed water about two miles back.
Rather than take the longer route, Carr sent Hurrle to tell Cruse and his men to take the trail to the right. Cruse’s troop had gone about a third of a mile past the fork when Hurrle reached them and gave Cruse the message. The group switched to the other trail. The scouts seemed dismayed, leading Byrnes to speculate to Cruse that the scouts had been leading the troop into an ambush. Cruse did not report their dissatisfaction to Carr. Several officers who studied the situation later agreed with Byrnes that the scouts had been trying to lead the force into an ambush which the White Mountain Apaches had set up along the creek bottom.
Carr had been more concerned with looking for a place to make camp later in the afternoon after he made his arrest. He thought the open area just ahead, next to the creek and just north of the Verde Crossing, would make a good campsite. Before the command changed its direction, there were no Apaches, other than the scouts, in sight. Once it did, natives started to come out of the creek bottom in groups of two and three. Most headed toward Nock-ay-det-klinne's village.
When the command was about two miles from the village, the leader of the Carrizo Creek band of the Cibecue Apaches, Sanchez, whose band of about 250 people lived on Carrizo Creek, twelve miles north of Carrizo Crossing, came up from the creek bottom. He was unarmed and riding a white pony. His face was painted red, but that was an ordinary occurrence. Indians frequently came into Fort Apache with painted faces. Sanchez shook hands with Carr and told Hurrle that he was going home. He rode to the rear of the columnn and then back to the creek bottom. Later, when Carr‘s officers and key civilians thought back on the events, they believed Sanchez was counting the soldiers when he rode down their columnn. As Sanchez rode back to the creek bottom, Hurrle told Carr that he was not heading in the right direction to go to his home. Carr then looked back and saw him riding toward the bottom. Carr thought he might be returning to the creek bottom to get some of his family or friends. In any event, Carr did not want to show the natives any signs of distrust.
Before the command reached the Cibecue, they stopped on a little knoll to rest. They were about a mile from Nock-ay-det-klinne's camp. As the command approached the point where the trail crossed the Cibecue, the scouts asked Carr to stop and camp before crossing the creek. They said the grass was better on this side and there were cornfields across the creek; the scouts did not want the command's horses and mules to eat the Apaches' corn. Carr responded that he had come a long distance to get Nock-ay-det-klinne before setting up camp. The command continued onward, directed by Chapeau.
After crossing the stream, which was not quite belly deep, the force moved the short distance to Nock-ay-det-klinne‘s village. From their approach, the village sat on a low mesa, about twenty feet above the creek bottom and eight to ten feet higher than the plain on that side of the creek. This mesa extended up the creek as far as the men could see. The trail to Nock-ay-det-klinne's lodge ran between the bluff on which the village was situated and the bushes of the creek bottom. Here the path was narrow because the bushes came up against the foot of the bluff. Cruse, Byrnes and the scouts reached Nock-ay-det-klinne’s wickiup ﬁrst. When they arrived, Mose came out with Nock-ay-det-klinne and introduced them. After they shook hands, Cruse told Nock-ay-det-klinne that Carr wanted to see him. The medicine man then asked where Carr was. Cruse said he was on his way. Carr soon arrived with his troops.
As Carr prepared to leave Nock-ay-det-klinne‘s camp, he told his officers the command was going to proceed down the creek to find a camping place. He knew "almost exactly" where they were going to camp since he had noted the ground at the Verde Crossing earlier that day. He directed Troop D to follow behind him, then the pack train, followed by Nock-ay-det-klinne and his guard, then Troop E. Carr ordered Cruse, with his Apache scouts, to travel beside Nock-ay-det-klinne.
Byrnes and the officers’ suspicions of the scouts had diminished somewhat because they appeared altogether indifferent about the taking of the medicine man. Carr turned his command around, by file, to leave the area. Only one native showed some signs of hostility. He was about one hundred yards from Nock-ay-det-klinne’s lodge. He was totally naked, obviously drunk on tizwin.
As Carr left, he had the bugler sound the call to forward. His headquarters staff, Troop D, and the pack train followed directly behind him. At that point, a break in his columnn occurred. Nock-ay-det-klinne delayed the rest of the columnn while he got his personal belongings and a horse, and then entered his lodge and began to eat. When First Lieutenant William Stanton realized what was happening, he urged Sergeant McDonald to move out with his prisoner at once.
McDonald got Nock-ay-det-klinne to mount his horse and move forward. During this delay of about ten minutes, Carr and the front half of his command followed the trail through its narrow part, then disappeared around a sharp turn and entered the heavy growth of cottonwood trees, high willows, and underbrush in the Creek bottom. The sharp turn, which was on the trail they had come in on, was about a quarter of a mile from Nock-ay-det-klinne's camp.
About when Carr turned toward the creek, a scout named Sergeant Dead Shot came up to him and complained that the guard would not let Nock-ay-det-klinne's friends travel with him. Carr said that some of his friends could come in and see him after camp was made. Dead Shot returned to his company.
Carr and the group traveling with him followed the trail through the creek bottom, winding in and out of the trees. It was about two hundred yards from the sharp turn to the point where the trail crossed the creek. At the creek, Carr had the bugler sound the water call. The trail was rather steep, and the soldiers had to crowd into the river to water their stock and go up the bank single file. After passing through the creek bottom, Carr left the trail he had been following. He turned south on an old trail that went around the growth, past an old ranch, and down the east side of the creek to the campsite he observed earlier. The campground was about two miles south of Nock-ay-det-klinne's lodge. Aside from the Indian scout that he took with them, Carr was also joined by famed scouts Al Sieber and Tom Horn.
As the latter half of Carr's command waited for Nock-ay-det-klinne to get ready, about fifteen armed Apaches approached. As the columnn departed, Cruse and Byrnes were in front, followed by the guard and Nock-ay-det-klinne, with the scouts in front and behind them, then Troop E. Before this group reached the narrow portion of the trail, more Apaches came up from down the creek and also moved along with them. All the natives were armed; most were mounted. As a precaution, while Cruse, the scouts, and Nock-ay-det-klinne and his guard stayed on the trail, which was on the flat below the mesa, Stanton and his men turned to the right and went up on the mesa and passed through the village. There Stanton saw many women and children but few men. He traveled about 300 yards on the plateau of the mesa before descending back to the flat.
At the start of the sharp turn in the trail, an old trail departed from it and ran down the west side of the creek. While Stanton was on top of the mesa, Cruse inadvertently missed the turn and took the old trail. Shortly thereafter, Stanton and his troop came down to the flat and united with Cruse’s party. Stanton and Cruse discussed missing the turn. When they talked about it with the scouts, they said there was a better crossing a short distance downstream. The two men decided to continue to the better crossing. After the two officers conversed, Stanton and his troop marched on Cruse’s flank. As they moved down the creek, several more parties of armed natives from downstream came up and traveled with their columnn. Others came out from the adjacent bluffs and ravines. They crowded around Nock-ay-det-klinne and his guard and Troop E. As each new party arrived, there was hurried conversation and excited talking. Generally, when the Apache fought, they stripped off all their clothes except their breechclouts. Most of the followers who arrived were wearing only a breechclout and a belt of cartridges.
As the skirmish erupted and as suspected, the scouts mutinied. The attacking Apaches mostly kept their distance so the battle was fought mainly at rifle range. However, when the scouts turned against the soldiers, a brief close range engagement occurred. Hentig was shot in the back and the bullet passed through to his heart killing him instantly. He was the first killed. Pvt. John Sullivan was still mounted on his horse and was shot through the head, killing him instantly. He was the 6th man killed. Scouts under Sieber and Horn however, have managed to get on top of a small hill. The scouts then repulsed the Apaches with their rifles, rescuing the cavalry, before giving them support as they finally launch a counter-attack that killed many of the Indians.
As night fell, Carr queried his officers, Byrnes, the chief packer, and others for their opinion about what to do next. Carr also saw no object in remaining. He decided it was best to get back to Fort Apache as soon as practicable. From the dispatch he had received from Cochran that morning, he knew there was "great alarm" at the fort. He also knew that a few hostiles could set up an effective ambush along the trail back to the post, and any wait would give them more time to do so.
After dark, the soldiers gathered the bodies of the dead. Hampered by the darkness and the high brush, they could not find Private Miller, who had been killed in the creek bottom. Carr directed that a broad grave be dug under his tent to bury the corpses.
The grave was widened twice, for Privates Sonderegger and Bird, who died while it was being dug.
After burying their comrades, the soldiers needed time to get supper, arrange the packs, and pack the mules. Since there were not enough mules remaining to carry all their supplies and march rapidly, some items had to be left behind. They left flour, bacon, canned goods, saddles, aparejos, and other equipment of the pack train. Preference was given to leaving the goods belonging to Cruse’s scout company. Before leaving, they cut the flour bags and spread the flour on the ground. They destroyed all other goods and equipment that were to remain. All serviceable arms and ammunition that could be found were taken.
The force left the battle site about 11:00 pm. Since the Apaches had stolen about half their horses, most of the men of Troop D had to walk.
Carr placed Cruse in charge of the advance guard, which consisted of Mose, as guide, and some dismounted men of Troop D. Carr, Carter, and the headquarters staff, along with the remainder of Troop D, came next. Then came the pack train with the ammunition and other supplies and Troop E with the three wounded men under McCreery's care. Stanton was with the rear guard, which was composed of six or eight men. The wounded men were Private Baege, shot in the shoulder; Private Thomas J. F. Foran, shot through the intestines and bowels; and Sergeant John McDonald, shot in the leg. They rode on horses with men behind them to hold and steady them in their saddles. These attendants were relieved every few minutes.
Before the command reached Fort Apache, probably when it was near Cedar Creek, it met two prospectors on the trail. They told Carr that only one native named Severiano had preceded them toward the fort.
The columnn arrived back at Fort Apache at about 3:00 pm. On the military side, seven soldiers were killed and two wounded, and forty-two horses and seven pack mules were killed, wounded, or missing. All the men who had been struck belonged to Troop D, except McDonald, who was detailed from Troop E. Byrnes killed the wounded Nock-ay-det-klinne under Carr’s orders, he was one of eighteen Apaches killed in the engagement.
Carr estimated that fewer than sixty natives, including the scouts, attacked his command at the onset of the battle and fewer than 200 fought his force at any time during the fight. Almost all damage done to his command occurred in the first volleys, while the Apaches were close to their camp. The bullets passed through the bodies of all the killed and wounded. Until the moment before the attack, all the officers with the command thought the Apaches' conduct was docile.
The battle ended with a strategic Apache victory, despite their inability to rescue their leader, due to the soldiers retreat. After the battle, the American army buried six soldiers, Nochaydelklinne, his wife, and young son, who was killed while riding into battle on his father's pony. One dead soldier was never found in the dark, and another died of his wounds the following day. Two United States Army troops were reported to have been wounded. Colonel Carr made it back to Fort Apache with most of his remaining force intact; two days later the Apaches attacked the fort in retaliation for the death of the medicine man. Four United States soldiers were decorated with the Medal of Honor for their actions during the hostilities.
The Cibecue affair touched off a regional Apache uprising, in which the leading warriors of the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache, such as Naiche, Juh, and Geronimo, left the reservation. They went to war, trying to drive out the European Americans in Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. The warfare lasted about two years, ultimately ending in the US defeat of the Apache.