‘A good story, well told.’

“I like a good story, well told. That is the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.” – Mark Twain

For me, Lt. George Burnett’s account of the Cuchillo Negro fight is one such tale. It’s the best first person account by a participant on either side of the raid that I’ve found, although I’m pretty sure others exist somewhere. Placida’s corrida is moving and poetic and I believe you hear her authentic voice through the lyrics, but the events retold are filtered through the composer’s dramatic sense and so are less likely to be factually reliable. (Which is why few if any historical movies are true to the known facts.)

Although written 15 years after the event in support of his old first sergeant’s bid for a Medal of Honor, Burnett’s letter is a trained soldier’s straightforward account of what was almost certainly the worst day of his military career (until his horse fell on him 10 years later). He’s careful not to directly indict his commander, but the bare facts are sufficiently damning.

According to Lt. Burnett, Lt. Valois failed to come up in support as previously agreed, was separately engaged by the hostiles and might well have been overwhelmed had not Burnett come to his rescue. As it was Valois was driven from the field. What’s far worse, in his retreat he abandoned three wounded men as well as a number of his horses.

If that was the case it’s hard to understand why Col. Hatch didn’t bring him up on charges. There may have been mitigating circumstances, so I’d like to see Valois’ report before I made up my mind as to either his tactical skill in the field or his personal courage. But if Burnett’s version of the day’s events is at all accurate – and it’s confirmed by the subsequent MoH citations – it’s unlikely the men of the 9th ever trusted Valois again. Abandoning your wounded to the enemy was the one unforgivable sin on either side of the Apache Wars.

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