Sorting through old notes, I find this link for a book recommended by a source I can’t recall. I haven’t read the book, but according to the review it offers a compelling case for exonerating Lt. George Bascom of long-standing charges of brash arrogance, youthful stupidity and conduct unbecoming an officer of the United States Army.
Bascom’s violent collision with Cochise and his Chiricahua followers at Apache Pass in February 1861 is frequently cited as the proximate cause of the Apache Wars. Dozens of chroniclers have described those dramatic events with differing details, but all agree that Bascom first invited Cochise into his tent and then attempted to seize the chief and a half dozen of his followers with the intention of exchanging them for a young boy taken by Apache raiders a short time before. Although the soldiers succeeded in corralling three warriors and the chief’s own wife and young son, Cochise himself escaped the trap.
Matching treachery with treachery, Cochise then attempted to snare Bascom himself under the ruse of a second parley. The Apaches failed to net the young lieutenant but did succeed in capturing several other white men, who they offered to trade for their own people. Bascom stubbornly refused to negotiate for anything but the young boy he had been sent to recover. Unfortunately, that boy was a captive not of the Chiricahua but of the Coyoteros and was not even on the scene.
The stalemate ended when more soldiers arrived to relieve Bascom’s besieged detachment and the Apaches withdrew after murdering their own captives. In the final act of the tragedy the soldiers hanged six of the Apaches they held as they marched back to Fort Buchanan, carrying with them Cochise’s wife and son. Those soon escaped or were released, but the damage was done. As the Mexicans had learned long before, the Apache were not a forgiving people and would extract payment with interest for any insult or wrong inflicted on them.
Hutton, who structured his 400+ page Apache Wars around the life and times of the kidnapped boy who was the central figure in the Apache Pass drama, places the primary blame for the tragedy on Lt. Isaiah Moore, who outranked Bascom after he arrived at the besieged stage station with his Dragoons, and on Asst. Surgeon Bernard Irwin, who commanded the rescue force sent from Fort Buchanan and who had captured three of the hostages facing the rope.
Hutton credits Bascom with protesting their determination to summarily execute the hostages and sketches a macabre scene in which the officers played a game of cards to settle the issue while the doomed men watched. Moore won the hand and the six died where Cochise and his men had earlier murdered their own captives.
Rather than being censured for this sordid episode, Bascom was universally praised at the time and shortly won promotion to captain. A year later he died fighting Confederate invaders in New Mexico and was memorialized in the naming of a temporary fort erected in the northeastern part of the territory.
Unless the new book presents previously unreported evidence, I don’t see how it could clear the young lieutenant’s name for today’s readers. Although the fact that Moore was senior officer on the scene might somewhat mitigate Bascom’s responsibility for the hangings, Bascom was certainly solely responsible for the first act of treachery that initiated the whole cycle of violence.
An 1858 graduate of West Point, Bascom was probably a Plebe when R.E.Lee was still superintendent of the school. It’s too bad the young man didn’t absorb Lee’s own principles and standards of conduct for an officer and gentleman even when facing a savage foe.