Horatius

In my youth the beauty of poetry was blunted by the pedants who focused on structure rather than substance, attacking what the ancients honored as divine inspiration like boys dissecting a bird in search of the source of its song. One of the few blessings of the past year has been the leisure to allow me to rediscover the emotional impact of well-crafted verse. Now whenever I think of Nana I can’t but recall Macaulay’s Horatius at the Bridge:

“To every man upon this earth

Death cometh soon or late.

And how can man die better

Than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers

And temples of his Gods.”

RIP Barbara

In sorting through the debris of the past year, I want to belatedly note the passing of Barbara Thomas, a 69-year-old woman swallowed by the Mojave desert in July 2019 while hiking with her husband. Her mortal remains were found last November.

The sheriff’s office released no information on cause of death, but given that she was lying exposed in the desert for more than a year it’s likely that only a bullet wound or the most brutal blunt force trauma could be forensically identified at this point. The desert’s scavengers quickly recycle the dead.

However she passed, it’s worth reiterating for back country adventurers that the Mojave is dangerous country, especially in high summer. Heat exhaustion can cause one to faint or become dizzy, sweat excessively, have cool, pale, clammy skin and muscle cramps. Heat stroke victims do not perspire but experience a throbbing headache with a body temperature above 103 degrees, red hot skin and loss of consciousness. Both heat illnesses can cause nausea or vomiting and rapid pulse.  However, heat exhaustion comes with a weak pulse while heat stroke causes one’s pulse to be strong. Untreated, heat exhaustion is debilitating while heat stroke can lead to death within hours.

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Apologies to Lt. Bascom?

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.

I’m Back

My latest monthly royalty payment from Amazon reminds me I’ve been sadly negligent in updating this website. It’s been a tough year for all of us, and harder for some than others. I’ll try to do better in 2021. My apologies to all my friends.

“The cowards never start…”

What I find most dismaying about the current wave of iconoclastic vandalism is the acquiescence and even support for the mob’s demands from our political leadership. Whether a cynical bid for short-term political advantage or craven cowardice, Dismounting Kit Carson “proactively for safety and as a precautionary measure to keep it from being torn down,”  dishonors all of us as heirs to his legacy far more than it insults the man himself.

Kit Carson never ran from a fight in his life. To traduce his memory by calling him “as bad and as evil as any Confederate general,” is simply malevolent ignorance. Carson  was not just physically courageous, he was honest, straightforward in his opinions and a man who stood by his word. He followed orders even when he disagreed with them because he was bound by his oath to obey.

I take what has become the unpopular position of defending his conduct of the Navajo campaign in 1864, the one incident in his long career his critics seize on to define his life. Carson marched through Canyon de Chelly as Sherman marched through Georgia that same year. Carson probably wouldn’t have approved of Sherman’s tactics, but his boss, General James Carleton, did. Carson could have resigned and left a dirty job to some other man, but he stood to his duty.

And just as Sherman’s Year o’ Jubilo brought a lasting peace to the South, the final defeat of the Navajo ended centuries of endemic border warfare between Navajo, Pueblo and Hispanics. That long cycle of theft and reprisal, murder and revenge, enabled by and supporting a sordid trade in whisky, guns, livestock and captives, was finally broken by Col. Carson and the men of the 1st New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry.

 

Horses, barn, tornado

I’ve been busy on a couple of other issues/projects and stalled out on my history work. Like the guy trying to herd his horses into the barn, I’ve been hoping to just hunker down and let the storm pass over, figuring to pick up the damage later. Unfortunately, this particular twister shows no sign of going away. I feel that if we don’t stand up to it, this ill wind will sweep away our shared past altogether.

 

The fight over Don Juan

I didn’t have Albuquerque on my 2020 bingo card. But when the nationwide mania for iconoclasm metastasized to include other historical figures beyond Confederate generals, it was inevitable that an old battle would be rejoined over New Mexico’s most famous conquistador. Dead for close to four centuries, Don Juan de Oñate remains a polarizing figure, revered as a heroic founding father by a great many of the state’s near-majority Hispanic population and reviled as a cruel oppressor by a smaller but aggressive alliance of Native Americans and White Progressives. There have been recurring attempts to topple him from his pedestal, but all previous clashes ended in no more than harsh words. What’s changed has been the political establishment’s decision to side with the mob rather than the law. Given that abdication, violence was the inevitable result.

Fort Names

The current controversy over the names attached to various military posts (a week ago, how many Americans knew or cared who Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood or Henry Benning were?) got me thinking about the names of various 19th Century forts in the Southwest. Would their patrons pass muster in today’s retrospective reputational revaluation?

Most would seem non-controversial, like Major Benjamin Wingate, mortally wounded at the Battle of Valverde on the Rio Grande in 1862 in New Mexico’s only Civil War campaign. Brigadier General George Bayard (pictured) was another Civil War hero who died of wounds received back east at the Battle of Fredericksburg that same year.

Louis S. Craig (not to be confused with Louis A. Craig, a general in WW2) was a regular Army captain murdered by deserters in California in 1852.

Fort Bowie in Arizona Territory was named not for the hero of the Alamo but for G.W. Bowie, colonel of the 5th California Volunteers, who established the post in 1862 and immodestly named it after himself — a not uncommon practice among officers in the West until after the Civil War.

Henry Selden was a regular officer serving in New Mexico Territory who switched to the volunteers at the onset of the Civil War to become Colonel of the 1st New Mexico Volunteers. Fort Stanton was named not for the noted abolitionist of that same name but for Henry W. Stanton, a Captain of Dragoons killed fighting Mescaleros in New Mexico in 1855.

W. W. Bliss was a West Pointer and a gifted mathematician as well as being fluent in 13 languages and a student of ethnology. He not only served as Gen. Zachary Taylor’s chief of staff in the Mexican War but took the opportunity to woo Old Rough and Ready’s daughter.

 

 

Escape from Alcatraz

Off topic but well worth recalling when the going gets tough: June 11 marks the 58th anniversary of the only successful escape from Alcatraz federal prison. I say “successful” because whatever happened to them, Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers were never returned to federal custody, and as far as I know the feds are still looking for them. Whether the three men survived the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay remains an open question, forever muddied by the FBI’s prevarications in the initial investigation. In the years since, the story, like that of Butch and Sundance, has grown barnacles of speculation, rumor and tantalizing but unverifiable clues. Whatever their ultimate fate, the tale of their escape remains an epic of determination, clever improvisation and desperate courage.

 

 

Bad Day at Battle Ax

To add a further cautionary note to the previous post on desert travel, here’s another piece from Desert USA that demonstrates how quickly a casual day’s expedition into the back country can turn into a life-or-death adventure. The story is more striking because the author, Jim Hatt, was no inexperienced tourist but a seasoned desert rat who had spent years exploring the Superstitions.  In this case, familiarity bred not contempt for the terrain but feckless overconfidence, leading him to make several mistakes that combined with bad luck (not one but two flat tires!) to cost him a rough 24 hours.