The clash between the Apache tribes of the US south-west and the forces of the US Army lasted for forty years, starting after the United States gained the area from Mexico in 1848 and ending with Geronimo’s final surrender in 1886. Although this would appear to have been a one-sided clash, at first the Apaches actually held many advantages, mainly their ability to operate in the harsh environment of the area.
This entry in the Combat series benefits from focusing on the two main combatants in the long series of clashes between the Apache and the invading Americans. On the Apache side it covers the entire fighting force of the various tribes, while on the US side the cavalry was by far the most important branch in the conflict, so focusing on them doesn’t distort the picture too much (it helps that the Apache scouts who served on the American side are also covered, otherwise they would leave quite a gap in the story.
I rather liked the author’s decision not to focus on Geronimo or his battles. He does of course get mentioned, especially towards the end of the book, but he wasn’t involved in any of the three battles covered in detail here. Instead we look at three battles spread over almost thirty years, giving us an idea of how both side’s tactics evolved during the war. Most of these changes came on the American side. At the start of the period the US Army sent standard Dragoons to the west, often led by officers fresh from West Point, trained for a totally different type of war. By the end of the war both officers and men were better prepared and equipped for the conflict, and perhaps most significantly the US Army had begun to use Apache scouts, allowing them to follow Apache raiding parties into area that had previously been beyond their capabilities.
This was a clash of two very different cultures. On the Apache side it was fought by small raiding parties, with no clear leaders, something that the Americans took a long time to understand. As a result the Americans were often disappointed by the result of agreements made with a particular chief, failing to realise that the chiefs weren’t absolute rulers, and could only try to persuade their followers. On the US side the war was largely fought by a regular army (although the US side was no better at sticking to its agreements).
One of the most interesting features of his book is that the author has access to plenty of accounts from the Apache side, providing an invaluable balance to the American accounts. This allows him to produce much more accurate casualties figures, dismissing the highly exaggerated claims on the US side (in their defence it must have been very hard to distinguish between some who had been hit and someone who was taking cover after being fired at, especially in the heat of battle). The battle narratives are commendably neutral in tone – neither side is painted as the ‘bad guy’ here, allowing for a balanced narrative. In some cases the two side’s accounts are mutually exclusive, and both are given.
The Opposing Sides
Cienguilla, March 30, 1854
First Adobe walls, November 25, 1864
Cibecue Creek, August 30, 1881
Author: Sean McLachlan