I grew up on John Wayne westerns. Among my favorites was the 1948 production of Fort Apache starring John Wayne as Captain York and Henry Fonda as Colonel Thursday.
Captain York is the sensible officer who understands the Apaches and is sympathetic to them. Colonel Thursday is arrogant and contemptuous of the Apaches. He clashes repeatedly with York on strategy and tactics.
Eventually, Thursday leads the regiment into an ambush. He details York to guard the supply train. Except for the supply train the regiment is wiped out by the Apaches.
There seems to be a clear parallel to the Custer story and the Little Big Horn. Fonda’s character is arrogant and underestimates the Apache and like Custer seeks glory for the regiment. The problem is that unlike the Little Big Horn the event in the movie when the regiment is wiped out never happened.
The history of Fort Apache shows that an entire regiment of cavalry was never stationed there nor did the soldiers who were stationed there ever fight more than a large skirmish with the Apaches.
Recently, at a rummage sale I found a copy of Frontier Military Posts of Arizona (1960 edition) by Ray Brandes for the sum of $2.00. Ray was a historian and archaeologist that did a lot of work in the field of Arizona’s western history. Frontier Military Posts of Arizona is a fascinating little book that discusses all the army posts in Arizona during the time of the Apache Wars. Fort Apache is the first entry in the volume.
In the Spring of 1870 an army post was established by Major John Green. He called the post Camp Ord after the general responsible for the Arizona Territory. By August of the same year the camp’s name was changed to Camp Mogollon after the nearby mountains. In September it was changed yet again to Camp Thomas after Major General George W. Thomas, a Civil War general known as the “Rock of Chickamauga” for his heroics at that battle.
The name lasted until 1871 when it was changed to Camp Apache. Cochise, the great Apache leader had visited the camp in 1870 and as a token of friendship the camp’s name was changed to honor him. The camp remained Camp Apache until 1879 when it was upgraded to Fort Apache. In 1924 the fort was turned over to the Indian Service for use as a school.
Just because the fort and its garrisons were never involved in anything like the Little Big Born doesn’t mean it didn’t serve an important role. It also doesn’t mean the soldiers garrisoned there didn’t see any action at all.
The fort served as a base of operations when Apaches left the reservation. This included the famous Geronimo, Nachez and others who often left the reservation to raid and terrorize throughout Arizona and northern Mexico.
Frontier Military Posts of Arizona is a survey type of book. Brandes devotes about the 3 pages to the history of Fort Apache. As a result details surrounding the numerous skirmishes with the Apaches are lacking which is to be expected in a survey volume like Frontier Military Posts of Arizona.
Brandes does devote a couple of paragraphs to an incident that occurred on August 30, 1881. By 1881 the army was employing Apache scouts that served as part of the regular army garrisons. The idea was “it takes an Apache to catch an Apache.” In fact, the army had employed Indian auxliaries and allies since colonial times. The army simply took a divide and conquer approach to things and exploited tribal rivalries.
By and large the contingents of Apache scouts were loyal and effective but on occasion things back fired often because the government rarely kept its promises and that combined with the warrior ethos of the Indians could lead to trouble.
Such was the case in 1881 when an Apache holy man by the name of Nocky-del-klin-ne led ghost dances that had the objective of raising dead Apache warriors back to life. The army tried to arrest Nocky-del-klin-ne using their Apache scouts. The scouts revolted and joined forces with malcontents; both becoming hostiles and taking to the hills.
The incident rang a bell having come across it in other books I’ve read about the Apache Wars. The incident may have also been the inspiration for the movie Fort Apache with Wayne and Fonda since it’s the closest thing I can find that even remotely resembles the battle in the movie.
At the time of incident Fort Apache was in the charge of Col. Eugene A, Carr, Sixth Cavalry. Carr did not think Nocky-del-klin-ne was especially dangerous with his ghost dance. The Indian agent at the fort did however and he was chummy with the commanding general in Arizona-Maj. General Orlando Wilcox.
Wilcox appears to have something in common with Colonel Thursday from the movie. For one he didn’t appear to be too adept at understanding Apaches or appreciating the difficulty of governing them. Besides all that he and Carr did not get along. Carr could have been the inspiration for Wayne’s character of Captain York in the movie. So, rather than deferring to Carr’s judgment that caution was in order Wilcox sided with the agent and ordered Carr to arrest the holy man.
Here’s what Robert M. Utley has to say in his excellent book, Frontier Regulars about the engagement at Cibecue.
Carr’s apprehension appeared justified. On August 30 he marched into Nakaidoklini’s [Nocky-del-klin-ne] village on Cibecue creek, about thirty-fie miles northwest of Fort Apache, with two troops of cavalry, eighty-five men, and a detachment of twenty-three White Mountain [Apache] scouts. In a tense confrontation, the mystic submitted and placed in the custody of Sgt. John MacDonald, was warned that if he tried to escape he would be killed. His angry followers, about one hundred strong, dogged Carr’s march down the valley. As the command bivouacked for the night, they suddenly attacked. At the same moment the scouts mutinied. The first volley caught Capt. Edmund C. Hentig in the back and cut down six soldiers. Nakaidoklini tried to crawl to safety, but Sergeant MacDonald, down with a bullet in his leg, and a trumpeter shot and killed him. A hastily formed skirmish line swept the assailants across the creek, and the two sides exchanged fire until nightfall. The encounter had cost Carr Capt. Hentig and four men killed and another four wounded, two mortally. He was surrounded by a growing body of warriors and had lost most of his horses. Under the cover of darkness, therefore, he led his command in a stealthy withdrawal from the battlefield that undoubtedly averted a disaster the morrow.Frontier Regulars by Robert M. Utley, pg. 372
Utley adds this fascinating detail.
Held by only a handful of infantry, Fort Apache lay under the threat of retaliation by outraged Apaches. Several killings in the area warned of an attack on the fort itself-a tactic to which Indians rarely resorted. The arrival of Carr’s battered column on the afternoon of August 31st lessened the danger. Even so, on September 1st warriors opened fire on the fort, wounding an infantry officer and shooting Carr’s horse from beneath him. Assault parties pressed in on two sides and gained some of outlying buildings. They were driven off, however, and the effort to take the fort collapsed…Garbled reports reaching San Carlos told of the massacre of Carr and his entire command at Cibecue. Eastern newspapers spread the word with sensational headlines reminiscent of those that proclaimed the Custer disaster.Frontier Regulars by Robert M. Utley, pg 372-73
It was hardly the the battle in the movie where an entire regiment was wiped out; yet it was drama enough and perhaps the reason Fort Apache was an active post until the 1920’s. Today the remains of Fort Apache is a historic park and tourist attraction run by the White Mountain Apaches.