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Lieutenant Faison’s Account of the Geronimo Campaign

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 54, Number 3, Autumn 2012
pp. 521-544 | 10.1353/jsw.2012.0024

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The Sky Islands region of southeastern Arizona and northeastern Sonora consists of forty wooded mountain ranges scattered in a sea of desert scrub and arid grassland. To the west is the Sonoran Desert. To the east is the Chihuahuan Desert. To the north are the Arizona–New Mexico Mountains, and to the south is the Sierra Madre Occidental Range where elevations rise almost 10,000 feet from canyon floor to forested ridge. This “roughest portion of the continent,” in the words of General George Crook, was the setting of the Apache Wars—an American Indian–US Army conflict (1861–1886) unparalleled in its ferocity, physical demands, and unorthodox tactics (Map). For a young lieutenant raised on North Carolina’s coastal plain and schooled in traditional warfare, Arizona in the 1880s was no ordinary place to embark on a military career.1

From this formative experience came this memoir by Lieutenant Samson L. Faison, which chronicles his eleven months of service in the Southwest during the Geronimo Campaign of 1885–1886. He wrote it in 1898 while serving at West Point as senior instructor of infantry tactics. It was never published.2

Faison’s account begins two days after the May 17, 1885, breakout of Geronimo, Natchez, Nana, and 140 Chiricahua Apache followers from the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona. Along the way, we revisit important milestones such as the death of Captain Emmet Crawford at the hands of Mexican militia, the surrender conference between Geronimo and General Crook at Cañon de los Embudos, and Geronimo’s subsequent flight back to Mexico followed by Crook’s resignation. But the most interesting parts of the narrative are the personal anecdotes: Faison’s thoughts on being left to guard a field camp while the cavalry pursued the Apaches, a spirited discussion with Crook on his Indian policy, and traversing a dark canyon unescorted by troops.

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Map of Southeastern Arizona and Northern Sonora

Like most army officers’ accounts from the Southwest during the 1870s and 1880s, the grueling physicality of the campaign serves as an inescapable backdrop to the memoir. We follow Faison deep into the Sierra Madre during winter, endure two-day fasts and one-day rides of 75 miles, and witness the remains of an army camp wiped out by Apaches. Faison and seven other officers were later recognized by Crook (1887) “for bearing uncomplainingly the almost incredible fatigues and privations as well as the dangers incident to their operations.”3

That Faison endured the Southwest at all is testament to the difficulties of the Apache Wars. Born November 29, 1860, Faison was just two months old at the time of the Bascom Affair, the incendiary meeting in February 1861 between Lieutenant George Bascom and then-Chiricahua Apache chief Cochise that ignited the Apache Conflict. Remarkably, twenty-two years later, Faison’s first posting upon graduating from West Point in 1883 was Arizona to assist with the ongoing conflict. Faison later became a brigadier general in World War I and a recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal.

In stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers amassed upon the plains of northern France in 1918, the fighting US Army in the deserts and mountains of the Southwest in 1885–1886 was largely a handful of American officers and, ironically, a few hundred Apaches. General Crook believed that US troops lacked not only the tracking skills to find the Apaches but also the toughness to withstand long expeditions into the Sierra Madre. The general believed only Apaches could solve the “Apache problem.”5

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Faison’s 1883 West Point graduation photograph

This unorthodox approach was controversial in the ranks of the army, which was deeply divided about the trustworthiness of the scouts, a division most prominently displayed between Crook—who trusted the scouts unequivocally—and his superior, General Sheridan, who did not. As one of the officers selected by Crook to lead Apache scout companies, Faison’s interactions with and views of the scouts are revealing when juxtaposed with his commanding officer’s. Faison was not a man given to nuance when he judged matters of right and wrong, and his views...

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