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  • A Reevaluation of Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson’s Trans-Pecos Campaign against Victorio, July–August 1880
  • Robert N. Watt (bio)

In the summer of 1880, elements of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry regiment and Pueblo Indian scouts commanded by Col. Benjamin H. Grierson confronted Chihenne and Mescalero Apaches led by Bi-Du-Ya, better known as Victorio, in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas.1 Previous scholarship regarding Grierson’s operations can be summarized as follows: having extensively surveyed the Trans Pecos between 1877 and 1879, Grierson was able to outmaneuver Victorio by picketing the known waterholes and passes and fend off Apache probes at Tinaja de las Palmas (July 30) and Rattlesnake Springs (August 6), which prevented the latter’s [End Page 241] attempt to reach the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico, where he would be able to restore his dwindling stock of ammunition. Grierson’s success prevented Victorio from replenishing his munitions, contributing to Victorio’s death at the hands of Chihuahuan state troops at Tres Castillos, Mexico, on October14 or 15, 1880.2

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A Civil War-era depiction of Benjamin Grierson. Civil War Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

[End Page 242]

However, this account misses three significant issues. First, a closer examination of the primary sources reveals that Grierson’s defense was not as secure as he subsequently reported to his superiors. Second, his survey of the area was not as complete as Grierson and later historians have suggested. Finally, both the Indians and the U.S. Army demonstrated far more flexibility and tactical skill than is generally recognized. Victorio attempted to use a decoy strategy, which had previously confounded the Ninth Cavalry in New Mexico between the fall of 1879 and again in the winter of 1880. That this strategy failed was certainly due to the efforts of Grierson and his forces. In fact, the campaign of July and August 1880 can be likened to sparring between equally matched opponents. In Victorio and Grierson we have two very talented military leaders attempting to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses in order to achieve victory. This conflict was the last major campaign against American Indians in the Trans-Pecos region by the U.S. Army and paved the way for railroad construction and settlement in the region.3 After his campaign against Victorio, Grierson in early 1881 commented that “a settled feeling of security” would encourage “a rapid and permanent increase of the population and wealth” in the Trans-Pecos.4 His success ultimately allowed the army to redeploy forces away from the region and by 1885 the Tenth Cavalry was deployed against the Apaches in Arizona.

Victorio led the resistance to the closure of the Chihenne Apache reservation at Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, in May 1877. The closure was part of the Department of the Interior’s attempt to concentrate the Apaches onto one reservation at San Carlos in southeastern Arizona. The move forced rival groups into close quarters, and Victorio’s followers were soon embroiled in a dispute with the San Carlos Apaches that quickly involved deaths on both sides. Additionally, the Chihennes, having arrived later than the San Carlos, were assigned poor lands. These conditions inspired the Chihennes to flee from San Carlos in September 1877. Upon their beakout, Victorio and most of his following reached Fort Wingate and attempted to negotiate a return to Ojo Caliente. After two years of sporadic skirmishing and attempting to negotiate the permanent return of the Ojo Caliente Reservation to the Chihennes, Victorio finally lost faith with U.S. authorities and went to war in August 1879.5 The authorities’ [End Page 243] failure to accommodate Victorio’s desire to return to his reservation can be ascribed to the hostility between the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), part of the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army, part of the Department of War.6

Between September 1879 and May 1880, Victorio defeated and outmaneuvered the U.S. Ninth Cavalry and Mexican troops and crippled their ability to operate in the region. Victorio achieved success principally by killing...


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pp. 241-262
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