The Battle of Big Dry Wash

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

"No. Don't you do it, Lieutenant! Don’t you do it! There's lots of Indians over there and they'll get you, sure."

Young Second Lieutenant Thomas Cruse, lying prone beside the famous scout, paused reloading his Marlin carbine.

"Why, Al," he replied, "you’ve killed every one of them." He had just witnessed scout Al Sieber single-handedly account for no less than a dozen hostile Apache warriors with his 1876 Winchester, chambered for the powerful .45-75 cartridge. He had not seen another for several minutes. He was certain that the entire war party had been wiped out and was eager to get into the hostile's camp.

Without waiting for further admonition from the Sieber, Cruse ordered his ten veteran Sixth Cavalry troopers to charge. Rising from their prone position, they charged at the run, covered by heavy fire from Sieber and the other troopers, and plunged over the Apache's breastwork.

Sieber was right! There were lots of Apaches still in camp and the troopers were suddenly "very busy." One brave leveled his Winchester at Cruse and fired almost point blank. Amazingly, the slug missed him, striking a young Scottish trooper in the arm and knocking him to the ground. Cruse instantly fired his Marlin, downing the brave and dropped beside the wounded trooper.

As his men dealt with the warriors around them, Cruse managed to pull the wounded man to a sheltered spot. He returned to the fray just as the remainder of the Sixth Cavalry troopers joined them, overrunning the camp and wiping out the Apaches to the last man. Sadly, the injured man had been shot through both lungs and died quietly within the hour, the only death suffered by the cavalry in the battle.

This hot little skirmish was part of the mission of the Third and Sixth Cavalry in July, 1882 to capture or kill Na-ti-o-tish, renegade Apache warrior who had taken a number of his followers out of the San Carlos Reservation and had committed a number of severe atrocities along his escape route.

The campaign had begun a few days earlier at Fort Apache with word of the band's escape. Though the hardened Indian fighters of the U. S. Cavalry despised the treatment inflicted on the Apache by Washington bureaucrats and the agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they were bound by orders to follow, apprehend, and punish those who had rebelled from the humiliation and deprivation of the reservation.

Several units of the Third and Sixth Cavalry scoured the countryside between present day Apache Junction and Globe and struck the first sign at the mouth of Tonto Creek on the Salt River, precisely where Roosevelt Dam is today. The trail led north some twenty-five miles before Cruse's troops met up with other units of the Sixth Cavalry and he met Al Sieber.

Shortly scouts returned with news that Na-ti-o-tish and his band had taken refuge atop the rim of Big Dry Wash. The troopers grimly surveyed the scene. Big Dry Wash was a thousand-foot deep canyon with near vertical walls on either side for miles in either direction. The Apaches, on the far rim, were in a perfect position to cover the entire canyon with their rifles. Though seeming out of range, the antagonists attempted to pour heavy fire across the chasm. What the troops did not know was that Na-ti-o-tish was unaware that the cavalry forces had doubled over his estimate and the wily Apache had become overconfident of his ability to easily defeat the hated white men.

Commanding officer Captain Adna Chaffee dispatched troops on foot to right and left of the trail to find a path down the canyon wall, across East Clear Creek, and up the far side in an attempt to flank the Apache camp – which they did undetected because Na-ti-o-tish had neglected to post sentries. Cruse and Sieber accompanied the men to the right. At the bottom, the men were fascinated by an unusual sight; looking up, they could see stars at mid-day between the canyon rims. But they had little time to appreciate the sight; they had business to do and proceeded on to climb the difficult ascent on the far wall.

The troops from the left side had also reached the opposite rim and were engaged in a heated battle with a group of Apache warriors bent on crossing the canyon themselves to flank the cavalry. The party hastily rejoined the main camp and the Apaches were soon caught in a trap between the two army units. This was a rare event, forcing the Apaches to stand and fight instead of vanishing into the countryside like so many ghosts.

Cruse's troops managed to eliminate the Apache horse guards and get between the horse herd and the main camp. Firing between the two adversaries continued hot and heavy for a couple of hours, the Apaches being forced back to the canyon rim. Cruse notes seeing one brave was hit by gunfire at the canyon rim and seemed to fall for several minutes down the vertical wall.

It was here that Cruse led his ill-advised charge into the Apache camp, for which he was to later receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, though he omitted that fact in his memoirs, "Apache Days and After." Three other men were awarded the medal for their actions in the battle that day, an extremely high number for the number of combatants. They were Lt. George Morgan, Lt. Frank West, and Sgt. Charles Taylor. Their number testifies to the intensity of the Battle of Big Dry Wash.

Removing the dead and wounded troopers, of which there were many, meant waiting for daylight the next morning — without medical care — and carefully moving the wounded men down the canyon, across and up the far wall to rejoin the main unit. Though the cost was high, the troopers did not know until later how thoroughly they had destroyed Na-ti-o-tish's band. Of the seventy-odd warriors joining him, fewer than fifteen survived to be returned to the reservation.

As significant and violent as the Battle of Big Dry Wash was, it was but one of many in the bitter conflict between the wild and fierce Apache and the white settlers who were determined to have the land the Apache had called home for countless generations. It was the last major conflict between the Army and the Apache, though the story of Geronimo had yet to be written and the conflict would continue another four years before coming to an end.

Cruse, Thomas; Apache Days and After; University of Nebraska Press; Lincoln, 1941

Davis, Britton; The Truth about Geronimo; University of Nebraska Press; Lincoln, 1976

Haley, James L.; Apaches: A History and Culture Portrait; University of Oklahoma Press; 1981