Fort Bowie, Arizona

Written By: LTC Clayton R. Newell, USA-Ret.,

Between the Mexican War in 1846 and the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States Army established camps and forts throughout the American West. A great number simply disappeared over time, but some, like Fort Bowie in southeastern Arizona, have not been forgotten. For some thirty years the old post served as the primary base of operations against the Apaches led by Cochise and Geronimo, but it owed its existence to the need for water in the arid American Southwest.

In 1858, the Butterfield Overland Stage Line built a relay station at Apache Pass, near a spring used by the Chiricahua Apaches. Cochise, chief of the Chiricahuas, allowed access to the water until early 1861 when 2LT George Bascom led fifty-four infantrymen riding mules into the pass to arrest the Apache leader for stealing cattle and kidnapping a young boy. After several encounters with the Apaches in which both sides took hostages, Bascom hanged several of Cochise’s relatives, including his brother, and left the bodies hanging near the pass. The infamous Bascom Affair incident enraged Cochise, who had not been guilty of the charges, and a few months later, when the Army withdrew from Arizona at the beginning of the Civil War, the Apaches began to wreak havoc among the settlers.

In 1862, a column of California Volunteers, led by BG James H. Carleton, moved into Arizona to prevent a Confederate occupation of New Mexico Territory. When two companies of the 5th California Infantry arrived at Apache Pass in July, they were ambushed by a large war party led by Cochise and Mangus Coloradus, chief of the Mimbreno Apaches. The day-long battle finally ended when fire from two Army howitzers forced the Apaches out of the pass. An Apache participant in the battle reportedly later told an Army officer that “We would have done well enough if you had not thrown your wagons at us.” To ensure continued access to the spring, Carleton left one hundred men from the 5th California Infantry in the pass.

In less than three weeks, the soldiers constructed a rudimentary fort named for COL George Washington Bowie, the regimental commander. The post received few improvements over the next few years. When Inspector General Charles A. Whittier visited the fort in 1866, he reported that “The men live in excavations made in the hillside, which are dark, confining and at some seasons very damp.” In spite of having no amenities, the isolated post accomplished its mission—protecting Apache Pass and the nearby spring.

When the Civil War ended, the Regular Army returned to the western frontier, In May 1866, Company E, 14th Infantry, arrived at Apache Pass and occupied Fort Bowie. At about the same time, the Army decided that many of the posts established by volunteers were temporary installations and designated them camps rather than forts. As a result, Fort Bowie became Camp Bowie until 5 April 1879, when it once again was designated a fort. In the interim, continued reports on the dismal living conditions at Camp Bowie prompted the Army to move the post some 500 yards to the east. Construction began at the new site in 1868 and included several barracks, officers quarters, storerooms, corrals, a hospital, and a store for the post trader.

Cochise, however, continued to be a problem, so in 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant directed BG Oliver O. Howard to meet with the Apaches and work out a peace settlement. After a series of conferences facilitated by Tom Jeffords, a trusted friend of Cochise, Howard negotiated an agreement, and the Apache chief led his followers to a reservation in the Chiricahua homeland with Jeffords as the agent. But the peace was short-lived. When Cochise died in 1874, younger, more aggressive Chiricahua chieftains led intermittent raids into Mexico. Army authorities wanted Jeffords to maintain stricter controls on the Apaches to end the forays, a move the agent resisted. But in May 1876, Secretary of the Interior Zachariah Chandler directed John Clum, a young Indian agent, to assemble the Apaches and move them all to the San Carlos reservation, a hot, arid place in the Gila River Valley, about 100 miles north of the Chiricahua’s traditional homeland.

Concentrating the Apaches at San Carlos exacerbated traditional animosities among different bands. Almost immediately there was trouble when Geronimo, a rising Apache leader, led a small band off the reservation. For the next ten years some 5,000 soldiers and 250 Apache scouts pursued Geronimo and his followers. MG George Crook, a former commander of the Department of Arizona, returned in 1882 and immediately planned a campaign to end the hostilities. Fort Bowie was the base of operations for Crook’s campaign against Geronimo. Supported by pack mules, the Army maintained constant pressure on the elusive and wily Apache chief.

Eventually Geronimo agreed to meet with Crook in March 1886. The two men negotiated a surrender agreement that would allow the Apaches to return to Arizona after spending two years in the eastern part of the United States. But Crook’s agreement fell on deaf ears in Washington, where the Grover Cleveland administration insisted on the unconditional surrender of the Apaches. Crook, asking to be relieved, was quickly replaced by BG Nelson A. Miles, another experienced Indian fighter. Using overwhelming force and stationing infantry to guard water holes and passes, Miles forced Geronimo to surrender at Skeleton Canyon on 4 September 1886. The next day, Miles and Geronimo rode to Fort Bowie, where the Apaches boarded a special train at Bowie Station, just down the hill from the post, to begin the long ride to exile in Florida.

With the Apaches no longer a threat, the Army was ready to close the post, but local civilians wanted to keep it open for economic reasons. By then the post boasted a host of amenities, including frame buildings that housed a school, an enlarged hospital, a tailor shop, water and sewer systems, and an ice machine—sure signs that it was no longer a primitive outpost. The commanding officer’s house, a garish, two story structure with thirteen rooms that was completed in 1884, prompted its first occupant, MAJ Eugene Beaumont, to comment that it represented “a great expense and waste of time.” The debate between Arizona politicians anxious to keep the post open because of its value to the local economy and the War Department, which viewed Fort Bowie as an unnecessary expense, went on until the Army finally prevailed in 1894. On 17 October, two troops of the 2d Cavalry lowered the post flag for the last time, abandoned the fort, and marched out to board a train for Fort Logan, Colorado.

Now a national historic site, weatherworn walls mark the remains of the fort that played a central role in the Army’s campaigns against the Apache Indians. Fort Bowie’s abandoned adobe buildings—troop quarters, officers houses, storehouses, stables—had been sheathed in wood to protect the walls from the environment. With the Army’s departure, local residents gradually removed the protective lumber from the buildings, leaving the adobe walls to erode into shapeless mounds. Today, the National Park Service watches over the remnants of the old post as a national historic site where visitors will get a tantalizing glimpse of Fort Bowie’s historic past.