In what is now southeastern Arizona but in 1861 was the heart of the Chiricahua Apache territory, Army Second Lieutenant George Bascom led an infantry company (on mules!) in pursuit of Apaches who had kidnapped a rancher’s child. Bascom met with Apache leader Cochise and accused him of taking the child. Cochise denied this, claiming that another Apache band kidnapped the boy. Bascom called him a liar and took Cochise’s family members hostage until Cochise agreed to return the boy. Cochise escaped under fire and plotted his next moves.
If you want to know the detail, read the book. For present purposoes, I'll just say that the affair ended badly with the rancher and other white hostages tortured, mutilated, their bodies left prominently where Bascom’s troops would find them. Upon discovering the corpses, the Americans hanged six Apache braves. The next decade saw widespread attacks and raids on American settlers until, as author Mort surmises, Cochise grew weary of the constant tension of war. Bascom himself was an early casualty in the Civil War, killed at the Battle of Valverde, New Mexico in February 1862.
That’s the book in a nutshell but author Terry Mort provides much detail of what became known as the Bascom Affair as well as the backstory for each protagonist. Mort shows how culture and training brought Bascom and Cochise to their confrontation and presents plausible explanations about why they decided as they did. In the process, the reader learns about American military education and practice in the mid-19th century, the details of the Mormon War in Utah during the late 1850’s, and how Chiricahua Apaches lived and fought in their rugged homeland. Mort places his account of the Bascom Affair in the context of American sectional politics that drove the nation’s expansion into New Mexico and California. In all, The Wrath of Cochise is a lively, interesting read.
The Wrath of Cochise was especially interesting for me because I know the places where much of the story occurred. I backpacked through Chiricahua Mountains and southeast Arizona on multiple occasions in the 80’s and 90’s My first ever backpack trip in Arizona was in the Chiricahua Mountains and I returned to the area often. I walked the Crest Trail, saw the wild game and found the water that sustained Apaches in those mountains. Another trip took me to Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains where we the narrow pass created the perfect site to ambush their foes. A side trip on a Chiricahua hike took me to Fort Bowie National Historic Site where I followed mile and a half trail to the ruins of what served as Army headquarters throughout the Apache Wars. In its day, Fort Bowie was a major post. Now it is mostly crumbling adobe walls.
Reading Mort’s account of the events early 1861, it was easy to conjure up the images to go with his descriptions.