Classic Gunfights

The Battle of Big Dry Wash

Al Sieber & U.S. Troops vs Na-ti-o-tish’s Apaches


July 17 1882

Apache leader Na-ti-o-tish positions his warriors along a narrow gorge eight miles north of the Mogollon Rim in east central Arizona. They have built rifle pits and stacked  rock wings adjacent to large pine trees, awaiting a small troop of soldiers (55 men) who will pass, single file on horseback, directly below them.

Stopping within three-quarters of a mile from the chasm, the first officer on the scene, Col. Adna Chaffee, sends 30 scouts on foot to the west to get behind the canyon, as a precautionary move. The troopers and the remaining scouts move into a skirmish line along the south rim of the canyon. As they do, one of the Indian scouts discerns the hostiles’  position on the north side of Big Dry Fork. Col. Chaffee orders a feint to the center, then sends out two flanking movements: one to the west and one to the east of the Apaches’ position.

More troops arrive, but before any of them can get into position, a nervous “recruit lets his piece go [fires his weapon],” which opens up the fight. Both sides, some 700 yards apart, begin firing.

The westside flanking troops led by Capt. Lemuel Abbott run headlong into an Apache force attempting the same thing. Both sides open fire, and a hailstorm of lead fills the draw.

Chief of Scouts Al Sieber and his crew appear on the opposite rim just as the Abbott fight ensues. The Apache pony guards cock their heads toward the firing, and Sieber and another soldier “wipe them out.”

Scooping up the pony herd and stolen stock, Sieber and Lt. Thomas Cruse lead an assault into the rear of the hostiles’ position, firing as they run.

On the ridge, Lt. George Morgan, in his first major engagement with the Apaches, fires several times before finally hitting someone, yelling, “I got him! I got him!” as he exposes himself to enemy fire. An Apache bullet rips through his arm and into his body.

Hearing Sgt. Daniel Conn of Troop E yell orders to his men, some of the hostiles who had been scouts before the Cibecue fight (see  time line, opposite page) recognize his voice. He had served pork to them on ration day; they know him as “Hog Sergeant.”

The hostiles taunt him, yelling “Aaaaaiiah! Coche Sergeant!” Conn yells something back, and an Apache bullet hits the sergeant in the throat, “opening a hole as big as a silver dollar through a size-thirteen neck,” reports Lt. Thomas Cruse.

The day is expiring, and the shadows lengthen as various elements of the attacking troops form a line to push the Indians back toward the camp. Seeing this, Na-ti-o-tish harangues his men, ordering them to fight to the last man.

Lieutenant Cruse watches Sieber shoot and kill three renegades as they run toward the edge of the canyon. Sieber keeps on running and rolling, each time coming up firing. When Cruse calls up his men and attempts a charge into the Apache position, Sieber and Capt. Adam Kramer’s troops cover them with fire.

As Cruse advances, an Apache jumps up within two yards of the lieutenant and fires, just missing Cruse and hitting Pvt. Joseph McLernon, who falls mortally wounded. Cruse recovers and drags McLernon back
to a ravine.

The hostiles make one more heroic attempt to break out to the north, but they are repulsed by the soldiers. As darkness envelopes the battlefield, a stalemate ensues, with both sides less than 50 yards apart. A severe hailstorm sweeps across the rim, pelting and soaking everything and everybody. The dead are covered in an icy shroud, “four or five inches deep.”

The last major Apache battle on U.S. soil is over.

A Tactical Bronco Blunder

In the parlance of the times, Apaches who escape the San Carlos Reservation are called “Bronco Apaches.” Na-ti-o-tish, neither a chief nor a war leader, leads about 54 Bronco Apaches—including women and children—on a killing and raiding spree, no doubt angered by the death of their medicine man (see time...

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