A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Buffalo Soldiers hold their ground in a nighttime skirmish with the Apache
The Ninth Cavalry's D and F companies entered the Hembrillo Basin in the late afternoon of April 6. Surrounded by Apache, the troopers held their ground until the next morning, when they were reinforced by companies A and G, the Sixth cavalry, and 100 White Mountain Apache scouts. The combined force then drove the Apache chief Victorio and his followers out of the basin. (Click on maps for larger version.)
In April 6, 1880, just four years after Custer's defeat on the Little Big Horn, Captain Henry Carroll of the Ninth Cavalry cautiously led 71 cavalrymen toward an Apache camp in the Hembrillo Basin of south-central New Mexico. Suddenly, volleys of gunfire rang out from the surrounding ridgetops and puffs of smoke marked the discharge of black-powder cartridges. Rushing to the top of a low ridge, the troops dismounted, every fourth man holding horses. Forming skirmish lines, they returned fire until the sun went down. Then they held their ground and waited for reinforcements.
The Ninth was one of six black regiments formed after the Civil War to help keep the peace on the frontier. Its members were called Buffalo Soldiers by the Cheyenne because their curly hair reminded the Native Americans of buffalo hides. At Hembrillo, two companies of the Ninth Cavalry pursuing the Apache war chief Victorio had been surrounded by a superior force of 150 Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache. Unlike the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Buffalo Soldiers' nightlong battle against two-to-one odds was largely forgotten. Until recently, the record of the fight was based on reports of white Sixth Cavalry officers who credited themselves with saving Carroll's soldiers from "a condition of helplessness." Recent battlefield archaeology and historical research tell a different story, one of bravery in the face of a highly organized Apache force.
The archaeology of the Hembrillo Battlefield has given us new insight into Victorio's tactical abilities, particularly his control and disposition of available firepower. Archaeology has also stripped the veil from Carroll's long night, revealing an aggressive strategy and defensive positioning in the face of an attack from established positions. It is now possible to walk the ground the Buffalo Soldiers held, and look out on the basin from the ridges Victorio defended. Standing behind the stacked rock breastworks, visitors can grasp the tactical situation and understand the Apache style of defensive warfare and mobility that became a standard lesson plan for future West Point officers. Today, the U.S. Army uses the battlefield as a "walk around," a place where junior officers can study and analyze the U.S. and Apache battlefield strategies.
Karl W. Laumbach is an archaeologist with the nonprofit Human Systems Research, Inc. A native New Mexican, he has spent the last 27 years pursuing a variety of research projects in New Mexico.