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It took five thousand American troopers a year and a half to run down the great Apache raider and his lethal band. They did it by tough persistence and skill—or was it guile?
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
In January, 1886, things suddenly took a new turn. A detachment under Captain Crawford caught up with Geronimo’s band, and with great good luck captured all of their horses and camp equipment. Eight months of running had tired the renegades, and they decided to negotiate. But on the day the talks were to occur, some Mexican soldiers from nearby Sonora towns suddenly attacked Crawford’s camp, by mistake, and before the confusion was cleared up, Crawford had a fatal bullet in his brain. The parley was postponed until March, at which time Crook himself journeyed into the Mexican mountains near San Bernardino and met in conference with Geronimo, Naiche, and Chihuahua. To Crook’s disgust, Geronimo was more windy-worded than ever, overblown with concern about his reputation and full of blame for everyone but himself for what had happened since May, 1885. Nevertheless, he agreed to surrender on condition that he and his band should not be held prisoner in the East for more than two years, and that their families should be allowed to go with them.
It looked like the end; but after Crook had returned to Arizona, leaving a small party of Americans and a group of Apache scouts to conduct the surrendered band, Geronimo and Naiche and some of their warriors got thoroughly drunk on hundred-proof liquor, allegedly sold to them by an American named Tribolet. That made everything look different, and in the middle of the night about half the band took off into Mexico again. Sheridan, who learned of this by telegram on March 31, was furious. He could not comprehend how Crook could have let the hostiles slip out of his grasp, but he was sure that reliance on Apache scouts as escorts was the heart of the trouble—and he implied as much in his answer to Crook. This was close to an insult: it challenged the one method by which, Crook was convinced, Apache renegades could be brought to bay. What Sheridan failed to realize, Crook explained in another telegram, was that Geronimo’s band, far from being a flock of helpless refugees, was still “armed to the teeth, having the most improved guns and all the ammunition they could carry,” and that only on the basis of mutual trust could they be taken into custody at all.
But it was too late to patch up the difference between the two old West Pointers. Another stiff exchange of telegrams ended with Crook asking to be relieved of his command. Sheridan quickly complied.
Now the last chapter in the “Geronimo campaign” was about to unfold. The man who replaced Crook was an old acquaintance, and (though Crook seems to have been largely unaware of it at the time) an old rival. General Nelson A. Miles had, to his chagrin, followed in Crook’s footsteps from the time they both were bright young Union generals in the Civil War, through the Sioux campaigns of the 1870’s, and the equally trying struggles for recognition and promotion amidst the narrow opportunities of the frontier army. Always Crook kept one jump ahead, and as Miles’ letters to his wife reveal, he had gradually developed an almost paranoiac jealousy of his somewhat older fellow officer. At last his great chance had come: Crook had been discredited, and it was up to Miles to succeed where Crook had not—with the whole country watching to see what would happen.
By May, 1886, Miles was in full command in Arizona. In the eyes of Crook’s loyal staff officers, most of whom were of course replaced, he was indeed a Johnny-come-lately, arriving on the scene when an absurdly small number of the hostile Apaches remained at large (to be exact, there were twenty-one men and thirteen women still with Geronimo). Nevertheless, it was a very big thing for Miles, and he made exhaustive preparations for the denouement. He reorganized his combat and supply forces, discharging nearly all of the Apache scouts—which must have pleased Sheridan—and distributing his troops so that there was hardly a ranch or water hole in Arizona or New Mexico that did not have a small detachment within easy call. One innovation, picked up from the British Army, did turn out to be highly effective: the heliograph. In the sunny climate of the Southwest, this scientifically designed mirror worked very well, and within weeks Miles had a system by which he could flash messages three or four hundred miles in a couple of hours, across country that no telegraph lines would decorate for many years to come. On the other hand, he quickly discovered something that Crook could have told him: when the Chiricahuas took to the Sierra Madres, the best United States cavalry was useless, and only foot soldiers, guided by Apaches, stood any chance of routing out the hostiles.
By Miles’ own estimate, his men chased Geronimo more than two thousand miles in three months, and with highly impalpable results until the very end. Meanwhile Geronimo, to everyone’s consternation, had the insolence to strike back across the border into Arizona, expertly running a gantlet of half a dozen detachments of soldiers, and so closely pursued that his band, as Miles expressed it officially, “committed but fourteen murders” before they plunged into Mexico again.