RATTLESNAKE SPRINGS, BATTLE OF
RATTLESNAKE SPRINGS, BATTLE OF. On August 6, 1880, forty miles north of the site of present Van Horn, black soldiers of the Tenth United States Cavalry and a detachment of the Twenty-fourth United States Infantry fought Victorio in the climactic engagement of the Apache leader's incursion into West Texas. Since leaving the Mescalero Reservation near Fort Stanton, New Mexico, the previous August, the Apaches had raided back and forth across the international boundary, pillaging settlements in Chihuahua and New Mexico and causing alarm in the remote reaches of Texas. In late July 1880 Victorio and 125 to 150 of his followers crossed the Rio Grande, intending either to return to the vicinity of their former reservation or to find refuge in the rugged Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas-New Mexico border. Col. Benjamin H. Grierson, commanding the Tenth Cavalry and the District of the Pecos, decided not to pursue Victorio, but rather stationed troops at strategic waterholes and crossings, knowing that the Indians could not pass through the dry Trans-Pecos without water. On July 30 he repulsed the band at the battle of Tinaja de las Palmas, south of the site of present Sierra Blanca. Victorio withdrew into Mexico to regroup, but soon reappeared north of the river.
On August 3 Cpl. Asa Weaver of Company H, Tenth Cavalry, and a small detail of soldiers and scouts skirmished with the Indians near Alamo Springs between the Eagle and Van Horn mountains. That evening Grierson marched northeast from Eagle Springs to intercept the Apaches near Van Horn's Wells. Learning that Victorio had veered off to the northwest, at 3 A.M. on August 5 Grierson broke camp ten miles southeast of the wells and set out in pursuit with five companies of the Tenth Cavalry, numbering 170 officers and men. Capt. John C. Gilmore and twenty-five men of Company H, Twenty-fourth Infantry, remained behind to protect the supply train. Screened by mountains on the west, the cavalry paralleled the Indians' line of march, covering sixty-five miles in less than twenty-one hours. Around midnight the troopers arrived at Rattlesnake Springs, in the broad valley that separates the Sierra Diablo on the west and the Delaware and Apache mountains on the east. Remarkably, the cavalrymen had outmarched their fast-moving foe. Colonel Grierson, accompanied by his seventeen-year-old son, Robert, aide-de-camp Lt. William H. Beck, surgeon B. F. Kingsley, two ambulances, and a wagon, caught up with his command at 3:30 A.M. on August 6 and set up camp at the spring. Evidently Grierson took no direct part in the subsequent engagement.
The fight on August 6 unfolded haphazardly. While Capt. Nicholas Nolan's Company A scouted the passes through the mountains, Capt. Charles Viele positioned companies C and G in Rattlesnake Canyon guarding the approaches to the spring. At two o'clock in the afternoon, his men opened fire at a distance and halted the cautious advance of Victorio's warriors. The Indians reorganized and were working their way around the soldiers, when Capt. Louis H. Carpenter appeared on the scene with companies H and B and drove them back into the hills and arroyos. About 4 P.M. Captain Gilmore and the supply train rounded a point of mountains to the southeast. A small party of Indians attacked the wagons, but quickly withdrew under fire from the infantry and cavalry escort. An attempt to scatter the soldiers' packmules near the springs likewise failed, and Victorio retreated into the mountains. Pvt. Wesley Hardy of Company H, Tenth Cavalry, was reported missing in the engagement, and some sources reported that possibly three other troops were killed. Reports on Indian losses varied from four killed to up to thirty casualties for the combined fight at Tinaja and Rattlesnake Springs.
Although scarcely more than a skirmish, the fight at Rattlesnake Springs was important in convincing Victorio to abandon the Trans-Pecos. On August 7 Capt. Thomas C. Lebo reported to Grierson that four days earlier his Company K had located and destroyed the Indians' supply camp in the Sierra Diablo. Twice defeated, hungry, and denied access to water holes, Victorio abandoned his effort to return to New Mexico and fled back across the Rio Grande. On October 15 Mexican forces killed him in the Tres Castillos Mountains. Victorio's death ended the Indian threat to West Texas.
John M. Carroll, ed., The Black Military Experience in the American West (New York: Liveright, 1971). William H. Leckie, The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967). Dan L. Thrapp, Victorio and the Mimbres Apaches (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974).