Fort Bowie is linked in history with the Apache wars of the 1870s and ’80s. But it owes its existence to the Battle of Apache Pass in 1862 and the Confederate invasion of what was then New Mexico Territory.
Confederate Capt. Sherod Hunter, acting under the command of Lt. Col. John R. Baylor, advanced on Tucson with a company of pro-south Arizona volunteers. The United States Army had left this largely Mexican village without protection from hostile Apaches, and when Hunter’s force occupied the town on February 28, 1862, the Confederates were hailed by townsfolk.
The occupation did not sit well with Union Col. James H. Carelton, who ordered his 2,300-man California Column to march east from Fort Yuma to repel the Confederates. En route to Tucson, Carelton and his men engaged the Confederates at Picacho Peak in what became the western-most battle of the Civil War. An officer and two enlisted men were killed.
On May 20, 1862, the California Column entered Tucson only to find that Hunter and the Confederates had abandoned the town two weeks before.
Seeking engagement with the enemy force, Carelton pushed east toward the Rio Grande along the old Butterfield Stage route. He soon discovered, however, that Apaches were a greater threat than Confederates.
Apaches followed the column’s every move; harassment was unrelenting. On June 25, in what apparently was a warning that troops were trespassing, a force of some 60 Apaches attacked. Three soldiers were killed, scalped and mutilated.
On July 15, Carelton ordered Capt. Thomas Roberts to lead 126 men into the western entrance of Apache Pass. It was a bad decision. The troops were ambushed by some 700 Apaches led by Cochise. A 10-hour battle ensued. Two soldiers were killed and two were wounded; estimates of Apache losses vary from 10 to 68.
Two weeks later, Carelton determined that it was “indispensably necessary” to establish a fort at the battle site. As the Californians marched on, 100 men of the 5th Infantry were left behind to build the fort, which was named after George Washington Bowie, colonel of their regiment.
Fort Bowie’s mission was to control access to water supplies and to Apache Pass itself, to provide escorts for supply trains and couriers, and to attack hostile Apaches at every opportunity.
The original fort was little more than breastworks around a hill overlooking a spring. The soldiers set up tents to live in, but wind and bad weather destroyed them. Some men built crude huts, others fashioned dugouts in the hillside.
In 1870, the fort was moved to a flat some 700 yards east of the original site and new accommodations were built. They were vastly superior to the earlier setup, but the fort still was considered hard duty by soldiers. It was hot and, except for the time spent chasing Apaches, it was boring.
Fort Bowie played a significant role in the Apache Wars, and during the 1880s was one of the most important army installations in the Southwest. Countless forays were launched from the fort, as were search and destroy missions into Mexico’s Sierra Madre until the final surrender of Geronimo in 1886.
When the Apache Wars ended, so did the fort’s usefulness. On October 17, 1894, it was decommissioned and abandoned by the Army. It quickly fell into ruin. In 1994, when little remained but a few crumbling adobe walls, the fort was designated a National Historic Site. A small visitor center was opened on the site, operated by the National Parks Service.