Author Interview: Tom Prezelski
Former Arizona state legislator Tom Prezelski's first book Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 1863–1866, was published last year by University of Oklahoma Press. The book covers part of Mexican-American history that is often neglected about the more than 10,000 Mexican-Americans who served during the Civil War to defend the Union.
Prezelski's book made the 2015 Christmas guide published by Ask A Mexican columnist Gustavo Arellano of his recommendations of Mexican-American themed books.
Where did you get the idea for this book?
I've been working on and off for well-over 10 to 15 years. The things that inspired it was this throw away comment during a lecture by Dr. Harwood Hinton on a unit of Mexican lancers from Tubac during the Civil War. It took me a while. Serving in the state Legislature was an interruption.
Why is this Mexican-American history, this early history, just as important to tell as the history of the Chicano movement?
Right now there's a lot of political rhetoric based on this idea that the Mexican-American community is something new and as a community they haven't paid their dues. Not only have they been around, but they made significant contributions in military, politics and founded more important communities, especially in the West. It challenges the notion of this Anglo-American view point that everything was accomplished by white people.
What is it about history that's always been important to you?
There's a lot of great stories and first of all it's important because you can't understand a place until you understand why its there and what led to being the way it is now. There are lessons to learn and nearly every issue you see has been an issue in the past.
There are a few things that I'd like to pursue. The territorial legislature that created the UA is often misrepresented in popular culture and history books. There's also another group of Mexican-American soldiers called the Arizona Volunteers who were around toward the end of the Civil War and mostly recruited to fight the Apaches.
Watching Maximilian's Frontier
Este es un pais triste, feo y casi sin gente civilizada.
Captain Porfirio Jimeno
- Courtesy of Wayne and Pamela Sherman, Los Angeles
- Captain José Ramón Pico wearing a borrowed colonel’s uniform.
The battalion's new post, dubbed Fort Mason in honor of the district commander, was at a site briefly occupied by a Camp Moore in the previous decade. A description of that camp, written by a traveler in 1857, seems consistent with accounts of Fort Mason as well:
If you will portray in your imagination a bottom covered with tall, golden colored grass, hedged by mountains whose sands glitter like metal, divided by a meandering stream a dozen yards wide and as many inches deep [the Santa Cruz River], this shaded by cotton-woods, willows, and musquites [sic], then a few hundred yards higher up another stream, a creek with less volume [Portrero Creek] pouring in from the right, and in the fork an elevated rolling surface, you will have a view of Calabasas. ... Then picture in your mind's-eye this bottom dotted with shanties of straw and cloth, and the fork covered with military tents.
Calabazas itself was a substantial adobe ranch, abandoned but in good repair, which was originally built as a Franciscan mission in the eighteenth century. It sat on a low mesa that commanded "the whole country in every direction." Seven miles north of the border, the site was strategically important because it controlled the "only practicable routes into Sonora" and offered an abundance of fuel wood, grass, and water as well as limestone for construction.
In addition to the Native Cavalry, Fort Mason's garrison included the men who had previously been at Tubac, among them the headquarters, staff, and three companies of the 7th California Infantry, later known as the "Hungry Seventh" for the privations they suffered in Arizona. The regiment's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Lewis, a calm and decisive veteran of the war with Mexico, had charge of the post. Detachments of the 7th had already been in more than a few skirmishes with Apaches.
They also joined the recently mustered Company E, 1st Arizona Volunteer Infantry. Recruited largely in Sonora, these soldiers were, like the Native Cavalry, mostly Spanish speaking. Lacking adequate uniforms and accoutrements, the Arizona troops were in a "sickly and ragged condition" and quickly became "the laughing stock of their countrymen far and near." These shortages limited them mostly to "making adobies" and other fatigue duties, though they eventually would be sent on a few scouts of the countryside. In early December Company E was ordered north to the Río Verde, where the Arizonans had significantly more opportunity to distinguish themselves in active service.
General Mason had ordered that the new post be constructed from stone and adobe. But the men were still living in tents and shelters of "grass and brush" when the Native Cavalry arrived, and they would largely continue to do so for the next few months. It had rained "every day" following a year of unusually wet weather, and the valley was full of weeds and grass taller than "a man on horseback" and harbored so many "flies and gnats" that it was "almost impossible to do any writing in the day for the annoyance." This gave rise to an insect-borne malarial-fever epidemic that hit most of the officers and men at one time or another, rendering between one-third and one-half the garrison ineffective at its height while being responsible for thirty deaths. Captain Hiram S. Washburn of the Arizona Volunteers complained that there were days that some of the California companies at the post could only muster "seven to eleven men at roll-call" and that he had to serve as officer of the day every other day for over a week because he was one of the few who remained healthy. This reality, coupled with seemingly perennial supply problems, slowed construction and other activities at the post.
Captain Jimeno spoke for most of the men at Fort Mason when he described the place as "sad, ugly and almost without civilized people." He went on: "One speaks of nothing but 'Apaches, Apaches.' Of fever, almost each day someone dies. Truly, it makes one mad."
Within a day or so of Jimeno's arrival, word reached Fort Mason that about fifteen men of the Native Cavalry who had deserted en route, taking with them "30 head of fine horses, numerous carbines, pistols and sabres, and all of their equipments," were being held by Mexican imperial authorities in Magdalena, Sonora, some fifty miles beyond the border. Colonel Lewis sent Captains Pico and Jimeno with thirty troopers, along with Lieutenant William Emery, a trusted officer from his own regiment who served as post adjutant, south in an effort to recover the absconders and the stolen Federal property.
By this time imperial forces had "full possession of Sonora."10 Backed by a French naval squadron at the port of Guaymas, partisans loyal to Maximilian had scattered the poorly organized republican forces in a series of victories over the previous six months and were now consolidating their power, having organized the frontier state into four military departments. The forces in and around Magdalena were commanded by Prefect José Moreno Bustamante, who had at his disposal a reported 250 to 400 men, including infantry and cavalry. Lieutenant Emery disparaged these troops as "poorly armed ... with no uniforms of any kind" and "no flag amongst them whatever."
Nevertheless, the little column from Fort Mason was entering hostile territory when it crossed the international border. Riding for two days through a "beautiful country" with "hills covered with ash and oak," the cavalrymen halted upon arrival at the outskirts of Magdalena, a town of some fifteen hundred people consisting of low adobes clustered around a dirt plaza dominated by an impressive whitewashed mission church. Here, Lieutenant Emery rode ahead of the formation to deliver the Americans' demands in writing. Captain Pico, however, quickly became impatient and charged into the town with eight to ten of his men, brandishing sabers and pistols and stopping in front of the prefect's headquarters on the plaza.
Pico and Emery demanded that the deserters and the stolen property be returned. Moreno scolded the Californio captain for his "warlike manner," to which "Pico replied that the United States did not recognize the Imperial Government," only the republic under President Benito Juarez. Believing that the "U.S. troops had come there on purpose to fight," Moreno ordered a detachment of cavalry to form on the plaza and sent a courier to alert infantrymen camped four or five miles away. Pico, for his part, dispatched a messenger to Captain Jimeno, who remained with his lancers outside of town, asking him to be ready in case of trouble.
"A single gun fired at this time would have started a general fight," wrote Emery later. The imperialists, evoking Moreno's own heroic stand against a band of American filibusters nearly a decade earlier, threatened to take the Californians prisoner and shoot them "as they did Crabb's party," while Pico boasted that his men would die fighting. During a particularly tense moment in the colloquy, an old man in the crowd, doubtless speaking for the many republican sympathizers in the town, shouted, "Viva los Americanos!"
"After the excitement had somewhat subsided," wrote Emery, Moreno agreed to allow the officers to remain in Magdalena with an escort of six men while he waited for instructions from authorities in Hermosillo.
Moreno demanded that Jimeno and the rest of the troopers, though, return to the United States. Riding back into Fort Mason on September 9, Jimeno reported on the situation to Colonel Lewis.
It took eight days for word to arrive from Hermosillo. In the meantime Pico, Emery, and the Native Cavalry detachment were accommodated by republican sympathizers in Magdalena who treated them to "three fine dinners." Emery reported that the "better class of citizens" in Sonora were opposed to Maximilian and that "their greatest wish" was "to have the United States side with them against the French."
The reply from Hermosillo ordered that Captain Pico and his troopers return to the United States within forty-eight hours without the deserters or the property. Thus, the Americans rode north empty handed. On the way back they spotted a small band of Apaches in the hills about fifteen miles south of Fort Mason. Pico led his party in pursuit, but the terrain was too "steep and rocky" for the chase to be sustained, Lieutenant Emery nearly breaking his leg when he fell with his horse. Captain Pico likewise fell with his mount and was shot through the thigh when his pistol accidentally discharged.
The injury required him to spend much of the next few months on sick leave in Tubac and Tucson, certainly a particularly humiliating situation for a man considered one of the best horsemen in California.
The party returned to Fort Mason on September 15 to find that much had changed in their absence. The day after the column's departure, a Mexican officer, Colonel Federick A. Ronstadt, arrived with the news that Ignacio Pesqueira, the governor of Sonora, was about three miles away and seeking permission to camp in the vicinity. Defeated by the French-backed imperialists, the governor had all but disbanded his demoralized, ragtag army and crossed the border north of Santa Cruz to seek the safety of American arms. Colonel Lewis "offered him the hospitality and protection of the post." When the garrison rose for revile the next morning, they were surprised to find the mesa populated by Pesqueira's substantial train of livestock, which included "1000 head of cattle and 100 head of horses, mules and donkeys" and "some sheep and goats."19 Meanwhile, the governor made quarters for himself, his family, and a small band of followers in the old ranch house of Calabazas, which quickly became Sonora's capitol-in-exile.
Word soon arrived that the Native Cavalry deserters had been released and that the arms and equipment they had carried away had been sold at public auction. At the same time, imperial officials demanded an apology for "the insult offered them at Magdalena." Adding to the tense climate was a rumor that Moreno intended to cross the border with a large force in an attempt to take Pesqueira. The normally restrained Colonel Lewis replied, "Let him come and try it." Lieutenant Emery likewise expressed the sentiments of the restless men of Fort Mason when he wrote, "If only we could have a little fight with the French it would be something worth while."
Lewis dispatched Captain Young with twenty lancers of Company D to patrol the border and sent another detachment of ten lancers of Company B under Captain Jimeno to watch the road through the Patagonia Mountains to the Sonoran town of Santa Cruz. They were ordered to take care to not cross the border but merely to serve as pickets and to notify the colonel of any trouble. For the time being, nothing came of Moreno's threat.
Despite this excitement, service at Fort Mason remained miserable. Heavy rains continued for most of September, and the fever continued taking a toll. On October 16 Lieutenant Crisanto Soto of Company A, described by Jimeno as a "true friend," died at the Patagonia Mines, where a makeshift convalescent camp had been established in the drier mountain air.
At this point a reported 185 of the 418 enlisted men, and nine of the eleven officers at the post, were too sick for duty. Even Governor Pesqueira's wife succumbed to the disease. In December Captain Young became yet another casualty of the epidemic. By this time a third surgeon had been detailed to the post to cope with the outbreak as Fort Mason's two surgeons had both fallen ill, but the worst of it was largely over.
Major Cremony and Captain de la Guerra's Company C joined their comrades at Fort Mason on November 1. Finally fully mounted and equipped, they had left Drum Barracks in late August but were delayed at Fort Yuma for over three weeks waiting for flooding on the Colorado River to subside enough for crossing. Joined en route by Captain Jimeno and the post band, they were greeted on their arrival by soldiers lined up on either side of the road who saluted the Santa Barbara men and asked after their families in California.
Once at Fort Mason, Cremony briefly assumed command from the ill Lewis. Then the major issued a simple set of instructions for the governance of his battalion:
1st No government horses will be used for any other than government business.
2nd No government horse will be ridden faster than a trot except in the necessary duty of herding.
3rd No enlisted man will ride his horse across the parade ground except by the regular wagon roads.
4th All firing of revolver arms with in or out [sic] of the Garrison is strictly prohibited except in cases of actual necessity.
One can only speculate as to the behavior that prompted this order. Suffice it to say, it would not have been necessary for a slightly less unruly set of volunteers.
Late on the night of November 24, word arrived from pickets at the Patagonia Mines that a large force from Sonora, consisting of about 350 Ópata volunteers under the command of Colonel Refugio Tanori, a tribal leader commissioned in the Imperial Army, had crossed the border and attacked the ranching community of San Rafael, leaving an American citizen wounded. Believing the raid was an attempt to capture either Pesquiera or the republican general Jesús García Morales, who was camped just on the other side of the border at La Noria, Major Cremony quickly assembled a detachment from Companies C and D. The men rode all night along the well-worn but nonetheless rugged and difficult wagon road winding through the Patagonia Mountains, reaching San Rafael early the next morning.
Once there, Cremony left battalion surgeon Tolman to tend to the wounded American before crossing the border to the town of Santa Cruz, where he learned that Tanori's command had retreated even farther south. The major sent ahead Lieutenant Edmund W. Codington of Company D and ten troopers to make contact with the imperialist colonel. After a nine-hour forty-mile chase, the lancers reached Ímuris, a small town in the Magdalena Valley, only to find that Tanori and his fleet-footed irregulars had melted into the countryside. The command remained at Santa Cruz for a few days to guard against the possibility of Tanori's return. Cremony used the opportunity to renew his acquaintance with Inez Gonzalez, a woman he helped rescue from Apache captivity as a girl many years earlier and now happily married to the local alcalde. On November 30 the major and the lancers returned to Fort Mason.
By the time of Tanori's raid, French forces in Sonora's interior had fallen back to Guaymas as part of the first phase of an eventual withdrawal from Mexico. Pesquiera and his officers had used his time at Calabazas to rebuild his broken army. By December republican partisans were once again able to take the fight to the imperialists. By March 1866 the governor had returned to Sonora to personally lead the resistance in that state. Though the fight against Maximilian would continue for well over a year, the empire and its French backers had long since ceased to be a threat to the frontier. By then the men of Fort Mason had turned their attention to other enemies.
- From Gray, Survey of a Route for the Southern Pacific R.R.
- Calabazas, Arizona Territory.The post of Fort Mason would have sat in the bottomlands below the mesa, generally to the right of the ranch buildings in this lithograph.