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Capture of Tucson
Part of the American Civil War
File:Tucson in 1864.gif
Tucson in 1864, after becoming the capital of the Union Arizona Territory.
Date May 20, 1862
Location Tucson, Confederate Arizona
Modern Day: Tucson, Arizona
Result United States victory
United States United States File:CSA Flag 21.5.1861-2.7.1861.svg Confederate States
Colonel James Henry Carleton Lieutenant James H. Tevis
2 artillery pieces
10 militia,
Fort Tucson

The Capture of Tucson was a United States attack on Tucson in Confederate Arizona on May 20, 1862. A Union force of 2,000 took the city from ten Tucson militiamen without a shot fired.


Before the American Civil War in the 1850s, the cities of Tucson and Mesilla in southern New Mexico Territory had petitioned the United States government for permission to separate themselves into their own territory which they called Arizona. These requests were denied by the United States government and accepted by the Confederacy. The Arizonans hoped the creation of a new territory would strengthen their communications with the east and allow for more military aid. Apaches had been fighting a bloody war in the region, leaving Tucson surrounded by occupied Apache land. Only Tucson's old presidio walls protected the population from harm. When Union troops left Arizona to fight in the South and when the Butterfield Overland Mail stations closed, the residents of the region were abandoned and had no military support for protection against the Apache.


Raising the Confederate flag in Tucson, March 1, 1862.

Small militia garrisons were established in Tucson, Mesilla, Pinos Altos and other towns in Confederate Arizona. Though these militiamen fought the Apache successfully in several different engagements, more military strength was needed to hold onto the territory. By joining the states in rebellion, military support was sure to arrive from the South. In early 1862, just before the first Confederate capture of Albuquerque in New Mexico Territory, General Henry Hopkins Sibley ordered Captain Sherod Hunter of Tennessee to proceed to Tucson with a small company of Arizona Rangers from Dona Ana and Texas cavalry. Jack Swilling was a member of the Tucson reinforcement, by this time he had founded Arizona's future state capital of Phoenix. The force composed of about seventy-five men. Captain Hunter's orders were to establish a military alliance with the Pima natives in the area and to watch for a suspected Union advance from California which began with the capture of Fort Yuma and ended with the fall of Mesilla. Colonel James Reily accompanied Captain Hunter when he left for Tucson. Colonel Reily commanded an escort of twenty men of the Pinos Altos Arizona Guards, another Arizona militia company. The Arizona Guards were composed primarily of men who left their homes around Tubac and Tucson following the Siege of Tubac in August 1861.

Overall about 100 men arrived in Tucson on February 28, 1862, there is also reason to believe that the arrival of Hunter's company prevented a massive Apache assault on the settlement. There they joined with the small Tucson militia, numbering about twenty-five men. The formal flag raising occurred on March 1, after which Colonel Reily and his escort went south to Sonora, Mexico for a mission of diplomacy. In early May, the garrison of Tucson fought two battles with the Apache while foraging for supplies in the Dragoon Mountains. The first engagement was a defeat for the rebels and the second was a victory. After the skirmish at Stanwix Station, the Battle of Picacho Peak, and the capture of a Union squad in the Pima villages, Colonel James Henry Carleton and his army of over 2,000 Californians captured the undefended Fort Breckinridge to the northeast of Tucson. On May 14, the Californians left for Tucson from the fort, that same day, Sherrod Hunter ordered the evacuation of Tucson. He left ten of his militia behind under the command of Lieutenant James H. Tevis. Their orders were to observe the Union attack.


On May 20, 1862, Colonel Carelton's army of cavalry, infantry and artillery launched their assault on Tucson from the northeast. The Union bugles played Yankee Doodle as they swarmed the buildings, outside of the presidio walls. Lieutenant Tevis intended to hold Fort Tucson but was persuaded not to by the cities inhabitants who knew resisting meant suicide. Tevis ordered the withdrawal of his squad and after the war he briefly described his escape from the presidio. "They got too close for my health and I left." Tevis and his men escaped, without losing any men to Union forces. The Tucson militia eventually headed east to Mesilla to rejoin Captain Sherrod Hunter. Tucson fell peacefully and the Union army was met only by uncomfortable Tucson civilians.

File:Tucson Presidio Reconstruction.jpg

The reconstructed northeastern bastion of Fort Tucson.


When Captain Hunter arrived in Mesilla on May 27, his company, along with the Arizona Rangers and the Arizona Guards, were formed into Lieutenant Colonel Philemon Herbert's battalion of Arizona Cavalry. The Arizonans ceased being militia and officially became Confederate soldiers under General Henry Sibley. After the Battle of Glorieta Pass and the retreat of General Sibley's army, the Arizona Cavalry battalion was ordered to remain behind to hold onto Mesilla and the surrounding valley. Men under Sherrod Hunter fought with New Mexican militia near Mesilla on June 1, 1862. The skirmish ended with no known casualties on either side and reports indicate a Union victory due to the loss of Confederate horses and equipment at the battle, the rebels retreated from Mesilla a few days later.

The Arizona Cavalry headed for Texas and were some of the last Confederate soldiers to leave Arizona. Though the Confederates, due to lack of man power, failed to hold onto Arizona, the Arizonans themselves achieved the goal they fought a war for. That goal was the creation of a territory separate from that of New Mexico Territory. In 1863 the Union established Arizona Territory with Tucson as the capital. The towns of Mesilla, Pinos Altos and others were not included in the new Arizona Territory, instead they remained part of New Mexico Territory and are now within the present day state of New Mexico. By rebelling against the government, Union troops were obligated to invade the territory and reassert control, thus meaning Arizona once again had the support necessary for protection against Apaches.

See also[]

  • Capture of Tucson (1846)
  • First Battle of Tucson
  • Second Battle of Tucson
  • Third Battle of Tucson
  • Fourth Battle of Tucson