In its westward expansion, America depended on the 8,000 miles of wire the Signal Corps constructed between 1873 and 1883 to connect 77 frontier telegraph and weather offices. The Signal Corps was responsible for three telegraph systems that carried both military and commercial traffic, and which played a key role in the Indian Wars and final expansion of the continental United States to its Pacific border.
Among these systems was the 29-station line that connected isolated posts such as Fort Bliss, Santa Fe and Fort Apache in the Arizona Territory. It was at Fort Apache, one of the most pivotal posts in the military Department of Arizona, that First-Class PVT Will Croft Barnes honored himself and the Signal Corps. Barnes� Medal of Honor was not recommended for any specific event but for his actions during August and September 1881.
In the summer of 1881, Apache medicine man Nock-aye-Klinny was stirring up the Indians, including the Army�s Indian scouts, in the Fort Apache area. Fort Apache�s commander, COL Eugene Carr, was ordered to arrest the medicine man Aug. 15, the same day the telegraph line between Fort Apache and Camp Thomas some 90 miles away went down (it remained down until early September). Fort Apache was cut off from outside wire communication. The fort was further isolated when heavy rains and floodwaters hit the area, preventing arrival of reinforcements.
Carr set out Aug. 29 with 117 men to capture Nock-aye-Klinny, who was at an Indian village on Cibeque Creek some 45 miles northwest of the post. Less than 70 soldiers, along with a number of civilians, were left at Fort Apache. Shortly after Carr�s departure, nearby Indians began to ride toward his trail. MAJ Melville Cochran, Fort Apache�s acting commander, warned Carr about the Indians and began preparing the post for an attack.
Rumors played havoc at Fort Apache. Word came the evening of Aug. 29 that Indians had killed Carr�s entire command. Cochran sent couriers to warn Camp Thomas and a nearby ranch, then dispatched another courier to the Black River to bring in two soldiers working on the ferry on the road to Camp Thomas. Indians killed the ferrymen and the soldier sent to alert them. On the morning of Aug. 31, Cochran heard from the post trader that five of Carr�s officers and most of his men were dead. Cochran sent a second message to Camp Thomas for reinforcements. Camp Thomas never received that dispatch. Thomas Owens, a civilian mail carrier who had volunteered for the mission, traveled only a few miles from Fort Apache before Indians killed him.
Their relief attempts thwarted, their telegraph still down and their uncertainty over what really happened to Carr sent a wave of apprehension throughout Fort Apache. Anxiety was heightened by the fact it was impossible to see more than a mile westward. The Indians or Carr, if still alive, might approach from that direction.
Barnes volunteered to go alone to a mesa which stood some 2,000 feet high about a mile to the north of the fort. The mesa would serve as a �tower� from which Barnes could signal. In spite of the proximity of four or five Apaches �with no friendly intent,� Barnes held his position. Then off to the west he saw a cloud of dust; it turned out to be Carr�s advance guard. A half-mile behind the guard Barnes saw some 50 cavalrymen. He signaled the good news to the fort.
As matters turned out, Carr had arrested Nock-aye-Klinny at Cibeque. In a rescue attempt, the Indians who had followed Carr�s trail attacked the party, and the Indian scouts mutinied. Nock-aye-Klinny was killed, as well as four soldiers.
The following week tensions continued. Barnes and SGT John Smith were guarding a cemetery detail Sept. 1 a half-mile away from the fort when Indians began firing at them. About the same time Indians attacked the post. Barnes and Smith returned fire. Barnes also went out Sept. 8-9 with an armed escort to repair the telegraph line.
To Carr Cochran applauded Barnes� conduct �during all the trouble,� adding �he was prompt and unhesitating in the discharge of all duties assigned him, more than once being exposed to great danger.� Carr endorsed 12 officers and enlisted men for the Medal of Honor, singling out Barnes for his actions during the Indian attack on Fort Apache Sept. 1 and for his �good conduct and attention to duty� during the �trying period� Aug. 29-Sept. 10.
GEN William Sherman, the Army�s commanding general and the acting secretary of war, approved the Medal of Honor Nov. 8, 1882, for Barnes and the others (an investigation into the Battle of Cibeque delayed action on Carr�s recommendations). In Spring 1883, Barnes � by then a sergeant � received the medal in a retreat ceremony at Fort Apache.
Barnes remained at Fort Apache until he received a medical discharge Sept. 15, 1883. In his post-Army years Barnes was a rancher, legislator, forester, preservationist and a noted and copious writer. He died in Phoenix, Ariz., Dec. 17, 1936, and his ashes were interred at Arlington National Cemetery in 1937. The Signal Regiment inducted him as a Distinguished Member of the Regiment in 1998.
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Army Communicator is part of Regimental Division, a division of Office Chief of Signal.