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Header insignia for Distinguished Member biography pageDistinguished Member of the Regiment biography for

SGT Will Croft Barnes (1998)

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. PVT 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 in the Fort Apache area, including the Army’s Indian scouts. 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.

COL 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 COL Carr’s departure, nearby Indians began to ride toward his trail. MAJ Melville Cochran, Fort Apache’s acting commander, warned COL 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 COL Carr’s entire command. MAJ 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, MAJ Cochran heard from the post trader that five of COL Carr’s officers and most of his men were dead. MAJ 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 COL 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 COL Carr, if still alive, might approach from that direction.

PVT 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 PVT Barnes could signal. In spite of the proximity of four or five Apaches "with no friendly intent," PVT Barnes held his position. Then off to the west he saw a cloud of dust; it turned out to be COL Carr’s advance guard. A half-mile behind the guard PVT Barnes saw some 50 cavalrymen. He signaled the good news to the fort.

As matters turned out, COL Carr had arrested Nock-aye-Klinny at Cibeque. In a rescue attempt, the Indians who had followed COL 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. PVT 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. PVT Barnes and SGT Smith returned fire. PVT Barnes also went out Sept. 8-9 with an armed escort to repair the telegraph line.

To COL Carr MAJ Cochran applauded PVT 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." COL Carr endorsed 12 officers and enlisted men for the Medal of Honor, singling out PVT 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 PVT Barnes and the others (an investigation into the Battle of Cibeque delayed action on COL Carr’s recommendations). In spring 1883, Barnes -- by then a sergeant -- received the medal in a retreat ceremony at Fort Apache.

SGT 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.

Private Will Croft Barnes
Barnes as a private, circa 1879.

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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