Thursday, August 20, 2020

The La Paz Incident 1863



In my last post, It's Better To Have A Gun And Not Need It Than To Need A Gun And Not Have It, I talked about Deputy U.S. Marshal George W. Leihy who was also the Indian Agent in La Paz, Arizona, in 1866. In that article, I talked about how Marshal Leihy foolishly went about unarmed in his capacity as a lawman. A few years earlier in 1863, a young Union Army officer learned how unwise a policy that is when it came to his troops being unarmed during their routine day.


While La Paz, Arizona, is today just a ghost town made up of an old graveyard and adobe ruins, it was once a producing gold mining town. When gold was discovered in the Arroyo De La Teneja on the Eastern bank of the Colorado River on January 12, 1862, that gold strike set off the start of what became known as the Colorado River Gold Rush. Though short-lived, the mining town of La Paz grew out of the stampede that followed.

By the spring of that year, 1862, La Paz had a population of over 1,500 and was a stage stop between Fort Whipple,  Arizona, and San Bernardino, California. In 1862, it was part of the New Mexico Territory. In 1863, it became part of the Arizona Territory when the area was officially declared a U.S. territory by then-President Abraham Lincoln.

During those days the town served the miners in the La Paz Mining District. As for hitting pay-dirt, the area is said to have produced about 50,000 troy ounces of gold per year for the years 1863 and 1864. Believe it or not, that ghost town today was the county seat of Yuma County from 1864 to 1870. And here's something else, some sources say tiny La Paz was considered as the site for the Arizona territorial capital. Imagine that. 

It was so prosperous, that what is today a ghost town was once the largest town in the Arizona territory by 1863. Of course, in that same year, by late 1863, things started to change when the gold started to peter out. After that, the town tried to hang on as a port for transportation and shipping serving steamboats on the Colorado River. It was about that time that it became a supply base for the Army for a while.

Sadly, that all pretty much ended when the Colorado River shifted its course west in 1866. Believe it or not, that shift in the river left La Paz landlocked. With that, its use as a shipping port came to a complete halt. By the early 1870s, there were only a few folks hanging on for a while. Some say they hoped for the river to shift again. By 1875, it was abandoned. 

La Paz, Arizona, does have the distinction of being the place of the westernmost confrontation during the Civil War. In fact, it's the location of what became known as the La Paz Incident in 1863. 

What became known as the La Paz Incident took place on May 20, 1863. The story of that incident started in February of 1862 when Confederate troops planted their flag at Mesilla, New Mexico, and claimed the Arizona Territory for themselves. To take back the territory which the Confederates were claiming as theirs, Union Commanders sent the California Column east to reinforce the Union Army and engage the Confederates head-on in what became known as the New Mexico Campaign. 

For a while, Confederate cavalry actually occupied Tucson. That was from late February to early May of 1862. As soon as the California Column showed up, the Confederate forces withdrew soon after the skirmish at Picacho Peak. A year later, La Paz would be an important Union Army supply base used to supply Union garrisons along the Colorado River in Arizona. In 1863, Union General James H. Carleton had several California secessionists, most Copperhead Democrats who were sympathetic to the Confederacy, arrested and detained at Fort Yuma.

On the evening of May 20th, the Colorado River steamer Cocopah arrived at La Paz. It was headed to Fort Mohave. Aboard her was a small party of Union soldiers, under the command of Lt. James A. Hale of the 4th California Infantry. After docking, the unarmed Union troops left the steamer to go to Cohn's Store to purchase needed supplies.

Among the California secessionists was a man by the name of William "Frog" Edwards. Edwards was a Copperhead Democrat who had already been confined in Fort Yuma and released in La Paz. He watched as the Union soldiers approached the store. He was a Southern sympathizer who hated the Union and wanted to do something for their cause. It was then that he made his move and approached the unarmed Union soldiers. Yes, this would be another case when being armed would have either dissuaded their attacker or possibly saved lives. 

Out of seemingly nowhere, William "Frog" Edwards pulled a revolver and opened fire on the unarmed Union troops. First to die, almost instantly was Private Ferdinand Behn. Private Truston Wentworth was shot and would die the following day. Private Thomas Gainor was shot and believed close to death, but he would recover from the attack.

Lt. Hale gathered his man. Once armed, they set out to search La Paz for Edwards. Unable to find Edwards, Lt. Hale returned to board the steamer Cocopah. Lt. Hale and his men returned to Fort Yuma along with their dead and wounded the following day.

Almost immediately upon returning, Lt. Hale was put in command of a fully supplied contingent of forty Union troops which returned to La Paz to hunt for Edwards. The Union soldiers stayed on his trail and tracked Edwards into the desert. It was in the desert that they found him there several days later. He was dead. The cowardly Confederate sympathizer who shot three unarmed Union troops apparently died of exposure and dehydration.

After that, it's said that whether his men were on a work detail, routine duty, or even a night in town, Lt. Hale never allowed his men to go unarmed again. Sadly, the need to be armed in a hostile land was a lesson Deputy U.S. Marshal George W. Leihy would learn the hard way in 1866.

Tom Correa

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