Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Ambush

Nov 14, 2019

This week, the nation is honoring military veterans with a federal holiday and countless stories of courage and bravery. Commentator Scott Thybony has his own story to mark the occasion. It took place more than a century ago and has slipped through the cracks of history until now. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Scott brings us the tale of Bernard Taylor, a soldier from the Winslow area, who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1874 for bravery under fire.

Historical artwork depicting soldier Bernard Taylor rescuing First Lieutenant Charles King during an ambush near Winslow
Credit Getty Images

We were heading west on Interstate 40 when a friend mentioned a soldier who had won the Medal of Honor not far from Winslow.  Never having heard about the incident, it comes as a surprise.  So I began digging into old military records and territorial newspapers wanting to know more. 

In 1874 a party of Tonto Apache slipped into the Verde Valley and ran off a herd of cattle.  Traveling on foot, they were capable of maintaining a steady jog all day.  Soldiers from Camp Verde rode in pursuit with a detachment of Yavapai Indian scouts.  In a scene resembling a Hollywood western, smoke signals rose above the red rocks warning the Apache of their approach.  The cavalrymen were forced to travel at night to avoid being detected.  Several days later they reached Sunset Pass late at night, and at dawn discovered fresh moccasin tracks. 

First Lieutenant Charles King set out to climb the nearby mesa, taking with him six scouts and Bernard Taylor, a young sergeant.  The other troopers remained in camp under the command of Second Lieutenant George Eaton, who stretched out to read The Last of the Mohicans.  King and his detail picked their way uphill toward the rim a thousand feet above. 

The site of the 1874 ambush that earned Sergeant Bernard Taylor the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery under fire
Credit Scott Thybony

          Near the top, they found a line of cliffs blocking the way.  The scouts recognized the danger ahead and refused to go further, leaving the lieutenant and sergeant to continue without them.  The soldiers soon split up, and King walked straight into an ambush.

Suddenly an arrow whizzed overhead and another ripped the flesh at the corner of his eye.  Gunshots followed, and he ducked behind a boulder with blood flowing across his face.  As King returned fire a bullet slammed into his right arm, smashing the bone.  Blood gushed from the wound as he took off, leaping from rock to rock until he fell hard, cutting a gash in his forehead.  Stunned, he lay still as a dozen Apache closed in.  Just then the sergeant arrived and opened fire with his carbine.  He lifted the wounded officer on his back and made a desperate run down the rocky slope with bullets and arrows flying around them. 

As the numbness wore off, the pain became excruciating.  King ordered the sergeant to leave him and save himself.  Taylor refused and carried the lieutenant for 300 yards before collapsing, utterly exhausted.  Just as the attackers were pressing in again, the soldiers from camp rushed up.  They had run uphill at full speed as soon as the shooting began.  “We managed to save Lieutenant King by seconds,” Eaton said, “rather than minutes.”

Bernard Taylor earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery under fire. Charles King not only survived his wound but also the treatment.  The army doctor prescribed a gallon of whiskey a day for the pain, and being a good soldier he followed the doctor’s orders.

After piecing together the story, I need to locate the actual site to place the action in a particular landscape.  A friend and I pull off at a locked gate in Sunset Pass south of Winslow.  With permission from the cow boss of a nearby ranch, we begin climbing the same slopes taken by the soldiers.  The higher we go, the more menacing the terrain becomes.  Dark cliffs form a barrier ahead, and a profusion of broken rock matches the old descriptions. 

Stormclouds build above the pass, and the two of us enter the site of the ambush.  By walking the ground, events from the past come into focus and my view of them changes.  The sudden explosion of violence on a November day in 1874 becomes a story of remarkable courage shown by a man who risked his life to save another. 

Scott Thybony is a Flagstaff-based writer. His Canyon Commentaries are produced by KNAU, Arizona Public Radio.