Burnside's Carbine & The Mowry-Cross Affair

Some Civil War guns made history in other eras as well. For many, like the Spencer, the other era was that of the Indian Wars which heated up after the close of the Late Unpleasantness. A few though played bit parts in the turbulent times that preceded the shelling of Fort Sumter. The most well known of these were Beecher's Bibles, the Sharps carbines sent to Kansas by the Immigrant Aid Society of Massachusetts. But the Burnside also had its moment of notoriety.

Sylvester Mowry was one of the true characters produced by the old west. An army officer and West Point graduate, in the 1850s, he bought into a rich silver mine in the southern Arizona mountains. On July 31st, 1858, he resigned his commission to seek a fortune in mining. Although originally from Providence, Rhode Island, his ardent southern sympathies were eclipsed only by a love and promotion of the Arizona Territory. He was variously known as the greatest booster of Arizona, or its most unabashed charlatan, depending on who was describing him.

Edward Cross published the Arizonian in Tubac, the first newspaper in the territory. While little more than a ghost town today, Tubac in the 1850's was one of the more influential centers of civilization in the territory. Its newspaper was widely read and reported back east. Cross was a Union man and also a bit more realistic in his description of life on the frontier. Cross and Mowry had a simmering feud.

Things really got out of hand late in 1859. Mowry reported back east that, among other things, the rivers of Arizona teamed with fish. On hearing this, Cross editorialized that the "Mowry Trout" of Arizona, while common enough, were a peculiar breed that grew only to the size of a man's finger. The piece found print as far east as St. Louis.

Well, that did it! On his next trip to Tubac, Mowry suggested that Mr. Cross might want to settle things on the field of honor. Cross's reply, "Burnside's carbines at 40 paces". Word spread like wildfire and soon the whole Santa Cruz valley had chosen up sides.

On the appointed morning, September 8th, 1859, a large part of Arizona Territory was in Tubac for the big event. One thoughtful fellow even brought along a 42 gallon barrel of whisky to celebrate (or perhaps drown his sorrows). Some say that many began celebrating even before the day's events had unfolded.

Both Cross and Mowry were reported to be handy with their carbines. But, a stiff wind was blowing across the field. Three volleys had been exchanged when on the fourth, Mowry's carbine failed to take fire. The seconds met and determined that the former officer should get his shot. Cross laid his gun aside and folded his arms across his chest. Mowry proceeded to take careful aim, then raised the muzzle with a flourish and let his bullet fly skyward, declaring honor satisfied. The two men shook hands as the crowd cheered.

One has to wonder if the antagonists were considering the consequences as they faced each other. They were both excellent shots after all. But remember the circumstances. Two feuding factions in town, well mixed and plenty of whisky. Sort of sounds like a recipe for disaster.

While Cross prospered after the war, history was not kind to Sylvestor Mowry. When the Confederates were run out of Arizona in mid 1862 by the California Column, Mowry's mine was nationalized and he became a guest of Uncle Sam in Yuma prison. Soon released, he was exiled. After the war, he sued the Federal territorial commander and eventually did collect $40,000 for his lost mine and town. He never regained his pre-war success though and died October 17th 1871 at the age of 38. At the time he was in England trying to raise money for yet another mining venture, this one in New Mexico.

Both Mowry's and Cross's Burnside carbines are lost to history, save for a photograph of Mowry holding his rare first model. This interesting reminder is preserved in the Tubac Presideo Museum.

(c) 1998 by A. M. Beck

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