Post hoc ergo propter hoc

The historian’s primary tools are logic and primary sources. Hang on to both. One of my favorite logical fallacies is: Post hoc ergo propter hoc. It happened first therefore it must be the cause. The sun rose in the sky and then Joe shot Bill. Obviously, the sun rising was the cause of Bill’s demise. Perhaps it would make more sense if we offered some background. The judge decreed that Max should be taken to the state’s execution chamber and executed at the stroke of midnight. Max was strapped in the chair, the clock struck 12, Max died. Was the clock striking 12 the cause of Max’s demise? That sounds a bit silly nonetheless this is a common logical fallacy.

It sounds better when that which happened seems to bear some plausible relationship to what happened later. The problem is that it often ignores wider and more important causes. Lieutenant Bascom is credited with starting the Cochise War (1861-1872) by trying to take Cochise hostage. This certainly isn’t what anyone had to say in 1861. Everyone respected what Bascom had done.

But the story began to change. In 1867, Reuben Bernard, returning to Arizona, inserted the “Wise Sergeant” into the story. Bascom became unreasonable and unwilling to take advice. Bascom was 7th Infantry, Bernard was 1st Dragoons. Bernard wasn’t Bascom’s sergeant. Yet, this is where the story begins that Bascom was to blame for starting the war. Governor Safford met briefly met with Cochise in 1872 and returned with tales embellishing the story. Charles Poston separated the taking of Felix Ward and Bascom’s patrol to get the boy back by four months when in fact the response had been immediate. Oberly made Bascom out an out of control drunk. And that was how the story came to Farish, Arizona’s first historian. He can’t be blamed for reporting hearsay. It was all he had to work with. The Cochise War began in 1861, so Bascom must have been the cause. Bascom died early in the Civil War and was unable to defend his reputation.

Starting about 1960, scholars, Utley, Sacks, Altshuler, began locating primary documentation, the reports of men who had actually been at Apache Pass with Bascom in 1861. They paint a very different picture. In the 1990s, McChristian and Ludwig turned up Sergeant Robinson’s account. Robinson was Bascom’s sergeant and respected him. We learn that Bascom objected to hanging the hostages but his opinion was outweighed by those of four officers present who all outranked him and none of whom complained of his behavior. We learn that the tortured and mutilated bodies of four Americans were found before anyone talked of hanging hostages. With all this negative evidence destroyed, we still find those who argue that the Cochise War begins with Bascom trying to take Cochise hostage.

For one thing, I see no evidence that Cochise was insane. We are told that angered at being called a liar and at being tricked by Bascom’s attempt to hold him hostage, without regard for the hostages Bascom had taken his wife and sons included, he tortured his own hostages and went on an 11-year rampage that took 5,000 lives. I’m more inclined to see Cochise as a reasonable man, a great leader and a bit nervous around the military. What is hidden in the Cochise the maniac, Bascom the cause story, is all the real issues that led to war. Cochise had not been at peace before 1861, but he had been circumspect. He took livestock and returned it when caught. In November 1860, he stole 15 mules from Bascom’s unit at Fort Buchanan. He’d made threats against the Overland Mail. He’d had three bad years and his people needed food. He was negotiating for annuities from the government of Sonora. Live in the U.S., take U.S. annuities, raid Sonora. Accept Sonoran annuities, raid the U.S. The Civil War was starting. First the Overland Mail withdrew and then the army and then the settlers. Cochise thought he’d won the war. His father-in-law, Mangas Coloradas was murdered by the military. Then after the Civil War the military returned. Cochise wanted peace. Two things stood in the way. Cochise didn’t trust the army. The army didn’t want peace.

In the face of all of this, Bascom’s breaking of trust looks rather minor. It’s a factor among many. It’s a point in time. Before Bascom there is relative peace, afterwards there is open warfare. Bascom comes first, therefore he must be the cause. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

About dhocking

Doug Hocking is an independent scholar who has completed advanced studies in American history, ethnology and historical archaeology. He grew up on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation and attended school among the Indios and paisanos of the Rio Arriba (Northern New Mexico). He retired from the military as an armored cavalry (scout) officer. His novels immerse the reader in the times, terrain and cultures of 19th century New Mexico. Doug lives near Tombstone with his wife, dogs and a feral cat. He writes both fiction and history and is currently working on a biography of Tom Jeffords and has two historical novels in print: Massacre at Point of Rocks and Mystery of Chaco Canyon. His articles have appeared in True West, Wild West, Buckskin Bulletin and Roundup.
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