Will Croft Barnes was born in San Francisco on June 21, 1858, and spent his earliest years in Gold Hill, Nevada. His father died when Will was only seven. During the following years he and his mother lived in LaPorte, Indiana, then at Lake Calhoun, Minnesota, and finally in Indianapolis, Indiana. In Indianapolis he sang in a choir with James Whitcomb Riley.

On July 1, 1879 twenty-one-year-old Will Barnes enlisted in the U.S. Army in Washington, D.C., for five years. The Army assigned him to the Signal Corps as a second-class private and sent him to the signal school at Fort Whipple, soon to become Fort Myer, on Arlington Heights across the river from Washington. At Whipple he learned military signaling, which included the use of both wigwag and the electric telegraph, and the rudiments of meteorology. Barnes qualified as a telegrapher and assistant weather observer by early January 1880. Barnes' assignment took him across the continent, for he was ordered to San Diego, a divisional headquarters of the military telegraph. En route to San Diego he had to go via Pioche, Nevada to deliver to the Signal Corps telegraph operator and weather assistant at that place two barometers, one of which Barnes described as a four-foot mercurial instrument that he had to keep in an upright position. On January 13, 1880, while en route to San Digeo, Barnes became a first-class private in the Signal Corps. Upon arriving at San Diego Barnes received orders to report to Fort Apache, Arizona. As of February 19, 1880, Barnes had the dual responsibility of post telegrapher and weather observer.

The Signal Corps had brought Fort Apache into its weather reporting service on June 28, 1878, somewhat less than a year after the arrival of the telegraph at the post. The station there was a so-called "first-class" station, which meant that it was supposed to take "six complete meteorological observations daily," three of which, together with a sunset prediction, were to be telegraphed to the Office of the Chief Signal Officer in Washington. Since the principal observations had to be made according to mean time because they were taken simultaneously with those at other reporting stations, the Fort Apache operator had to make his first daily report long before the crack of dawn.

"There could be no fudging on this business," Barnes recalled, "for, the instruments had to be read at 3:39, the report made out and put into code all ready for the call signals which came over the wire from El Paso, Texas, at exactly 4 a.m. If you weren't there to answer, you had a painful few moments of wire conference with the Chief Operator, who was a commissioned officer. Yuma was the most westerly station we had, and it sent the first report. Then, each man, listening to his fellows, picked up the report, in his turn, ticked off his ten or fifteen cipher words, signed his initials, got the "O.K." from El Paso and went back to bed. This happened four times every blessed day, rain or shine, peace or war, Indians or no Indians, unless the line was down; which it often was. Even then, we had to record the weather and make our report by mail. The last word in our code message at 9 p.m. was our prognostication, "fair," or "foul," as to the ruling weather for the next twenty-four hours. Prescott was at one end of a branch wire from the main line, Apache at the other. It was some five hundred miles around that vast U, and about one hundred and fifty across its upper end. I soon discovered that during an average period if it was clear and lovely at Apache, and Prescott predicted "foul" for the next twenty-four hours at that place, it was safe to predict "fair" for Apache that time, but to make it "foul" for the next day's prophecy. Nearly all storms came from the west, and the rule generally held good during the seasons when storms were to be expected."

From the beginning Barnes took his telegraphic and meteorological duties seriously, for Second Lieutenant William A. Glassford, who had been a year ahead of Barnes in the Signal School at Fort Whipple, inspected the Fort Apache station in December 1880 and found it "in excellent condition," the "books and records neatly and accurately kept," and Private Barnes himself "very highly spoken of."

In August of 1881, while most of the Fort Apache troops were on their way back from the defeat by Apaches at Cibecue, the few remaining soldiers at the Fort were told that a group of Indians was on its way to attack Fort Apache. The nearest help would be from Camp Thomas, ninety miles away. Telegraph wires had been cut between Camp Thomas and Fort Apache the day before and two men had gone out ten miles but couldn't fine the breaks. So Will Barnes and a man named Owens volunteered to travel along different trails to find the break. That evening when Owens rode to a spring near an Apache camp to water his horse, he was killed. As Will Barnes approached an Apache camp, he tied each hoof of his horse with a piece of saddle blanket to muffle the sound of horseshoes on rocks. He made it across the creek so quietly that the Apaches didn't realize he was there until after he had crossed. They fired, but missed. Fortunately Barnes eventually met a detail from Camp Thomas en route to Fort Apache. The next day they were able to repair the telegraph line in several places where the wire had been cut and dragged away. Communication was reestablished. Reinforcements came from Camp Thomas and the Apaches didn't dare attack.

For these and other actions Barnes was awarded the Medal of Honor. The official record in Barnes' case shows a commendation by Major Cochran (in command at Fort Apache) and a formal recommendation by Colonel Eugene A. Carr, the commander of the 6th Cavalry Regiment, temporarily in command of the post in the spring of 1881. Cochran, after briefly describing Barnes' work, commended his conduct "during all the trouble" at Fort Apache "in the highest terms," saying that "he was prompt and unhesitating in the discharge of all duties assigned him, more than once being exposed to great danger." Carr, writing from Fort Apache recommended Barnes, for "his gallantry in action in the attack by Indians on the post September 1st 1881. Besides this particular act of gallantry Pvt Barnes is entitled to great credit for good conduct & attention to duty during the trying period, from Aug 29th to Sept 10th, as well as at all times while on duty here, and particularly for going out with one man to repair the line, when it was supposed that Indians were lurking near the road."

On November 8, 1882, General William T. Sherman himself approved it as both the Commanding General of the Army and the Acting Secretary of War. As authorized, the inscription on the medal was to read: "The Congress to 1st Class Private Will C. Barnes, Signal Corps, for bravery in action, September 1st 1881, at Fort Apache, A.T." Barnes received the medal in a retreat ceremony at Fort Apache in the spring of 1883.

On June 1, 1882, the Signal Corps had promoted Barnes from a first-class private to a sergeant. In February 1883 an assistant weather observer was ordered to Fort Apache. Under date of July 19, 1883 Dr. C.H. Allen, the acting assistant surgeon at the post, signed a certificate of disability for Barnes' discharge, certifying that Barnes was "incapable of performing the duties of a soldier because of Hyperaemia of the Retina," and that he considered the "degree of disability to be about one-half."

After leaving the Army, Barnes became a cattleman in Holbrook, Arizona, was elected to Arizona's 18th Territorial Legislative Assembly, and wrote a number of books, including his Reminiscences ("Apaches and Longhorns: The Reminiscences of Will C. Barnes") and "Arizona Place Names", which is still the standard reference work today on geographic names. With the cattle business waning after the turn of the century, Barnes took a position in 1907 with the Forestry Department to develop and preserve grazing lands. In 1928 he worked for the U.S. Geographic Board. He retired from government service in 1930.

Will Barnes died very suddenly in Phoenix on December 17, 1936 following a prostatectomy. In 1937 Barnes' ashes were interred in Section 6 of Arlington National Cemetery where the simple marker over his grave bears the inscription: WILL CROFT BARNES / SERGEANT SIGNAL CORPS / UNITED STATES ARMY / 1858-1936 / MEDAL OF HONOR."

Military authorities in Arizona memorialized Barnes on January 11, 1958, unveiling a plaque in memory of Barnes at the dedication of the Will C. Barnes Memorial Field House at Fort Huachuca. The Army again honored Barnes on May 16, 1964, when it named the Army Reserve Center in Phoenix after him.

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