Battle of Valverde: Confederates Invade New Mexico
February 19th, 2010 by Siggurdsson
Today in Military History – February 21, 1862 There are many “unknown” stories about the American Civil War (or the “War of Northern Aggression,” or the “Great Unpleasantness” if you’re so inclined) about which the casual reader does not likely know. This is one of those stories. In the 1850’s, the New Mexico Territory (the modern-day states of Arizona, New Mexico and the southern tip of Nevada) was a land of mountains, deserts, Apaches and mining camps. A lack of Federal troops kept the residents fearful of Indian attacks. The slavery question was also a hot topic of discussion. There was also a problem with the mail delivery in the territory, causing the people to lose faith in the ability of the faraway Federal government to effectively take care of them. Consequently, in July 1860 a convention of settlers from the southern part of the territory was held in Tucson. The attendees drafted a constitution for a “Territory of Arizona,” which consisted of that part of the New Mexico Territory south of the 34th Parallel to the Mexican border. Northern congressmen, however, chose not to recognize this new territory, fearing it would eventually become a slave-holding state. Eight months after the initial organizing convention, a secession convention was held in the town of Mesilla, New Mexico. On March 16, 1861 the delegates to this convention declared their intent to align themselves with the Confederacy. A second secession convention was held in Tucson on March 28 for the western areas of the proposed “Territory of Arizona.” Those delegates concurred with their eastern brothers in short order. A provisional territorial Confederate governor was chosen, and a delegate was sent to Richmond to petition the Confederacy for recognition. Though it took nearly a year, that recognition was proclaimed by President Jefferson Davis on February 14, 1862. One week later, the first battle of the New Mexico Campaign took place. In January, 1862 Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley (inventor of the Sibley tent and the Sibley stove) left San Antonio, Texas to invade New Mexico Territory. General Sibley was a 24-year military veteran, graduating from West Point in 1838. He served against the Seminole Indians, fought in the Mexican War, and served in the Mormon Expedition of 1857-1858. Sibley was also a part of federal forces that “occupied” Texas after its 1845 annexation to the U.S., as well as military units that sought to quell disturbances in Kansas in 1854 and later. Sibley had three objectives to achieve in the New Mexico Campaign: a) provide military support for “Confederate Arizona;” b) capture Union-garrisoned forts in the territory to suppress any possible invasion of western Texas, and to capture needed supplies; and, c) take control of the Santa Fe Trail, with the possibility of threatening the gold fields of California and Colorado, or even have access to the warm-water ports of the Golden State. He commanded a force of about 2600 men, Texans for the most part. Much of the force was cavalry and “mounted infantry,” with some artillery also present. His opponent was Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, a West Point classmate – though he graduated a year later – and brother-in-arms in several of the same postings and conflicts as Sibley. Canby also served as one of the judges at Sibley’s court martial during the Mormon Expedition (Sibley was acquitted). Canby commanded Fort Craig, a frontier outpost located 105 miles north of Las Cruces, NM. It normal garrison of 2000 men had recently been supplemented by 5 regiments of New Mexico Volunteer Infantry – the 1st Regiment was commanded by Col. Kit Carson, the guide, mountain man and former sidekick of John C. Fremont. Fort Craig now boasted a force of about 3000 men, including two batteries of cannon. There were so many men now quartered in the fort that many of the volunteer units had to pitch their tents outside the fort’s walls. Gen. Sibley sent scouts to reconnoiter Fort Craig, hoping to launch an assault, capturing the outpost with little loss of life. However, the scouts were taken in by an elaborate ruse: Canby’s men erected “Quaker guns,” fake wooden cannon on the fort’s walls, as well as placing empty soldiers’ caps next to the fraudulent guns. Sibley was convinced he could not take the fort by storm. Finally, on February 18, with his men’s rations running low, Sibley ordered his column to advance. Following the Rio Grande northward, Sibley sought to find a ford close to Fort Craig, hoping to lure the Union forces out for a set-piece battle. Early on the morning of February 21, Col. Canby’s own scouts reported the Confederate movement, and he sent a column of infantry, cavalry and artillery out to guard the Valverde ford. The Union cavalry, slowed down by the foot soldiers and cannon, rode ahead to take possession of the Valverde ford. Meanwhile, the Rebels scouts had discovered the Federals guarding the ford, blocking their passage to the western side of the Rio Grande. The invaders deployed behind an old riverbed, which offered excellent defensive possibilities. Another physical feature nearby was a volcanic escarpment called Black Mesa. Col. Canby ordered most of the fort’s garrison to Valverde, leaving behind some New Mexico militia to garrison the fort. Crossing to the eastern Rio Grande bank, Canby arrayed his forces to contest the Confederate attack. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, Rebel reinforcements arrived and joined the battle line. General Sibley, however, was not among them; he apparently spent the majority of the battle in his camp. One chronicler states that Sibley was drunk and unable to perform his duties. Finally, at about 2 o’clock the first blow of the battle was struck. Company B of the 5th Texas Mounted Rifles charged what they thought was a New Mexico militia company. The Texans mounted a lancer charge, hoping to chase the “inexperienced” Union troops from the field. However, their target turned out to be a Colorado militia company that repelled their charge handily, sending the Texas scurrying back to their lines. The Texas then simply rearmed with pistols and shotguns and resumed the fight. Inconclusive fighting went on for some time, as Canby ascertained that he could not mount a massive frontal assault on the Confederate position. He, therefore, determined to attack the Rebel left flank, repositioning his men accordingly. Unfortunately, he redeployment weakened his center – where his six precious cannon were located – leaving them to be guarded by New Mexican militia. Seeing the threat to his left, Confederate commander Col. Tom Green ordered an assault by his left to forestall the Union attack. The Rebels were thrown back in retreat, with Union soldiers hard in pursuit. Col. Green then took a bold step to win the battle. Seeing the weakness in the Union center, he ordered an attack by his right wing on the enemy artillery. Three waves of 750 Rebels, most of them armed with shotguns and pistols, attacked the artillery positions, chasing off the New Mexican militia and taking the guns. A Union cavalry counterattack failed to dislodge the Confederates, and the Union position was broken. Most of the Federals routed back to Fort Craig, although Col. Canby did rally a sufficient force to cover the retreat. He also sent a request to his old comrade-in-arms for a truce to gather his dead and wounded. Gen. Sibley generously granted the request, and the Rebels claimed the field of battle. Casualties of the battle were as follows: 111 Union dead, 160 wounded, 204 missing or captured; Confederate casualties were somewhere between 150 and 230 men killed and wounded (three different sources cite completely different figures). However, the victors were still in a precarious position. Their supplies of food, water and other stores were attacked and burned by Union militiamen, and many of the Rebels’ mules and horses had been run off. Gen. Sibley had hoped to take Fort Craig to relieve his supply problem. After the battle, Sibley demanded the fort’s surrender; not unexpectedly, Canby refused. Sibley also received reports that a column of Union soldiers was marching east from California, intent on reinforcing Canby and the other outposts in the vicinity. Without supplies, Sibley left the vicinity of the fort on February 23, marching north in an attempt to take Albuquerque, Santa Fe, or some of the other Union-held posts in the territory. Fun Fact #1: After the Civil War ended, Gen. Sibley sought employment oversea. He eventually ended up in Egypt, as a military advisor to the Khedive. He returned to the U.S., settled in Fredericksburg, VA and died penniless in August, 1886 at the age of 70. He is buried in the Fredericksburg City Cemetery. Fun Fact #2: Gen. Sibley is also a minor character – with about five to ten seconds of screen time – in the 1966 movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Fun Fact #3: Gen. Sibley had a distant cousin, Henry Hastings Sibley, who was also in the military. As a colonel of state militia, Henry Hastings Sibley in 1862 led forces that put down a Sioux Indian uprising in Minnesota. The next year, as a brigadier general of volunteers, he led an expedition against the Sioux into the Dakota Territory. Prior to the American Civil War in 1858, Henry Hastings Sibley served as the first governor of the newly-admitted state of Minnesota. Fun Fact #4: When Arizona was admitted to the union in 1912, its date of statehood was set for February 14 – exactly 50 years after it was granted recognition as a territory by Confederate President Davis.
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