The Army of New Mexico

By Keli Holt

The Army of New Mexico marched forth from Texas in October 1861, under the command of Confederate Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley. With the blessing of the Confederate Government in Virginia, the army was to invade New Mexico, follow the Rio Grande north to Colorado, and then turn west to seize California. Confederates dreamed of a southern railroad linking Charleston, S.C., and Houston to San Diego, thus easing the journey of southern slaves to future southwestern plantations. Sibley calculated that the people of the Southwest, still under federal Union control, would rally to support the southern cause.

In February 1861, the Confederate States of America separated from the North after Republican Abraham Lincoln’s election the preceding November. America’s bloodiest war began with the Confederate bombing of federal Fort Sumter in South Carolina in April 1861 and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 Union recruits the next day.

While most of the fighting would take place on the Atlantic Coast and along the Mississippi River, the Confederate government did not ignore the American Southwest. Confederate Pres. Jefferson Davis commanded Gen. Sibley to raise a volunteer army from Texas with the purpose of seizing the lands so recently taken from Mexico during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The ultimate goal was to reach the gold mines of Colorado and California, supplying the Confederacy with much-needed bullion. About 3,200 Texans volunteered, although more than 700 were lost to disease and Apache raids before entering New Mexican territory.

Texas had laid claim to all the land east of the Rio Grande (including Albuquerque and Santa Fe) up to its headwaters in Colorado since Texan independence from Mexico in 1836. In 1841, a small band of Texans had even led a failed invasion of New Mexico. When Texas became a state in 1845, it still held onto dreams of a Rio Grande border all the way to Colorado. However, the federal government with the Compromise of 1850 forced Texas to abandon its claims on New Mexico in return for financial compensation. With the secession of the Confederacy in 1861, American law no longer bound Texas, and Texans were on the march again.

By February 1862, the Army of New Mexico had reached the Union-held Fort Craig, south of Socorro. Col. Edward Canby and 4,000 Spanish-speaking New Mexican volunteers manned this Union fort. As in the Eastern theatre, the Civil War in the Southwest pitted friends and family members against one another, and Col. Canby and the Confederate Sibley were not only former West Point classmates but related by marriage.

With only 2,500 men remaining, Sibley calculated that a frontal assault on Fort Craig would be suicidal. Unbeknownst to Sibley, many of the “guns” defending Fort Craig were Quaker guns – essentially pine logs painted black to look like cannons. To bypass the fort’s defenses, the Confederates crossed the Rio Grande north of Fort Craig, and then re-crossed near Valverde, which was in Union-held New Mexico Territory. Sibley hoped to draw the Union forces out of Fort Craig and into a battle against his cavalry. Canby recognized Sibley’s march north placed the Union Army between Sibley and his supply line to Texas.

Union commander Canby thus authorized a daring attack on Confederate supplies. Strapping shells and dynamite to the backs of two mules, union soldiers crept within listening distance of the Confederate lines and lit the fuse. The explosion created a stampede of Confederate animals that ran straight toward awaiting Union soldiers. The Confederates could ill afford to lose so many animals this far from their line of supply.

Desperate for a victory on New Mexican soil as well as access to water, the Confederates advanced on the village of Valverde. Sibley got his wish for an open battle as Union forces marched out from Fort Craig to block further Confederate advances. The subsequent Battle of Valverde was the bloodiest battle ever fought on New Mexican soil. Launching their own version of the “rebel yell” that would so terrify Union troops in the east, Sibley’s Texans rushed Union lines. The Confederates made some gains, but Union guns pushed back the attacking soldiers. In the only lancer charge of the Civil War, Sibley’s cavalry rode straight into awaiting Union guns with swords drawn. The resulting massacre demonstrated the advancements in battlefield technology that would make the Civil War so devastatingly bloody.

While the Confederates managed to regroup from the failed lancer charge, push the Union troops off the field of battle, and capture a few Union guns, it was a pyrrhic victory for the Confederacy. With no reinforcements from Texas, Sibley could not absorb high casualty rates of men or horses. His decision to bypass Fort Craig and head north to Albuquerque left the Union army between the Army of New Mexico and its supply lines to Texas.

To be continued….

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