July 27, 1861 – Federal troops retreating from Fort Fillmore surrendered to their pursuers, giving the Confederacy control of the southern New Mexico Territory.
After crossing the Rio Grande on July 23, Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor’s 258 men of the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles had advanced from Fort Bliss near El Paso as part of their “buffalo hunt” begun before the war to wrest the Southwest from U.S. control. This would provide the Confederacy with mineral resources and cattle while connecting Texas to California and the Pacific. Baylor had already proclaimed the southern New Mexico Territory to be the Confederate Territory of Arizona; now he planned to take it outright.
Baylor’s men moved 45 miles north to Fort Fillmore, one of several forts built to protect settlers moving westward from Texas. It was garrisoned by 10 companies of the 7th U.S. Infantry under Major Isaac Lynde, who had been sent by Major Edward R.S. Canby to defend the region. The Federals outnumbered Baylor’s men by about 2-to-1.
Baylor’s superior, General Earl Van Dorn, hoped that a surprise attack by the Texans could take the fort and its defenders. But as Baylor’s men approached, Lynde received orders to abandon Fillmore and fall back to Forts Craig and Stanton; after all, Fillmore had been built to defend against Native Americans, not Confederate artillery. Baylor, unaware of the fort’s weakness, planned to besiege Fillmore and cut off Federal access to the Rio Grande. Lynde did nothing to stop the Confederates, even after learning about Baylor’s plan from two Confederate deserters.
On the morning of July 25, Baylor found out that the deserters had tipped the Federals off. Changing his plan, Baylor led his 256 remaining men across the Rio Grande and entered the small town of Mesilla. Townspeople gathered to greet Baylor’s arrival with “vivas” and “hurrahs,” as Confederates considered Mesilla (and Fort Fillmore) to be part of Confederate Arizona.
That day Lynde marched his Federal troops out of Fort Fillmore six miles toward Mesilla. Lynde had expressed reluctance to attack the Confederates because the landscape was too barren to sustain his men and livestock. But Baylor’s occupation of Mesilla left him no choice.
Baylor’s men took up positions on hills, rooftops, and inside buildings, where they watched the dust kicked up by the advancing Federals. Lynde immediately sent an aide into Mesilla to demand an unconditional surrender, but Baylor replied that if Lynde wanted surrender, he had to come and force it. The Federals fired their howitzer and then launched a feeble ground attack that the Confederates repelled, killing three Federals and wounding six. Lynde withdrew back to Fort Fillmore.
At dawn on the 26th, Colonel Baylor left a small Confederate detachment at Mesilla and pursued Major Lynde’s Federals on a forced march to Fort Fillmore. The Confederates had lost 20 horses in yesterday’s engagement at Mesilla, and when the town residents charged exorbitant prices for replacement mounts, Baylor resolved to capture the Federal horses at Fillmore.
Lynde expected an attack and directed the digging of earthworks around the fort. But as the Confederates moved into attack position, a detachment of 25 men sneaked into the Federal herd, rounded up 85 horses and 26 mules, took the herd guards prisoner, and returned to Baylor’s main force. This convinced Lynde that he could not withstand the attack that would surely begin the next day.
Without consulting fellow officers, Lynde issued orders to retreat northeast to Fort Stanton, 154 miles beyond the Organ Mountains. This would be a dangerous move through the summer desert without horses. The Federals destroyed supplies they could not bring with them that night and prepared to evacuate at dawn. The withdrawal included over 100 of the officers’ wives and children.
Discovering that Fillmore had been abandoned, Baylor directed a detachment to extinguish the fires set by the Federals and sent his main force to pursue the enemy. The Federals began straggling in the desert heat, and Baylor began catching up with the stragglers about 30 miles outside Mesilla. As the day wore on, more Federal troops fell out and were taken prisoner.
Federals left behind equipment, weapons, and even their families along the retreat. The Confederates had fresh water to drink, but many Federals had replaced their water with medicinal whiskey before evacuating the fort. Consequently, several prisoners begged for water upon being captured.
Baylor caught up to Lynde’s main force four miles south of San Augustine Springs at a site now called Baylor’s Pass. Lynde ordered his men into line of battle, but being exhausted, their effort against the oncoming Confederates was feeble. Lynde finally offered to surrender over his subordinates’ protests.
Lynde and Baylor signed terms for the formal capitulation of some 500 to 600 Federal officers and men. The troops were paroled, given 50 old muskets, and ordered to withdraw to Santa Fé, and from there to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Many soldiers went mad with thirst on the journey. Baylor’s men obtained many new Springfield muskets, up to $17,000 in U.S. bank notes, and the colors of the 7th U.S. Infantry as they returned to Mesilla and Fort Fillmore.
Lynde’s surrender gave the Confederates control of the southern New Mexico Territory. Federals coming from Forts Breckinridge and Buchanan to reinforce Lynde now changed direction and headed toward Fort Craig, 100 miles north of Fort Fillmore on the Rio Grande. In addition, Federals at Fort Stanton soon retreated toward Albuquerque and Santa Fé. This left the territory void of Federals (except for Fort Craig) south of the 34th parallel, and it opened the path for Confederates to threaten southern California.
Federal officials severely censured Lynde for abandoning his post and dishonorably discharged him from the army in November for neglect of duty. However, Lynde was later added to the army retirement list.
Upon his triumphant return to Fort Fillmore, Baylor welcomed former Federal Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston and his California party. Johnston and 35 others had resigned from the Department of the Pacific to join the Confederacy, avoid Federal troops while traveling along the Butterfield Stage route. Johnston declined Baylor’s offer to temporarily command his force, instead seeking to hurry to Richmond. Meanwhile, Baylor began planning to administer the new Confederate Territory of Arizona.
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