February 21, 1862 – Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico began its mission to conquer the New Mexico Territory, culminating in a fight at a ford on the Rio Grande.
As the year began, Sibley began his drive into the territory by advancing from El Paso, Texas, to Fort Thorn at present-day Hatch, New Mexico. His force consisted of three infantry regiments and the 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers, which totaled about 2,600 men.
Sibley planned to destroy Colonel Edward R.S. Canby’s 3,800-man Federal garrison at Fort Craig, 80 miles up the Rio Grande. From there, Sibley sought to capture Albuquerque and the territorial capital at Santa Fe, and then move into either the Colorado Territory or California (he had already put this plan in motion by dispatching 60 Confederates to capture Tucson).
The Confederates advanced northward out of Fort Thorn, with the Texans in the lead. Canby, aware of Sibley’s plan, deployed scouts and bolstered defenses while awaiting his arrival. The Confederates moved to within about a mile south of the fort on February 16. Unwilling to attack Canby’s strong defenses, the Confederates hoped to lure the Federals out to fight them in the open floodplains. Canby would not oblige.
With Sibley out due to recurring kidney disease, Colonel Tom Green met with his fellow Confederate officers to discuss their options. They could not wait Canby out because their supplies were dwindling. Thus they decided to cross to the east side of the Rio Grande, move north past Fort Craig, and seize Valverde Ford, a key point on Canby’s supply line five miles above the fort. If the Confederates could control the ford, they could live off the Federal supplies coming along that route and force Canby to come out and try taking it back.
The Confederates moved out on the 19th, crossing the Rio Grande and camping for the night at Paraje de Fra Cristobal. Federal scouts reported the move, leading Canby to conclude that Sibley aimed to occupy the bluff overlooking Fort Craig. He dispatched two regiments under Colonels Miguel Pino and Christopher “Kit” Carson to block them.
The Confederate march resumed the next morning, with Sibley in an ambulance due to either illness or drunkenness. The men struggled forward in deep sand until they ascended the bluff and saw a large Federal force awaiting them at Valverde Ford. Sibley (or Green) trained artillery fire on the Federals, who responded with cannon of their own. The 5th Texas then charged the Federal line and sent the enemy rushing back to Fort Craig as night fell.
The fighting intensified on the 21st, as a large Federal force met the Confederate advance toward Valverde Ford. The Confederates fell back, and the Federals crossed the river in pursuit, pushing the outnumbered Texans into a ravine where they made a defensive stand. A brief lull ensued around 2 p.m. while the Federals brought their artillery across to the east side of the river.
Canby arrived on the scene and, determining that the Confederate line was too strong to attack frontally, directed his men to attack the enemy’s left flank. The Federals fended off a reckless cavalry charge as they prepared their assault. But then Green sent nearly his entire force forward in a full-scale frontal attack that the Federals had not expected.
The Confederates soon approached a six-gun artillery battery led by Captain Alexander McRae. Canby reported: “Armed with double barreled fowling pieces and revolvers, and converging as they approached, a rapid and destructive fire was poured into the battery.” The Confederates captured the guns and killed McRae after desperate fighting, a remarkable feat considering that most of the men were armed with just shotguns, muskets, and revolvers.
The Confederates then turned the cannon on the Federals, compelling many of the unseasoned volunteers to run back to Fort Craig. Canby initially believed that he could still win before acknowledging “that to prolong the contest would only add to the number of our casualties without changing the result.” He ordered a retreat, leaving his dead, wounded, and artillery on the east side of the Rio Grande.
A Confederate pursuit ended when Green accepted Canby’s flag of truce to collect the dead and wounded; both sides spent the next several days tending to the casualties. The Federals lost 263 men (68 killed, 160 wounded, and 35 missing) while Sibley lost 187 (36 killed, 150 wounded, and one missing). Most of the Federal casualties occurred during the Confederates’ full-scale frontal attack, which had turned the tide of the battle.
The nine-hour fight ended with the Federals falling back to Fort Craig, just as Sibley had hoped. But holding Valverde Ford proved untenable because the Confederates had just three days’ rations and not enough firepower to blow Canby into submission. Sibley therefore resolved to continue northward to Albuquerque, where the Federals had $250,000 worth of supplies. Although Sibley did not destroy Canby as planned, he now hoped to starve Canby out by cutting his northern supply routes at Albuquerque and Santa Fe. However, Canby’s Federals remained a threat to Confederate communication lines.
News of this Confederate victory, which did not reach the eastern states until weeks later, boosted flagging southern morale after a series of defeats in the East. Meanwhile, Sibley continued his northward advance.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 776; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 296; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 103, 110-13; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 23-27; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 173; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 287-88; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 528-29; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 687