Confederates Retreat in New Mexico

April 13, 1862 – Colonel Edward R.S. Canby sought to unite all Federal forces in New Mexico, while Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico began a long withdrawal due to lack of supplies.

Brig Gen H.H. Sibley | Image Credit:
Brig Gen H.H. Sibley | Image Credit:

Sibley reunited his Confederate army in early April, after the Battle of Glorieta. The Confederates had driven the Federals back to Fort Union, but they lost nearly all their supplies in the process, leaving them in a barren territory with little to eat and no means of resupply. Even raiding the territorial treasury did little to solve the growing shortage, and dissension soon spread among the ranks.

To make matters worse, Canby, the overall Federal commander in the territory, hurried his Federals out of Fort Craig to confront the Confederates at Albuquerque and ultimately join forces with Colonel John P. Slough’s men at Fort Union. When Canby learned that the Confederates had withdrawn from Glorieta, he planned a campaign to expel them from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and the territory altogether.

At Fort Union, Slough turned his command over to Colonel Gabriel Paul, a much more experienced officer, and tendered his resignation from the army. Paul reorganized the force and led it out of the fort to Bernal Springs, 45 miles southwest, to meet up with Canby.

Canby’s men reached the outskirts of Albuquerque on the afternoon of the 8th, having marched 120 miles in a week. By that time, Sibley’s Confederates were withdrawing from both Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The small Confederate rear guard exchanged artillery fire with the Federals, but neither side inflicted damage.

Edward R.S. Canby | Image Credit:
Edward R.S. Canby | Image Credit:

The next day, Sibley began hurrying his men back to Albuquerque to take on Canby’s Federals before they could link with Paul. Both sides resumed trading artillery fire, again without damage. During the night, Canby directed his men to light campfires and the drummer boys and buglers to play music. He then led his troops on a sidestep to the east to bypass Sibley and move closer to Paul.

When Sibley’s Confederates began returning to Albuquerque around 10 p.m., they expected a fight the next day based on the sight of the Federal campfires and the sound of their music south of town. But Sibley quickly learned that he had arrived too late to prevent the Federals from joining forces. With his ammunition and supplies nearly gone in the face of a superior enemy, Sibley began evacuating Albuquerque on the 12th. This was the first leg of a long southward withdrawal to Mesilla and Fort Fillmore for resupply.

The Confederates burned anything they could not carry, but they took three howitzers plus two other cannon captured at Valverde in February. Sibley split the army in two columns, with each heading southward along either side of the Rio Grande. Meanwhile, Paul pushed his men on a 40-mile march to Tijeras, about 15 miles east of Albuquerque, to join forces with Canby. Once joined, Canby planned to destroy Sibley’s army before it could get away.

On the 15th, a Federal detachment captured the last seven Confederate wagons as they brought up the rear of Sibley’s retreat. That same day, the bulk of Canby’s force closed in on Colonel Tom Green’s 550-man portion of Sibley’s army at Peralta, about 20 miles southeast of Albuquerque. Canby hoped to seize the nearby ford on the Rio Grande and isolate each of Sibley’s columns on either side of the river.

The Federals tried maneuvering into position, but Confederate artillery held them in check. The Federals also had difficulty negotiating the irrigation canals and adobe walls throughout the town, which the Confederates used as a natural defense. Green hurriedly called for Sibley to bring the rest of his army across the ford before the Federals could take it.

Sibley’s men crossed to reinforce Green, and Canby halted to regroup and feed his hungry men. He planned to renew the assault later that day, but heavy dust winds prevented any action. That night, the Confederates forded the Rio Grande and reassembled at Los Lunas. Sibley quickly resumed his retreat along the river, with Canby pursuing along the opposite bank.

The dwindling Confederate army, now numbering just 1,800 men, came under threat not only from Canby to the north but a Federal detachment of 800 men under Christopher “Kit” Carson 100 miles south at Fort Craig. Sibley held a council of war and decided to bypass Fort Craig by marching away from the vital Rio Grande and into the Magdalena Mountains. The Confederates left all unnecessary supplies behind, along with their wagons carrying the sick and wounded.

Hunger and thirst ravaged the men and destroyed any semblance of army organization or morale. By the 21st, the army was spread out over 50 miles, with deserters surrendering to Canby just to survive. Canby stopped his pursuit at Fort Craig, confident that Sibley’s decimated force no longer posed a threat. Sibley’s dream of securing the land from Texas to the Pacific for the Confederacy ended in failure.


References (multiple dates); Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 302-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 135, 138-39; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 34-37; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 196-97, 199

One comment

Leave a Reply