Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor had left San Antonio in May with a force of about 1,000 men of the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles. He advertised that his force was embarking on a “buffalo hunt,” but his true purpose was to invade the New Mexico Territory and claim the Southwest. 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.
When Baylor reached Fort Bliss near El Paso in mid-July, his force had dwindled to just 258 men. Undaunted, Baylor led them out of Fort Bliss and across the Rio Grande on the 23rd. They advanced 45 miles north to Fort Fillmore. This was one of several Federal forts that had been built for soldiers to protect westward settlers from hostile Native Americans. Fillmore was garrisoned by 10 companies of the 7th U.S. Infantry under Major Isaac Lynde, who had been sent by Colonel Edward R.S. Canby to defend the region. The Federals outnumbered Baylor’s force by about 2-to-1.
Colonel Earl Van Dorn, commanding the Confederate Department of Texas, hoped that Baylor’s men could capture Fort Fillmore and its defenders with a surprise attack. The Texans reached Mesilla on the night of the 24th, and Baylor finalized plans for the assault. He was going to launch an all-out attack on Fillmore and force the Federals to surrender by cutting off their access to the Rio Grande. But one of his men deserted and informed Major Lynde of the plan.
The next morning, Baylor found out that the Federals had been tipped off. Changing his plan, Baylor led his remaining men across the Rio Grande and entered the small town of Mesilla, six miles away. Townspeople gathered to greet Baylor’s arrival with “vivas” and “hurrahs,” as Confederates considered Mesilla (and Fort Fillmore) to be the territorial capital of Confederate Arizona. The Texans were reinforced by a contingent of Arizona Confederates.
That day, Lynde left a token force at Fillmore and led about 380 Federals and two guns to confront Baylor at Mesilla. Lynde was reluctant to attack the Confederates because the area was too barren to sustain his men and livestock. But Baylor’s occupation of Mesilla left him no choice.
Baylor’s men took positions on hills, adobe houses, and a corral south of town, where they could see the dust clouds being formed by the advancing Federals. Lynde sent an aide into Mesilla to demand an “unconditional and immediate surrender,” but Baylor responded, “We would fight a little first.” Lynde formed a skirmish line and opened fire with his two howitzers. The infantry was slowed by thick sand and dust, and a feeble cavalry charge was repulsed. Lynde regrouped his command and decided not to try again, instead withdrawing back to Fort Fillmore. Baylor thought the move was a ruse and opted not to pursue.
At dawn on the 26th, Colonel Baylor left a detachment at Mesilla and led his main force on a forced march in pursuit of Major Lynde’s Federals. The Confederates had lost 20 horses in the previous day’s engagement, and when the townspeople charged exorbitant prices for replacement mounts, Baylor resolved to capture the Federals’ horses by bombarding Fort Fillmore into submission.
Lynde expected an attack and had his men dig earthworks around the fort. But as the Confederates moved into attack position, a 25-man squad 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 loss of most of the Federal transportation convinced Lynde that he would not be able to withstand the attack that would surely begin the next day.
Without consulting his officers, Lynde ordered his command to evacuate Fort Fillmore. They would head into the Organ Mountains on their way to the water at San Augustine Springs, 20 miles east. From there, Lynde would lead his men 140 miles north to Fort Stanton. 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.
When Baylor discovered that Fillmore had been abandoned, he sent a detachment to extinguish the fires set by the Federals while the main force pursued Lynde’s command. The Federals began straggling in the heat, and the Confederates began catching up with them about 30 miles outside Mesilla. As the day wore on, more Federal troops fell out and were taken prisoner. They 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, the Confederates came across “fainting, famished soldiers, who threw down their arms… and begged for water.”
Lynde rode ahead of his men and saw that San Augustine Springs had little water. 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. Finally, Lynde ordered a white flag raised and asked for surrender terms. Baylor offered the same terms that Lynde had given him at Mesilla two days earlier. Over his subordinates’ protests, Lynde agreed.
Baylor and Lynde 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 Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, by way of Santa Fe. Many soldiers went mad with thirst on the journey. Baylor’s men were given Federal Springfield muskets and other captured equipment. They also seized $17,000 in U.S. bank notes and the colors of the 7th U.S. Infantry as they returned to Fort Fillmore and Mesilla.
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. Federals at Fort Stanton soon retreated toward Albuquerque and Santa Fe. This left the territory void of Federals (except for Fort Craig) south of the 34th parallel, and it opened the path for Confederates to seize the Southwest all the way to California.
Lynde tried to explain his actions to Colonel Canby: “I considered our case hopeless; that it was worse than useless to resist.” But Lynde was severely criticized for surrendering his command, and in November, President Abraham Lincoln discharged him from the army for “abandoning his post–Fort Fillmore, N. Mex.–on the 27th of July, 1861, and subsequently surrendering his command to an inferior force of insurgents.” Lynde was later added to the army retirement list.
Upon his triumphant return to Fort Fillmore, Baylor welcomed former U.S. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston and his California party. Johnston and 35 others had resigned from the Department of the Pacific to join the Confederacy, avoiding 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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