As the year began, Confederate Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley began his mission to conquer the New Mexico Territory by advancing his forces from El Paso, Texas, to Fort Thorn at present day Hatch, New Mexico. His army 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 secure Tucson in present-day Arizona).
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.
Sibley had to step down due to recurring kidney disease (some alleged chronic drunkenness), and Colonel Tom Green took Confederate command. Green met with his fellow officers to discuss their options. They could not wait Canby out because their supplies were dwindling. They therefore 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 to take it back.
The Confederates moved out on the 19th, struggling up the Rio Grande in deep sand and camping for the night at Paraje de Fra Cristobal, about a mile and a half east of Fort Craig. They had no water or horses. 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 Confederates spotted the move and opened fire, prompting Canby to order the Federals back to Fort Craig.
The Confederate march resumed the next morning, with Sibley riding along in an ambulance. 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 fire of their own. The 5th Texas then charged the Federal line and sent the enemy rushing back to Fort Craig as night fell.
The 21st began cloudy and cold, with Sibley still “quite unwell.” The Confederates were almost as demoralized by their previous day’s victory as the Federals were in defeat. Fighting resumed when 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.
Expecting to press on and capture Fort Craig, the Confederates were shocked when Sibley suddenly emerged from his ambulance at 7 p.m., “stood up, took command, and ordered no advance on the retreating army.” The engagement 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. Canby later received a promotion to brigadier general for this engagement, but his officers criticized him for calling a retreat and asserted that had he held his ground, Sibley would have had to eventually return to San Antonio. Sibley’s officers were also unhappy with their commander for not attacking and capturing Fort Craig. According to Captain Alexander Lee, “The battle of Valverde ought to have settled the question of the conquest of New Mexico by 7 o’clock of the same night.”
The Confederates now controlled Valverde Ford, but they only had three days’ rations and not enough firepower to blow Canby into submission. Sibley would have to either fall back to the Mesilla Valley or move north to capture the supply bases at Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Fort Union. This would starve Canby’s command into submission, but the Federal force was still strong enough to pose a major threat to Confederate communication lines.
Sibley’s Army of New Mexico headed out for Santa Fe on the 22nd, after “the quartermasters were busy dividing out the plunder that had been confiscated.” Four days later they descended upon Socorro, “and as soon as they had thrown a cannonball into the town, the white flag announced that they had surrendered.” The Confederates took 200 prisoners, 300 stands of arms, 300 horses and mules, and about 8,000 pounds of flour.
On the last day of February, the detachment that Sibley had sent west, led by Captain Sherod Hunter, captured Tucson. This was an important stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage connecting the Southwest to southern California. The local population consisted mostly of secessionists who welcomed Hunter’s force as protectors. This sounded an alarm to the 1,000-man Federal garrison under Colonel James H. Carleton at Fort Yuma, across the Colorado River from present-day Yuma, Arizona. The struggle for control of the Southwest would continue into March.
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