Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico continued efforts to drive the Federals out of the territory. But the Confederates were low on provisions, and instead of returning to their supply base, Sibley gambled by marching them northward in hopes of seizing Federal provisions at Albuquerque. The gamble backfired when town residents learned of the Confederate advance and burned the supplies on the morning of March 1. When Sibley’s men arrived, they managed to find a “Yankee store” that would keep them supplied for about a month.
Fortunately for the Confederates, a group of secessionists seized the village of Cubero, 60 miles west of Albuquerque, along with the military supplies there used to defend against Native Americans. Sibley received word of this capture and sent a detachment to collect the bounty, which included arms, ammunition, medical supplies, and camp provisions. This helped enable the Confederates to continue moving northward to the territorial capital of Santa Fe.
Federal troops and territorial government officials at Santa Fe learned of Sibley’s advance, destroyed all that they could not take, and fell back to Fort Union, about 60 miles northeast in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This isolated the overall Federal commander in the New Mexico Territory, Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, at Fort Craig, about 250 miles south of Fort Union.
Sibley had the run of the New Mexico Territory, but he had waited too long after the Battle of Valverde to move, and now supplies were extremely limited. Moreover, there were still 3,500 Federals under Canby in his rear and another 1,300 Federals at Fort Union, which was one of the strongest fortifications in North America. Sibley opted to ignore both forces, thus leaving the Federals with the strength to take the territory back later. Meanwhile, Federal forces quickly mobilized in California, Kansas, and the Colorado Territory upon learning of Sibley’s offensive. Sibley was also having problems with hostile Comanche, Navajo, Kiowa, and other Native tribes in his rear.
About 900 men of the 1st Colorado Volunteers arrived to reinforce Fort Union on the 11th. The regiment consisted of frontier miners from Denver City, commanded by Colonel John P. Slough. They had endured a grueling march through snowstorms to try to save the garrison after learning of the Federal defeat at Valverde. Territorial Governor Henry Connelly greeted the Coloradans, and Slough replaced Colonel Gabriel R. Paul as commander of the Northern District of New Mexico. Slough, a politician with no military experience, had been commissioned colonel just days before Paul, a West Pointer and veteran of the Seminole and Mexican wars. This would play a significant role in upcoming operations.
Meanwhile, Sibley set up headquarters at Albuquerque, and a portion of his army occupied Santa Fe soon after it was abandoned. They gathered any supplies that had not been destroyed and used a printing press to distribute a proclamation from their commander. Recounting his victory at Valverde and conquest of both Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Sibley offered amnesty to any Federal soldiers who would “lay aside their arms and return to their homes and avocations” within 10 days.
Paul reported that the situation at Fort Union was “daily growing from bad to worse. All the militia and a large number of the volunteers who were called into the service of the United States have deserted and taken to the mountains.” Communications with Canby at Fort Craig had been cut off for two weeks.
As Slough and Paul planned to leave Fort Union to somehow try to link with Canby, a message finally arrived: “Do not trust the Mexican troops.” This referred to native Mexicans who had volunteered for Federal service but did not care much for the Federal cause. The message continued: “If the Colorado or Kansas or California troops have not joined you, do not risk an engagement until they do.” The Coloradans had arrived, but the Kansans and Californians were still on their way.
As the Federals and Confederates maneuvered in New Mexico, both sides were suffering from raids by various Native tribes. Confederate Colonel John Baylor finally issued orders to “use all means to persuade the Apaches or any tribe to come in for the purpose of making peace, and when you get them together, kill all the grown Indians and take the children prisoners and sell them to defray the expense of killing the Indians.” President Jefferson Davis reacted to this order of genocide by calling it “a confession of an infamous crime” and removed Baylor from command.
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