The End of Confederate New Mexico

Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley reunited his 2,000-man Confederate Army of New Mexico after the Battle of Glorieta in the far-off New Mexico Territory. 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, Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, the overall Federal commander in the territory, began an effort to confront the Confederates at Albuquerque and ultimately join forces with Colonel John P. Slough’s Federals 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 When Canby learned that the Confederates had withdrawn from Glorieta, he planned a campaign to expel them from Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and the territory altogether.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 R. Paul, a much more experienced officer, and resigned 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 left a small force under Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson to guard Fort Craig and led the remaining 1,200 men up the Rio Grande on April 1. They reached the outskirts of Albuquerque on the afternoon of the 8th, having marched 120 miles in a week.

By this 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. 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.

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

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 realized that he had arrived too late to prevent the Federals from joining forces. By the 12th, Canby’s Federals had slipped through Carnuel Canyon, joining forces with Paul the next day at San Antonio. Canby’s combined force of 2,400 men now outnumbered Sibley’s.

With his ammunition and supplies nearly gone, Sibley ordered Albuquerque evacuated. 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 guns captured at Valverde in February. Sibley split the army in two columns, with each heading southward along either side of the Rio Grande. Canby hoped to destroy Sibley’s army before it could get away.

The Federals closed in on an isolated segment of Sibley’s army under Colonel Tom Green at Peralta, 20 miles southeast of Albuquerque, on the 14th. Green and other officers were “carousing at a fandango” at the nearby mansion of Territorial Governor Henry Connelly, leaving the Confederates dangerously vulnerable. Major John T. Chivington offered to lead a regiment in an attack, but Canby, “either afraid of the result, or jealous of us, would not consent.” Canby was reluctant to launch a direct assault most likely because Peralta was filled with thick-walled adobe houses that made Canby believe that the town’s defenses were “the strongest (except Fort Union) in New Mexico.”

Next morning at dawn, Canby opened an artillery bombardment on Green’s force of 550 men. 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 to maneuver into position, but Confederate artillery held them in check. The Federals also had trouble negotiating the irrigation canals and adobe houses, 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.

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

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. Canby faced criticism for his halfhearted pursuit, but he knew the Confederates were “destitute of all kinds of stores necessary for the prosecution of the war.”

The dwindling Confederate army, now numbering just 1,800 men, came under threat not only from Canby to the north but Kit Carson’s Federal detachment of 800 men stationed 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 burned all their supplies “except blankets, cooking utensils, and suit of clothes, and overcoats,” and left all their wagons carrying the sick and wounded behind.

Hunger, thirst, and an outbreak of measles, smallpox, and pneumonia ravaged the Confederates 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.

Remnants of Sibley’s army reentered the Rio Grande Valley about 40 miles south of Fort Craig on the 25th. They had just completed one of the most grueling marches of the war, having pulled their heavy guns by hand through mountains “a horseman would have thought impassable.” The Confederates reached Fort Thorne three days later, having traversed some 150 miles of unforgiving terrain in less than 10 days.

Officers urged Canby to destroy what was left of the Army of New Mexico, but he refused. While the army was not completely destroyed, it was a foregone conclusion that Sibley’s dream of securing the land from Texas to the Pacific for the Confederacy had been permanently shattered.


Bibliography

  • Cutrer, Thomas W., Theater of a Separate War: The Civil War West of the Mississippi River. The University of North Carolina Press, (Kindle Edition), 2017.
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
  • Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.

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