Many of you have probably never heard about the episode of the Civil War I will describe here, and it has been one that has long held a special fascination for me. It took place in what was called the “Trans-Mississippi” theater of the war, which was the term applied to anything west of the Mississippi River. During the first year of the Civil War, as large opposing armies struggled in the initial battles and campaigns east of the Mississippi, this smaller drama was being played out in the American West along the Rio Grande River. There, a brigade composed mostly of Texan volunteers, under the command of an enigmatic former U.S. Army officer, would undertake a campaign into the desolate New Mexico Territory in an attempt to expand the Confederacy westward, all the way to California. However, what would seem at the outset to be a glorious and even imperialistic quest, a sort of Southern “manifest destiny,” would turn into a mismanaged military failure with a retreat that would rank among the most agonizing in American military history.
The brigade was known as Sibley’s Brigade, named for its commander, General Henry Hopkins Sibley, and, later, as the Army of New Mexico. It would number a mere 3,000 men, most of whom came from eastern Texas counties with strong secessionist sentiments. They would enlist to fight for their state and the Confederate cause with idealism and even a sense of impending adventure. Just like many other volunteers on both sides of the conflict, they would eventually learn how hard war can be. Further, as with many young soldiers in all wars, they would experience the frustrations and discomfort that came with life in an army camp, the loneliness that comes from being far from home and loved ones, and they would see firsthand the inhumanity, terror, and horrible loss that comes with war. However, the extreme hardships they would endure in New Mexico would lead many of the soldiers in this army to question the campaign’s objectives as well as the competence and even the humanity of their commander.
While the official objectives for the Confederate campaign into New Mexico are somewhat uncertain, it can be stated with confidence that the campaign’s genesis resulted from the efforts of one man, Henry Hopkins Sibley. Further, no examination of the Confederate Army of New Mexico would be complete without some discussion of Sibley himself.
Henry Sibley was a career Army officer from Louisiana who served in the Florida campaigns against the Seminoles, fought in Mexico, and then spent the balance of his Army career in the West. In fact, his last assignment prior to his joining the Confederate cause was as a Captain in New Mexico. Sibley has been described as the “most curious of soldiers.” He was a terribly complex man, seen as intelligent but vain, good natured and kind, demanding and uncompromising, condescending but obstinate, a schemer and dreamer but, at times, convincing and professional. He was not a dedicated secessionist as much as he was an opportunist, and it is likely that he saw service to the Confederacy as a means to achieve the career successes he was denied in the U.S. Army.
While Sibley gained some small success in the Army through his development of equipment such as the Sibley Tent and Sibley Portable Stove, his Army career was punctuated by a series of incidents all related to his reputation as a heavy drinker. Sibley’s drinking, which may have been caused by attempts to relieve pain resulting from renal colic, led to numerous official reprimands, a near court martial in Mexico, and actual courts martial while serving in both Utah and Louisiana. Sibley also has been described as an officer who was “loved by those who knew him best, but often hated by those he led in battle.” Again, this may have been related to his drinking, which seemed to plague him worst in times of crisis and led some serving under him to believe him heartless and even a coward.
Upon leaving Federal service, Sibley traveled directly to Richmond, where he sought and received an audience with President Jefferson Davis. Unfortunately, there is no official written record of his conversation with President Davis and any detailed instructions Sibley received were, apparently, verbal. Shortly after the meeting, Sibley was commissioned a brigadier general and on July 8, 1861, he received official orders, which stated:
SIR: In view of your recent service in New Mexico and knowledge of that country and the people, the President has intrusted [sic] you with the important duty of driving the Federal troops from that department, at the same time securing all the arms, supplies, and materials of war. You are authorized to take into the Confederate States service all disaffected officers and soldiers on the original commissions of the former and enlistments of the latter.
Additionally, the orders directed Sibley to proceed to Texas and raise two regiments of cavalry and a battery of artillery. Once in New Mexico, the orders stated that he was to create a military government, the details of which he was to forward to Richmond as soon as possible. Beyond that, Sibley was given broad latitude and was directed to “be guided by circumstances and your own good judgment.” Therefore, as far as can be seen, Sibley was told to do no more than seize the Territory of New Mexico and create a Confederate military administration to govern it.
However, Sibley would tell a different story. Months later, in a conversation described after the war by Major Trevanion T. Teel, Sibley painted a grandiose picture of an imperialistic campaign aimed at a total conquest of the American West. The general told Teel that he informed President Davis of conditions in New Mexico, which, in Sibley’s mind, apparently included a general population ready to support the Confederate cause, Federal army units filled with potential defectors, and Army storehouses brimming with supplies to sustain Sibley’s invading army. According to Sibley, Davis then authorized him to form three regiments, arm them with what was available in Texas, and, later, sustain them with whatever could be captured from Federal forces in New Mexico.
Sibley went on to say that he was directed to recruit additional men from the supposedly pro-secessionist population in New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Colorado to form a larger army. From that point, Sibley stated the campaign would move forward to its greater goals: “The objective aim and design of the campaign was the conquest of California, and as soon as the Confederate army should occupy the Territory of New Mexico, an army of advance would be organized and ‘On to San Francisco’ would be the watchword; California had to be conquered so that there would be an outlet for slavery.”
Whether Sibley actually received these instructions from Davis or whether they are an example of his nature as an imaginative schemer cannot be stated with absolute certainty. However, it would seem he should have known better given his previous service in New Mexico. First, while the Hispanic population of New Mexico was, in general, apathetic about the war, they hated and feared the Texans. Therefore, they were unlikely to support a Confederate force originating from that state. In fact, while he was in San Antonio forming the brigade, Sibley received correspondence from Colonel John Baylor confirming that very situation. Baylor, who seized Fort Bliss in El Paso and then Fort Fillmore near Mesilla with his 300-man force in July 1861, sent Sibley a series of dispatches in September and October describing the situation. In one of those letters, he told the general, “The Mexican population are decidedly Northern in sentiment, and will avail themselves of the first opportunity to rob us or join the enemy.”
Further, Sibley’s belief that Union forces still contained potential defectors who would join the Confederate cause and hand over their supplies was, at best, an erroneous concept based on dated information and, at worst, a totally reckless assumption. Finally, the idea of almost total reliance on captured Federal supplies was especially risky since Sibley must have realized how difficult it would be for his forces to live off the land in the harsh terrain of New Mexico should those supplies not be there for the taking.
As ordered, Sibley proceeded to San Antonio in early August 1861 and set about organizing his brigade. Upon his arrival, he discovered that the local press not only was trumpeting his impending arrival from Richmond, it was also publicizing his goal of organizing a brigade, calling upon volunteer companies to come to San Antonio “armed and fully equipped for a Winter campaign.” Despite this, the task of garnering the required manpower turned out to be far from easy. Sibley found his efforts frustrated by an inefficient state military organization and competition with the need for units east of the Mississippi. Sibley finally gave up relying on the state’s military system, and “resorted direct to the people themselves.” The result was additional publicity that finally began to achieve the desired results. Theophilius Noel, who would serve as a private in Company A of the 4th Texas Regiment of Mounted Volunteers, recalled hearing of Sibley’s recruiting campaign, saying that, “Through the medium of our patriotic press, the public was quickly acquainted with his designs and intentions as well as his authority and his wants.” As a result, between late August and October 1861, Sibley managed to put together three regiments in San Antonio, the 4th, 5th, and 7th Texas Regiments of Mounted Volunteers, totaling some 2,700 men.
Not surprisingly, these regiments, as well as those in Baylor’s force, reflected the strong secessionist sentiments found in Texas at that time. Forty-four of the companies that served under his command consisted of men from 32 Texas counties, with three of Baylor’s companies having been recruited in New Mexico’s Mesilla Valley. Of those 44 Texan companies, all but four came from counties that voted in favor of secession in the statewide referendum held on February 23, 1861. Further, 21 companies, almost half of those from Texas, contained men recruited from fifteen counties where the vote for secession was a staggering 90 percent or more. Further, an additional four companies came from counties where the vote to secede exceeded 80 percent.
In terms of the dominant culture or origin of the local population, this strong secessionist sentiment is again evident. Twenty-six companies were recruited in counties where the dominant culture was from the lower southern states, where secessionist sentiments were strongest in the United States. Interestingly, only three companies came from counties with a dominant culture from the upper south, where there was generally less support for secession, and two of the counties represented by those three companies actually voted against secession.
The men who led their companies came from a variety of occupations, but several were more prevalent than others. For instance, of the 48 men who served in these command positions, 19 were farmers and 15 were lawyers. But, there were also four sheriffs, three physicians, and three clerks. The remainder consisted of a merchant, a minister, a blacksmith, and one professional soldier. But perhaps most interesting is the fact that 21 of these commanders were Freemasons and members of the Masonic Order.
As evidenced by those who recorded their life in the army, the experiences and attitudes displayed by men of the Army of New Mexico were similar in many ways to Civil War soldiers on both sides. First, they were proud of themselves and their comrades as they reported for service, with Theophilius Noel referring to the men of this mostly Texan army as “the best that ever threw leg over a horse or that had ever sworn allegiance to any cause.” He also remembered that there was also a sense of adventure in volunteering to join with Sibley, saying that the “Sibley’s Brigade California Deal” was considered a choice assignment by most military age gentleman of the region.
These young men also displayed intense, almost romantic idealism for the cause they were volunteering to defend. As he left for San Antonio to be mustered into service, William R. Howell, a young private in Company C of the 5th Texas, wrote in his journal that while a soldier goes to battle knowing he may “die on the battlefield unhonored [sic] and perhaps mangled and crippled,” a Confederate soldier was different. Howell wrote on that “the Confederate soldier goes to battle with the belief that our cause is just and right and that if he lives or dies the God of battles will not suffer him to pass unnoticed or unattended in his dying moments.”
As the companies arrived in San Antonio, all of them went through the same enlistment and mustering process. The men would be formed on the Main Plaza in front of Plaza House and then sworn into the service of the Confederacy, the officers going first, followed by the enlisted men. As each soldier was mustered in, his horse and equipment were appraised. These values were officially recorded on the company muster-in roll and became a part of his official military service record. For instance, one soldier from Columbus, Texas, John Henry David, was mustered-in to Company A of the 5th Texas on August 29 for a period of “the war.” His muster-in roll indicates that his horse was appraised at a very valuable $150, while his other equipment, which probably included his personal weapons, was listed as being worth only $20. Howell wrote tongue-in-cheek that, “We have this day ‘sold ourselves for a mess of pottage’ and consequently receive our forage and provisions from our gov’t [sic], the Confederate States of America, long may they flourish.”
Then, as the companies were moved to their respective training camps outside of San Antonio along Salado Creek, these young soldiers entered a world that any other Civil War soldier would have recognized. Noel later referred to himself and his fellow novice soldiers as “Saplings” that “by reason of their zeal were easily ‘bended’.” Young Private Noel also expressed the complaints typical of any soldier living in an army camp for the first time. He noted the constant bugle calls as an irritant but, more so, he criticized the food. He wrote that, while full rations were always available, “we nevertheless had some grumbling on the quality of the beef as well as the quantity of Coffee, all of which we got most gloriously over in the course of time.”
As they entered training, these Texans were also full of swagger and confidence. On his very first day in camp, Howell would boast in a letter to his family that he was “ready to meet Mr. Lincoln and any of his vandals.” But, at the same time, Private Howell would also write of experiences in camp that indicated his regiment was not quite ready for war. Early in his stay at the encampment near San Antonio, Howell recorded a tragically humorous incident in which a soldier standing guard fell asleep, a common enough occurrence in any Civil War training camp. Unfortunately, in this case, the soldier fell asleep while holding a loaded rifle which discharged upon dropping from his hand, with the round traveling through a series of tents until it hit one soldier in the arm and then went on to wound another in the hip.
Theophilius Noel would also humorously recall the practice of standing a rigorous guard routine while only encamped for training, safely away from any enemy, and, in the process, recorded his disdain for those commissioned as officers.
The strictest guard that we ever had around camp was while we were camped on the Salado, a thousand miles or more from a foe. We had a camp guard, a picket guard, and everything was so guarded that one had to be on guard when he spoke, lest he might offend the “rank” which as we have long since learned, means only those who wear “stars and bars.”
As with many units operating in the early days of the war, the men of Sibley’s army were permitted to elect their company officers and noncommissioned officers. However, this process could be far from pristine, as demonstrated in the journal of Alfred B. Peticolas, a young lawyer and fifth sergeant in Company C of the 4th Texas. In this particular company election, Peticolas was nominated for the 3rd Lieutenancy position and was slated to run against two other soldiers for the position. The first ballot did not achieve a majority for anyone, but the third candidate was eliminated. In the resulting runoff election, Peticolas lost by only two votes. However, to his chagrin, he later learned that his opponent bought one of the winning votes by promising a to help a soldier get a better horse if elected.
There were also companies in Sibley’s army that had a far different enlistment experience from those in San Antonio. One of these was the Arizona Guards, which was enlisted from a small mining camp at Pinos Altos, New Mexico. Hank Smith, a 37-year old miner, remembered receiving the news that John Baylor and his command had arrived in Mesilla and that they were recruiting local volunteers. A heated debate ensued in the camp and those miners who were Southern sympathizers packed up for Mesilla. When they arrived there, Smith recalled that they were subjected to a series of patriotic speeches, with one given by Colonel Baylor himself. Apparently the speeches were not very effective, so Baylor tried a different tactic to gain his needed enlistments. That night, the miners were plied with liberal amounts of free liquor and provided with the companionship of some local ladies as an inducement to fight for the Confederacy. This proved to be very effective, as all of the miners enlisted the next day.
While Sibley got his recruits, he still faced the thorny problem of equipping them. Here, he was further frustrated by administrative problems with the state military establishment. Sibley was finally forced to direct the purchase of the materiel he needed on credit, but there was little to purchase. As a result, when the brigade headed west, it had two batteries of four twelve-pound mountain howitzers from the former Federal arsenal in San Antonio, but little in the way of rifles or side arms. Therefore, most of the men left San Antonio armed with what they had brought with them, an odd collection of “squirrel-guns, bear guns, sportman’s-guns, shot-guns, both single and double barrels.” In fact, things were so desperate that Sibley outfitted two companies of the 5th Texas as lancers who were armed with nothing more than nine-foot long poles, hung with crimson pennants and tipped with 12-inch steel blades.
On October 22, 1861, the brigade began its move west, with the 4th Texas leading the way, and on November 18, General Sibley and his staff departed San Antonio. The regiments were carefully spaced, departing several days apart, which would allow the few water holes along the way to recharge between regiments. They would follow a trail that led, first, southwest to San Felipe Springs on the Rio Grande, then west to Fort Stockton, Fort Davis, and, finally, Fort Bliss, a distance of nearly 700 miles. In addition, Sibley decided to march westward with a minimum of supplies. He still believed that there would be plenty to be found in New Mexico and, he was receiving reports from Confederate agents in El Paso that seemed to confirm his views. One of those agents wrote Sibley, “Be easy about your supplies; we shall get all we want from Sonora--what this valley cannot furnish--until such time as you may be in full possession of New Mexico, and can avail of its resources or such part as the hungry Federals may leave for your command.”
Unencumbered by supply wagons, Sibley and his staff moved quickly, passing the regiments on the road, and arrived at Fort Bliss in early December. On December 14, 1861, he issued General Order Number 10 in which he assumed command of all troops in the region, which now included Baylor’s small force, and declared his brigade was hereafter to be known and designated as the “Army of New Mexico.”
As Sibley made his proclamations at Fort Bliss, his small army continued its difficult trek westward. Rations were limited to dried beef and wormy crackers, water was in short supply, and, often, there was not enough wood available in the arid terrain to make a fire on the increasingly cold winter nights. As the march dragged on, one soldier was heard to comment, “When I go to another war, I’m goin’ to it a way I can get to it quicker that I can this ‘ere one.” In addition, there were numerous disciplinary problems, which is not surprising given the short time these young men had been in the army. Several of the journals and memoirs describe courts martial being held while on the march to Fort Bliss, with striking a superior officer being the most common charge. However, the most bizarre incident, involved a senior officer, and indicates that there was a little of the “untamed West” in the character of these Texans.
While in Mesilla, Colonel Baylor was accused of cowardice in a newspaper article written by Mr. Kelly, the editor of the Mesilla Times. Baylor wrote a letter to Kelly in which he requested the editor retract the charge and formally apologize in print. Mr. Kelly refused and Colonel Baylor became incensed. Hank Smith witnessed the results of this dispute first-hand. Smith recalled that Baylor was with him in the adjutant’s office when the colonel observed Kelly coming down the street. Baylor asked Smith to hand him a nearby pistol. Then, gun in hand, Baylor approached Kelly as the newspaperman passed the door of the office, and again demanded Kelly retract the charge of cowardice. When Kelly refused, Baylor calmly raised the pistol and shot him as he stood in the office doorway. Baylor subsequently surrendered himself and a court of inquiry was immediately convened, which declared the killing of Mr. Kelly completely justified.
By mid-January 1862, all of Sibley’s forces had arrived at Fort Bliss. Despite the worn condition of his troops and their mounts, Sibley decided to immediately begin his move up the Rio Grande into New Mexico. Perhaps he might have delayed had he been aware that his small army was showing the initial signs of what would eventually become a severe moral problem.
First, some of the men were now experiencing natural longings for home and family, with some even questioning their decision to join the army. One officer, Captain John Shropshire, commander of Company A of the 5th Texas, was already forgetting the excitement of joyously joining the Confederate cause. Shropshire, a wealthy attorney, was a tall, vigorous man who recruited the young men of Colorado County to his company with promises of adventure and glory. On the day the company was formed, he paraded the men throughout the town of Columbus and made certain he went around and around his sister’s house so she could see the grand and glorious spectacle. However, as the army’s journey toward war stretched on and the separation from home and family became longer, his attitude changed. The soldier who proudly paraded his men in August wrote to his wife in December, saying, “From the present prospects, I fear it will be a long time before I see you again. I fear I will be tempted to desert yet, or do something else desperate.” Then, in January, as the 5th Texas moved north into New Mexico, he wrote to her again, saying, “I am no soldier and am longing for a release. My home with my wife and little one are more to me than all the flags and pomp and circumstance of the military.”
Perhaps more severe, however, was a growing disenchantment with the goals of the campaign, particularly the lack of value the men placed on land they were to seize for the Confederacy. As early as late December, before they even reached southern New Mexico, John Shropshire wrote to his wife of his disdain for the desolate land they were traveling through. He referred to the area as “a wilderness where a scarcity of everything essential to comfort prevails.” Shropshire went on to state, “I candidly confess I never would have come this way had I imagined the country was so mean. If I had the Yankees at my disposal, I would give them this country and force them to live in it.”
Private Howell also displayed a deep resentment that questioned fighting to capture a place for which the Texans could see no value. Commenting on the death of a friend, he wrote, “Hard indeed to die and be buried in such a country.” Even years later, Theophilius Noel would ungraciously refer to New Mexico in his memoirs as “that cold and barren land.” The feeling that Howell and Noel expressed was one that seemed to take hold almost as soon as Sibley’s army began to move into New Mexico. Soon, however, the combination of combat and growing physical hardships would increase the men’s disillusionment. Worse, it would eventually spill over into opinions about their officers, and grow into genuine anger over the handling of the campaign, with much of that anger directed towards General Sibley.
While Sibley was busy organizing his forces and making the march to Fort Bliss, the Federal opposition was actively preparing as well. In early November, the Department of New Mexico was re-established and placed under the command of Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, who had been serving as the commander of the U.S. Military Department of New Mexico since June. Canby was a steady but somewhat cautious career soldier who served in Utah and New Mexico with Henry Sibley. In fact, he was the best man at Sibley’s wedding and was married to a cousin of Sibley’s wife. Now, however, he found himself trying to develop a defensive strategy and organize the limited forces he had under his command to counter an impending offensive led by his former comrade-in-arms.
Canby quickly began to recruit and reorganize the local militia to meet the threat from Sibley. Within weeks, he assembled a force that included some 3,800 men from elements of the 1st and 3rd U.S. Cavalry, and 5th, 7th and 10th U.S. Infantry Regiments, plus troops from Colorado and New Mexico volunteer regiments. While he was unsure how Sibley would make his approach, he finally decided that an axis of attack up the Rio Grande was the most likely. Therefore, he elected to place the bulk of his forces at the only remaining Federal outpost along the river, Fort Craig, and set about strengthening the garrison with earthworks. By the time Sibley began to move up the river towards him, Canby’s preparations were complete.
Sibley moved cautiously northward and his forces reached the vicinity of Fort Craig on February 16, 1862. Upon observing Canby’s strong position and fully realizing he did not have the heavy artillery needed to successfully lay siege to the fort, Sibley decided to bait Canby into coming out to fight. His plan was to seize the river ford at Valverde, north of Fort Craig, thus cutting Canby off from his route of supply and reinforcement, forcing him to fight.
Early on the morning of February 21, Sibley began moving his forces northward behind the cover of a large mesa that dominated the terrain east of Fort Craig on the far side of the Rio Grande. By 7:30 a.m., Sibley’s lead elements reached the ford but ran into a considerable force of Federals guarding the river crossing. Canby had wisely sent scouts out to observe Sibley and they detected the Texans moving towards Valverde. Canby realized what Sibley was trying to do and quickly dispatched a force of 850 men with a battery of artillery to the river crossing. As soon as the Texans approached the river, they were engaged by the Federals. Sibley’s men quickly fell back to the cover of a dry riverbed a few hundred yards east of the crossing and the Battle of Valverde began.
By early afternoon, most of their forces from both sides were in place and a series of bloody charges and counterattacks ensued. However, as fighting increased in intensity, General Sibley became less and less of a factor in commanding the Texans. Reportedly in pain from his chronic illness and under great stress, he began to drink. By 1:00 p.m., he was so intoxicated he could no longer stand up much less stay in the saddle. At that time, he relinquished command to Colonel Tom Green, a much-respected veteran of the Mexican War who was commander of the 5th Texas. While Colonel Green would perform admirably, the rumors of Sibley’s intoxicated state would quickly spread throughout the command and permanently damage his reputation with the men.
As the fighting reached its peak in late afternoon, Canby attacked the Confederate left and, in doing so, exposed the center of his own line, which included almost all his artillery. Green exploited this mistake, ordering 750 men from the 4th and 5thTexas to charge the guns on foot. They quickly overran the battery and the New Mexico volunteers defending it panicked, running across the Rio Grande to the rear. Within minutes, the Federal center collapsed. Seeing his line giving way, Canby elected to withdraw to Fort Craig and the battle was over. Sibley, now sober enough to exercise some authority again, did not order any pursuit and elected instead to allow Canby to remain safely inside the fort. While Sibley won the field, he failed to capture Fort Craig and its vital supplies, a mistake that would have a lasting and decisive impact on the campaign’s outcome.
As for Sibley’s men, their first taste of combat at Valverde had a profound impact. Just prior to the battle, some soldiers also displayed increasingly harsh attitudes toward their enemy. Some of the Texans derisively referred to the New Mexico volunteers as “greasers.” Others, using a more curious expression, referred to Union soldiers as “Abs,” a shortened and probably insulting version of “Abolitionist.” This term, which may have been unique to Sibley’s army, can be found in the journals of both Alfred Peticolas and William Howell, as well as in a letter written by Private Elias Boles. However, after the first fight at Valverde, attitudes about the war seemed to change and even their feelings toward the enemy may have softened somewhat.
Private Peticolas’ entries in the days following Valverde are a chronicle of men telling tall tales of their exploits, and then slipping into intense sadness when told of the death of a comrade. In addition, the sight of so many wounded men was deeply effecting to Peticolas, who wrote, “It was a sad sight to see these young men, so lately in all the strength and vigor of manhood, now lying pale and weak around these fires, suffering.” In addition, Howell exhibited a respect and affinity for his enemy the day after Valverde when he wrote, “Judging from the firing at Craig they too are burying many a poor soldier far from his relatives and the home of his youth.”
After pausing a few days, Sibley resumed the march north up the Rio Grande. With the supplies from Fort Craig still in Federal hands, Sibley’s meager provisions were almost exhausted. The commissary had nothing to feed the troops but coarse beef. However, there were reportedly plentiful supplies some 50 miles ahead in the Federal warehouses in Albuquerque. But, when Sibley’s men reached Albuquerque on March 2, they found the Federals had removed all the munitions and burned whatever food and other supplies the local population had not stolen. While the Texans were able to find some supplies in a small Federal warehouse west of Albuquerque, their situation was still desperate.
As the soldiers marched north to Albuquerque, they began to record even more candid feelings regarding the campaign. Four days after Valverde, Private Abe Hanna, an 18-year in Company C of the 4th Texas, wrote, that the severity of the climate combined with the lack of wood, water, or grass, made the march “worse than all the horrors that is witnessed on the battlefield.” Three days later, Alfred Peticolas wrote a telling and bitter passage in his journal that provides evidence of a growing disenchantment:
But to trudge along day after day with nothing to eat save beans, with no teams fit to transport our baggage, and no forage, and then to see our officers, every one of them with great sacks of flour and sides of bacon, living high while the men are really suffering for something to eat—to go from early breakfast till late supper, and feel the weakness and gnawing of hunger—hunger for the staff of life—is a feature of soldiering without any redeeming trait.
Passages such as these became more common in these soldiers’ journals as the campaign went on. To be sure, throughout the journals there is the usual complaining one would expect from troops in the field, such as referring to headquarters personnel as a “gang of pits and nincompoops.” In addition, there are also expressions of admiration for some senior officers. For example, Colonel Tom Green was affectionately referred to as “Daddy” by the men in his regiment, while Peticolas wrote that Colonel Scurry was the “best officer, most polished gentleman, most sociable gentlemen, and the most popular Col. in the outfit.” However, when the men wrote of the officers in a more anonymous sense or in referring to campaign’s conduct, the tone changed. Shortly after Valverde, Private Howell wrote on the occasion of an evening meal on the march that the “officers get some butter this evening, but privates continue to live hard as usual.”
However, the strongest criticism was clearly aimed at General Sibley. As the campaign progressed, the early descriptions of Sibley as “a perfect gentleman” and “a fine drill officer” changed dramatically. There is little doubt the stories of Sibley’s drunken state at Valverde affected the loyalty of the troops and their confidence in him. It seems to have been commonly stated that the general’s “love for liquor exceeded that for home, country, or God.” The soldiers began to view Sibley as a poor soldier and, worse, an inhumane commander.
After a two-week stay in the snow-covered foothills outside Albuquerque, Sibley decided to move ahead towards Santa Fe and, eventually, to the Federal stronghold at Fort Union. Again, when his men reached Santa Fe, they found all the supplies there had been destroyed. Since there was no means of sustenance in the city, Sibley, who remained behind in Albuquerque and was reportedly on another drinking binge, ordered the 5th Texas to move immediately east along the old Santa Fe Trail towards Fort Union. However, unknown to Sibley, as the Texans moved forward, a Union force of just over 1,300 men was coming west from Fort Union along the same trail.
These Federals were from the newly arrived 1st Regiment of Colorado Volunteers, a regiment composed primarily of tough miners known as “Pike’s Peakers.” They marched quickly from Denver to Fort Union when news of the Confederate threat to the region was received. On March 22, they left Fort Union, accompanied by a few hundred Regulars and under the command of the 1st Colorado’s Colonel John Slough, pushing west at a rapid pace in hopes of reaching Santa Fe at night and surprising the Texans.
On the morning of March 26, the advance elements of the 1st Colorado and 5th Texas unexpectedly ran into one another in Apache Canyon, a narrow mountain pass about halfway between Fort Union and Santa Fe. The two sides exchanged fire and the outnumbered Texans fell back. The two sides skirmished for about an hour before Federal cavalry charged the Confederate positions. The Texan line fell apart and they fled down the canyon towards Santa Fe. In a fight that lasted only 90 minutes, Sibley’s men experienced their first defeat.
Immediately following the fight in Apache Canyon, both sides retired to nearby ranches to regroup and await reinforcements. By the morning of March 28, each army had been reinforced, and Colonel Scurry assumed command of the Texans. At approximately 4:00 a.m., Slough ordered 430 Federals to take a mountainous trail to the ridges overlooking the Confederate camp. While these men were moving into position, Slough advanced with another 900 men down the main trail through Glorieta Pass towards the Texans. If Scurry moved out to meet him, Slough planned to attack the Texans from the front and rear, catching them in a deadly pincer.
Meanwhile, as Slough moved forward, Scurry and his Texans were edging carefully up the trail towards the main Federal column. At about 8:30 a.m., the Confederates encountered the Federal force near an old hostelry known as Pigeon’s Ranch. A series of advances ensued, with each side forcing the other to give ground. At least once, the lines merged and there was vicious hand-to-hand fighting. The battle would go on until dusk and, finally, the exhausted Union force would retreat, leaving the field to the Texans. But, Scurry soon discovered that, while he might hold the ground, he had lost the battle.
While the main battle was occurring, the other part of Slough’s command completed their march to the ridge overlooking the Texan camp. There, they discovered the Texan’s entire supply train of some 80 wagons, including mules, horses, ammunition, provisions, tents, blankets, and medical supplies. The Federals swept down upon the small detachment guarding the train and set about destroying Scurry’s precious supplies. All the wagons were methodically turned over and then set afire. With the wagons now burning, the Federals next performed the grizzly task of killing all the horses and mules, approximately 500 to 600 animals, by bayoneting them.
When Scurry found out what happened to his supplies, all thoughts of completing his victory with a march towards Fort Union disappeared. Instead, with no supplies and the loss of most of his mounts, Scurry was forced to retreat to Santa Fe. When Sibley heard of the battle’s results, he wrote an urgent message to Richmond in which he reported the loss of Scurry’s supplies, saying, “I must have reinforcements. The future operations of this army will be duly reported. Send me reinforcements.”
Scurry and Green’s forces, who had remained in Santa Fe during the battle at Glorieta Pass, returned to Albuquerque on April 9 only to learn that Canby had departed Fort Craig and was now moving north to join Slough. As a result, Sibley was faced with the prospect of being trapped between two enemy forces whose combined strength was greater than his own. That fact, combined with his lack of ammunition and supplies, led him to order not only retreat, but also an evacuation of New Mexico. Sibley addressed another report to Richmond, stating, “In our straightened circumstances the question now arose in my mind whether to evacuate the country or take the desperate chances of fighting the enemy in his stronghold (Fort Union), for scant rations at the best. The course adopted was deemed the wisest.”
On April 12, Sibley’s now demoralized army began a retreat from Albuquerque to Fort Bliss. Just below Albuquerque, they crossed to the west bank of the Rio Grande and made their way south. With the exception of a brief skirmish with Canby’s forces near the river crossing at Peralta, there would be no more fighting. For his part, the always cautious Canby had no further interest in a fight with the Texans and was content to move north, re-securing Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
The retreat of Sibley’s army to Fort Bliss would be an agonizing one. The sandy roads made moving wagons and artillery almost impossible. Further, there was no forage for the draft animals and, as Sibley stated, “the abandonment of one or the other became inevitable.” As they approached Fort Craig once more, Sibley elected to give Fort Craig a wide berth in order to avoid another engagement. His plan called for a circuitous route through the desolate mountains west of Fort Craig, which turned out to be even more difficult than the arduous march had been thus far. Many of the few remaining draft animals died, forcing Sibley’s men to abandon most of their wagons. The column would eventually stretch out for 10 miles, as men were unable to keep up the pace. The army had only a seven-day supply of meager rations when they began the 100-mile detour, and it would take 10 days to make the march around Fort Craig and reach the Rio Grande River south of the Federal garrison.
The day Sibley decided to leave Fort Craig unmolested in his rear, Private Howell wrote that this seemed odd to him, but he would “leave this subject to older and wiser heads to discuss.” Later, however, as the army staggered back to Fort Bliss, Howell was less circumspect regarding Sibley’s strategy, writing, “Gen’l [sic] Sibley’s idea of cutting off the enemy’s supplies was a bright one indeed. We only had about three days rations and the enemy I expect has at least six months rations in the fort.” Later, Howell would be more direct in his criticism, writing of a cold desert night on the march when it had been some 36 hours since they had any food or blankets. On that occasion, Howell laid the blame at Sibley’s feet, citing what he described as “Another instance of our General’s disregard for welfare and comfort.”
About the same time Howell was writing about Sibley’s lack of skill as a strategist, Alfred Peticolas was even harsher, stating that, “Sibley is heartily despised by every man in the brigade for his want of feeling, poor generalship, and cowardice.” Even Noel, who later felt Sibley was wronged by many, said most of his comrades believed the campaign was conceived in “wicked foolishness” and the leaders, especially Sibley, were “deserving of the highest possible censure and condemnation.”
On April 30, Sibley moved his headquarters back to Fort Bliss, placing the army in camp in the Mesilla Valley. On May 14, he issued a proclamation to be read to the troops, telling them that their evacuation would “be duly chronicled, and form one of the brightest pages in the history of the Second American Revolution.” However, despite his somewhat weak attempt to stir his men with this congratulatory address, Sibley realized that he could not sustain his army any longer. On May 20, he ordered Baylor’s command to begin a return march to San Antonio, and, on May 27, he reported to General Bee, the commander of the Western District of Texas, that he was ordering his entire army to evacuate.
The remainder of Sibley’s force straggled out of Fort Bliss and the Mesilla Valley in small groups over the next three weeks. There would be no formal line of march and it was every man for himself. The trip from Fort Bliss to San Antonio was more tortuous than that around Fort Craig. Unlike the cold they endured in New Mexico, the early summer heat of western Texas was now the enemy. The soldiers soon found that many of the already limited water holes were unusable, having been sabotaged by Indians, most likely the Lipan Apache. One of the water holes, Van Horn’s Wells, was even filled with dirt and animal carcasses. The heat and lack of water took a terrible toll, and, soon, the weary soldiers could be seen strung out for miles. Theophilius Noel later wrote that some men simply fell by the roadside to die, their “tongues so swollen that they could not articulate a word, more crazed than rational, they looked like frantic mad men.” He also reported seeing one man so thirsty, that he shot a steer and cut its throat so he could drink the blood.
Stage passengers traveling from El Paso to San Antonio saw many of Sibley’s men and one recalled that they were in wretched condition, “many of them were sick, many ragged, and all hungry.” As a result, news of the plight of Sibley’s Brigade reached San Antonio and soon spread throughout the state. Within days, the soldiers’ families began to descend upon the city, where they filled wagons with water and provisions, and then headed west down the trail to El Paso, anxiously looking for their loved ones. Some would find them and rescue them, while for many others, this would be where they learned that a son, husband, or brother had been lost in the campaign.
In the weeks from early July until late August, the remnants of Sibley’s once proud Army of New Mexico staggered into San Antonio. Of the approximately 3,300 men who made up the army in October 1861, only about 2,000 returned. Approximately half of the command finally reported in and the rest were never seen again, as men simply went directly to their homes. As each unit arrived, it was furloughed and dismissed for purposes of rest and refitting. However, many of the companies were never recalled. Sibley’s New Mexico campaign had ended; much of his army had disappeared; and with it had gone the South’s dream of its own Manifest Destiny.
While the Confederate Army of New Mexico and its men shared many similarities with other units on both sides of the Civil War, it still stands as unique. Few instances can be found where men endured such a harsh environment and were forced to fight both extreme hunger as well as an enemy army. In addition, these travails seem magnified given that the endeavor they were part of was founded upon false assumptions, conducted with poor planning, and led by perhaps the worst man possible for the job. Given that, it is not surprising that the men who recorded their experiences seemed, in the end, to believe the campaign to have been foolhardy and their commanding general an incompetent and even cruel officer. It is little wonder then that, of those who survived, so many went home, never to return for service again.
As a postscript, I will add that in 1987 a work crew excavating the foundation for a new house in Glorieta Pass found a mass grave containing 31 sets of human remains. Archeologists and historians were called in and they determined from the remaining clothing and artifacts that these were Texan casualties from the battle at Glorieta Pass. Only three of the men would be successfully identified. One soldier was identified from an inscription inside his wedding ring, while another was identified because the skeleton showed wounds consistent with those Peticolas described in his diary as having been inflicted upon his good friend, Abe Hanna.
Finally, one other soldier, an officer, was identified because he was so tall and from the fact that he wore a particular set of spurs. Unlike the others, this soldier’s descendants came forward and claimed his body. He was taken back to his birthplace in Valley Forge, Kentucky, and was buried with full military honors in the family cemetery next to his beloved wife and son. John Shropshire had finally come home.