Bold Rebel Venture in the Desert | HistoryNet MENU

Bold Rebel Venture in the Desert

By Gary W. Gallagher
2/23/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

General Sibley’s Southwestern conquest fell far short of his boasts.

Twenty-five hundred Texans led by Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley moved up the Rio Grande Valley in the early months of 1862. Sibley hoped to establish a Confederate presence in the territory of New Mexico, gain access to the mineral wealth of Colorado and, if all went well, push on toward California. “By geographical position, by similarity of institutions, by commercial interests, and by future destinies New Mexico pertains to the Confederacy,” he announced from Fort Bliss at the outset of the operation. He and his troops came as friends, Sibley assured New Mexicans, “to liberate them from the yoke of military despotism.” The Sibley Brigade, grandly denominated the Army of New Mexico by its commander, covered an immense distance, traversing a sere landscape that changed, as the column reached Santa Fe and the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, to more striking countryside featuring stands of piñon and larger evergreens. Along the way the invaders fought battles at Valverde (February 21), Apache Canyon (March 26) and Glorieta or Pigeon’s Ranch (March 28).

Although the Confederates gained tactical success in two of the battles, they could not sustain their strategic offensive. Exposed in northern New Mexico, unable to provision his troops locally and far from sources of supply in Texas, Sibley—who drank heavily throughout the campaign—ordered a retreat. The exhausted survivors of his little army reached El Paso in early May, ending any chance for future Confederate success in the Southwest. Thus did events tied to the farthest geographic reach of Confederate ambition contribute to a catastrophic string of Southern failures in a period that included Forts Henry and Donelson, Pea Ridge, Shiloh, and the loss of Nashville, New Bern, N.C., and New Orleans.

A short shelf of books allows readers to master the details and impact of the operation. Martin Hardwick Hall’s Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign (1960), the first scholarly study, argues that Sibley lacked the means to achieve long-term success in New Mexico—never mind threaten Colorado or California. Hall deems the Rebel effort “a gallant, but essentially impractical, effort to accomplish a great objective with woefully inadequate resources.” Jerry Thompson’s Henry Hopkins Sibley: Confederate General of the West (1987) devotes three of 13 chapters to the invasion. Mincing no words, Thompson asserts that Sibley “must rank as one of the worst generals to serve the southern Confederacy.” The foray into New Mexico left his command “shattered and defeated, as much or more by the vastness and the sterility of the land and by inadequate and incompetent leadership as by the Union army.”

Donald S. Frazier’s Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in New Mexico (1995) places the campaign within the context of antebellum Southern expansionism. “For more than thirty years prior to Sibley’s campaign,” notes Frazier, “Southern writers, statesmen, and warriors had urged the occupation and development of the American Southwest…. In 1861, the time and conditions for a Southern empire had arrived.” Sibley concocted a blueprint for conquering the Southwest but oversaw a campaign that achieved nothing and ravaged the morale of Sibley’s Brigade: “The will to fight had been crushed, replaced by the overwhelming desire to go home.” As for the general himself, “One feeling was universal to these weary veterans,” observes Frazier, “no one trusted Sibley.”

On the climactic engagement, Don E. Alberts’ The Battle of Glorieta: Union Victory in the West (1998) provides details about a clash that, while marked by dramatic tactical ebb and flow, should be  considered a large-scale skirmish. As is often the case in tactical studies of small engagements, hyperbole sneaks into the text. “In saving New Mexico Territory for the Union,” remarks Alberts, “the regular and volunteer soldiers took severe casualties, as had their Rebel enemies.” What were the casualties? “[A]pproximately two hundred, mostly from combat,” reports Alberts, which would accord with the losses from a few minutes’ action at battlefields such as Shiloh  or Antietam.

Two firsthand Confederate  accounts yield excellent material. Westward the Texans: The Civil War Journal of Private William Randolph Howell (1990) and Rebels on the Rio Grande: The Civil War Journal of A.B. Peticolas (1984), edited by Jerry D. Thompson and Don E. Alberts, respectively, contain entries relating to battles, attitudes among Sibley’s soldiers, the terrain and the often harsh weather. Peticolas also produced a number of crudely delightful drawings of structures in New Mexico.

The Federal side of the story emerges from two other titles. The classic Union account is Ovando J. Hollister’s Colorado Volunteers in New Mexico, 1862, edited by Richard B. Harwell (1962; reprint of the rare History of the First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers published in 1863). “Patriotism has a good sound,” Hollister writes, “but soldiering as a private calls for the genuine article.” Flint Whitlock’s Distant Bugles, Distant Drums: The Union Response to the Confederate Invasion of New Mexico (2006) informs readers at the outset that action in New Mexico was “the second-smallest campaign of the Civil War in terms of number of combatants. No more than 7,000 men total were involved in the four main battles…and fewer than 300 were killed in combat.” He then does an excellent job of bringing to life figures such as Governor  William Gilpin of Colorado Territory, Major John M. Chivington of the 1st Colorado and Colonel E.R.S. Canby, who commanded the Department of New Mexico.

Sibley issued a congratulatory order to “Soldiers of the Army of New Mexico” toward the end of the campaign. Praising their valor in battle and steadfastness during the trip back to Texas “through mountain passes and over a trackless waste,” he predicted the campaign would be “duly chronicled, and form one of the brightest pages in the history of the Second American Revolution.” Typically exaggerated, Sibley’s words nonetheless remind us that the Rio Grande Valley in early 1862  merits continuing attention.

 

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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