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How the West Wasn’t Won

By Rick Britton
Summer 2018 • MHQ Magazine

Henry Hopkins Sibley had an audacious plan to vault the Confederacy to victory in the Civil War.

THE TEXAS LANCERS FORMED QUICKLY ALONGSIDE THE MOUNTAIN HOWITZERS. Above the two-rank formation rose nine-foot medieval pikes—weapons peculiarly out of place in the mid-19th century. Just below each lance point flapped a red pennant emblazoned with a single white star—the symbol of the Republic of Texas, now the Confederate State of Texas, on its first sortie of conquest.

Ordered forward, the 50 horsemen advanced at a walk. Soon, though, they broke into a canter. A hundred yards from the enemy, they spurred their mounts into a gallop, lowered their shoulders, and leveled their steel-tipped lances. Onward they thundered like a bristling, seemingly unstoppable tide.

Confederate brigadier general Henry Hopkins Sibley set out in 1862 to conquer New Mexico, Colorado, and California. (Library of Congress)

In a war full of unusual events, Confederate brigadier general Henry Hopkins Sibley’s 1862 invasion of the New Mexico Territory stands out. One of the westernmost campaigns of the Civil War, it witnessed such oddities as a lancer charge and the only attempted “torpedo mule” attack in military history. The Battle of Valverde—the largest battle of Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign—featured unlikely combatants and rugged, mountainous terrain. On February 21, 1862, beneath the gaze of the huge Mesa de la Contadera, a force of U.S. Regulars, Hispanic volunteers, and the gold rush miners known as Pike’s Peakers battled a brigade of shotgun-wielding Confederate cowboys along the Rio Grande River. At stake during the fight were the Valverde fords of the Rio Grande, and the tenuous Union supply line that stretched north to Santa Fe.

The men of Sibley’s Confederate “Army of New Mexico,” though, were fighting for something greater. In the grand tradition of Spanish conquistadors Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and Juan de Oñate, they had come to conquer an empire in the American Southwest.

 

TEXAS CONFEDERATES INHERITED AMERICA’S DREAM OF MANIFEST DESTINY. Even before the war Southerners had clamored for the expansion of slavery into the Territory of New Mexico. Acquired from Mexico at the end of the Mexican-­American War as part of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the territory in 1861 included the present-day states of Arizona, New Mexico, and part of southeastern Nevada. The territory’s 90,000 residents, mostly Hispanic farmers, were frequently attacked by roving bands of Indians. With only 1,500 troops to protect the 250,000-square-mile territory, the U.S. Army was totally overtasked.

Texas seceded on February 1, 1861. Emboldened by Texas’s example, in March a convention of eastern New Mexicans meeting in La Mesilla, New Mexico Territory, adopted and ratified an ordinance of secession for the entire area south of the 34th parallel (roughly half of New Mexico). They named it the Territory of Arizona, CSA. Military assistance came in late July when Confederate lieutenant colonel John R. Baylor’s 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, numbering about 300, captured Fort Fillmore—in southern “Arizona”—and all 400 men of its garrison. Within weeks several other “Arizona” Federal installations were evacuated, their detachments removed to Fort Craig on the Rio Grande. Baylor quickly set himself up as the new territory’s military governor.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, Virginia, Henry Hopkins Sibley had proposed a plan to Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Born in Louisiana in 1816, Sibley had graduated from West Point in 1836 and was known as the inventor of the “Sibley Tent,” a 20-man canvas teepee. A hard-drinking dragoon officer who had seen plenty of service in the Southwest, Sibley had resigned from the U.S. Army the very day he’d received his promotion to major. In the White House of the Confederacy, now Confederate colonel Sibley told Davis that he wanted to raise a mounted force in Texas to conquer the rest of New Mexico. Now that the southern half of the territory was Confederate “Arizona,” the northern half appeared ripe for plucking. It sounded feasible, so on July 8, 1861, Sibley was awarded a brigadier general’s commission and authorized to raise a brigade.

Sibley’s real plan, however, was much more grandiose. Once New Mexico was under his thumb, he planned to continue north into Colorado, where the rich, virtually undefended mining districts around Denver City would be easy prey. Soon Rocky Mountain gold and silver would be flowing into the Confederacy’s coffers. He believed that, once there, his ranks would swell with Southerners who’d settled the territory and with anti-U.S. Mormons from the adjacent Utah Territory. Sibley also had his eye on the northern Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Baja California. Revolution had weakened Mexico’s government, and Sibley hoped that the country’s newly elected president, Benito Juarez, would be willing to cede hard-to-govern regions in return for gold.

And there was more. “The objective aim and design of the campaign was the conquest of California,” Major Trevanion T. Teel, who served with Sibley, would write after the war. Once New Mexico and Colorado were subdued, “on to San Francisco” would be the motto. In Sibley’s empire-­grabbing vision, California’s ports would be impossible for the U.S. Navy to blockade. The continent-­spanning Confederacy—newly rich with gold and silver—would be open to the world.

Arriving in San Antonio, Texas, on August 12, Sibley spent just over two months organizing his Army of New Mexico. Along with Baylor’s 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, already in New Mexico, Sibley’s Brigade comprised three other regiments: the 4th, 5th, and 7th Texas Mounted Volunteers. Second in command was Colonel Thomas Green, a 47-year-old veteran of the Mexican-American War. Officially listed as “cavalry,” Sibley’s regiments, because of their weaponry, were actually “mounted infantry”—units trained to dismount for combat. Most were equipped with short-range shotguns and squirrel rifles, but Sibley had also procured a good number of rifle muskets from the Confederate government. The companies thus armed were slated for skirmishing and long-range fighting. Few of the Texans carried sabers, but three of the companies boasted nine-foot lances. Sibley’s Brigade had 12 light artillery pieces, eight mountain howitzers, and four 6-pounders.

 

IN EARLY JANUARY 1862 THE CONFEDERATE ARMY OF NEW MEXICO—approximately 3,000 men—began its march north up the Rio Grande from Fort Bliss in West Texas. Behind it streamed a long, creaking supply train. The arid land offered little in the way of additional foodstuffs, and the 120-mile journey to Fort Craig—a large Union-held adobe and earthwork fort—was made more difficult by a freak spell of bone-chilling weather. If Sibley was to take, and hold, the entire New Mexico Territory, this fortification had to be captured, as it sat immediately alongside the Rio Grande, his all-important route of supply.

In command at Fort Craig was Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, a 44-year-old West Point graduate who had known Sibley in the prewar U.S. Army. Canby’s force consisted of 18 companies of U.S. Regulars—both infantry and cavalry—and eight pieces of artillery in two batteries. The Regulars were supported by 27 companies of New Mexico Volunteers, including the 1st Regiment commanded by Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson, the famed scout, and detachments from four others. Also present were Captain James “Paddy” Graydon’s Spy Company, Captain Theodore Dodd’s company of Colorado Volunteers (the Pike’s Peakers) and some New Mexico militiamen. Even with a garrison totaling 3,810 Canby worried that his Nuevo Mexicanos were extremely green and would not fight.

On February 16, after an overnight snowfall, the Confederates rode to within a few hundred yards of Fort Craig, a challenge that failed to result in the open-field confrontation Sibley desired. Canby was playing it smart. That evening a sandstorm howled as the Confederate leaders considered their options. With their rations running low, something had to be done quickly. They decided to cross the Rio Grande, bypass Fort Craig to the east, and recross six miles north at the Valverde fords. From that position the Texans could cut the Federal supply line. Then, Canby would have to come out and fight.

Sibley’s brigade crossed the icy river on February 19 and set up camp. On February 20 Canby ordered 2,500 of his men to cross the Rio Grande and attack. A few well-placed artillery rounds, however, had them scampering to the rear instead. That evening Graydon and a few of his Hispanic spies attempted a harebrained attack. After filling two boxes with 24-pounder howitzer shells, the fuses replaced with slow match, they attached them to a thoroughly distinctive delivery system: two old army mules. With the cook fires of the Confederate soldiers flickering in the frigid night air, the spies led the two “torpedo mules” across the river toward an encampment where hundreds of the enemy’s mules were picketed. Nearing the enemy’s bivouac, they lit the fuses and hightailed it in the opposite direction. The theory, of course, was that the U.S. Army mules, attracted by like kind, would rush over to their Southern counterparts and the shells they carried would explode, destroying much of Sibley’s transportation muscle. But much to Graydon’s chagrin, his mules, instead of trotting toward the enemy, eagerly followed him in retreat. When the shells exploded, the Texans were quickly under arms. Graydon returned to camp without the mules. That night a large number of Texas horses and mules stampeded, and more than 200 were captured and brought into Fort Craig.

The movement upriver began early on February 21. Sibley’s men were tired, parched, and hungry, and the sandy, snowy paths made the going difficult. Canby, apprised of the enemy’s intentions, had sent 500 mounted militiamen east of the river to monitor Sibley’s movements. That same morning he dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Roberts north, with an additional 500 men. Behind them rumbled six pieces of artillery, including two 24-pounder howitzers. Roberts was under orders to hold the Valverde fords.

 

THE BATTLE OF VALVERDE WAS FOUGHT ACROSS A COTTONWOOD-SPECKLED FLOODPLAIN of the Rio Grande. The river, fordable at many spots, bounded the battlefield’s western edge. In the center of this mile-long section the river bulged slightly to the west. This bulge was mirrored to the east where a long, dry riverbed looped away—to a distance of almost 800 yards in the middle—and rejoined the Rio Grande close to one of the principal crossings. This ford lay in the shadow of the 300-foot-high Mesa de la Contadera, the battlefield’s southern boundary.

The fighting began around 9:30 a.m. when Sibley’s 180-man advance guard spied Union horsemen scouting east of the river and gave chase. “I followed until reaching the bank of a slough in the bottom, when I found myself in front of a large force of all arms,” Captain Charles Pyron reported. Pyron had surprised the Federals in the act of fording. When his Texans approached a cottonwood grove that dominated the crossing, Union major Thomas Duncan dismounted his Regular cavalrymen and began firing. Carbine and shotgun blasts echoed off the slopes of the adjoining mesa. Pyron sheltered his men behind the dry embankment and sent for help.

Both sides now hustled in additional troops. U.S. Regular infantry and Kit Carson’s volunteers crossed the Rio Grande and extended the Federal left. Union artillery pieces unlimbered on the western bank and opened fire. The Texans filed onto the battlefield in company and battalion strength. Quickly dismounting, they hitched their horses to cottonwoods and took position on the Confederate right. As they tried to return the hail of metal, however, they quickly discovered that their weapons were largely outranged by the Union soldiers’ carbines and rifle muskets. They were forced to take refuge behind the trees and stay close to the ground.

As Southern artillery pieces arrived, they were unlimbered along the line, their barking presence immediately boosting the Texans’ morale. At 10:30 a.m. a fierce artillery duel pitted two Southern 6-pounders against six Union pieces, including the two 24-pounders. Completely outmatched, the Texas gunners suffered horribly as their positions were raked by shot and shell.

Roberts, sensing that he’d already gained the upper hand, decided to press the Confederate right. A battalion of U.S. Regulars and the Pike’s Peakers under Dodd moved forward, occasionally halting to unleash a volley, their long-range rifle fire ripping through the Confederate ranks. They then made the mistake of advancing within shotgun range. For half an hour the Regulars traded lethal volleys with Texans sheltered in the dry riverbed. “They began to pay dearly for getting so close to us,” wrote a sergeant with the 4th Texas Regiment. After sustaining heavy casualties the Regulars broke off the attack and retreated.

To Texas Captain Willis Lang, the commander of 50 of Sibley’s mounted lancers, this appeared to be his shining moment. “Like an avalanche, the intrepid Lang…charged the serried lines of the foe,” wrote P. J. Clough of the 5th Texas. But the gray-clad Coloradans under Dodd—miners and mountaineers—displayed impressive discipline. While the front rank knelt, their braced muskets presenting a prickly hedge of bayonets, the second rank quickly loaded and prepared to fire. Nearby, U.S. Regulars began forming a square. When the Texans stormed closer, their lances lowered, Dodd’s second rank erupted in flame. In the confusion that followed Lang’s lancers were annihilated. Only a few galloped back unharmed.

A long midday lull brought relief to the combatants. As the firing slackened, a light snow began to fall. Both sides used this opportunity to regroup, and both sides changed commanders. Sibley, who many of his officers said was dead drunk, pleaded illness and placed Green in command. Canby arrived on the field and, after taking in the situation, quickly decided to assault the Confederate left. The artillery was ordered across the river to anchor the flanks.

Green, seeing this repositioning, determined to capture the Federal guns. On Canby’s right, 250 mounted Texans charged toward one of the 24-pounders and its supports. Withering volleys of rifle and carbine fire ended this attempt. A Union counterattack drove in the Texans’ flank.

Events were quite different on the Union left. There Confederate major Samuel Lockridge led 750 screaming Texans from behind a high drift of sand. “Armed with shot-guns, squirrel rifles, revolvers, and lances, and on foot,” wrote Union lieutenant George H. Pettis, the force surged toward Captain Alexander McRae’s four guns. Vicious hand-to-hand combat broke out when the Texans overran the battery and slammed into its adjacent Federal units. Both McRae and Lockridge were killed in this climactic fight. Canby later said that New Mexican volunteers commenced the rout that carried away much of his left wing. From the safety of Fort Craig, he later reported losses of 68 killed, 160 wounded, and 35 missing.

Holding the field and thus rightfully claiming victory, Sibley remained at the Valverde fords for two days. He reported losing 36 Texans killed and 150 wounded. Then he continued up the Rio Grande, with the plan of procuring subsistence from the population, leaving Canby’s force and Fort Craig intact in his rear. This error proved fatal to Confederate plans. Marching through a barren land featuring only small farms and villages hugging the river, they found very little additional food. Worse yet, their commissary supplies were almost exhausted. Despite this hardship, the Texans captured Albuquerque on March 2 and Santa Fe, the capital of the territory, on March 10. To complete Sibley’s conquest of New Mexico one important detail remained: the capture of Fort Union—94 miles by road east-northeast of Santa Fe along the fabled Santa Fe Trail. The gateway to this stronghold was Glorieta Pass through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, 20 miles east of Santa Fe.

In January 1862 Sibley’s “Army of New Mexico” set out on a 120-mile march up the Rio Grande River to capture Fort Craig, commanded by Union colonel Edward R. S. Canby. (Center for Southwest Research, University of New Mexico)

MEANWHILE, FEDERAL FORCES WERE PLANNING SIBLEY’S DEMISE. At Fort Craig, behind the Texans, Canby had rallied his demoralized army and was preparing to march north with 1,200 men. More important, Colonel John P. Slough had arrived at Fort Union with his 1st Regiment Colorado Volunteers after force-marching 400 miles from Denver.

On March 22 Slough set off toward Santa Fe with a force of 1,300. Four days later, his 400-man advance force under Major John Chivington engaged Sibley’s advance guard—Pyron’s 400 Texans—at Apache Canyon, about 15 miles east of the capital. Twice flanking the Confederates and inflicting heavy casualties, Chivington won a small victory. The following day both sides were reinforced.

On March 28, the Battle of Glorieta Pass (or Pigeon’s Ranch, often called the “Gettysburg of the West”) was fought along the Santa Fe Trail in an awful location. Here in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the trail was but a narrow wagon-track running along the bottom of a deep gorge. With both sides determined to attack, the fighting erupted at 11 a.m. just west of Pigeon’s Ranch, the booming artillery discharges resounding loudly between the adjacent ridges. Outflanked by noon, Slough’s force fell back in confusion until it finally rallied around the ranch’s adobe buildings. Another Confederate attack resulted in the Texans outflanking the Federal right onto what was later named “Sharpshooter’s Ridge,” from where they accurately picked off both infantrymen and artillerymen. Slough ordered a retreat to Koslowski’s Ranch, where dusk kindly brought an end to the fighting. Both sides suffered about 100 casualties, but Slough had been forced back. The Texans thought that another fight would drive him from the mountains, opening up the route to Fort Union.

During the action, however, a two-battalion flanking column under Chivington marched over the mountain into the Confederate rear and captured and destroyed its entire train of 60 wagons. This was the most serious loss Sibley’s brigade suffered, Pettis wrote, “as all their ammunition, baggage, and provisions—of which they were already short—were destroyed.”

Sibley had no choice but to begin the long march home. Worn out and starving, his men were forced to veer west of the Rio Grande to avoid another confrontation with the Fort Craig garrison. They marched on the west side of the Sierra Madelena and then along the dry bed of the Rio Palomas, before returning to the Rio Grande, where supplies had been sent. “On passing over the route of these unfortunate men,” Pettis wrote, “I not infrequently found a piece of a gun-carriage, or part of a harness…with occasionally a white, dry skeleton of a man.” Sibley’s Texans, having lost about a third of their number in New Mexico and “Arizona,” made it back home by the end of the first week in May. Of two things they were certain: They no longer trusted their brigadier general, and Sibley’s dream of a southwestern Confederate empire was dead.

As it turned out, the victory at Valverde was the high point of Sibley’s military career. Chronically ill—and some would say chronically inebriated—he proved inept in even minor commands. Following the 1863 Teche River Campaign, Sibley’s commanding officer charged him with disobedience of orders. Exonerated by the court martial, the hapless general nonetheless rode out the war under a dark cloud—his department commander listing him as having no command. After the Civil War, Sibley served in the Khedive of Egypt’s army as a brigadier general of artillery. Returning to the United States in 1874, he wrote articles, lectured, and waged a legal battle with the U.S. government over royalties due him on his patents, before dying penniless in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on August 23, 1886. MHQ

RICK BRITTON, a former game-publishing executive, is a historian and cartographer.

This article appears in the Summer 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: How the West Wasn’t Won

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