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In July 1861, three months after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the 7th Infantry was in southern New Mexico Territory. Companies A, B, D, E, G, I, and K garrisoned Fort Fillmore, the regiment’s headquarters. Companies C, F, and H were on their way there from Fort Craig to the north and Fort Buchanan to the west (in present-day Arizona).

Meanwhile, menace was heading north from Texas in the form of Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor and the 350 men of the newly formed Texas Mounted Rifles. Baylor knew that the 700 Federals already at Fort Fillmore outnumbered him, but he marched up the Rio Grande Valley anyway.

He need not have worried about the U.S. Army Regulars of the 7th Infantry. Although their commander, Major Isaac Lynde, a 34-year veteran of infantry service, had been informed of the Confederate advance, he posted only the usual sentinels and no outlying pickets. Baylor was able to camp a mere 600 yards from the Union fort on the night of July 24 while he prepared for a dawn assault. During the night, a Confederate soldier who had served in the U.S. Army before the war felt a twinge of nostalgia, perhaps, and crept through the darkness to warn the Union forces.

When Baylor realized he had lost the element of surprise, he fell back to Mesilla, a village that his troops occupied, just northwest of the fort, and prepared for an attack by the 7th. Some of the village’s inhabitants–mostly Confederate supporters but a few Texan-haters–gathered on a nearby hill to watch the fight they knew was coming.

Sure enough, Lynde advanced on the village that day and ordered a charge on the Confederates. But when four of his Federals were killed and seven wounded early in the fight, Lynde called off the attack and withdrew. He had the post at Fort Fillmore burned, and the next day, his seven companies of infantry and two companies of mounted rifles began a 150-mile march northeast over steep mountains and dry piñon forests toward Fort Stanton.

On July 27 Lynde’s 700-odd Federals stopped to eat at San Augustin Springs in the San Andres Mountains. Displaying what a Union officer later called “a sublimity of majestic indifference,” Lynde failed to post pickets. An advance guard of Texans soon made him pay for that oversight. The Texans first encountered the 200 troops of Lynde’s rear guard. Many of these Union soldiers had filled their canteens with whiskey before leaving Fort Fillmore–and emptied them along the march. The Texans found the Federals strung out along the trail, dehydrated, too drunk to walk–much less fight–and barely able to comprehend that they were being captured. The drunken prisoners were hauled back to Mesilla in wagons, like sacks of wheat.

Next, the Texans reached Lynde’s main force and demanded surrender. The Federal officers knew their troops far outnumbered the ill-trained Texans, and they implored Lynde to let them defend their position and their honor. But Lynde chose to surrender. In an attempt to salvage, literally, some shred of honor, the Union officers saved their regimental colors from capture by tearing them up and distributing the pieces among themselves as keepsakes.

Three days later, the Union prisoners reached Las Cruces, where they were paroled and began a 300-mile march to Fort Union, the Union’s key military post between Missouri and California, located in the northeast corner of New Mexico. The northward route was a formidable one through areas short on food, forage, and water. Even today, landmarks along the route are known by names like “Starvation Peak.” When the parolees reached the fort, they were immediately put to work, even though they had just hiked most of the length of New Mexico.

Fort Union was an attractive target to Trans-Mississippi Confederates. It was a huge supply depot with adobe warehouses full of gunpowder, rifles, artillery, uniforms, and food–and there were no fortifications to protect these valuables. So there they sat for the taking, only a two-day ride from the border of Confederate Texas. Attack could come at any time across the Oklahoma panhandle, or through the windswept grassland of western Texas’s Llano Estacado, or up the Rio Grande Valley. To make matters worse for the Federals, Confederate agents had enticed Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs along the Santa Fe Trail to take the warpath for Jefferson Davis, thereby cutting off Fort Union from the eastern states.

By the summer of 1861, it began to appear that the Civil War could last a long time, and not only in Virginia. In early August, volunteer soldiers from New Mexico joined the U.S. Regulars at Fort Union to make a total force of more than 1,000 men.

The newly arrived men of the paroled 7th Infantry were not allowed to fight; parolees were sworn not to fight until an equal number of enemy prisoners were released in exchange for them. But nothing kept them from moving dirt. Just south of the old Fort Union parade ground, 200 men worked four-hour shifts plying picks and shovels, sweating in the summer sun, panting in the thin mountain air. They were turning the defenseless supply depot into a state-of-the-art “four-bastioned rectangular polygon” with inner redans and outer lunettes.

Not all of the 7th Infantry’s time at Fort Union was spent digging; court-martial records show that. Just over the hill south of the fort, on the banks of the Mora River, was the village of Loma Parda, though the term “village” is an exaggeration. Loma Parda was nothing more than a dance hall, a bar, and a few small buildings that each held one bed and one prostitute.

Apparently the village’s temptations were too strong for many of the 7th Infantrymen to ignore. “I went to Loma Parda for my overcoat, which I had left there,” wrote Michael Patton. “A few of my friends asked if I would like to have something to drink. I said yes. I got into a house where I thought my overcoat was and got a drink. I didn’t know anything for ten hours. When I woke up, my money was gone. Then I started home.”

Patrick McKenney was convicted of being absent without leave for five days. As an excuse, he offered, “I had the D.T.s.” Jeremiah Nolan, Patrick O’Brien, Edward O’Brien, Michael Smith, and John Marks were convicted of being AWOL for two days. James Lloyd, tried for the same offense, explained, “I went to Loma Parda on Sunday and intended to come right back, but met some of the boys and got drunk. When I got sober, I came back.” Corporal Robert Walsh got drunk and released several men imprisoned at the fort. Each of the convicted visitors to Loma Parda were sentenced to three months of hard labor while wearing a 12-pound iron ball attached to the left ankle by a four-foot chain.

By the end of August 1861, the new Fort Union was in a condition to withstand a serious assault. Most of the 7th Regiment was ordered to proceed to Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Missouri, whence they would eventually continue to noncombat posts along the Great Lakes. They were to leave Fort Union on September 19 and pass Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, along the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.

A wagon train assembled in the plains just northeast of the fort several days before the 7th’s scheduled departure. Private Thomas Hamilton, assigned to guard the wagon train on the night of September 17, left his post, hiked into the fort, got drunk, and was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and leaving his post. The same night, another guard, Private Michael Runnels, was caught drunk on duty.

Two days later, the 7th Infantry headed for St. Louis, the advance guard scouting for danger and the rear guard alert for stragglers. On the night of September 23, the regiment camped near the Purgatory River in northern New Mexico, in an area probably filled with Confederates and hostile Indians. Private John Moloy, stationed as a sentry, was found sound asleep and was arrested.

Continuing its journey east, the 7th Infantry stopped at noon on October 2 for a rest along the banks of the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado, a few miles upriver from Fort Wise. Proverbial wisdom has it that music soothes the savage breast, but this adage found no proof in Sergeant Hubert Auberly, the 7th Infantry’s chief musician. Hubert had been taking an occasional nip from his whiskey bottle during the morning’s plodding progress. As his peers settled along the riverbank for their repast, the sergeant lurched out of the Auberly family wagon and began to curse those about him. Private J. Isom responded in kind to the verbal barrage, apparently underestimating Auberly, who leveled him with a single blow. Mrs. Isom hauled her battered husband back into their family wagon, and he was heard from no more.

Lieutenant F.I. Crilly arrived at the scene and, noting Auberly’s stare of drunken belligerence, ordered the sergeant back into his wagon. There Auberly stayed for a while, nursing his tendency to sullen outrage–and his whiskey bottle. Feeling a renewed vigor, he reemerged drunker and noisier than before, apparently inflamed by the sense of having been mistreated, which seems to characterize the more obnoxious species of drunkard.

Crilly returned to the fray and had the guard arrest Auberly. The chief musician, however, broke from his captors, splashed across the river, and outran them in the thick underbrush. Many hours later, he emerged from bushes eight miles away and walked directly into his regimental commander’s camp, where he was arrested a second time and put into more effective confinement.

Judging by court-martial records, peace seems to have settled over the regiment for the next two weeks. There was not another arrest until the evening of October 17. The regiment had paused for the night at “Camp Number 29,” apparently halfway between Fort Wise and Fort Leavenworth. As the corporal of the guard made his rounds of the camp’s periphery, he noticed that Private Hugh Campbell was too drunk to stand up straight, not to mention resist an approaching enemy.

After having Campbell arrested, the corporal came upon another drunk sentry, Private James Quigley. He sent Quigley to join Campbell in the guard tent. A few uneventful hours later, gunfire shattered the calm of the prairie night. Private Jeremiah Shea was firing wildly into the dark at approaching Confederate raiders, but the raiders existed only inside a brain marinated in Old Tanglefoot. Shea joined Campbell and Quigley in the guard tent.

The 7th Infantry advanced past Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Independence, Missouri, without any further arrests, reporting in at Jefferson Barracks about November 5, 1861. The couple of quiet weeks probably owed less to a change in attitude than a dearth of whiskey along the trail.

Now that the troops were in the St. Louis area, however, there was plenty of whiskey–and trouble soon followed. In just three weeks, at least five privates were reported AWOL: Thomas Dolan on November 14, Frederick Beisner and Julius Steinmayer on the 26th, Calvin Anderson on the 27th, and Frederick Winsher the following week. Winsher, Beisner, and Steinmayer all returned on December 5. While they were away, Private James Tuomey got drunk on guard duty. The corporal of the guard found him passed out around 11:00 one night.

All the miscreants arrested during the journey from Fort Union to St. Louis were court-martialed at Jefferson Barracks in a trial presided over by Captain Alfred Gibbs of the 3d Cavalry. And finally, a little more than four months after he surrendered his command at San Augustin Springs, Major Lynde was summarily dismissed from the army by President Abraham Lincoln.

On arrival at its Great Lakes destination in January 1862, the 7th Infantry requested a set of colors to replace the one the men had destroyed to prevent capture. But the 7th, still on parole, had not fought in several months, so the army refused the request until the troops proved themselves.

It was not until September 1862 that the portion of the 7th Infantry stationed in the Great Lakes region was released from parole and sent to join Brigadier General George Sykes’s brigade in the Army of the Potomac. Three months later, Companies A, B, D, E, and G fought honorably at Fredericksburg, Virginia, below the area known as Marye’s Heights. Within four weeks, the regiment received a new set of colors with suitable honors. For the men still with the unit, the shame of San Augustin Springs and the drunken march along the Santa Fe Trail had been redeemed.

Searching for a tidy, uplifting ending to the story of the 7th U.S. Infantry, it is natural to return optimistically to the three companies–C, F, and H–that had remained in New Mexico, to chart their progress in virtue, too. Unfortunately, in late December 1862, nine soldiers from those companies were court-martialed at Fort Union. Sergeant Thomas Breen had been drunk while in charge of the battery guard. He was initially reduced to the ranks, but his sentence was remitted by Brigadier General James H. Carleton “in consideration of his long service.”

Eight privates were also tried on various charges. Robert McMenemy had been missing for two days, and Henry Ganton and Edward Scully had each disappeared twice. Martin Collins and James Kelly had vanished separately for three days, and Benjamin Barker, who had been working as a cook, for nine. While John McGuire had been posted as a guard on the night of November 12, 1862, he had got drunk and “conducted himself in a riotous and disorderly manner.” James Thompson “became so intoxicated as to be incapable of performing his duty on the night of December 8, 1862.” All eight privates were sentenced to hard labor while wearing a 16-pound ball and chain.

At a glance, the 7th U.S. Infantry’s record looks less than impressive, but these troops were probably no worse behaved than most other Regulars steeped in the counterculture of the antebellum frontier army. The true test of a soldier is how he behaves in battle. And as the men of the 7th Infantry proved with a brave effort in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, late in 1862, and in subsequent battles, they could and would fight as well as anyone. CWT

Thomas Lowry, author of The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War (Stackpole, 1994), is a retired physician who writes about “misbehavior” in the Civil War.