John Baylor snatches New Mexico—and a Union officer’s career.
Union Major Isaac Lynde was a worrier. From the moment he had been assigned command of the Southern Military District at Fort Fillmore, New Mexico Territory, he fretted that the fort was indefensible in the likely event of attack by Texas Rebels. The fort lay only 36 miles from El Paso, after all, offering a prime target for invasion from the south.
Almost immediately Lynde began writing to his superior, Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, expressing his concerns and presenting a plan for abandoning Fillmore. The fort, a series of low adobe buildings with outer walls that formed a parapet, was “located in a depression, commanded on three sides by the hills, within six pounder range,” Lynde wrote, adding that the nearest water for men and animals flowed in the Rio Grande, a mile and a half away.
He arrived at Fillmore on July 5, 1861— early enough for Washington to have grave concerns over control of the Southwest— and with good cause, as it turned out.
A full month before war was officially declared, a brassy Texan named John Robert Baylor combed Texas for volunteers to invade New Mexico. Before Lynde could unpack, Baylor—sporting a lieutenant-colonel’s rank—was marching north with 258 rugged Texans, dubbed the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, at his command.
Baylor was not a man to be trifled with. Well over 6 feet tall, aggressive, impetuous and utterly fearless, he had a reputation as one of the baddest of the bad. Raised on the frontier, he was an avid Indian fighter and a fanatically devoted Confederate.
Lynde, 57, was cut from different cloth. A white-bearded-Vermonter,he was an equivocator not naturally inclined to combat. At a time when boldness often carried the day, he was hopelessly outmatched.
On July 25, Baylor and his Texas volunteers occupied Mesilla, only four miles away. Lynde’s force totaled more than 700 men, with enough arms and supplies—in Canby’s opinion—to drub Baylor’s Rebels. Lynde marched some 380 men, infantry and mounted rifles toward Mesilla, along with a battery of howitzers. Stopping two miles from Mesilla, Lynde sent two officers to demand that Baylor immediately surrender the town. Baylor’s response?
“Come and take it.”
After firing his howitzers to no effect, he ordered a charge that bogged down in the sand and cornfields. Meanwhile, the Texans fired on the Yankees, killing three and wounding six.“The cavalry was thrown into confusion and retreated hastily, running over the infantry,” Baylor reported. “In a few moments the enemy were marching back in the direction of their fort.”
Discouraged, Lynde ordered a retreat to Fillmore, which he immediately fortified with sandbags. Shortly thereafter, he learned Baylor had sent to El Paso for men and artillery. Following the plans he had spelled out earlier, he set about abandoning the post. After ordering the fort’s supplies destroyed,he marched his men—along with some 100 women and children—toward Fort Scranton—more than 100 hot, sandblasted miles away. Neither Lynde nor his men were prepared for the march.
Later accounts maintained that rather than sacrifice the fort’s supply of whisky, many of the soldiers emptied their canteens of water and refilled them with spirits, sampling the liquor freely before setting out— arguably the worst liquid sustenance imaginable. Whether the story is true, the column soon ran out of water and suffered the torments of the damned under New Mexico’s blistering summer sun.
When he learned of Lynde’s withdrawal, Baylor overtook the pitiful procession at San Augustine Springs.“I could see the rear of the enemy, composed chiefly of famished stragglers, endeavoring to make their way to water,” Baylor later recalled.“I disarmed and collected a number of them, and finding most of them dying of thirst, we gave them the water we had….” Rather than coming upon a solid column of soldiers marching in order, Baylor found “[t]he road for five miles…lined with the fainting, famished soldiers, who threw down their arms as we passed and begged for water.”
Lynde had ordered Captain Alfred Gibbs, 3rd U.S. Cavalry, to maintain a rear-guard defense. Gibbs later reported to Canby that “It will be well here to mention that the infantry had been marched up to noon 20 miles without water, and that under the bushes by the side of the road over 150 men were lying, unable to rise or to carry their muskets, and useless and disorganized in every way. This was the rear guard on which I was ordered to rely.”
At the springs, the 200 to 300 Yankees still standing drew up in a line of battle. Baylor ordered a charge, and soon“was sent for by Major Lynde, who asked upon what terms I would allow him to surrender. I replied that the surrender must be unconditional. To this Major Lynde assented.
“Major Lynd[e]’s command was composed of eight companies of infantry and four of cavalry, with four pieces of artillery, the whole numbering nearly 700 men. My own force at the surrender was less than 200. I regret to report that the regimental colors were burned by the enemy to avoid surrendering them.”
Gibbs was beside himself, and apparently wasn’t the only one.“The surrender,” he wrote,“had been agreed upon by Major Lynde and [Baylor] without consulting a single officer, and I was ordered by Major Lynde not to attempt to escape. Upon being informed of the surrender, every officer in the command protested against it; but it was of no avail, and the command of seven companies of the Seventh U. S. Infantry and three companies of Rifles were voluntarily surrendered without striking a blow.”
According to post surgeon James C. McKee, Lynde’s behavior was nothing short of cowardly.“All the officers assembled, and proposed waiting on Lynde and protesting against the surrender on any terms,” he wrote, “[but] It was too late.” The surrender, McKee maintained, was“the most humiliating and disgraceful event that has ever blurred the splendid record of the Regular army.” Lynde and his adjutant, Lieutenant Edward J. Brooks, “were the worst scared men I ever saw. The grey beard and hair of Lynde were a fitting frame for that pale face and cowardly soul,” McKee observed.
Lynde’s surrender set off a chain reaction. “On the 10th of August an express reached me from Fort Stanton, stating that the news of the capture of Major Lynde’s command had created a stampede among the United States troops,”Baylor reported to Brig. Gen. Earl Van Dorn,“who hastily abandoned the fort after having destroyed a considerable portion of their supplies and Government property of all kinds, and all would have been destroyed but for a storm of rain,which extinguished the fire intended by the enemy to destroy the fort….The Mexicans and Indians in large numbers demanded the right to pillage the fort, which was granted.”
For now, New Mexico—and a significant portion of the West—belonged to the Confederacy, and Baylor issued a proclamation declaring everything south of the 34th parallel the “Confederate Territory of Arizona” and declaring himself governor.
Meanwhile, an outraged Gibbs informed Canby that “charges against Major Lynde, under the fifty-second and ninety-ninth Articles of War, have been preferred, and are now in the hands of Captain [Joseph] Potter, commanding Seventh Regiment.”
After the Rebels paroled him, Lynde quietly returned to Vermont. In November, the adjutant general’s office issued an order proclaiming, “Major Isaac Lynde, 8th Infantry [sic], for abandoning his post—Fort Fillmore—on the 27th of July, 1861, and subsequently surrendering his command to an inferior force of insurgents, is, by direction of the President of the United States, dropped from the Army as of this date.”
Lynde spent the next five years pleading for reinstatement so he might receive a court-martial or court of inquiry. In January 1862, the ever-merciful President Abraham Lincoln asked the judge advocate to examine Lynde’s papers “and let me know his opinion whether the prayer of the petitioner can and ought to be granted[.]” But it would not be until September 1866 that General-in-Chief Ulysses Grant wrote a letter to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordering Lynde’s reinstatement—and immediate retirement. Two months later, President Andrew Johnson signed the order.
The Confederates were finally driven out of New Mexico for good in March 1862.
Ron Soodalter thanks Karen Needles (documents onwheels.com) for sharing her research.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.