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The Rebels won at Valverde the biggest battle fought in the Southwest but they couldn’t secure a coast-to-empire.

Mesa del Contadero, a 300-foot-high mass of black volcanic rock, rose up over the northern end of a punishing New Mexico desert. Since at least the 17th century, the desolate stretch of ancient lava flows, sand and creosote bushes was known as Jornada del Muerto—the journey of death. It wasn’t an ideal spot for Henry Hopkins Sibley to make a stand for the Confederacy, but the brigadier general had little choice. His Texas volunteers had come nearly 800 miles from San Antonio to the outskirts of Fort Craig, a well-provisioned Union post along the Rio Grande. Now, in February 1862, snow and sleet whipped the Rebels “so hard as to almost pelt the skin off our faces,” wrote Ebenezer Hanna, a 17-year-old private in Sibley’s Brigade. Forage for their horses and cattle was non-existent, and the men were ill-equipped for a winter campaign.

The Confederacy helped itself to the southern half of New Mexico Territory in the summer of 1861, creating its own Territory of Arizona. Sibley believed the rest of New Mexico could be brought under Rebel control and, with the aid of sympathetic Westerners, the South would build an empire that stretched all the way to the Pacific.

Sibley had 2,590 men in his Army of New Mexico—the 4th, 5th and 7th Texas Mounted Volunteers and the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles. Reconnaissance determined it would be foolhardy to launch a frontal assault on Fort Craig’s superior defensive position. “Our only hope of success,” Sibley reported, “was to force the enemy to an open-field fight.”

That was just what Union Colonel Edward R.S. Canby hoped to avoid. Canby lamented the fact that more than half of his 3,800-man force comprised hastily mustered, inexperienced local volunteers and militia, many of whom were native New Mexicans who spoke little or no English. “Having no confidence in  militia and but little in the volunteers,” Canby said, he watched the Rebel moments warily until it became clear that Sibley was “forcing us to attack him upon ground of his own choice.”

Sibley was obviously going to try to cross the Rio Grande at the Valverde fords, just north of Mesa del Contadero. The Yankees had to defend Valverde, or the Rebels would simply bypass Fort Craig and move on Albuquerque and Santa Fe uncontested.

 At dawn on February 21, Union advance cavalry passed west of the mesa to the lower ford of the river. Meanwhile a slightly larger force of Texans skirted the mesa’s eastern edge and stopped at a thick stand of cottonwood trees near the upper ford, where they watered their horses for the first time in more than 24 hours. It was the last quiet moment of the day.

Battle lines formed quickly as both sides rushed reinforcements to Valverde. Despite their recent privations, the Rebels had the advantage. Entrenched in a dry riverbed and with the cottonwoods for cover, Confederate artillery kept Major Thomas Duncan’s cavalry in check near the lower ford. To clear the way for Union artillery to cross to the east bank of the river, hundreds of infantrymen waded through the chest-deep Rio Grande as the lowering desert sky spit snow.

By afternoon, Captain Alexander McRae’s four-gun battery and two guns detached from the 10th U.S. Infantry were in position east of the river. More Union troops— including the 1st New Mexico Volunteers under legendary frontiersman Christopher “Kit” Carson—came up in support. Pressure mounted on the thinning Confederate lines, where men were desperate for water. Corporal John Poe of the 4th Texas recalled, “Our eyes sank back, our tongues swelled, our brains reeled.”

But Canby did not press his advantage. Fearing that a frontal assault was too risky, he instead ordered a wheel maneuver. With McRae’s battery as a pivot point, the Yankees would circle to the right and roll up the Confederate left.

Then Colonel Thomas Green of the 5th Texas made one last attempt to win the day: The Rebels would charge the Union battery. “When the words ‘Up, boys, and at them!’ were given,” said Lt. Col. William Scurry, 4th Texas, “straight at their battery of six guns…went our brave volunteers.”

The Yankees were stunned. Within minutes, the Rebels captured the entire battery and forced a retreat to Fort Craig. Sibley’s Brigade had driven the enemy from the field and would soon push on to Albuquerque. But by May, the dream of a Pacific empire was dead. Writing from Texas after a disastrous spring campaign, Sibley declared, “except for its political geographical position, the Territory of New Mexico is not worth a quarter of the blood and treasure expended in its conquest.”


Christine M. Kreiser is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.