The first encounter of the Civil War in New Mexico
The invasion of New Mexico by the troops of the Southern Confederacy occurred during the months of February, March and April, 1862. It was part of a grand campaign which had been early planned by the leaders of secession, to take possession of the immense mineral resources of the south-west and the Pacific coast, and thus supply the Southern Confederacy with wealth which should not only be the basis of their credit and give value to paper currency and bonds, but furnish the material with which to build up immense manufacturing interests to rival the mechanical industries of the Northern States.
Bordering upon the vast country of Texas was the equal area of New Mexico and Arizona, with a native population of foreign language and customs, who were not supposed since their conquest to have become Americanized enough to confirm their loyalty to the United States.
The presence of Confederate forces within their borders was to be the
signal of a movement for the voluntary annexation of these great territories, which would thenceforth hardly need to be held as conquered provinces, and the same army augmented by New Mexican allies, was to be led to the capture of Colorado.
Utah, unequalled with the open hostility of the Mormon hierarchy to the United States, would add new strength to the movement, which in a great campaign would take in Nevada and the glittering prizes of northern and
southern Califounequaledports of San Francisco and San Diego would make of the Southern Confederacy the proudest maritime power of the world, with an immense stretch of sea coast on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico, to which would flow the commerce of the Orient and of every other country and shore.
It was the boldest, and most comprehensive scheme ever plotted by the leaders of the rebellion, and one of the first to be put into execution.
The meager resources of the Confederacy allowed only an unpretentious outlay for the beginning of this grand enterprise. It was started within the borders of Texas, from which New Mexico was to be drawn first into the Confederacy. To conquer the military posts of the United States in the territory, an expedition was ordered to be fitted out, as early
as September 1861, but as late as January 1862, it consisted only of two and a half regiments, poorly armed, thinly clad, and almost destitute of blankets.
Brigadier-General H. H. Sibley was in command of this poorly-equipped brigade. Small-pox and pneumonia had reduced the ranks, the ravages of which had been greatly increased by the failure of the quartermaster’s funds to obtain necessary supplies.
However, it was determined to enter New Mexico as quickly as possible, trusting largely to the capture of United States government stores, and the friendly aid of the inhabitants for the needed subsistence of
A hospital for the sick was established at Dona Ana, in Texas, and during the first week in February the troops were marched toward old Fort Thorne.
On the 7th of February, a movement was continued to a point seven miles below Fort Craig, and on February 16tli, a reconnaissance in force advanced to within a mile of the fort and offered a battle on the open plain. General Sibley’s effective force did not exceed 1750 men in the whole, though 2600 were on service. There were three regiments of Texas cavalry, two batteries of Texas light artillery and one battalion of another cavalry regiment, who thus confronted at Fort Craig the Federal army, aggregating 3,810 troops.
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These consisted of eleven companies of United States infantry, seven companies, of United States cavalry, a company of Colorado volunteers,
the first regiment of New Mexico volunteers under Colonel Carson, fifteen companies of Graydon’s spy company, and 1,000 hastily collected and unorganized militia.
General E. R. S. Canby was in command of the United States forces and strenuously sought to prevent an engagement Avitli the Texans in open field, through distrust of the ability of the militia and New Mexico volunteers to sustain any movement under the enemy’s fire.
Fort Craig was situated on the west bank of the Rio Grande. Opposite to it was the termination of a rocky mesa, from fifty to sixty feet high, extending from seven miles below the fortress. This could be ascended by a bridle path, but at only one point over a road suitable for artillery.
This mesa, covered with malpie projecting into the valley at one point only 1.000 feet from the post, if occupied by batteries could easily command the fortification.
Another mesa, three miles long and two miles wide, stood above Fort Craig, rising 300 feet above the level of the valley. The river can be approached at the southern and also at the northern end of this mesa, affording good location for camps beyond the reach of the artillery of the Fort.
The malpie was covered with sand ridges, from which protruded beds of lava. These ridges ran parallel to the course of the river, and the ravines between them gave excellent covers for the movements of troops, and secure from attack by reason of the rough intervening ground, afforded great advantages to an enemy.
General Sibley discovered by his advance on the 16th of February, that it was impossible to attack Fort Craig from the front with his light batteries, and that the Federals were unwilling to engage in open battle. He, therefore, determined to cross the Rio Grande to the east bank, flank the fort and force a battle at the recrossing above it.
This required the crossing of the river in full view of the Federals,
camping a mile and a half from the fort and directly opposite to it, till the next day, without water, and the following day to fight a battle.
The first crossing was accomplished on the 20th of February without any interruption. A camp was made in one of the ravines in the midst of a grove of pines. During the day General Canby ordered about 2500 men to cross the river and draw the fire of the Confederates so as to ascertain their position in the ravine. The Texans deployed as skirmishers and directed a few shots against the Federals, which threw the New Mexico volunteers into confusion, but as the night was approaching the fighting was not long continued at this point. The volunteers were withdrawn under a demonstration made by the Federal cavalry, which was repelled by the Texans on the Confederate right.
The Federal artillery and cavalry crossed the river and re-entered the fort, but their infantry was stationed so as to prevent the Texans from occupying the point opposite to the fort.
A serious loss overtook the Texans in the night. Their animals being imperfectly guarded, broke loose and ran wildly to the river for water. More than two hundred horses and mules were captured the next morning and brought into the fort. This interfered seriously with the movements of the Confederate supply train, part of which was abandoned, while the rest was moved over the sand hills.
But the wagons thus lost contained all the blankets, books, papers and camp utensils of the Fourth Texan cavalry regiment, commanded by Colonel
William R. Scurry, one of the most effective portions of their little invading army.