By Dr. Conrad Crane, U. S. Army Military History InstituteFebruary 18, 2010
In January 1862, Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley led the approximately 3000 men of his Army of New Mexico over the Rio Grande from Texas as part of a grandiose plan to snatch the West away from the Union. Never a very thorough planner, whom subordinates criticized as being "too prone to let the morrow take care of itself," Sibley had no real logistics plan except to capture the supplies stockpiled at Union forts in New Mexico.
Facing him were slightly larger forces from the Union Department of New Mexico, under the command of Colonel Edward R. S. Canby. Canby, also, had significant problems. While a large percentage of his forces were Regulars, the majority were untried New Mexico Volunteers and Militia, defending their homes from the hated Texans that made up Sibley's army. Few of the New Mexicans spoke English, and the racial, cultural, and language difficulties between the U.S. Regulars and their New Mexico "allies" resulted in prejudice and poor communication.
However, because of better intelligence Canby was fully aware of Sibley's logistical problems, and realized the importance of holding the forts, primarily Fort Craig south of present day Socorro and Fort Union east of Santa Fe. Canby based his forces at Fort Craig and further depleted Sibley's supplies with raids. When the Confederates reached the fort, they realized they did not have the proper equipment to besiege it, and Canby was too smart to fall for feints designed to lure him out into maneuver combat that would risk losing the fort.
On the morning of February 21, Sibley abandoned his positions near the fort and headed north towards a Rio Grande ford at Valverde. He aimed to bypass Fort Craig and head for Albuquerque. Canby sent Colonel Benjamin Roberts, the feisty commander of the 3rd U.S. Cavalry Regiment, with all the Union cavalry to contest the crossing. Soon a full battle ensued, as both commanders sent their forces "marching to the sound of the guns."
Sibley, as he was wont to do at critical times in the campaign, was "stricken by an unidentified illness as well as by indecision" (his nickname among the troops as "the Walking Whiskey Keg" might hint at the source of his sickness), and command of the Confederates fell to the very capable Colonel Tom Green of the 5TH Texas Cavalry. His forces hunkered down in the natural trench of the old river bed as both commanders gathered their forces together. Late in the afternoon, they both launched successful assaults simultaneously on the enemy right flank. While Canby's forces were sweeping the Texans out of the river bed, Green captured the main Union artillery battery anchoring their position. Distrustful of his New Mexican "allies" and unwilling to risk Fort Craig in any way, Canby left the field and retreated back to his sanctuary. While Sibley had a tactical victory, his overall situation was actually worsened by the fact that irregular New Mexico cavalry were able to capture and burn some of his supply trains, left vulnerable when their guards rushed off to the battle.
Valverde was the largest Civil War battle in the far West. Total casualties for the fight were about 100 dead and 300 wounded. Canby blamed the New Mexico volunteers for his defeat, citing the fact that the broken 2nd New Mexico Volunteers could not rally to retake the guns. In contrast, Kit Carson's 1st New Mexico had fought very well, as had the Regulars and some other New Mexicans. Sibley marched northward to repeat his Valverde performance at Glorieta Pass, again winning a tactical victory while losing his trains and failing to take Fort Union. Eventually his army endured a terrible retreat back to Texas, shattered along with his dreams of conquest.
Perhaps his best epilogue was written by a soldier from the 5th US Infantry: "Moreover the campaign was noticeable from the fact, believed to be unparalleled in military history, in that whilst the winning Army was tactically defeated in every engagement of importance, its enemy was finally driven from the invaded territory utterly defeated, disheartened, and decimated."
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.