The angel of Santa Fe
By march 11, 1862, New Mexico’s capital had fallen to advance units of an invading Confederate army from El Paso, Texas, led by Gen. Henry H. Sibley. Two weeks later, the rebels met a Federal force from Fort Union in the bitterly fought battle at Glorieta Pass.
At day’s end, the bloodied Texans held the field, but it was a hollow victory, since in a flanking movement their foes had destroyed the Confederate supply train in the rear.
Bereft of food rations, spare clothing and blankets, the men in gray, according to the Santa Fe Gazette, “rode, walked or hobbled into the city.” Among them were many wounded.
Local residents were ready for them, having heard the day-long booming of artillery, 25 miles away that signaled a major battle in progress.
One woman took the lead in organizing preparations to receive and care for the injured. She was Louisa Hawkins Canby, wife of the U.S. military commander of New Mexico, Col. Edward R.S. Canby.
For her unstinting efforts to aid the suffering Texans, the gallant Mrs. Canby became known as “The Angel of Santa Fe.”
Raised in Crawfordsville, Ind., she had met there and become smitten at age 19 with dashing Edward Canby, a West Point cadet home on summer furlough. They were married din 1839, and for the next 20 years, Louisa accompanied her husband to duty stations across the American West.
Col. Canby had found a large house in Santa Fe for his wife, where she could be comfortable while he was away campaigning against hostile Indians. He’d been in the field when word came of the Confederate advance up the Rio Grande.
Concentrating Union forces at Fort Craig, 30 miles down river from Socorro, the colonel led his men in the battle of Valverde, only to suffer defeat.
In her Indiana years, Louisa Canby had been known as “a determined young woman, forceful of action.” Those traits now served her well.
It was she who originated and put into motion the plan to care for rebel soldiers. When some Santa Feans objected to aiding the enemy, Louisa answered: “Whether friend or foe, the wounded must be cared for. They are the sons of some dear mother.” They also had defeated her husband at Valverde.
Initially, she converted the spacious Canby home into a hospital where Confederate surgeons dressed wounds and performed amputations on shattered limbs, without anesthesia. Louisa herself filled the dual role of hospital supervisor and nurse.
It was soon learned that a fair number of soldiers lay beside the road from Glorieta, unable to reach Santa Fe owing to extreme hunger, exhaustion or loss of blood.
Daily, thereafter, Louisa Canby was seen driving her carriage along the route delivering food, water and blankets to the needy men.
Since horse-drawn ambulances were unavailable to transport them, she obtained several farm wagons. In these she rigged hammocks of tent cloth, so that the wounded could travel in some comfort.
One of the Texans reported that her ingenuity and dedication in this endeavor “doubtless saved many lives.”
After a week, the rebel troops began a withdrawal southward, leaving 100 of their critically wounded behind. Mrs. Canby and other women assisting in the hospital were relieved of their arduous duties when Santa Fe was reoccupied by U.S. military and civil officials.
In decades following the Civil War, surviving Confederates of the ill-fated New Mexico campaign held periodic reunions in San Antonio, Texas. For the one in 1893, an attempt was made to find and invite Louisa Canby to attend.
The reason given was: “She endeared herself to Sibley’s Brigade by her kind treatment of our sick and wounded. And we still entertain kind remembrance and esteem for her.”
There is no evidence that Louisa ever responded to the invitation, if she indeed received it.