New Mexico Volunteers and the Battle of Valverde
February seems to be “Civil War Month” in New Mexico. On Saturday, Feb. 19, there will be Civil War and military reenactors at El Camino Real International Heritage Center, along with historian John Taylor. The following weekend, Feb. 25-27, will be the annual Battle of Socorro reenactments at Escondida Lake and Socorro.
These events are held each February for good reason – 149 years ago this month was the Confederate invasion of New Mexico, which resulted in the two major battles at Valverde and Glorietta Pass. The Battle of Valverde was fought about 25 miles south of Socorro. Some of those volunteer soldiers, and casualties, were Socorroans.
The Civil War
The Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces attacked U.S. military forces at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. This was hardly a newsworthy event in New Mexico. At least, not at first.
In 1861, New Mexico had been a territory of the United States for about 15 years. In that time, the Army had built forts from Fort Garland, Colo. (a part of New Mexico at that time) to Las Cruces, including Fort Craig south of Socorro.
These Army forts improved life in New Mexico in many ways. The officers often found themselves settling legal disputes, the doctors tended to the sick and injured, and, of course, the forts provided jobs to the local people. The soldiers were often on the trail recovering livestock stolen by the Indians. They also provided escort service for safe travel along El Camino Real, which was once plagued by deadly attacks from the Apaches.
The ranks of the U.S. Army in New Mexico consisted of officers and enlisted men from all over the country — including those from the southern states that had seceded from the Union.
Immediately, some of the officers resigned their commissions and defected to the South. Col. William Loring, the military Commander of the Department of New Mexico, was one. Even the loyalty of the governor of New Mexico, North Carolina-born Abraham Rencher, was questioned and removed from office by President Abraham Lincoln.
This left New Mexico with no governor and no military leader. In short order, President Lincoln appointed Henry Connelly to be the new governor and Col. Edwin Canby to head the military Department of New Mexico. Both men were from Kentucky.
To ensure his troops were loyal to the Union, Canby granted those with Southern sympathies safe travel out of the territory.
The Confederate Army
One of the New Mexico officers resigning to join the Confederacy was Capt. Henry Hopkins Sibley, an accomplished Union officer. He journeyed to Richmond, Va. There he presented a plan to President Jefferson Davis to secure New Mexico and Arizona to gain access to the warm water sea ports in California and Mexico for the Confederacy. With most Southern ports under a Union siege, preventing ships from delivering supplies and provisions to the Confederacy, this seemed an appealing proposal. Sibley’s plan was approved and he was authorized to raise three regiments of volunteers.
Promoted to the rank of brigadier general, Sibley recruited his men in Texas to form his army, which was known as the “Sibley Brigade.” This Confederate army of Texas Mounted Volunteers departed San Antonio, Texas, for New Mexico in July 1861.
Sibley’s experience as a Union officer in New Mexico convinced him that many of the local people did not particularly care for the American military presence. This proved to be an error in judgment. New Mexicans hated Texans far worse than they did American soldiers. After all, it was Texas that had claimed much of New Mexico as their own. They made an unsuccessful bid to the U.S. Congress to make Santa Fe and eastern New Mexico part of the State of Texas. There was little love for Texans in New Mexico.
The New Mexico Volunteers
Canby lost about a third of his New Mexico Army due to those soldiers who defected to the Confederacy, or those who took advantage of the offer to desert the Army life.
The rumors of a pending Confederate invasion of New Mexico came true in July 1861, when Lt. Col. John Baylor and a small Confederate force entered Mesilla, and captured nearby Fort Fillmore.
The loss of a fort to the rebels was a real wake-up call for Canby. In order to consolidate his strength to an army of sufficient size, he closed most outlying posts and forts and concentrated the men at the larger forts, such as Fort Craig near Socorro and Fort Union on the Santa Fe trail.
With Confederates in the area, it was crucial that Canby know of their whereabouts, actions and strengths. He leaned on accomplished Indian scout Capt. James “Paddy” Graydon, formerly of the 1st Dragoons, to form a spy company to perform these tasks.
Self-taught in the Spanish language, Graydon wanted to enlist the help of local farmers and ranchers that knew the Rio Abajo region “like the back of their hands.” He also wanted Spanish-speaking men, not soldiers, that could blend in with the local people or among the Texans to gather intelligence information without suspicion.
Graydon found and recruited his 84 men from Polvadera and a few from Lemitar, at pay rate of 40 cents a day. In a sense, this was the first company of New Mexico volunteers. Organized as “Graydon’s Independent Spy Company,” these men performed invaluable service in tracking the movements of the Texans throughout the campaign. They infiltrated the enemy camps while posing as poor Mexicans selling apples, for the purposes of counting the number of men, wagons and artillery. Their estimates proved to be quite accurate.
Graydon’s company of New Mexican volunteers served the Union with pride and their ultimate boss, Col. Canby at Fort Craig, was well pleased.
By year’s end, the large Sibley Brigade arrived at the New Mexico border. Canby knew their eventual presence outside the walls of Fort Craig was imminent. To bolster his Federal troops to match this opposing Army, Canby called for the formation of the New Mexico Volunteers in January 1862.
Spanish-speaking Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson was appointed to head the 1st Regiment of New Mexico Volunteers with Lt. Col. Jose Chavez as second in command. The Second Regiment was commanded by Col. Miguel Pino. His brother, Col. Nicholas Pino of Socorro, commanded the Second Regiment of New Mexico Militia. Most of these forces were concentrated at Fort Craig, south of Socorro, while Col. Nicholas Pino’s N.M. Militiamen were stationed at Lemitar and Socorro.
Arrival of the Texans
In early February 1862, Sibley’s Brigade began their march up the Rio Grande toward Fort Craig. New Mexico Gov. Henry Connelly closed up shop in Santa Fe and joined Canby behind the solid walls of Fort Craig. Thus, for the duration of the Confederate invasion of New Mexico, both its military commander and the governor ruled the territory from south of Socorro.
According to “Leading Facts of New Mexican History,” historian Ralph Twitchell reports the garrison at Fort Craig consisted of six companies of regular army and nine companies of New Mexico Volunteers for a total strength of 2,265 men. Thus, there were 50 percent more New Mexico Volunteers than regular army at Fort Craig. Over the next two weeks, the arrival of additional men, some artillery units, and two companies of Colorado Volunteers, brought Canby’s strength to 2,800 men.
Sibley’s Brigade appeared outside the walls of Fort Craig on Feb. 16. Their objective was to defeat Canby and claim Fort Craig and the Union provisions for the Confederacy. However, Canby wouldn’t budge from the walls of the fort for a fight. After several days, Sibley led his army across the Rio Grande and camped south of Black Mesa on February 20.
Battle of Valverde
Canby was responsible for 2,800 men at Fort Craig. Mid-February was winter and he depended upon the supply wagons from Fort Union to feed his men. Canby suspected Sibley’s plan was to station garrisons of Texans along the Camino Real to intercept arriving supply wagons, thus forming a blockade to starve and demoralize his men.
Early on the morning of Feb. 21, Canby dispatched a force of regular Army and New Mexico Volunteer units to protect the ford across the Rio Grande at Valverde. The force was commanded by Lt. Col. Benjamin Roberts. As Robert’s force approached the north face of Black Mesa, they ran into elements of the Second and Fourth Texas Mounted Rifles. The battle was on.
Union forces took positions on the west side of the river while the Confederates took possession of the east side. While this seemed like a textbook battle plan, the Texans simply moved further to the east and hunkered down in the old river bed – out of range from the Union artillery. Roberts needed to get his forces closer, but fording the river would make them “sitting ducks” to the Texas guns and sharpshooters.
For the next few hours, bullets and canon balls from both sides whizzed through the air, but fell short of their marks. Alerted of the standoff, Canby departed Fort Craig with the majority of the remaining force of regulars and volunteers to join the fight. In the rear were the ammunition wagons escorted by Col. Miguel Pino and elements of the 2nd N.M. Volunteers.
In the meantime, Lt. Col. Roberts was positioning his men for an assault against the Texans. This distraction would give cover to Capt. Alexander McRae’s artillery unit while they hauled their guns across the river. Once positioned on the east side of the river, the Texans would be well within range of the field canons. With regular and New Mexico volunteers ordered to the north end of the battlefield, this would trap the Texans between Black Mesa and the sand hills once the artillery was in place.
About 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Canby and his force arrived at Valverde and took command of the field.
Canby had his own ideas and began to reposition the men. His commands were contrary to those of Roberts and caused confusion on the battlefield. As the infantry retreated as ordered, it left the artillery in the middle of the battlefield with little protection.
The Texans, under the command of Col. Tom Green, took advantage of the situation and stormed the Union forces left on the field. This dealt a deadly blow, including the capture of McRae’s Federal artillery. The canons were turned around and used to fire on Union forces.
Canby was stunned by the deadly assault and capture of his canons. His field commanders began to reorganize the regular and volunteer forces for an assault of their own to regain the field and recapture the McRae Battery. However, before the companies could get into position, Canby ordered his bugler to sound the signal for retreat.
Historians constantly argue over the outcome of a military battle and what went wrong. However, it does appear that when Canby assumed command of the battle and repositioned the men without properly appreciating Lt. Col. Robert’s strategy, and his premature order of retreat, was a costly mistake.
The Battle of Valverde is listed in most history books as a Confederate victory – primarily due to the opposing side, the Union Army, having called for retreat. From a tactical standpoint, the battle was more or less a stalemate. Except for the Texans acquiring a few Union canons, neither side lost nor gained any military or tactical advantage. Even nearby Fort Craig stood unscathed. Each side suffered about 200 killed and an equal number injured.
In his weekly “New Mexico Scrapbook,” noted historian Marc Simmons wrote: “Native New Mexicans had been much in evidence at the Battle of Valverde … There, 30 miles south of Socorro, many of them had fought gallantly for the Union in a bid to repel a Confederate invasion. … At Glorietta, however, there were no Hispanic companies, much less regiments, participating in the fray.”
Simmons raises a very interesting point. The New Mexico Volunteers, many from the Socorro area, have the distinction and honor for their participation at the Battle of Valverde – their home turf. At Glorietta, that honor went to the Colorado Volunteers.
After the Battle
As Canby’s bugles were sounding retreat, a company of Col. Nicholas Pino’s N.M. Militia, under the command of Maj. Charles Wesche, were making their way back toward Fort Craig on a scouting mission. They were unaware of the Union retreat.
After climbing the sandy hills and arroyos south of Black Mesa, they came upon the abandoned Texans’ campsite from the night before the battle. As the Texans rushed to the battlefield that morning, they left behind many wagons of supplies, baggage and ammunition.
Pino’s Militiamen, who were on foot, had no means to transport the unguarded supply train across the river to Fort Craig. Instead, Wesche ordered the wagons moved close together around the ammunition wagons. A fire was set and in a few short moments, the Texans’ supply train had been reduced to ashes.
This was a serious setback for Sibley – at least when it was discovered later that night. Bed rolls, blankets, personal belongings, food, medical supplies and ammunition for Sibley’s campaign in New Mexico were gone.
Back at the Fort
Following the retreat, the Union Army began the 8-mile trek at sunset back to the fort. It was after 10 p.m., when they began to arrive. Many of the cavalry men had lost their horses in the battle. Some returned to the fort by capturing a stray horse, while in some cases, the New Mexico Volunteers offered their horses to the regular Army troops, especially those who had been injured. For everyone else, they had been instantly converted to infantry — and a long march in the dark back to the fort.
A truce was called so both sides could care for their wounded. Some of the Union wounded were carried by wagons to the fort. The arrival of nearly 200 wounded completely overwhelmed the fort’s hospital and expanded into other quarters. The Texans had it worse. With their supply wagons miles away (destroyed), and no tents or facilities, they cared for their fallen brethren as best as they could in the cold, pitch black night air of the Valverde battlefield. By morning, some had perished.
When Canby arrived at the fort around midnight, he began receiving reports of the battle and the aftermath, and trying to ascertain the number of killed, injured and missing. One bright spot was learning how Pino’s N.M. Militia destroyed the Texans’ supply wagons.
Knowing that the Texans were now in want of food and supplies, Canby knew they would soon be on the trail headed north in a quest to replenish their missing provisions. This placed the towns along the Rio Grande in jeopardy of being pilfered. Belen and Albuquerque had garrisons of Federal troops, but Socorro did not.
Sometime after midnight, Canby dispatched Maj. James Donaldson and Col. Nicholas Pino, with 280 men of the New Mexico Militia, to protect Socorro. He also sent Lt. Col. Manuel Chavez and some of the 2nd N.M. Volunteers to “shadow” Sibley once they resumed their march.
In the meantime, according to the memoirs of Rafael Chacon, captain of Company K, the majority of the 1st N.M. Volunteers began their 8-mile walk back to the fort in total darkness. At 9 p.m., the fatigued men stopped to make camp for the night.
In the wee hours of the morning, Col. Canby began to pen his official report of the battle. In that report, he wrote: “The battle was fought almost entirely by the regular troops, with no assistance from the militia and but little from the volunteers.” He also noted that many of the volunteers were missing and assumed deserters. These words plagued the proud New Mexico Volunteers for years.
How quickly Canby seemed to forget (or ignore) the contributions of the N.M. Volunteers. They fought on the battlefield, guarded the ammunition wagons, destroyed the Texans’ supply train, and he entrusted the volunteers enough to send elements to protect Socorro and shadow the enemy army. Never mind the constant flow of valuable intelligence from Paddy Graydon and his company of volunteer spies. And, Canby knew that New Mexico Volunteers were among the battle casualties.
The ink was barely dry on his report when Capt. Rafael Chacon and the exhausted and hungry N.M. Volunteers marched through the fort’s sally port that morning and mustered-in. They were not missing or deserters, as Canby stated in his report. Why Canby never corrected his damning words of the volunteers remains a mystery.
John Taylor, author of “Bloody Valverde,” seems to agree. Taylor notes: “As blame was passed out in the aftermath of the defeat, Canby and his officers pointed the finger at the New Mexico volunteers. … However, many of these ‘deserters’ were subsequently reenlisted without prejudice only a few months later, when the New Mexico Cavalry was formed.”
To Canby’s defense, he was unable to secure funds for paying his men. By the Battle of Valverde, his regular army had not been paid in months, nor had the volunteers. Canby expressed later, he thought the New Mexico Volunteers had deserted the battlefield in protest for not being paid — not for being cowards.
Honor the Men
History reveals the largely Hispanic regiments of Col. Carson and Col. Pino served with honor, although mostly unrecognized. When the rebels returned to Texas in May, Canby, now a brigadier general, ordered the best of the volunteers to be consolidated into a newly reorganized 1st New Mexico Volunteers. In August, Canby was sent to support the war in the east; Gen. James Carleton became the new commander of the Department of New Mexico.
In spite of the ongoing Civil War, Carleton’s main job was to address the constant threat from the Navajo and Apache Indians (who didn’t exactly take a break during the Civil War). He chose Col. Kit Carson and his New Mexico Volunteers as his primary field unit to protect New Mexico. The volunteers were used to fight the Indian wars, rebuild the forts damaged by the Texans, and help build new forts. Their service continued until the volunteers were disbanded in 1867, when regular army soldiers returned to the Southwest following the Civil War.
Many of the descendants of these proud New Mexico Volunteers still live in the Socorro area to this day.
We must also not forget the sacrifices made by all soldiers — both Union and Confederate.
These were young men fighting for what they believed was right. Many were buried where they fell, many miles from home. Worse, some perished from disease or starvation in a far away land called New Mexico. In some cases, their final resting place is not known.
Whether they wore blue or gray, they were all Americans that unified our country at a great cost. They still deserve our honor.
All images by Paul Harden or author’s collection unless otherwise noted. Some of the references used in this article: “Fort Craig,” by the Bureau of Land Management; “Bloody Valverde,” by John Taylor; “Destiny at Valverde,” by Marion Grinstead; “Rebels on the Rio Grande,” by Don Alberts; “Legacy of Honor, The Life of Rafael Chacon,” by Jacqueline Meketa; New Mexico Scrapbook, Sept. 9, 2009, by Marc Simmons; and field work by the author.