Captain Alexander McRae
First, a personal note to readers. My history articles began 10 years ago, in March 2003, for the 50th anniversary of the Free State of Socorro. With your help, I have written monthly history articles, with few exceptions, ever since. I have appreciated the many kind words received over the years on the articles and research — they have been fun and rewarding to do. My personal thanks to all of those who have helped with providing family history and photographs, and to El Defensor Chieftain for documenting Socorro County’s fascinating history on this anniversary.
Alexander McRae, from Fayetteville, N.C., entered West Point U.S. Military Academy, in 1847, at 17 years of age. Upon graduation, he was promoted to 2nd lieutenant and assigned to the newly organized Regiment of Mounted Rifles. He was placed in command of Company E, which brought him to West Texas.
In 1856, the Mounted Rifles were transferred to New Mexico, where they found themselves dealing with the Kiowa Indians along the Santa Fe Trail and the Apaches in the Gila. McRae and his company were transferred to Fort Craig, south of Socorro, in June 1857. About a year later, his service in the West ended. He was transferred to the Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania as the post quartermaster.
By 1859, tensions between the Northern and Southern states were growing. Abraham Lincoln was running for president on a campaign to abolish slavery. The Southern states threatened to sever ties with the Union if Lincoln was elected.
By early 1860, the Southern states were posturing for secession and war. In July, McRae was ordered to march a company of recruits along the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico. He arrived at Fort Union in September, and was placed in command of Company K of the Mounted Rifles.
Lincoln was elected president of the United States in November 1860. In December, true to their word, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. By June 1861, 10 more states had followed.
While the secession was taking place, Lt. McRae and Co. K were roaming all over New Mexico, Colorado and Oklahoma trying to establish peace with the Kiowas and Comanches. Returning to Fort Union in June 1861, he learned his home state, North Carolina, had seceded on May 21.
McRae also learned that the commander of the Military District of New Mexico, Col. William Loring, had resigned his commission and returned to his homeland of North Carolina, taking several other senior officers with him. This included Col. Henry Hopkins Sibley, who would later command the Confederate Army in New Mexico. It would be one of Sibley’s bullets that took McRae’s life. Officers were allowed to resign from the U.S. Army; enlisted soldiers were not. Still, enlisted men vanished in droves to join the Confederacy. The U.S. Army ranks in New Mexico were getting thin. McRae saw it all and was, no doubt, tempted to follow his Southern brothers.
This must have been an extremely troubling time for McRae. Letters from his father urged him to resign and return to North Carolina, with a commission in the Confederate Army virtually guaranteed. In the end, the admirable McRae decided to remain loyal to his Union military commitments.
McRae was promoted to captain and, at the end of June, he and the men of Company K were sent to garrison at Fort Stanton near the town of Lincoln, which, at the time, was in eastern Socorro County.
On July 27, Fort Filmore, near Mesilla, fell to an advanced guard of Confederates. The post’s soldiers fled to Fort Stanton, although most of them were captured on the trail. The next day, Fort Stanton commander Lt. Col. Benjamin Roberts ordered the remote fort abandoned so it would not fall into Confederate hands. After torching the fort, the men, including Capt. McRae, traveled the 100 miles west to the Rio Grande.
Arriving at Fort Craig, they met the new commander of the Military District of New Mexico, Col. Edwin Canby. Lt. Col. Roberts was placed in command of the Southern Military District and Capt. McRae made the acting adjutant general. They wasted no time in preparing New Mexico for war. These commanders ordered all military posts and forts abandoned — thereby concentrating soldiers, supplies and weapons at Fort Craig to protect the Camino Real, and at Fort Union to protect the Santa Fe Trail. The New Mexico Volunteers were also organized from local citizens.
The McRae Battery
In November 1861, the cannons once stationed in Santa Fe arrived at Fort Craig and were placed under the command of Capt. McRae. The artillery unit was called “McRae’s Battery.”
By January 1862, more than 3,000 Confederate soldiers of the Sibley Brigade, consisting mostly of the Texas Volunteers, had arrived in El Paso, Texas. The Union Army had a similar strength, with about 3,800 regular soldiers and the New Mexico Volunteers now consolidated at Fort Craig.
In early February, the rebel forces began their move up the Rio Grande. The six guns of McRae’s Battery were made ready. On Feb. 16, the Sibley Brigade appeared within sight of Fort Craig in full battle formation.
The goal was to lure the Union Army out for a battle, and to capture the fort filled with food, supplies and weapons. However, hunkered behind the newly erected walls of Fort Craig, Canby’s army had the advantage. Sibley’s forces could not take the well-fortified fort without sustaining heavy losses, and Canby’s men refused to budge from the safety of the fort. The stalemate lasted three days.
Sibley altered his battle plan. If Canby’s forces refused to leave the fort to do battle, he would starve them out with a blockade. The only source for replenishing the troops at Fort Craig would be supply wagons arriving from the federal stores in Albuquerque and Fort Union. These wagons would have to travel down El Camino Real and ford the river at Valverde.
On the morning of Feb. 19, Sibley’s entire army suddenly pulled up camp and retreated to the village of Paraje on the east side of the Rio Grande. The next day, the Sibley Brigade marched north, and made a dry camp on the hills south of Black Mesa — almost due east and within sight of the fort.
To counteract this threat, the McRae Battery took position on the south flank of Black Mesa, near the Texans’ camp. Sibley’s guns remained silent all night, as did McRae’s.
Sibley’s intent to place a siege on Fort Craig at Valverde was not missed by Canby.
A Serendipitous Encounter
Before sunrise on the morning of Feb. 21, Maj. Charles Pyron led the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles around Black Mesa to the green valley at Valverde. At the same time, Canby sent Lt. Col. Roberts with a mixed battalion of cavalry and infantry to Valverde. This included four guns of McRae’s Battery and two 24-pound field howitzers of Lt. Robert Hall’s Battery.
When the sun rose, Roberts spotted Pyron’s detachment watering their horses at the river. Moments later, Pyron spotted the advancing Union forces. The battle was on.
Express messengers were sent to their respective camps requesting more men and artillery. Over the rest of the morning, troops from both armies poured into Valverde. The morning battle consisted of unorganized spurts of heavy fire to sporadic skirmishing.
Except for a few veterans of the Mexican War, the vast majority of soldiers in both armies had never experienced a military engagement. While oozing with enthusiasm and pride, most were short on experience or military tactics.
By noon, the Confederate Army was hunkered down east of Valverde, protected by the sandy banks of an old riverbed. Union forces now occupied much of the field, but were careful to stay out of range of the rebels’ muskets. It seemed another stalemate was in the making.
About 2 p.m., the Confederates decided to take advantage of the Union inexperience and launched Capt. Willis Lang’s company of 70 lancers against a body of inexperienced volunteers. Except the “inexperienced volunteers” were Capt. Theodore Dodd’s well-seasoned company of Colorado Volunteers. Dodd’s company quickly formed a square pattern and delivered a volley of gunfire at the charging lancers. Twenty lancers and most of the horses were killed, and Capt. Lang was mortally wounded. This is noteworthy in that it is the only documented lancer charge during the American Civil War.
The Battle of Valverde
As in any engagement, historians love playing “Monday morning quarterback” in dissecting the battle. Some believe Union forces, positioned in the open Valverde valley, left themselves vulnerable should Sibley’s army suddenly launch an attack from the dry riverbed. This would result in a bloody onslaught.
Others feel Roberts was crafty by exposing the troops in the middle of the field to conceal additional troops positioning themselves to outflank the Confederates. This would have boxed them in the old sandy riverbed to hopefully force a surrender with minimal bloodshed.
As for this author, my stance is: We’ll never know!
About 3 p.m., Col. Canby arrived with a large garrison and ammunition train, including the rest of McRae’s Battery. He left about 800 New Mexico Volunteers at Fort Craig in reserve. He immediately took command of the field from Lt. Col. Roberts and began repositioning the men to his liking. The sudden change in orders created much confusion on the field.
Canby sent McRae’s Battery, of six guns and 85 men, closer to the enemy line and on the Union left flank. McRae was fortified with 630 regular soldiers and volunteers. Hall’s Battery and 700 men were moved to the foot of Black Mesa for the right flank, supported by another 770 men in the center of the field. About 600 New Mexico Volunteers were held in reserve on the west bank of the Rio Grande for a total of 2,600 Union soldiers now on the field.
Gen. Sibley had yet to be involved in the engagement. Historical documentation clearly indicates he remained behind in his ambulance in a drunken stupor. To his credit, Sibley finally relinquished his token command to the able Col. Thomas Green, who quickly made his way to the sandy riverbed with nearly 800 additional men and artillery. While Canby was realigning the Union Army, Col. Green was doing a little shuffling of his own, strengthening the Confederate position to defend against the Union advance.
The battle began in earnest as both armies began to advance on the other. McRae’s Battery began a constant fire of shells and canisters at the enemy. His cannons were beginning to inflict significant damage to the Confederate lines.
Col. Green countered with one of his own batteries. As the duel between the two forces continued, Green ordered an attack on the federal left flank.
Leaping out of the old riverbed fortress, 200 men, yelling like banshees, rushed the Union line. Moments later, another 250 men with rifles and pistols emerged, yelling and screaming like crazed idiots. A third wave of another 300 men did the same. It was during this charge that McRae was either shot or suffered an injury, which shattered his right arm.
The shock value of this shrieking onslaught proved effective. The battlefield was thrown into disarray as the inexperienced Union soldiers scattered in response. The retreating men left McRae’s Battery highly exposed.
About 250 federals remained to protect McRae’s guns as the enemy charge continued. Men on both sides fell in the rain of gunfire and hand-to-hand combat. Casualties were mounting as the battery struggled to reload their guns. Then, with a rebel bullet to the head, Capt. Alexander McRae fell dead — next to the cannons he gave his life to save.
The Texans quickly turned McRae’s guns around and used them against Canby’s forces. The capture of the McRae Battery was a devastating blow to the federals. Canby ordered his bugler to sound the signal of retreat. The battle ended with a Confederate victory. McRae’s guns remained in Confederate control for the rest of the Civil War.
Historian William Keleher later recorded: “The battle of Valverde was a spectacular and dramatic engagement.” It was not a skirmish, but a full-blown battle, not unlike the famous Civil War battles in the East.
Col. Canby wrote of McRae: “Among the killed is one, isolated by peculiar circumstances, whose memory deserves notice from a higher authority than mine. … Captain McRae died, as he had lived, an example of the best and highest qualities that man can possess.”
Although McRae wore a blue uniform, his loss was felt by those in gray as well. Gen. Sibley wrote to Alexander’s father, John McRae, citing “The universal voice of this Army attests to the gallantry of your son. He fell valiently (sic) defending the Battery he commanded.”
There are few fallen soldiers that are admired by both armies of a conflict. Capt. Alexander McRae was one.
Capt. McRae was buried at the Fort Craig cemetery, along with 67 other battle casualties. In 1863, a new fort was built on the Jornada del Muerto. It was named “Fort McRae” in Alexander’s honor. In 1867, McRae’s body was exhumed and re-interred, with full honors, at the National Cemetery at West Point.
The McRaes of Fayetteville
In 1706, Scotland became part of Great Britain. While many Scots favored the union, many did not. Thousands of Scots fled to the United States to begin a new life. Fayetteville, N.C. was established in 1762, and soon became home to some of these Scottish families, such as the McNeills, the McFadyens, and the MacRaes (the original spelling).
Ann and Duncan MacRae came from Inverness-Shire, Scotland, and eventually settled in Fayetteville. They raised son Duncan Jr., who became a well-known attorney. Duncan Jr., in turn, had a son, John, who served as Fayetteville’s postmaster from 1818 to 1853. John MacRae attended the funeral of George Washington and served as a pallbearer for Andrew Jackson — a testimony to the prominence held by the MacRae family. Mary Ann and John MacRae had five sons. During the Civil War, four of their sons fought for the Confederacy; son Alexander fought for the Union. Alec, as his family called him, was the only one to lose his life during the war.
Today, the McRaes of Fayetteville remain one of the town’s prominent families — now nine generations since Duncan and Ann arrived in the late 1700s.
Recently, this author and the Socorro County Historical Society were contacted by Doug Elwell of Fayetteville. For the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War want to erect a memorial to their fallen brother, Capt. Alexander McRae. At this time, it is undecided whether the marker will be placed at the Cumberland County Courthouse, which sits on the original McRae family homestead, or the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, which also has close ties to the McRae family.
Upon first contact, members of the SUVCW were quite surprised that anyone in Socorro, N.M., even knew who Alexander McRae was. It was explained how the death of McRae, and the capture of his cannons by the Confederates, is well-known local history to many people in Socorro today. He fought for the Union, and the people of New Mexico. He was one of our fallen heroes as well.
Due to this recent association between the people of Fayetteville and Socorro, arrangements have since been made to furnish a lava rock from Black Mesa, where Alec met his fate, for the memorial marker. The city of Socorro will also issue a proclamation to the city of Fayetteville to memorialize the fallen soldier common to us both.
Some of the references used in this article: “Turmoil in New Mexico” by William Keleher; “Destiny at Valverde: The Life and Death of Alexander McRae” by Marion Cox Grinstead; “Bloody Valverde” by John Taylor; “Fayetteville Forever” by Allison Williams; Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War, Doug Elwell, and research by the author.