The year was 1862. The mining boom, which would bring prosperity to Socorro, would not start for another handful of years. In the early 1860s, Socorro was little more than mostly adobe homes and buildings with a population of about a thousand.
The Civil War was heating up back east, and would soon come to New Mexico. At that time, Socorro County extended from Texas to California, and the Confederates hoped to capture the Southwest, including New Mexico, the goldfields of Colorado, and all the way to the California coast.
This Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 21-23, Civil War reenactors will turn the clock back to 1862 as Confederate soldiers attack New Mexico volunteers in the 19th annual Battle for Socorro. The event commemorates New Mexico's early involvement in the war between the states, a brief but important period of the Confederate Army's attempt to control the Southwest.
“This year marks the 158th anniversary of the taking of Socorro and the Battle of Valverde,” Civil War enthusiast Charles Mandeville said in an interview. “We have reenactors coming in from all over the state, and possibly from Arizona and Colorado.”
To put it in perspective, the same week that the Union Army of Tennessee under Brig. Gen Ulysses Grant captured the Confederate garrison at Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River, the local Union forces at Fort Craig were preparing to meet the rebels at Valverde.
Captain Tony Campisi will portray the Union commander.
The Confederate commander will be Major Gabriel Peterman, New Mexico National Guard historian.
On Feb. 16, 1862, the Confederate 5th Regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers formed a battle line and headed for Fort Craig, which was garrisoned south of Socorro eight years prior to protect settlers and homesteaders from Apache raids. The Union army's Col. Edward Canby stationed a battery of guns and howitzers outside south-facing walls of Fort Craig. Seeing this, the Confederates then called off the attack and withdrew.
Three days later, the Confederates, under the command of Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley, moved north to control the ford on the Rio Grande at the town of Valverde, driving the Union soldiers back to Fort Craig to meet them.
The next day, Feb. 21, 1862, the two armies clashed near the river. The Battle of Valverde ended in a tactical victory for the Confederacy, but Sibley’s forces failed to capture Fort Craig.
After breaking camp two days later, the Confederate 5th Texas Mounted Rifles easily defeated the Union’s 2nd New Mexico Militia in Socorro.
“The Texas volunteers that came under Sibley were a unique bunch,” Peterman said. “It was hard for Sibley to get volunteers to come into New Mexico, because most of the young men who wanted to go to war, they wanted to go back east and fight in the larger battles.
“You had people who were tradesmen, cowboys, Lawyers, some very educated people who came with them,” he said. “And they were all united in the thought that this was going to be an easy campaign and that New Mexico was going to be a swift victory and they were going to be able to push all the way into Colorado. Of course, that didn't pan out. “
The capture of Albuquerque and Santa Fe followed. But Confederate forces lost steam after losing a battle at Glorieta Pass, southeast of Santa Fe, so Sibley decided to take his Confederate troops back to Texas on a roundabout route. Worn out and short on supplies and ammunition, Sibley's army veered west at Ladron and then south to pass between the Magdalena and San Mateo mountain ranges in order to avoid getting too close to Fort Craig.
"They weren't in any shape for another battle and needed to stay out of sight of the Union Army,” Mandeville said. “They buried some of their equipment in the Bernardo area before passing on the north side of Ladron.”
Confederate uniform buttons and other artifacts have been discovered along that route, specifically in the area of Pueblo Springs, north of Magdalena.
Volunteers have been busy preparing the battlefield area and the redoubt on the Rio Grande at Escondida Bridge. The wooded area east of the battlefield is being cleared, giving reenactors more options, especially with cannon fire and cavalry charges.
The battle is all about tactics, he said.
The two commanders (Union and Confederate) will be doing their own scenarios.
The encampment on the north side of the bridge opens late Friday afternoon, and the battles are performed on Saturday and Sunday. Mandeville will be describing the battle action on a bullhorn for the public on the Escondida Bridge