A gettysburg in the west, March 26-28, 1862
One of the lesser known incidents in the American Civil War was the Confederate attempt to secure western territories beyond Texas – and perhaps secure part of California, thus establishing themselves on the Pacific coast. This might seem far fetched, but in the Mexican War less than 20 years before small forces had similarly secured the region for the United States.
The key to the situation was the New Mexico territory – which consists of the current states of New Mexico and Arizona. The Confederates claimed the southern half of the territory as their own, calling it the Arizona territory. The dividing line was east-west, rather than north-south as it is today.
The Rio Grande flows north after leaving the southern border of Texas, splitting the eastern part of the territory and providing a sure source of water, a requirement in this arid region. The Santa Fe Trail leaves the river in the northern, hilly part of the area and curves into Colorado and Kansas, back to the North. To hold the current state of New Mexico, this road would have to be blocked.
The Confederate General Sibley faced the Union General Canby. Canby had concentrated his forces in Fort Craig, on the Rio Grande in the center of New Mexico. Here he awaited reinforcements. But Sibley advanced to Valverde, near the fort and to the north of it. Canby met him in battle and was defeated. But rather than try and retreat north ahead of Sibley, he elected to retire into the fort. The Texans were superior in cavalry and could probably have broken up his force if he had tried to move north.
Sibley left him to move north. capturing Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Another fort lay ahead, Fort Union, but reinforcements had arrived from Colorado – the 1st Colorado volunteers, recruited from the mining district around Denver. They were inexperienced, but willing, and the Santa Fe trail passed along canyons where the Confederate cavalry would have less use.
The two sides met in Glorieta Pass, fighting a skirmish at Apache Canyon and Pidgeon’s Ranch. The Confederates got rather the better of the Coloradans, but they did not break them. Then a disaster struck – a small force of Coloradans under Major Chivington had passed through the hills above the pass, into the rear and captured and destroyed the supply and ammunition wagons. It then retreated back the way it came.
The Coloradans had retired north, but this news forced the Texans to retire south to the Rio Grande and water. Now, with the Coloradans to the north and Canby moving up from the south,. the retreat would have to continue all the way to Texas.
For a time, Canby shadowed Sibley across the river. But as Ft Craig neared, Sibley decided to leave the river and circle around it into the desert. Canby let him go, as the waterless 15 day, 100 mile trek did a better job of breaking up the force than his green troops could. The retreat didn’t end until El Paso, Texas.
There were no other attempts to take New Mexico from the north. The South would continue to find the limits of their giddy view of their situation – before the war they imagined there would be no war, or that the fight would be quick and easy. Now it was seeming less easy with each passing month, and that the South itself was not as unified as they wished.