The Battle of Valverde, New Mexico: February 21, 1862
Bill Davidson was cooking up his meager breakfast on the morning of February 21, 1862 when he heard the distinctive pop! pop! pop! of rifle fire, echoing over the sand hills. It was coming from a few miles north of the Confederate camp, up near a ford across the Rio Grande: a place that locals called Valverde. Davidson and his fellow soldiers in Company A of the Confederate 5th Texas Mounted Volunteers leapt up from their firesides and made for their horses. They had been ordered to remain with the wagon train across the river from Fort Craig, the Union’s largest military installation in central New Mexico Territory. But the one hundred men of Company A were eager for a fight, intent upon doing all they could to help win the far West for the Confederacy.
At the beginning of the Civil War, the vast region from the Pacific to the 100th meridian that marked the eastern edge of the Great Plains was up for grabs. Most mining towns across the West were filled with both northerners and southerners, migrants who had come to the diggings to make their fortunes in gold. The loyalties of Hispanos in the Southwest and Mormons in Utah were unclear; both communities had reasons to resist the federal government. It was not unreasonable, then, for Confederate general Henry Hopkins Sibley to believe that he could bring the 4th, 5th, and 7th Texas (3,000 men in total) into New Mexico, recruit miners and Hispanos into his brigade, and conquer the territory.
Sibley was a career military man, and had served at frontier garrisons across the West in the years before the war. In April 1861 he resigned his post and joined the Confederacy, intent on leading an invasion of the West to gain access to its gold mines and its Pacific ports. Fighting the war would be expensive, and gold sent to Confederate banks and cotton shipped out from California would help pay for it. The West was also important to the Confederates’ vision of the future: this region would be the center of their expanding empire of slavery. In New Mexico, Sibley envisioned, his Texans would move from fort to fort, sacking them and taking their food and weapon supplies to support their campaign. The Sibley Brigade would then set out for California, Utah, and other vital points in the West.
The Sibley Brigade left San Antonio in late October 1861 and in two months marched almost six hundred miles to Fort Bliss on the far western edge of the Confederacy and the border between Texas and Mexico. After only a few weeks’ rest, in early February 1862 they advanced north into New Mexico and began their march on Fort Craig.
Moving to meet them was a Union army of more than 4,000 men commanded by Colonel E.R.S. Canby, another career U.S. Army officer. Canby’s army was one of the most diverse fighting forces of the Civil War, illustrating that as early as 1862, almost a year before the Emancipation Proclamation, a wide variety of communities were already invested in the effort to sustain the Union. Several companies of gold miners recruited in the Colorado Territory’s mines had come to join U.S. Army regulars who had been serving in New Mexico since the early 1850s. At Fort Craig, these Anglo soldiers encamped with the 1st New Mexico, a regiment made up of Hispano volunteers and officers, and commanded by the famous frontiersman Kit Carson. Defying Sibley’s expectations, Hispanos had enlisted in the Union Army to defend their homes and families against the Confederate invasion. Hispano militias, mustered in only days before the fight at Valverde, arrived at Fort Craig in early February.
Sibley’s troops amassed south of the fort on February 15, as snow whipped around them. Bill Davidson actually thought the battle might begin there. But Sibley decided to withdraw after evaluating the strength of the fort and Canby’s troops. If the Texans could cross the Rio Grande and then march north to the ford at Valverde, Sibley reasoned, the Confederates would stand between Fort Craig and Albuquerque, cutting off the Union supply line and forcing Canby to surrender.
It was a good plan… but the Federals beat the Confederates to Valverde. The rifle fire Davidson heard as the sun rose on February 21 came from Union troops, contesting the Texans’ crossing. When Company A arrived on the battlefield a few hours later, the soldiers marched in behind a series of sand hills, remnants of the Rio Grande’s banks left behind as the waterway shifted course during massive springtime floods. They were natural breastworks, and Davidson was glad to have them as Union shells hit them with heavy thuds, spraying sand everywhere.
The battle raged on throughout the day, as Union troops crossed the river and Canby sent companies of soldiers across the rolling plain to approach the Confederate position. The Texans went to meet them. It was the final charge of the day, however, that determined the outcome of the battle. Canby had shifted some of Kit Carson’s men to the right side of his line, opening up a gap in the middle, behind his cannons. Colonel Tom Green, who had taken over for Sibley when Sibley chose to stay behind in camp and nurse a bottle of whiskey, saw the hole appear and ordered his men to charge. The Confederates captured the Union guns and turned them on the fleeing Federals; men and horses died in the waters of the Rio Grande, spiraling off in the current.
For Bill Davidson and his fellow Texans in the Sibley Brigade, Valverde was momentous: it was the first Confederate victory in a Union territory during the American Civil War. But it fell short of its goal. It did not launch the Confederate takeover of the West. Because they had fought at the ford and had not taken Fort Craig, the Brigade was not able take the fort’s supplies to sustain them on their march northward, as Sibley had planned. Union troops destroyed what food and fodder they could in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, denying the Confederates those rich caches.
By late March 1862, the Texans were desperate for food and supplies. In order to continue their campaign for the West, they would need to take Fort Union, a massive installation on the Santa Fe Trail heading north to Colorado. This necessity led them into another series of battles with Union soldiers on March 26-28, which culminated in the total destruction of their wagon train. Without supplies and animals, the Confederates could not move forward. And so they retreated, marching more than 1,000 miles back to San Antonio over the next four months.
As they marched southward, Bill Davidson and Company A once again passed by Valverde, the cottonwoods lining the riverbanks now lush in the late spring sunshine. Despite their ultimate failure, the Texans would later point to Valverde as evidence of their martial prowess. But Valverde revealed the ways that logistics can be more important than violent clashes with the enemy in warfare. Moving 3,000 men over more than 1,000 miles of high desert proved more challenging than Henry Sibley had anticipated, and his inability to sustain his army in this environment proved to be his army’s undoing.