The Forgotten Desert Campaigns of the Civil War
Move around the site
Move Around This Page
In any war, there are main events which everyone recognizes and there are theaters and campaigns which get relegated to obscurity. That's unfortunate because often times those secondary events influence action far beyond the scope of the actual fighting. The American Civil War is no exception.
Mention the Civil War and people immediately think Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee and Virginia. What about Glorieta Pass, Henry Sibley and New Mexico? Not so much. However, those last three were more important strategically in the first year of the war than most of what was happening back east at that time.
As the secession movement spread across the South in late 1860 and early 1861, Confederate leaders were busy planning long range strategic alternatives. One of those was the idea of a transcontinental Confederacy. Texas was firmly in the southern camp, as were many people in the New Mexico territory and even California. A successful southwest strategy would give the Confederates access to gold, silver, lead and turquoise that were plentiful in the southwest. California would provide additional resources as well as excellent ports unhampered by the Union Navy. A Confederate States of America that reached from Savannah to San Diego would stretch Union resources to the breaking point and make foreign recognition much more likely. From the summer of 1861 to the spring of 1862, this was the most important theater of the war.
The New Mexico of 1861 was very different from today. The Territory encompassed the present day states of New Mexico and Arizona. The Governor was an army officer and the capital was in Santa Fe. Ethnically, economically and politically, it was quite diverse. By 1861, the people in the southern half of the territory were disenchanted with the way Santa Fe was doing business. Due in no small part to their proximity to Texas, they generally supported the Confederacy. The northern half remained loyal to the Union.
The Union commander and governor of the New Mexico Territory was Colonel Edward Richard Sprigg Canby. An 1839 graduate of West Point and Mexican War veteran, he had developed a reputation over the years as a capable administrator and organizer as opposed to a tactician and combat leader. In the military, it is often said that "Amateurs talk tactics. Professionals talk logistics." You'll also hear "It's better to be lucky than good." Both apply to Canby in New Mexico. Tactically, he would lose both the major battles of the coming campaign. However, he would ultimately be victorious and turn back the rebel invasion because of better logistics and an incredible stroke of luck when it mattered most.
His opposite number was General Henry Hopkins Sibley. An 1838 graduate of West Point and Mexican War veteran, he and Canby knew each other well and had served together several times. He was serving with the Union in New Mexico when the war started. He resigned and joined the Confederate Army in Texas. Like Canby, he was more of a planner than a tactician. Unlike Canby, he was an alcoholic who was often incapacitated by his addiction. He made it to General because he was a smart guy and a smooth talker. He was enthusiastic about the potential of a southwest Confederacy and advocated strongly for it. The New Mexico incursion and the southwest strategy were developed in large part by Henry Sibley, who was the overall commander when the campaign started.
In March 1861- a month before Fort Sumter - the residents of southern New Mexico Territory took matters into their own hands. They seceded from their territorial government, aligned themselves with the Confederacy and formed militias to defend themselves. One of these militias was Company A of the Arizona Rangers, commanded by Captain Sherod Brown. He and his Rangers would be key players in the months ahead.
On July 24, 1861, Confederate Colonel John Baylor crossed the border from El Paso, TX and entered Mesilla, 50 miles to the north near Las Cruces. He defeated the Union garrison at nearby Fort Fillmore in the Battle of Mesilla on July 25-27. Baylor declared the establishment of the Confederate Territory of Arizona and claimed all the land south of the 34th parallel. Mesilla was its capital. The Union was in no position to oppose the secession. The south now had territory that went from the Atlantic Ocean to the eastern border of California.
California almost got handed to them on a platter. The Union commander in that state was General Albert Sydney Johnston. When the war started, Johnston resigned and made his way back east. His good friend and West Point classmate Jefferson Davis commissioned him a General in the Confederate Army in September 1861.
Johnston was a capable leader who would have been a force to be reckoned with if the Confederates had left him in California. They didn't. Seven months later, Johnston was killed at Shiloh. He was the highest ranking officer from either side to be killed in action in the Civil War. California remained in Union hands. Troops from there would play an active role in the upcoming Arizona Campaign.
Confederate planners had to deal with environmental factors and conditions that their counterparts back east could hardly imagine. First were the sheer distances involved. The planned theater ran 600 miles east to west from El Paso to San Diego. That's further than Gettysburg to Atlanta, the eastern corridor where most of the Civil War was fought. The south to north campaign route from El Paso to Santa Fe was over 300 miles and crossed a forbidding waterless 100 mile stretch of desert known as Jornada del Muerto - Journey of Death. This was the name given to it by the Conquistadors three centuries earlier - and things had not gotten any better on it.
There were no improved roads, railroads or navigable waterways anywhere in the theater. The abandoned Butterfield Stage trail ran from east to west. The only established route from south to north was a rutted wagon path called El Camino Real de Tierra Adrento - The Royal Road of the Interior. This was the path blazed by the Spanish 300 years earlier and included the "Jornada del Muerto". These routes served as the axes of approach for both sides.
It's worth mentioning here the sheer physical effort and endurance these campaigns required. Marching 30, 40, even 50 miles a day on foot was routine. So was fighting along the way or at the end of the march. Water, food and shade were scarce. Equipment was barebones. Weather extremes, altitudes over 10,000 feet, snakes, scorpions, predators and disease made it that much tougher. Death lurked everywhere. It was as tough an environment as any soldier has ever operated in. I'm not sure we have a unit today anywhere that could match it.
In addition to all that there were the Apaches. They had been fighting the Spanish and the Mexicans for decades. The Gadsen Purchase of 1853 gave the U.S. the land from Mexico that today is southern New Mexico and Arizona - the land of the Chiricahua Apache led by Cochise. In the years immediately prior to the Civil War, the Apache maintained an uneasy co-existence with the whites moving into the new territory. Sibley might have thought the Apache nations would join him in fighting the Union, but he was wrong. Cochise and his clan couldn't have cared less about the Civil War. They started waging their own war against the whites in the desert southwest in the spring of 1861 after the Bascom Incident. They were determined to drive all non-Apache out of their lands and almost succeeded. Large numbers of settlers, ranchers and miners were killed. Many others fled and commerce came almost to a halt. The only pocket of civilization left was Tucson, a grimy adobe village of about 200 people that was cut off and under siege. Throughout the upcoming desert campaigns, both sides would have to fight the Apache as well as each other.
Nevertheless, Sibley was convinced a southwest campaign was worth the effort and the risk. CSA President Jefferson Davis signed on, making Sibley the commander of the Department of New Mexico with the authority to raise an army and pursue the southern strategy. Sibley recruited and trained his force in San Antonio, then marched them 500 miles across Texas to Fort Bliss in El Paso.
Sibley's battle plan had two Confederate forces moving in two different directions, both departing El Paso, TX. The main effort, commanded by Sibley himself, would move south to north from El Paso to Santa Fe. Following the Royal Road, they would move through Jornada del Muerto, capture Fort Craig, Albuquerque and Santa Fe before moving on to the big prize - Fort Union. From there, they would move into Colorado to loot the gold mines. The plans, battles and activities of this operation are known to history as the Confederate New Mexico Campaign of 1862.
A second force would move to occupy Tucson. Subsequent to that, they would prepare the way for a Confederate invasion of California. Captain Hunter's Arizona Rangers led the way. From there, they would scout forward along the old Butterfield Stage Line to the California border, forage for supplies and recruit soldiers. A key part of the plan was to make contact with the Pima Indians, who were friendly towards the whites and no friends of the Apache. History knows this operation as the Confederate Arizona Campaign of 1862.
Meanwhile, Canby was making preparations of his own for the invasion he knew was coming. Undermanned and ill-equipped, he couldn't defend everything. The Union had two strong forts in New Mexico. Fort Craig was on the Rio Grande River 20 miles south of Socorro. Fort Union was 12 miles east of Santa Fe on the Santa Fe Trail. Both were large installations that served as supply depots, armories and ammo dumps for the region. Canby correctly figured that a Confederate incursion would focus on these forts. Sibley's army would need what was in them to sustain their operations. Canby based his defensive plan on these two strong points and heavily reinforced them. To make them look even more ominous, the garrison at Fort Craig placed uniform caps on the walls and mounted wooden decoys called "Quaker cannon" on the ramparts. Then most of the 3,800 defenders waited for Sibley - most but not all.
All military commanders try to gain maximum advantage over the enemy. There's no such thing as a fair fight. Call it an edge or a secret weapon or a combat multiplier but the goal is the same - to make the fight as unfair as possible for the enemy. Sometimes you can plan for it, such as having overwhelming numbers. Sometimes it's luck or happenstance, like the weather. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a person who happens to be at the right place at the right time. Edward Canby and the Union had a secret weapon in New Mexico - a tough, reckless, disagreeable, five foot seven inch, blue eyed Irishman named James "Paddy" Graydon.
Graydon emigrated to the United States in 1853 at age 21 to escape the Potato Famine in Ireland. Soon after arriving in the U.S., he joined the army and was posted with a dragoon (mounted light infantry) unit in the southwest. Years of surviving the famine had toughened him to endure hardship and suffering, which he would see a lot of. For the next five years, he fought Indians, banditos, renegades and claim jumpers from Santa Fe to the Mexican border. Along the way, he learned to speak Spanish and Apache.
After an honorable discharge in 1858, he opened a saloon near Sonoita, Arizona. The clientele was rough but they made Graydon a wealthy man. He also tried his hand at raising crops and cattle but frontier fighting was still in his blood. In his spare time, he helped track horse thieves, rescue captives and guide army patrols.
When the Civil War started in 1861, Graydon offered his services to Colonel Canby on one condition - that he be allowed to recruit and command his own independent company of irregulars. Canby agreed. Graydon recruited 100 of the meanest nastiest hard cases he could find and Paddy Graydon's Spy Company was born. They became Canby's eyes and ears for the entire New Mexico campaign.
Graydon was a relentless taskmaster who wore out men, horses and equipment. Spy Company had the highest desertion rate in Canby's army but there was no shortage of recruits. As frontier fighters, they were as good as the Apache. They started tracking Sibley's army while it was still in El Paso and never let it out of their sight. Along the way, they took prisoners, burned wagons and ran off livestock. They were always lurking about somewhere.
The exploits of Graydon and his Spy Company became the stuff of legends. One of their favorite tactics was to mingle in Confederate encampments at night to gather information. Another time, Graydon and one of his men captured a houseful of Confederates without firing a shot by faking the sounds and orders of a much larger unit. But Graydon is most famous for his "mule bomb" attack.
On the bitter cold snowy night of February 20, 1862, the Confederates were encamped about four miles from Canby's stronghold at Fort Craig. Everybody on both sides was bundled up trying to stay warm, so Graydon figured this would be a good time to stir up some trouble. He and several volunteers rode out of the fort with a couple of old mules in tow and crossed the icy Rio Grande River moving towards Sibley's camp. The pack boxes on the mules were filled with explosives. When they got close to the enemy camp, they lit the fuses and chased the mules towards it. As Graydon and his bombers raced for home, the mules got barn fever and ran after them. The explosives blew up between the two armies with no damage to anything except the mules. It did, however, cause the Confederate pack mules to stampede out of their corral. They lost over 100 animals and had to reconfigure their supply train. They burned what they could no longer carry. This was just one example of the misery and trouble that Graydon caused the Confederates.
The next day, at the Battle of Valverde Ford, Spy Company fought as a conventional cavalry unit and was engaged all day in all corners of the battlefield. They tangled with Sibley's advanced guard moving to the ford in the pre-dawn hours. They covered the Union withdrawal. In between, they attacked and counter-attacked. Graydon had an innate sense of the battlefield and knew where he had to be at critical times and places. Although Canby lost that battle late in the day, it would have happened much sooner and been much costlier had it not been for Graydon and his men.
Spy Company dogged Sibley's army from start to finish in the New Mexico campaign. During the Confederate retreat, they kept after the shattered army long after Canby gave up the chase. Based on their reconnaissance, they reported to Canby at the end that a second Confederate campaign wasn't going to happen. Sibley's Army of New Mexico had nothing left, due in no small part to Paddy Graydon.
After months of planning and preparation, the campaigns began. On January 3, 1862, Sibley and a force of 3,200 men, with 100 wagons and 600 horses, mules and oxen, headed for Fort Craig. They arrived there on February 16 to find a fort bristling with men and cannon. In reality, a lot of it was decoy uniform parts and "Quaker cannon." Fort Craig was a huge post. It covered 40 acres with a perimeter 1,000 feet long and 600 feet wide. However, it was not well built and the adobe structures would have crumbled under artillery fire. Nevertheless, the bluff worked. Sibley decided the fort was too strong to attack directly. Electing to bypass it, his force moved north to cross the Rio Grande river at Valverde Ford six miles away and continue to Santa Fe. Alerted by Graydon's scouts, Union troops sortied out of the fort and moved to the ford. The lead Confederate elements got there right after the Union troops did.
On February 21, 1862, 6,000 troops fought an intense all day battle in snow, icy water and extreme cold - the Battle of Valverde Ford. Before the day was over, the battlefield would see intense hand to hand combat, the war's one and only lancer charge and defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
The battle raged all day on both sides of the Rio Grande, which was about four feet deep and ice cold. Union artillery dominated the field. In particular, the battery of Captain Alexander McRae, on the left of the Union line, pounded the Confederates all day from the west bank. His guns took a frightful toll on the Confederate batteries, killing entire gun crews and forcing frequent moves. The Union cannon and infantry rifles had much greater range than the Confederate weapons. The Texans had a motley mix of long guns, shotguns and a few ancient howitzers. To use them effectively, they had to get close and that was the dynamic that drove the battle.
The rebels launched one desperate attack after another, including a suicidal lancer charge against a Colorado infantry unit. About 50 lancers commanded by Captain Willis Lang charged four abreast, lances down and riding Hell bent at the Union line. The Union soldiers held their fire until the charging horsemen and their lances were close enough to throw rocks at. Then they unleashed two massive volleys of fire from cannon and musket. Some of the horsemen who made it through were lifted off their mounts by Union bayonets. The charge disintegrated with almost 100% casualties of both men and horses. Captain Willis survived but was wounded so badly in so many places that he committed suicide.
Sibley's army and his vision of a southwest Confederacy were headed for defeat. Then Canby made a fateful decision. He didn't personally arrive on the scene until mid-afternoon and probably didn't have a good feel for the situation on the ground or the flow of the battle. Nevertheless, he ordered his forces to start crossing the river en masse and finish the job. That was a big mistake.
In moving his artillery from the west bank to the east bank, he gave up his range advantage and the natural barrier of the river. It also diminished the Union fire and gave the Confederates a chance to catch their breath. A gaping hole was created in the center of the Union line when they shifted right to flank the Confederates from their left. This effectively created two separate Union forces that could be cut off and encircled. That's almost what happened. Behind the trees and dunes that lined the east bank, the Texans were waiting for them.
As the Union force was moving and transitioning, almost 800 Texans rose up from behind the sand dunes along the east bank and charged McRae's battery in a last ditch effort to avoid defeat. A similar but smaller charge also occurred on the Union right. On that end, the Colorado Volunteer Infantry held their ground and, backed up by Paddy Graydon's Spy Company, repelled the attack. On the left, the New Mexico Volunteer Infantry assigned to protect and support McRae's battery broke and ran, leaving the artillerymen on their own. Advancing over 500 yards through a storm of grapeshot, case and canister, the Confederates reached McRae's battery and some of the most brutal hand to hand fighting of the Civil War ensued.
The two sides went at it around the cannons and caissons with revolvers, tomahawks, Bowie knives, clubs and fists. The entire action lasted less than ten minutes. When it was over, 80% of McRae's battery, including McRae himself, were dead and the Texans now owned six Union cannon - four Model 1841 six pounders and two 12 pound howitzers. Several of them were already loaded and ready to fire. The Texans wheeled them around and started blasting. Union troops made several attempts to re-take the battery but the chaos and shock at the turn of events could not be overcome. With most of his artillery now gone and turned against him, Canby had to withdraw to preserve his force. The Texan banzai charge was the decisive action of the battle and turned a looming defeat into a costly tactical victory.
The Union troops went back to Fort Craig. Sibley's force continued north to Santa Fe with fewer troops, fewer transports and most importantly, fewer supplies. He didn't have the resources to stand and fight at Fort Craig even though he desperately needed what was in it. In fact, capturing supplies on the way was a key planning assumption of the whole campaign. Now, he would have to go with what he had and hope it was enough for the upcoming battles. Leaving a strong Union position behind him was a gamble that he would soon come to regret.
The captured cannon were christened the Valverde Battery. Manned by Texan volunteers, it was initially commanded by Captain Joseph Draper Sayers, who later became a congressman and the Governor of Texas. The Texans took their cannon all the way back to San Antonio. During the New Mexico retreat, they dragged them up the mountains by hand with ropes and lowered them down the other side.
The battery fought on for the rest of the war, mostly in Louisiana. Along the way, two of the six pounders were wrecked and the two howitzers were replaced by 3 inch rifled cannon captured from the Yankees during their disastrous loss at the Battle of Mansfield. The battle highlight of the Valverde Battery came on March 28, 1863. They dueled with the Union gunboat Diana from the banks of the Atchafalaya River north of Calumet, LA. After three hours, the Diana surrendered.
When the war ended, the four surviving guns were buried in the bayou. Over a decade later, they were recovered by former members of the battery. The two six pounders were completely beyond repair but the two 3 inchers were reconditioned. They are both on public display. One is at the Freestone County Courthouse in Fairfield, TX. It was brought there by Fairfield resident Thomas Nettles, the last commander of the Valverde Battery. The other is at the Confederate Reunion Grounds State Historic Site near Mexia, TX. They were fired in re-enactments and celebrations for years, but no longer.
During this same time frame, the Arizona Rangers arrived in Tucson, which was a strongly pro-Confederate town. Hunter's men were welcomed on February 28, 1862 as rescuers and liberators. Foraging and scouting parties headed west shortly thereafter and Hunter himself negotiated a pact with the Pima. During these negotiations, Hunter found out the Union army was buying wheat and supplies from the Pima and staging it for their own invasion of Arizona. This Union invasion force, dubbed the California Column, consisted of 2,500 troops led by Colonel James Carleton. Their mission was to eject the Confederate forces from the New Mexico Territory, then attack Sibley's army from the flank or rear. The Confederate Arizona Campaign suddenly went from offense to defense.
The New Mexico Campaign, oblivious to this development and the threat it presented, was still on offense. For a while, things looked good for the Confederates. Having won at Valverde Ford, they had the Union army on the run. Canby's forces were either cooped up in Fort Craig or withdrawing to the north. Sibley occupied Albuquerque on March 2 and Santa Fe on March 13. The Union forces had abandoned those towns and evacuated to Fort Union, where a major battle was shaping up. There would be no bypassing this one. Fort Union had to be taken and both sides knew it. Beyond that were the undefended Colorado gold mines.
For a week, both sides scouted, consolidated and prepared. Unknown to the Confederates, a regiment from Colorado arrived to reinforce the Union defenders. Led by Colonel John Slough (rhymes with "now"), they had force marched 400 miles in 13 days at the height of the winter season. Their route took them across the plains south of Denver and through the 14,000 foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. When they got to the snowy 8,000 foot Raton Pass, a Union courier intercepted them with the news that Santa Fe had fallen and Fort Union was next. Dropping everything except their blankets and weapons, the regiment covered the last 40 miles in 24 non-stop hours of marching through a Rocky Mountain snowstorm. It's one of the great approach marches in military history but is almost completely unknown.
Slough was a lawyer from Denver. Impetuous and hot tempered, his men hated him. Since Canby was still at Fort Craig, Slough assumed tactical command at Fort Union. Rather than wait for the attack, he decided to go on offense. Some say he violated direct orders from Canby to stay at the fort. Other reports say the fort itself couldn't be defended since it had high ground overlooking it within artillery range. One of the builders of Fort Union had been Captain Henry Hopkins Sibley. If it had weaknesses, Sibley would know them. Whatever the circumstances, Slough picked as his battleground a place he knew the Confederates would have to transit en route to Fort Union - Glorieta Pass on the Santa Fe Trail.
The Battle of Glorieta Pass started on March 26, 1862. Colonel Slough sent Major John Chivington's Colorado battalion to occupy the pass and wait for the Confederates. When Chivington arrived, he ran headlong into a Confederate unit commanded by Major Charles Pyron. They were doing a reconnaissance in force of their own and had artillery, which Chivington did not. Chivington however had more troops, which turned out to be the difference. A sharp three hour fight followed. Amid constant cannon fire from Pyron's guns, both sides sent infantry into the rocky hills to flank the other. In the end, the Union got the better position and brought effective rifle fire on to the Confederate infantry and gun crews. When the Confederates began to withdraw or seek cover, Chivington sent his cavalry right up the road and straight at the guns. They overran the battery and pursued the now scattered Confederate troops. This was the only use of mounted cavalry in the entire battle. Chivington's unit carried the day and captured a large number of enemy soldiers. However, he was unable to exploit his success. By this time, it was getting dark. Without artillery and not knowing what lay ahead, he withdrew back to the Union camp. Both sides spent the 27th reinforcing and repositioning.
The decisive actions took place on the 28th. The battle was characterized by narrow frontages in broken terrain, point blank artillery exchanges and infantry moving through the rocks to gain the flanks and high ground. At times, the fighting was very close, especially in and amongst the rocks. The Union, outnumbered this time, spent most of the day on defense.
In early afternoon, Confederate sharpshooters managed to flank and get above the right (north) side of the Union line. From an unassailable rock ledge now called Sharpshooter Ridge, they poured accurate rifle fire down on the Union, making their position untenable. Unable to dislodge the rebel marksmen, the Union retreated to a second line of defense, then a third but were forced out of the pass by constant pressure from the flanks and front. They started streaming back towards Fort Union to make a last stand against the attack they knew would come.
Instead of pursuing, the Confederate commander, Colonel William Scurry, asked for a truce to recover their casualties. Colonel Slough, perplexed but welcoming the time to re-group, agreed. What he didn't know is that something had gone horribly wrong for the Confederates and they were using the truce to buy time themselves. Sibley's army, on the cusp of a major war-changing victory, had made a huge mistake. During the battle, they left their supply train lightly guarded at the western edge of the pass - and somehow, the Union had gotten to it.
The reason the Union was outnumbered in the pass that day is because Chivington's battalion, which had fought well two days before, wasn't there. Colonel Slough had taken a calculated risk. Splitting his force, he had Chivington maneuver through the rocky high ground south of the pass hoping to jump something in the Confederate rear echelons. This meant he was fighting with two isolated forces, both smaller than the enemy they were facing. As the fighting wore on in the pass, superior enemy numbers were winning the day. Chivington's battalion had not been heard from since leaving at daybreak. So far, they had come up empty and their absence was costing the Union this battle. Slough sent patrols into the hills to find them and bring them back but they had no success. Even though Chivington had not been detected yet, they were completely out of the fight and in danger of being cut off in the mountains. Then Lady Luck smiled on the Union.
In early afternoon, Chivington hit the Mother Lode. Coming out of the rocks after an exhausting 16 mile cross country tactical movement, they found themselves looking down on the entire Confederate supply train of 80 wagons and 400 head of livestock. After watching and determining it was lightly guarded, they lowered themselves down a 200 foot slope on makeshift ropes and attacked. They burned the wagons and slaughtered the livestock with knives and bayonets. They killed an undetermined number of defenders, captured some more and scattered the rest. They stuck around long enough to make sure nothing was left. During that time, a Confederate courier rode into site, saw the carnage and took off before he could be stopped. He reported the destruction to Colonel Scurry who then sent the unexpected truce offer to Colonel Slough.
Instead of pursuing a defeated enemy, the Confederates raced to their rear to salvage what they could and get paybacks on the Union raiders. When they arrived, there was nothing left to salvage and Chivington's men had gotten away clean the same way they came in. For his part, Slough thought the battle was lost along with Chivington's battalion, which was sorely missed that day. He didn't find out what really happened until his lost battalion returned around midnight. Slough - and Canby - had a victory. His gamble had paid off.
With no supplies and no prospects for getting any, the Confederate New Mexico Campaign of 1862 came to a screeching halt. Sibley turned his army around and headed back to El Paso. The retreat out of New Mexico was a month long death march. Troops froze to death in the high mountains and died from heat in the desert. Fort Craig sat astride their escape route and Canby was waiting. The retreating army went 100 miles out of its way through the steep 10,000 foot Magdalena Mountains to avoid it. Then they had to cross Jornada del Muerto again.
They were hounded all the way by Union cavalry, guerillas and Apache. Those who weren't killed outright straggled, wandered off, deserted, disappeared or just dropped dead in a column that strung out for 50 miles. At least some of those unfortunate souls fell victim to the coyotes, wolves and mountain lions that roamed the region in large numbers. Paddy Graydon's men came across half eaten corpses as they shadowed the retreat. When a head count was finally taken in Mesilla in early May, only 1,500 of the original 3,200 Confederate troops could be accounted for. Most of the 1,700 casualties were simply listed as "missing." Their remains litter the retreat route to this day. It was a complete and total military and human debacle. The Confederate Army of New Mexico was gone along with their vision of a coast to coast Confederacy.
The Battle of Glorieta Pass, is often called the "Gettysburg of the West." It was a fluid, sharply fought, decisive battle that changed the course of the war. As was the case at Valverde Ford, a dramatic late action had turned defeat into victory except this time, the roles were reversed. Never again would the Confederates be able to campaign in the Southwest, although they spent the rest of the war thinking about it.
Meanwhile, there was still a hot war going on in Arizona. The California Column was on the move, but slowly. They were advancing across the desert along the old Butterfield Stage Line. Union supporters had pre-staged supplies at the relay stations that still stood on the abandoned route. Carleton's force moved in smaller units at intervals of several days to better ration water and forage at designated stops, which were about 30 miles apart.
However, the Arizona Rangers soon found out about the staged supplies from their new Pima allies. Captain Hunter dispatched his own scouting and foraging parties to the relay stations with orders to carry off what they could and burn the rest. Ranger scouts went all the way to Yuma, AZ. 250 miles away. It was near there on March 30, 1862 that the western most encounter of the war occurred. A Confederate raiding party was in the process of burning supplies at Stanwix Station when they were engaged by a vanguard of the California Column. Shots were exchanged but the rebels got away clean. Five days of hard riding later, they reported to Hunter in Tucson that the Union was on the move.
Hunter's looting of the relay stations was more effective than he probably realized. The Union force delayed for several weeks as they brought in a whole supply train from California. Meanwhile, the scouting and probing in the vast empty desert went on for both sides. Hunter knew there was no way to hold Tucson with what he had. He started sending requests to Colonel (Governor) Baylor in Mesilla for reinforcements. As he waited, he pulled in the long range foraging parties and established an outpost 50 miles west of Tucson at an abandoned Butterfield Stage station called Picacho Pass.
The relay station was located in the flat, mesquite covered desert at the base of Picacho Peak. This isolated peak has an unmistakable outline and had been used as a navigation marker for centuries. A lookout on the surrounding high ground with a spyglass could see for 30 miles or more. The 10 man outpost was watching for a 2,000 man column lumbering towards them from the west. They weren't expecting fast moving Union cavalry to ride around the mountains and come in from behind, but that's what happened.
The commander of the 270 man Union advance guard was Captain William Calloway. This was the same unit that had engaged the Confederates at Stanwix Station. Calloway suspected that Picacho Pass would be manned by at least an outpost or possibly a full scale ambush. On April 15, he dispatched two cavalry patrols to ride hard around the mountains to the north and south and approach the pass from the east. They were not to engage anyone. Their mission was to recon, report and block any escape to Tucson.
The northern patrol, a 13 man detachment led by Lt. James Barrett, got there first. Barrett discovered he had caught some Confederates with their feet planted. Against orders, he attacked. Barrett drew first blood, taking three Confederate prisoners. The rest recovered quickly and returned fire. Everybody dismounted and began a deadly cat-and-mouse hunt that lasted 90 minutes in the thick mesquite and saguaro ("swor'-oh") cactus . When it was over, three Yankees were dead, including Lt. Barrett and three more were wounded. The Confederates had three men captured, but the other seven got away. With them went any chance of a surprise attack on Tucson.
The outpost Rangers rode hard and made their report to Captain Hunter the next day. They had accomplished their mission. The Union cavalry had not. Hunter kept sending out scouts, who provided a constant stream of information about the California Column. Calloway, on the other hand, knew nothing about the Confederates other than what his new POW's told him - that Tucson was heavily defended and waiting for him.
In reality, he outnumbered the defenders five to one and could have raised the Stars and Stripes in Tucson the next day. Additionally, he would have intercepted the troops retreating from New Mexico. Instead, he withdrew 100 miles west to the Pima villages and built a hasty earthen fort called Fort Barrett. There, he waited for reinforcements and orders. It would be another month before the Union got to Tucson. By that time, Sibley's army - or what was left of it - had streamed south and was in Texas.
Despite the small victory at Picacho Pass and subsequent slowing of the Union force, Hunter was under no illusions about the ultimate outcome. Word of the New Mexico disaster had reached Mesilla. There would be no reinforcements. Tucson's days in the Confederacy were numbered.
As if the opposing armies didn't have enough to worry about, the Apaches picked this time to strike.
History doesn't record any specific encounters between the armies and the Apache up to this point in the campaign, although there undoubtedly were some. They picked their fights carefully and were ambush killers. They rarely attacked forts, prepared positions or units that could fight back effectively. There's a simple reason for that. There weren't that many of them. In a war of attrition, they were doomed. Besides, the whites were making war on each other - something the Apache didn't grasp at first. Cochise and Mangas, the two main Apache leaders, were content to let the whites kill each other. But there's no doubt they were watching everything and waiting for an opportune moment to start a fight. In early May, about the same time Sibley's remnants were straggling into Mesilla and Hunter was getting ready to pull out of Tucson, it came.
On May 5, 1862, a Confederate patrol was foraging and rounding up stray cattle in the area around Dragoon Springs, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson. At the old Butterfield Stage relay station located there, they were jumped by an estimated 100 warriors. Four Confederate soldiers were killed and the livestock stolen. The rest of the patrol got away. This was the First Battle of Dragoon Springs and they were the western-most combat deaths suffered by the Confederacy. The four KIA were buried in hasty graves and covered with stones. Those graves are preserved and marked by the National Park Service along with the ruins of the relay station.
Four days later, on May 9, came the Second Battle of Dragoon Springs. A larger patrol found and engaged the Apache war party in the same area, killing five and getting the livestock back. Five days after that on May 14, Hunter and the Arizona Rangers evacuated Tucson.
On May 14, Captain Hunter abandoned Tucson, leaving a small rear guard to report on Union activity.
On May 20, the Union entered Tucson and almost captured the rear guard. As they had done at Picacho Pass, the Union sent cavalry around the flanks and came into the town from the north and east. Hunter's rear guard never saw them coming and barely got away. The Confederate occupation of Tucson lasted 81 days.
The Union established Fort Lowell as a base of operations. They prepared to advance on Mesilla, the Rio Grande River and beyond into Texas to solidify their hold on the territory and make sure the Confederates in the west were completely whipped. It was during this period in the summer of 1862 that the big Apache battles started.
The mountains of southeast Arizona have several natural springs which were vital water sources to desert dwellers and travelers. These included Picacho Springs, Dragoon Springs and Apache Springs. Routes for settlement, commerce and military operations were dependent on these water sources. So were the Apache. These mountains were their home territory.
Apache Springs was particularly important because it ran all year and was located in Apache Pass. The pass is a natural corridor between the Dos Cabezas Mountains and the Chiricahua Mountains that allows travelers to transit quickly and have good water. For centuries, everyone headed east-west through the mountains of southern Arizona went through Apache Pass.
It was a scene of constant conflict between the Spanish, Mexicans and Apache for hundreds of years. The whites came in large numbers after the Gadsen Purchase of 1853. At the same time, the U.S. Army heavily fortified the region providing protection for people and commerce. The white population exploded as did economic activity. In the decade before the war, the Apache warily allowed the whites to move through their territory and use the springs.
That uneasy truce was shattered in the spring of 1861 when the army hanged several members of Cochise's family during the Bascom Incident in Apache Pass. Although overshadowed by the Civil War in 1861-1862, Cochise had been on the warpath the whole time and still was. Now in the chaos and confusion of the failed Confederate campaign, the Apaches struck.
In July, 1862, the California Column started moving southeast out of Tucson towards Mesilla. The planned route took them along the base of Dragoon Mountains and then through the Apache Pass. As they had done before, they moved by echelons with intervals of several days to keep from straining water and forage. The lead elements met at Dragoon Springs Station before setting off again. The next objective was Apache Springs, about 40 miles east in the backyard of the Chiricahua Apache.
On July 15, an advance guard under Captain Thomas Roberts entered Apache Pass and moved towards Apache Springs. He had 120 men, 20 wagons, 240 head of livestock and two 12 pound mountain howitzers. These were disassembled and carried on pack mules, but a decent gun crew could have them put together and ready to shoot in two minutes. After marching the 40 miles in 19 hours, both men and animals were exhausted and thirsty. Upon entering the narrow defile that leads to the springs, the infantry came under heavy fire at close range from 200 entrenched, well armed Apache.
The Apache had built stone revetments on the hillsides overlooking the springs in addition to being mobile behind rocks, trees and cactus. Roberts men returned fire but were overwhelmed. They pulled back to the old Butterfield Stage Station and re-grouped. In their condition, retreat was not an option. With no water and the Apaches all over them, it would be a disaster. Likewise, they couldn't just hunker down and wait since no one knew they were in trouble. They were on their own. So Captain Roberts did the only thing he could do - attack.
Roberts ordered his infantry to climb the steep slopes to get above and flank the Apache positions while the howitzers were readied for action. Then he led another force into the defile with the howitzers in the lead. Roberts stayed with the guns and adjusted fire. When they got their range, they started blasting away.
The rocky revetments became death traps from shrapnel of steel and stone. The stunned Apache pulled out. The U.S. Army took possession of Apache Springs and never relinquished it. They immediately established a post to protect it - Camp Bowie. Later, a larger more permanent installation was built - Fort Bowie.
Roberts and his force had performed courageously but it was the howitzers that made the difference. This was one of the few times in any of the Indian Wars that artillery would be used effectively. It was also the only time the Apache built defensive positions to stand and fight. They learned that was not a good idea against the blue coat cannon.
The abandonment of the southwest by the Confederates continued throughout the summer of 1862. By the end of July, they were all across the Rio Grande into Texas. The Union followed, capturing several forts in northwest Texas including Fort Bliss. This buffer zone at the gateway to the southwest effectively precluded any more Confederate movement into the area.
On February 24, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed an order establishing the United States Territory of Arizona but not along the previous lines. The new border followed the 109th west meridian (north-south line) which is the border still in use today. The territories of New Mexico and Arizona became the 47th and 48th states respectively in early 1912.
The defeat of the Confederates was by no means the end of the war in the desert southwest. The U.S. Army turned its attention to the Indians. There is an understandable tendency to think that the Indian Wars took a break during the Civil War. Not so. While the conflict back east got all the headlines and bylines, the Indians and the Army fought a bloody ruthless war that lasted all through the Civil War and 20 years beyond it.
In fact, the southern borders of Arizona and New Mexico were wild, lawless and dangerous until well after the turn of the 20th century. Army troops fought border battles until World War I, including incursions into Mexico. Future World War II leaders Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, William "Wild Bill" Donovan and others saw action chasing banditos, renegades and the occasional rogue Apache 50 years after the Civil War.
Thankfully, today the area is much more civilized. However, it still has a wildness to it that isn't found in very often in 21st century America. Many of the places from America's desert wars are preserved by both federal and state governments. Many others are not, but can still be found and explored. These little known off the beaten path sites about forgotten people, places and events are well worth the visit. More often than not, there's a geocache nearby - usually more than one.
You won't find Colonel Edward Canby on anyone's "A" list of military commanders. However, he capably handled a number of difficult assignments during and after the war. After New Mexico, he was promoted to Brigadier General and re-assigned to staffs back east. In April 1865, he commanded the Union campaign that captured the last bastion of the Confederacy - Mobile, AL. Canby stayed in the Army after the war and held a variety of staff positions during the Reconstruction. In 1870, he was assigned to the Pacific Northwest. In November 1872, he found himself involved in the Modoc War - a three way conflict between the Modoc tribe, the Klamath tribe and the US government. In April 1873, he went to parlay with the Modocs. At the parlay site, they jumped him and cut his throat. Afterwards, the US Army intervened in force, caught the killers and rounded up the rest. His killers were hanged in October. Canby was the only General to be killed in the Indian Wars.
Even though he was the Confederate commander in New Mexico, General Henry Hopkins Sibley was often far removed from the actual fighting and often drunk. At the crucial battle for Glorieta Pass, he was 75 miles away in Albuquerque and totally uninvolved in the battle. His subordinates carried on without him. Earlier in the war, he had been accused of cowardice in Louisiana. Those charges surfaced again at a court martial in 1863. He was not convicted but never recovered, either personally or professionally. He spent the rest of the war routing wagon trains in Texas. After the war, he spent several years as a military advisor in Egypt and returned in 1873. He lived in poverty and disregard until his 1886 death in Fredericksburg, VA, where he is buried. He is often confused with Union General and Minnesota Governor Henry Harris Sibley.
Colonel James Carleton, the commander of the California Column, was a career Volunteer Corps soldier from Maine who migrated west. After fighting in the Mexican War, he spent the next decade as a soldier, explorer and Indian fighter. He was promoted to Brigadier General after the New Mexico campaign and got Canby's old job as the military governor of the territory. Carleton spent the rest of the war fighting Indians, who he hated with a passion. He carried out aggressive scorched earth campaigns against the Navajo, Apache, Kiowa and Comanches. Carleton was a harsh disciplinarian but well respected by his men. He campaigned until 1866, when the regular Army took over. Carleton continued to serve in the Volunteers and was a prolific writer of military articles and books. He died in San Antonio, TX in 1873 at age 59 and is buried in Cambridge, MS.
Colonel John Slough, worried that he might be court-martialed for disobeying Canby's orders to remain at Fort Union, went back to Colorado immediately after the Battle of Glorieta Pass and resigned his commission. He may have also been worried about his personal safety, since there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that his own men tried to kill him during the battle. He went to Washington, ending up as a Brigadier General and military commander of Alexandria, VA. After the Civil War, he was appointed Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court by President Andrew Johnson. His hot temper and heavy handed ways on the bench made lots of enemies. Slough was no stranger to political controversy. Before the war, he was expelled from the Ohio state legislature for punching a fellow member on the chamber floor. On December 16, 1867, Slough confronted a New Mexico legislator named William Rynerson who was publicly calling for his removal from the court. A heated argument ensued. Rynerson pulled a pistol and shot Slough, who died the next day. At his murder trial, Rynerson claimed self-defense and was found not guilty. Slough was 38 when he died. He is buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in his hometown of Cincinnati, OH.
Major John Chivington was a Methodist preacher from Denver who turned down an offer to be an Army chaplain because he wanted to fight. He did and by most accounts, he was pretty good at. He carried up to four revolvers and fought side by side with his troops. He was hailed as the hero of Glorieta Pass for his timely destruction of the Confederate supply train. Returning to Denver, he was promoted to Colonel and assigned command of the 1st Colorado Volunteer Cavalry Regiment in April 1862. He was still commanding the unit on November 29, 1864 when they carried out one of the most infamous and wanton acts in American history - the Sand Creek Massacre. Chivington became the O.J. Simpson of his day. He was never punished for his role in the massacre but public outrage forced him to resign from the military and withdraw from public life. He moved around, tried farming for a while and attempted to enter politics several times. As soon as Sand Creek was mentioned, the race was over. For the rest of his life, Chivington maintained that Sand Creek was a legitimate military operation but evidence of the atrocity was overwhelming. He died of cancer in Denver on October 4, 1894 at the age of 73. He is buried there in Fairmount Cemetery, where many senators, congressmen, governors and military officers from Colorado are interred.
The story of Captain Sherod Hunter of the Arizona Rangers could have been the plotline for the movie Outlaw Josey Wales. Hunter was an unlikely warrior. Born in Tennessee in 1834, he owned a successful grocery store in the years before the war. In 1857, his wife and son died. Hunter sold the store and moved west to New Mexico, where he was listed in the 1860 census as a farmer near Deming. Then came the war. When the new Confederate Territory of Arizona called for volunteers to defend it, Hunter responded and readily adapted to military life. He distinguished himself as a soldier and commander during four years of fighting. The Confederate Army didn't have medals. Instead, the highest recognition one could achieve was to be "mentioned in dispatches" by the commanding officer following a battle. Hunter was, many times. He survived the Arizona campaign, arriving in San Antonio in July 1862. He was promoted to Major and spent the next two years fighting in Louisiana with a combined Arizona-Texas cavalry unit. Hunter saw extensive action in the 1863 Bayou Teche campaign and the 1864 Red River campaign, sometimes fighting along side the Valverde Battery. In January 1865, with the war going badly, the Confederacy tried to re-open the Arizona/New Mexico front. Major Hunter was ordered to Texas to raise a regiment that would serve in the new theater. Hunter went recruiting in Mexico, where many secessionists and sympathizers had fled. He was never seen again. Unconfirmed reports placed him at different places shortly after the war but the 1870 census has no record of him. Most likely, he was killed in Mexico and unceremoniously dumped somewhere.
After the New Mexico campaign, Captain Paddy Graydon was assigned to Fort Stanton to fight the Mescalero Apache in central New Mexico. In late October, he was escorting a wagon train in the Gallinas Mountains. They encountered a small group of Apache led by Mescalero chief Manuelito who said they were on their way to Santa Fe to meet Colonel Carleton, who had replaced Canby as Governor. Exactly what happened next remains a mystery. There was an exchange of gunfire and all the Indians were killed or wounded. Some people said Graydon plied them with whiskey and then gunned them down. That account was never fully confirmed but nevertheless, rumors flew around Fort Stanton that the crazy Irishman had gone too far this time. Even the post commander, famed scout and Indian fighter Kit Carson, had his doubts. One of his most vocal critics was Army surgeon John Whitlock. On the morning of November 5, 1862 Graydon confronted Whitlock on the parade ground. A heated verbal exchange turned into a short range gunfight with Graydon's soldiers looking on. Graydon had been the victor in hundreds of these scrapes but his Irish luck had just run out. One of the doctor's bullets hit him in the chest and lodged in his lung. Graydon's soldiers then killed Whitlock, firing over 100 bullets into him. Graydon died from infection and pneumonia three days later at the age of 30. His last words were, "That son-of-a-bitch killed me." He is buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Some of his avenging soldiers were arrested but none ever went to trial. There are no known pictures of Paddy Graydon or his men.
If you like history, forts, ghost towns, battlefields, scenery, museums, hiking, caves, mine shafts, exploring and geocaching, the desert southwest has more than you can imagine.
As this is written, we are finishing up two months in Tucson. We certainly had no idea that we would find all of this here. We have been to many of the areas in this page but not all - not by a long shot. Even the ones we've been to are worth at least one more look. There's enough to keep us busy down here for years and we fully intend to take advantage of it.
We've linked to a number of related sites throughout this page. Click on any of them to find out more about highlighted topics.
As for the geocaching side of things, suffice it to say there are hundreds in the areas discussed on this page. You'll find everything from one star park'n'grabs to five star backcountry caches that require mountain climbing.
Before you head out, you'll need to have a permit to enter Arizona State Trust Land. Many caches and other activities, such as the road to Dragoon Springs, are on Trust Land. Being on Trust Land without a permit is a misdemeanor. The permit process is quick even though it is only done through snail mail to Phoenix. From Tucson, we mailed on a Monday and had the permit on Thursday. Costs vary but average around $20 for a year. Click on the link above to get started.
Cell phone coverage is good along the interstate and major highways but shaky to non-existent once you leave them. Don't depend on smart phones to call for help, navigate or geocache. Our Garmin Dakota 20's, which we rarely use in Minnesota, got a real workout in Arizona. We've also invested in personal GPS locater devices, which can summon help from anywhere. We use the SPOT Locater.
Things our lawyer makes us say: The desert can be hazardous to your health. Make sure you've got lots of water, sun screen and a hat. A stout walking stick is also recommended. Watch out for plants and animals that stick, sting and bite. Flash flooding often occurs after rains. In some areas, old mine shafts, uncovered wells, unstable buildings and ground subsidence can present additional hazards. If you have GPS, it's a good idea to mark your car before you walk away so you can navigate back. Don't forget the extra batteries.
Vehicle movement is often on dirt roads. They range from not bad to terrible. All are dusty and dirty. Be prepared for bumps, ruts, rocks and branches scraping the side of the car, which we call an Arizona racing stripe. It's not the best place to take your new Cadillac Escalade. A high clearance four wheel drive vehicle is the best bet. Our faithful AWD Saturn Vue, which we call the War Wagon, handled everything we threw at it. However, two wheel drive passenger cars can handle most of it. You may just have to walk a little further to reach your destination. Don't forget the spare tire. There's no AAA out here.
During our time here (Jan/Feb 2012), we've been amazed at the number of people we meet on the trail that have done nothing to prepare for this environment. Bare heads, flip flops, no water, small children in tow - even in the back country. 99.99% of the time, they'll get away with it, but they're just asking for trouble. Use common sense, pace yourself, and take along some basic equipment. You'll have fun in the sun. We're both 60 and we had a blast. Coming back next year for three months.
Here's hoping you enjoy this area as much as we do.
Semper Fi. and Vaya con Dios...Out here...Alpha6