ECW welcomes back guest author Patrick Kelly-Fischer
After the war, W.P. Laughter, a private in the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, described the morning of the battle of Valverde:
“As we were marching along with some glee at the prospect of getting a square drink of water, of which the cottonwood trees near at hand gave promise, we spied some tents in the timber on the east bank of the river. If there was anything we wanted worse than a brush with the enemy it was water. The dry beef we had for supper needed moisture. The fact was, if one of us coughed you could see the dust fly.” 1
To put it mildly, the New Mexican desert is not where you want to run out of water. So how did Private Laughter find himself, 160 years ago this month, desperately trying to fight his way through to the Rio Grande for a drink of water?
Through the fall and early winter of 1861 into 1862, Laughter and the rest of the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles had made a grueling march of hundreds of miles from San Antonio, across the West Texas desert, and up into modern-day New Mexico. They were led by Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, who had served in the territory before the war, and convinced Confederate President Jefferson Davis that with just a few thousand troops, he could secure not just New Mexico and Arizona for the Confederacy, but also the gold mines of Colorado and California, and an open port to the Pacific that would evade the Union blockade.2
Jefferson Davis, like many Southern leaders, had harbored significant pre-war ambitions for the Southwest, not least because it provided a possible outlet for expanding slaveholding territories, and establishing a transcontinental railroad line through a southern route to a Pacific port like San Diego or Los Angeles in California, or Guaymas in Mexico.3 And it didn’t hurt that the Rio Grande valley through New Mexico had long been part of what more expansionist leaders in Texas considered rightfully theirs.4
That plan sounds grandiose today, but with just a few hundred troops, Confederates had already secured broad stretches of the Southwest’s Arizona Territory (the southern half of modern-day New Mexico and Arizona). Like so many Confederate campaigns, Sibley’s invasion relied on the power of an offensive strategy in the face of superior numbers, some wishful thinking about logistics, and a firm belief that those disadvantages would be offset by Southern courage and latent secessionist support in the territory they were entering.
With Davis’s blessing, Sibley organized three regiments in San Antonio before setting off for Mesilla, the Confederate capital of the Arizona Territory. Water and forage were so sparse across West Texas, Sibley was forced to space out his brigade along the march, with no more than a few hundred soldiers riding within a day of each other.
By mid-February, Sibley had concentrated his newly-christened Army of New Mexico at Ft. Thorn, near present-day Hatch, NM. Unlike the extremely confined Eastern Theater of the war, the Southwest had wide-open spaces for armies to maneuver…but only a narrow stretch had the water and supplies necessary to sustain troops in the field. This meant that Sibley’s 2500-man army was confined to advancing straight up the Rio Grande – with its precious, drinkable water – if he wanted to go north to the territorial capital of Santa Fe, let alone the gold mines of Colorado.
That was easier said than done: Union Colonel Edward R.S. Canby had assembled 3800 troops – a mix of U.S. Regulars, and New Mexico and Colorado Volunteers, along with a small mountain of supplies and munitions that could have sustained Sibley’s operations for months. They were dug in at Ft. Craig, near present-day Socorro, blocking Sibley’s route up the Rio Grande.
In early February, Sibley began to move north from Ft. Thorn. He was already having supply problems, placing his army on half rations before the campaign had even begun in earnest.5 He approached Ft. Craig cautiously, and on February 16, 1862, both armies deployed as if for battle. This gave these green units the first taste of what they had really signed up for. William Lott Davidson, a 24-year old private in Company A of the 5th Texas, recounted one anecdote:
“When the blue kept moving out in such long lines, Joe Bowers of the 7th (the only name I ever knew for him) cried out so as to be heard all along the line ‘Ge whilikens captain I ain’t half as mad at the fellows as I was before they showed up so many men.’”6
Ultimately, neither side took the bait on the 16th. Canby saw no reason to give up the advantage of his fortified position, and Sibley was hesitant to attack Ft. Craig head-on, especially with only the light artillery he had on hand: two batteries of mountain howitzers, and four six-pounders. Sibley wrote:
“On February 16 a reconnaissance in force was pushed to within a mile of the Ft. and battle offered on the open plain…The reconnaissance proved the futility of assaulting the Ft. in front with our light metal, and that our only hope of success was to force the enemy to an open-field fight. It was accordingly determined by a partial retrograde movement to cross the Rio Grande to the east bank, turn the Ft., and force a battle for the recrossing.”7
Sibley instead forded the Rio Grande on the 19th, seeking to get around and behind Ft. Craig, cutting their line of supply and forcing Canby into an open field battle that would hopefully result in the surrender of Ft. Craig. Canby sortied out of Ft. Craig on the 20th with a small number of troops to interdict Sibley’s march, but they were driven off.
By the morning of the 21st, Sibley was ready to come back across the Rio Grande, now north of Ft. Craig and threatening Canby’s supply lines – which brings us to how Private Laughter of the 2nd Texas found himself fighting for a drink of water, in the vanguard of the Confederate Army of New Mexico. This bit of country was known as Valverde, or “green valley”. Along the western edge of the battlefield was the Rio Grande River, curving along to the south, before it came up against the imposing Mesa del Contadero.
Writing after the war, Private William Davidson gave an excellent description of the battlefield:
“The Rio Grande has a valley averaging about three miles in width…At the upper end of Valverde, the river skirts at the foot of the mountains on the east side, then takes a course diagonally across and down the valley until it strikes the base of the mountains on the west side, then curves gradually back to the east until it passes a mesa at the lower end of the valley. From the upper end of the valley there is a wide dry ravine, the old bed of the river, running directly through the valley…The space between this ravine and the river is some 200 yards at the upper end, then gradually widening until where the river reaches the hills on the west side, it is about 1,000 yards, then gradually gets more narrow…Our line, on February 21, 1862, was formed along this ravine from the upper end, about 200 yards from the river, our left resting against the foot of the mesa.” 8
Canby had sent federal troops that morning to seize the Valverde fords, and the Mesa del Contadero that overlooked them. The initial fighting quickly settled into a stalemate – while the dry riverbed provided good cover for the Confederates as they sought to bring up reinforcements, their subpar armaments were badly outranged. Davidson wrote, “Our command, with the exception of the 2nd Texas who had long-range guns, were mostly armed with double-barrel shotguns, and of course, as the enemy was from two-hundred and fifty to a thousand yards distance, our shotguns were useless.”9
The Confederates were able to drive back a Union assault once it closed within shotgun and canister range, but they were still cut off from river’s fords and precious drinking water, with both sides seeking to bring up reinforcements. Further highlighting their disadvantage, they attempted a desperate charge with a few dozen outnumbered lancers against a unit of Colorado infantry – heroic, but futile.
At this point the Confederates were able to briefly take control of the Mesa del Contadero, but ultimately ceded it back to Union reinforcements. More tellingly, the lack of water was so dire that some of their artillery crews used a brief lull in the fighting to attempt to dig a well at the bottom of the riverbed.10
Through the early part of the battle, both sides suffered from scattered command and control, but at this juncture Canby arrived on the field to take over the Union effort. Perhaps more decisively, Sibley – drunk, sick, or a bit of both – turned command over to Colonel Green of the 5th Texas.
With the advantage of superior numbers and armament, Canby determined to reoccupy the mesa in force, and swing around the exposed Confederate left flank. This would have driven the bulk of Confederate forces away from both the fords and their supply trains, and it’s unclear that their battered, dismounted cavalry could have defended against such a maneuver.
Instead, Green took what forces he had available to maneuver, and ordered a charge on the opposite end of the field, against the Union left flank. A battery of 24-pounder Parrott guns – commanded by Capt. Alexander McRae, a Southerner who had stayed loyal to the Union – anchored that end of the Union line, and had been battering the Confederates all day.
2nd Lieutenant P.J. “Phil” Fulcrod, a Confederate battery commander who witnessed the charge, later wrote:
“The gallant McRae and his men stood at their posts of duty and performed acts of heroism worth of Sparta’s best days, while the right and left wings, who should have come to the rescue, fled and many of them fell dead with our bullets in their backs. The capture of the battery sealed the fate of the day in our favor. Brave galland and noble men on each side lay bleeding and dying together.” 11
Union attempts at a counterattack fizzled, and their army was soon in retreat back toward Ft. Craig. Exhausted by a lack of water and disorganized by a day of fighting, a Confederate pursuit was slow to develop, and ultimately called off when Canby requested a ceasefire.12
The Union forces were battered; they had suffered 350 to 500 casualties out of a force of 3800 troops, as compared to around 200 Confederate casualties out of a force of 2000 to 2500. These were the largest armies that this stretch of the desert Southwest had seen in recorded history.13 For the moment, Canby and his army would hunker down, secure in Ft. Craig’s defenses. They didn’t know it yet, but they had already made it through the hardest fighting they would see on this campaign.
But there were more decisive costs for the Confederate dream of overrunning the Southwest: They had lost 1000 or more horses in the fighting, a huge blow to the mobility of their forces in a vast theater of operations with little opportunity to secure remounts.14 And they had missed their best opportunity to capture Ft. Craig and its mountain of critical supplies, and to force Canby’s army out of the campaign. This would loom large as they ultimately turned north, toward Albuquerque and Santa Fe, leaving Ft. Craig behind them.
Patrick Kelly-Fischer lives in Colorado with his wife, dog and cat, where he works for a nonprofit. A lifelong student of the Civil War, when he isn’t reading or working, you can find him hiking or rooting for the Steelers.
- Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 61.
- Major T.T. Teel. “Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign – Its Objects and the Causes of its Failure,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 1888, 700.
- Waite, Kevin. West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire. University of North Carolina Press, 2021.
- Frazier, Donald. Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest. Texas A&M University Press, 1995, 6-10.
- Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 20.
- Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 23.
- United States. War Records Office, et al.. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union And Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume IX, Chapter XXI. 1880, 507.
- Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 26.
- Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 28.
- Frazier, Donald. Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest. Texas A&M University Press, 1995, 169.
- Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 57.
- United States. War Records Office, et al.. The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union And Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume IX, Chapter XXI. 1880, 509.
- Nelson, Megan Kate. The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West. Scribner, 2020, 60.
- Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 41 & 76.