Civil War Weather: The Devastating Impact of a Southwestern Winter on Sibley’s Invasion of New Mexico

In the opening days of 1862, Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley invaded the New Mexico Territory. With three regiments of Texas cavalry, some supporting artillery, and a handful of troops that had already established a foothold in what they declared to be Confederate Arizona, Sibley sought to dramatically expand the Confederacy’s presence in the Southwest.

Sibley was ultimately driven back, far short of his ambitious goals of reaching Colorado and California’s gold mines and a port on the Pacific Coast.[1] No single factor doomed him to failure: He was contending with brutal terrain and unforgiving distances in the sparsely populated Southwest, he miscalculated and planned poorly throughout the campaign, and to paraphrase George Pickett, the Yankees commanded by Colonel Edward R.S. Canby surely had something to do with it. 

But as much as any of those factors, Sibley was defeated by the harsh winter weather of the Southwest.

Like many pre-war Army officers, Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley had served in the Southwest. But despite that experience, he seems to have seriously underestimated the challenges of campaigning in the region. (Photo via Library of Congress)

Sibley began assembling his small army in San Antonio late in the summer of 1861. He quickly discovered the same challenges facing generals across the country that year. There were too few weapons, uniforms and military supplies, and far too little administrative and logistical support, to quickly turn thousands of untrained volunteers into an organized fighting force. The Confederate chain of command in Texas was muddled at best, and outfitting his troops took far longer than expected.

As a result, Sibley didn’t get under way until November, beginning a 600-mile march across Texas as winter arrived. The line of march had to be spaced so that each regiment was a full day behind the next. But in the dead of the West Texas winter, there was too little grass and other forage for the horses and mules, and very little water. [2]

Repeated winter storms hammered Sibley’s army. William Lott Davidson, a 24-year old private in Company A of the 5th Texas, recalled after the war:

“‘Chill November’s surly blast’ came down upon us as we camped upon the Nueces. There was no timber to shield us and the wind swept at us, and the boys on guard at night must have had a hard time pacing their beats on the cold frozen ground. We were tasting the bitter delights and mournful realities of a soldier’s life. We are now for the first time beginning to find out that we are engaged in no child’s play.” [3]

As Sibley’s worn down cavalry arrived in what was then the Confederate Arizona Territory (the southern half of present-day New Mexico and Arizona), the winter weather continued. Firsthand accounts recall repeatedly waking up covered in snow. More concerningly, disease was rampant. In addition to the measles that swept through most Civil War units, pneumonia took a severe toll. [4]

Too little food, forage and water, blizzards, pneumonia…and all before Sibley had even encountered the Federal army. As Davidson noted, “This winter campaign is beginning to tell on the health of our men.” [5]

The Union army under Colonel Edward R.S. Canby was hunkered down in Fort Craig, next to the Rio Grande, blocking Sibley’s path north. After demonstrating outside the fort, Sibley undertook a wide flanking march to get above Canby and block his supply lines, hopefully drawing him out to fight in the open.

Colonel Edward R.S. Canby commanded Union forces at Valverde. He received criticism for not being more aggressive at the end of the campaign, but his patience resulted in Sibley being driven out of the New Mexico Territory without additional Union losses. (Photo via Library of Congress)

That march meant spending two to three days away from the river, the only source of water in the area. This must have marked one of the few times in history that an invading army prayed for rain – but if so, their prayers went unanswered. One soldier in Sibley’s army recalled, “The morning of the 21st opened bleak and cold, which to some degree mitigated the thirst of men and animals.” [6]

There’s an old saying in the west that “whiskey is for drinking, but water is for fighting.” As Sibley’s army started its march on the 21st, they had been away from water for three long, dry days. Private Laughter of the 2nd Texas recalled that “The dry beef we had for supper needed moisture. The fact was, if one of us coughed you could see the dust fly.” As they completed their flanking march and closed in on the Rio Grande above Fort Craig, they were “marching along with some glee at the prospect of getting a square drink of water” – but spotted Union troops positioned to block access to the river. [7]

In order to get that drink of water, they would have to fight and win the battle of Valverde, the largest engagement of the campaign. The battle of Valverde see-sawed back and forth throughout the day, before a massed Confederate charge overran the Union battery anchoring the left side of their line, precipitating a Federal rout back toward Fort Craig.

After the war, Davidson bemoaned that the Confederate failure to follow up on their victory that day was the fatal error of the campaign. By most accounts, Canby’s army was in serious disarray, but there were any number of reasons why the Confederates couldn’t take advantage. Civil War armies almost always needed time to reorganize themselves after a fight, and Sibley’s army had already worn itself ragged getting to the battle. The troops and horses desperately needed water. The Confederate command structure was uncertain during the battle, and Canby offered a timely flag of truce to tend to the wounded (or, depending on your perspective, to buy himself time). 

But this situation also highlights another risk of campaigning in winter: The early sunset can prevent you from exploiting a victory. Timekeeping in the 1860s, especially in the Southwest away from any major cities, was nowhere near as precise as it is today. With that caveat, in Blood and Treasure, Donald Frazier estimates that the final charge and subsequent Union retreat began around 4:00 PM. [8] 

Sunset in mid-February in the area was around 7 PM, and the battlefield was some four or five miles above the fort. That left the exhausted Confederates a very narrow window before dark to reorganize, advance several miles, and carry the post. As it was, Canby successfully rallied his troops in Fort Craig and hunkered down.

Some accounts of the campaign also report a major sandstorm hitting just before the battle of Valverde, and almost all accounts mention severe dust storms as a fairly regular occurrence. If you’ve ever been caught outside in one even briefly, you know that it’s a terrible thing to have to experience without shelter. It doesn’t seem to have had much impact beyond possibly delaying Sibley’s movements by a day, but it’s a reminder that he was campaigning in an extreme and inhospitable environment.

Sibley didn’t have the numbers or the artillery to assault the Union army holed up and fortified in Fort Craig. He was also already painfully short of supplies, and had lost a considerable portion of his already weakened horses at Valverde. He decided to leave Canby behind and continue north toward Albuquerque, the territorial capital at Santa Fe, and Fort Union, the largest military post in the region. 

While the theme of attrition due to weather and exposure had started to creep in before Valverde, it becomes pervasive in Confederate accounts after the battle. As they moved north, the Texans’ problems continued. Sibley sent troops ahead to secure the Federal supply depot at Albuquerque, but a detachment of Canby’s better-rested cavalry beat them to it and burned the supplies. [9] Davidson reported that:

“Arriving at Albuquerque we found a few government stores, the enemy having burnt all they could, and the army was marched out in the mountains east of Albuquerque and camped, as I thought, for the winter as the weather was very cold, sleeting and snowing all the time. At this camp we remained a week and we buried fifty men, and if the weather and exposure had continued much longer, we would have buried the whole brigade.” [10]

After occupying Santa Fe, Confederate troops moved into the mountains east of the city, which lay between them and Fort Union, the marshaling point for Union supplies and reinforcements from Colorado. The conditions were no better here. Davidson complains about having too little clothing for the cold weather, which kept the increasingly exhausted troops awake. By his telling, after a sleepless night, early on March 26th, “About 12 o’clock the sun made it warm enough for us to sleep and we went to sleep trusting everything in our pickets, and they trusting everything to us. I went to sleep and they were captured and we were rudely awakened by a volley of musketry fired into camp.” [11]

These were the opening shots of the battle of Glorieta, which lasted through March 28th. The Texans won another tactical victory, but a detachment of Colorado volunteers burned their irreplaceable supply train. After the battle, Davidson noted that, “In the night a severe snow storm arose and snow fell to the depth of a foot and several of our wounded froze to death.”[12]

Weakened by two battles, long marches, extended exposure, repeated winter storms, and insufficient supplies, the Confederate Army of New Mexico badly needed to regroup and refit. But Canby wasn’t going to give them that opportunity, and began to close in on Sibley. It was now clear to Sibley that he had overextended himself, and that it was time to withdraw. The armies skirmished at Peralta, but Canby was largely content to let the weather and terrain finish off Sibley’s army. 

Sibley abandoned New Mexico and Confederate Arizona, and limped back into San Antonio later that summer. A frustrated Davidson bemoaned that, “We left San Antonio eight months earlier with near three thousand men [as well as reinforcements from Arizona] ….And now in rags and tatters, foot-sore and weary, we again march, if a reel and stagger can be called a march, along the streets of San Antonio with fourteen hundred men. I can furnish a list of four hundred and thirty-seven dead, but where are the other sixteen hundred?” [13]

The answer to Davidson’s question is that the army had been weakened by winter weather and exposure, and lack of forage and water, followed by two pitched battles. The Army of New Mexico limped back home with fewer than half of the troops they had set out with. On a percentage basis, it was one of the most devastating campaigns any Civil War army suffered through without surrendering. That’s even more dramatic when we consider the fact that each of their engagements was a tactical victory or draw. 

Of course, the Union army in the campaign faced much of the same weather. While marching from Colorado to reinforce Canby before Valverde, Private Ferdinand Ickis cited snow “two to four feet deep, pulling wagons over [mountain passes] with ropes teams [when the] teams had given out” in a letter home to his brother. He also complained about the parched conditions, including two months without a drop of rain. [14]

The difference is that after their march, Ickis and his comrades enjoyed the comparative luxury of three weeks of good supplies and substantial shelter before going into battle. Throughout the campaign, Union forces largely rode out the winter weather from the comfort of Fort Union and Fort Craig. 

 

Some of the ruins at Fort Union, 2018. Photo by author.

In contrast, while Sibley occupied Santa Fe and Albuquerque, he spent most of the cold and snowy campaign on the move. His tenuous supply situation, and failure to finish off Canby, meant that he could never take the time to regroup. After the campaign, he blamed the initial delay in leaving San Antonio. He told Richmond that he had intended to arrive in New Mexico in the fall, rather than departing in November. “We reached this point last winter in rags and blanketless,” he wrote, while also echoing Davidson in citing pneumonia as having significantly weakened his small army. [15]

Ultimately a bitterly cold, snowy winter in dry terrain eviscerated Sibley’s army. The weather took a toll on a mounted force that was intended to move quickly. That slowed them down, forcing them to endure more of the winter weather in the desert, which in turn wore their effectiveness down further.

If his men were healthier and their horses were in better condition, could Sibley have moved faster, secured supplies before they were burned, and exposed his men to fewer cold, snowy nights in the field? It’s impossible to know if a milder winter, or better equipping his troops for a winter campaign, might have changed the outcome. But surely weather deserves a place on the long list of factors that doomed Sibley’s campaign. 

Davidson summarized the campaign in a way that leaves no doubt about the impact that, as a participant, he felt the weather had on the outcome:

“Yet always victorious and holding every battlefield, we were wearily on the march, shivering with cold, parched with thirst and pinched with hunger, yet always presenting a firm, undaunted front to the foe. They paced in rags and tatters, their weary best through the long tedious hours of the night, with bare-feet over the frozen and ice-covered ground. ‘Found dead on post’ and ‘froze to death last night’ were sounds we often heard, as a poor, stiff, lifeless body was brought into camp, the dauntless spirit having gone to sleep, to rest with the brave.” [16]

Maybe the Confederates would have drawn some comfort if they had known better weather was just around the corner. Writing in his diary shortly after the campaign, Private Ickis recorded a jaw-dropping 122° temperature just a few months later. [17]

 

[1] 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.

[2] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 8-10.

[3] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 11-12

[4] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 19, 51.

[5] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 19.

[6] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 46.

[7] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 61.

[8] Frazier, Donald. Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest. Texas A&M University Press, 1995, 159.

[9] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 161-162.

[10] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 79.

[11] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 81.

[12] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 86.

[13] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 129.

[14] Mumey, Nolie. Bloody Trails Along the Rio Grande: A Day-by-day Diary of Alonzo Ferdinand Ickis. The Old West Publishing Company. 1958. 30, 90.

[15] 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, 512

[16] Thompson, Jerry. Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade. Texas A&M University Press, 2001, 118.

[17] Mumey, Nolie. Bloody Trails Along the Rio Grande: A Day-by-day Diary of Alonzo Ferdinand Ickis. The Old West Publishing Company. 1958. 103.



3 Responses to Civil War Weather: The Devastating Impact of a Southwestern Winter on Sibley’s Invasion of New Mexico

  1. Thanks for this highly interesting post. I would temper the focus on “unusual” weather just a bit by pointing out that some of this campaign occurred at higher elevations. Glorieta Pass is at c. 7,500 feet, for example. Anybody who spends a fair amount of time at elevation in the RM (and I have spent more than a fair amount) knows that weather can have a significant impact at any time of year. Yours truly got tossed out of a climbing trip inthe Wind River range in Wyoming one year by an August 15 snowstorm that dumped close to a foot of the white stuff. And anybody who is surprised by those conditions in March has no business making those decisions in the first place. The logistical challenges of this campaign given the space and time were daunting enough. The weather should have been foreseen as another problem. I’ve always seen this campaign as a pipe dream from the “gitgo”. This post hammers that home.

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