Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Off Topic Tuesday: New Mexico Invaded

General Sibley
In 1861, at the start of the American Civil War a tough Confederate Texan named John R. Baylor had attacked and seized Mesilla, claiming all of the southern half of Arizona and New Mexico as the Confederate Territory of Arizona. Encouraged by this easy victory, Henry Hopkins Sibley, a West Point graduate, and army veteran familiar with the southwest went to Confederate President Jefferson Davis with a bold proposal. He planned to attack north into New Mexico, take control of the Santa Fe Trail, obtain the wealth of the Colorado gold mines for the Confederacy and eventually advance westward to California and open up a Pacific Ocean port for the southern nation. Davis commissioned Sibley a Brigadier General and dispatched him to San Antonio, Texas to begin forming a brigade of cavalry for the expedition.

General Sibley managed to recruit about 3,000 men to form three cavalry regiments and one battery of artillery; these were: the Fourth Texas Volunteer Cavalry under Colonel James Reily, the Fifth Texas Volunteer Cavalry led by Colonel Tom Green and the Seventh Texas Volunteer Cavalry commanded by Colonel William Steele. They were later joined by elements of Baylor's old command raising their total strength to around 3,700 men. The men were rough, tough and eager but poorly supplied. Some who had no weapons at all were armed with antiquated lances captured during the war with Mexico. Sibley hoped to take most of his supplies from the enemy and invaded New Mexico with the intention of moving against Santa Fe and Fort Union.

Colonel Canby
The first major action of the campaign was the battle of Val Verde in which Sibley hoped to lure out the garrison of Ft Craig where he could destroy them. Colonel Edward Canby, commander of the U.S. forces in New Mexico did come out to fight and the Texans gave the Union troops a warm reception. Sibley, who had a reputation as a drinker, was "indisposed" much of the time and command at Val Verde fell to Colonel Thomas Green who won a hard fought victory over the Yankees and forced their retreat back to Ft Craig. Lacking the strength or supplies to storm or besiege the fort General Sibley left it behind and marched on to capture Santa Fe on March 10, 1862. So far, the Confederate advance had been successful. They had beaten the enemy at Val Verde, captured Santa Fe and shortly later took Albuquerque. However, the Confederates were suffering from severe supply problems. The Yankees had destroyed all they could not carry off as they retreated, leaving Sibley without the vast stores he had hoped to use to sustain his men.

Nevertheless, this was still a time for high hopes. Confederate forces to the south and in Arizona were fighting Apache Indians and some were even planning to conquer the northernmost states of Mexico for induction into the Confederacy. The main goal for General Sibley though was still Ft Union, overlooking the Raton Pass. To advance on the fort though, he would first have to take and hold the Glorieta Pass on the Santa Fe Trail. He dispatched about 300 men to secure Glorieta Pass under the command of Major Charles Pyron and William R. Scurry. On March 26, 1862 Major Pyron was attacked at Glorieta by over 400 Union troops under Major John Chivington. The Confederates beat back the attack, but the Union forces regrouped and managed to push them back with two successive flanking movements. All was quiet on the 27th as both sides called for reinforcements. Lt. Colonel William R. Scurry arrived with additional Confederate troops and Colonel John P. Slough came with Union reinforcements. On the 28th both sides decided to attack.

Scurry at Glorieta
Once he observed the Federal forces coming up the pass, Colonel Scurry formed a defensive line and threw back repeated Union attacks. For a time the battle surged back and forth between attacks and counterattacks, but the Confederates would not break. Finally, Colonel Slough abandoned the field and Scurry pulled his men out to report their victory. The Confederates had certainly been victorious on the battlefield, but behind the lines a nasty surprise waited for them. At Johnson's Ranch Colonel Scurry discovered that during the battle Union forces under Major Chivington had destroyed his supply train and killed all of his livestock. The Confederates had no choice but to march back to Santa Fe and from there, without any food or supplies, abandon New Mexico and return to Texas. Despite winning every engagement the Confederates had lost the campaign due to a lack of supplies. In fact, far more Confederates died from cold and starvation on the march back to San Antonio than throughout any of the combat during the invasion. Some grandiose veterans compared their overland trek, often made over winding mountain paths in extreme cold so as to avoid Union forces, to Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

Some of the commanders of the New Mexico campaign went on to great fame. Colonel Green rose to the rank of Major General and fought in the victories at Galveston and the Red River Campaign. Colonel Steele became a brigadier general but was killed at the battle of Franklin, Tennessee. General Sibley was given minor commands, struggled with alcoholism and was court martialed in 1863, though he was censured rather than convicted of any crime. After the war he served as a military advisor to the Khedive of Egypt (where his fondness for alcohol was extremely unpopular) before eventually returning to the United States.

Sibley, the would-be conqueror
Probably in no other theatre of the War Between the States did such grand aspirations and the control of such a vast area depend on such relatively small armies. For most it was a frontier sideshow, for the Texans it was a matter of immediate concern and many harbored hopes of recovering the territory formerly part of the Republic of Texas which had been ceded to the United States in the Compromise of 1850. It was also an extremely wild and colorful affair. The battle of Val Verde saw one of the last lancer charges in American history (with devastating effects) and there was the effort of one Irish Yankee to destroy the Confederate supply train using exploding mules. Fortunately for the Confederates, once the fuses were lit the tragic beasts tried to follow their fleeing owners and they ended up exploding in the open, barely attracting notice from the rebels and with the only casualties being the poor mules. Ultimately, neither side gained much from the campaign. Union forces lost nothing but did prevent a Confederate takeover of the southwest and cleared the area of rebel forces, however, their drive east was stopped by a combination of rough terrain, Indian attacks and the string of forts that guarded the west Texas frontier. For the south it was yet another ‘might have been’. Film fans may also note that this campaign provided the backdrop for Sergio Leone’s famous western, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” starring Clint Eastwood.


  1. Off-topic subject here, but -
    In my internet journeys, I have recently come across this unofficial manifesto for the "Traditional Britain Group", one of those obscure traditionalist movements active in the West, and was interested to see that they had some overtly monarchist proposals:

    "A re-examination of the decommissioned Royal Yacht Britannia will be made to ascertain whether it is feasible to return it to the service of the Royal Family. If not, a new Royal Yacht will be commissioned and built with all due haste."
    "The Privy Council will only sit, wherever possible, when the monarch or her/his delegated proxy is in attendance."
    "All White Papers will be placed before the monarch with plenty of time for consideration by him/her. The British People are also the monarch’s foremost responsibility. The veto may therefore be used at any time in the best interests of the monarch’s subjects."

    I found this interesting especially considering the grief with other far-right parties that you exposed in one of your previous posts "The So-Called Far Right". I'm not saying I agree with everything they write (retroactive punishment seems a little excessive, for example), but they are an interesting alternative to more crypto-fascist republican right-wingers.

  2. Sounds good to me. I'm certainly not averse to traditionalists and legitimately far-right groups (the mainstream media is pretty loose with the term "far-right" applying it to pretty much anyone they don't like. No one is ever "far-left" you'll notice). My beef was only with those who claim to be or are lumped together by the media as right-wing extremists or conservatives when they are opposed to monarchy, are revolutionary republicans and usually socialists (aka communists without the spine to say so) who have nothing to do with the political "right" at all.

    I've never heard of this group but allowing the monarch to actually (gasp) *use* the powers they legally hold is something I would be totally in favor of.


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