Site hosted by Build your free website today!

American Civil War West of the Mississippi

Home | Articles | Bibliography | Maps | Links | Contact

Canby's Services in the New Mexico Campaign

by Latham Anderson, Brevet Brigadier-General, U.S.V.

Battles and Leaders of the Civil War
p. 697-699

The account in this work by Captain Pettis of "The Confederate Invasion of New Mexico and Arizona, 1 is accurate as to most details. It is open to criticism, however, in two particulars: it fails to recognize the political as well as the military importance of the campaign, and it does injustice to General Canby.

The remote and unimportant territory of New Mexico was not the real objective of this invasion. The Confederate leaders were striking at much higher game no less than the conquest of California, Sonora, Chihuahua, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah and, above all, the possession of the gold supply of the Pacific coast, a source of strength considered by Mr. Lincoln to be essential to the successful prosecution of the war.

The truth of this view will be apparent when we consider what the relative positions of the two governments would have been had Sibley succeeded in his enterprise. The Confederacy would have controlled the Gulf of California and the two finest harbors on the Pacific coast with a coast-line of 1200 or 1500 miles. The conquest alone of this vast domain, in all probability. would have insured the recognition of the Confederacy by the European powers. Owing to the remoteness of this [*698] coast it would have been impossible for us to have effectively blockaded it. In fact the Confederates could have overpowered us in the Pacific Ocean, as all the advantages of position and materials would have been on their side. Finally, the current of gold, that, according to Mr. Lincoln, formed the life-blood of our financial credit, would have been diverted from Washington to Richmond. What then would have been the relative quotations of "Greenbacks" and "Graybacks"? Unquestionably the Confederate paper would have been worth at least as much as ours, and the oceans would have swarmed with Alabamas. But it may be asked, to what extent would Sibley's conquest of New Mexico have contributed to this result? If it would have rendered the conquest of California probable, then it was one of the most momentous campaigns of the war. If the reverse were true, then it was a series of insignificant skirmishes, devoid of military or political significance. The capture of Forts Craig and Union with their garrisons and supplies would have rendered highly probable the successful accomplishment of the entire plan of Sibley's campaign. Southerners and Southern sympathizers were scattered throughout the Western mountain regions. They preponderated strongly in Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California.

In the coast and river towns and cities of California, the Confederates formed a powerful faction. Had Sibley's conquest of New Mexico been complete, he would have captured 6000 or 8000 stand of arms and 25 or 30 pieces of artillery. Hardy miners and frontier desperadoes would have flocked to his standard from all parts of the Rocky Mountains. He could have entered California with at least twice as many men as he brought into New Mexico. As a matter of course, the entire Mormon population of Utah, Arizona, and California would have joined him joyfully, and would have furnished him most efficient aid. In the meantime the California Secessionists would not have been idle. Although General George Wright and the Unionists would have been too enterprising to enable them to effect any complete or systematic organization, a fierce guerrilla warfare would certainly have been inaugurated all over the central and southern parts of the State as soon as it was known that Sibley's victorious army was approaching. Unaided they could have accomplished nothing. The National forces had absolute control of the situation. The forts in San Francisco harbor, the arsenal at Benicia, the Mare Island navy-yard, and whatever naval force there was on the coast were all in Union hands, under the custody of a nucleus (small, it is true) of regular troops. Moreover, the Union volunteers, with whom the enemy would have had to contend, were unsurpassed as fighting material. But with an invading army of 6000 or 8000 men across the Colorado, flushed with victory and well supplied with small arms, artillery, ammunition, and transportation, the situation would have been materially changed. The Government, in order to maintain its prestige must have continually protected many points from attack. It would thus have been compelled to divide and weaken its forces. The California desert constitutes a serious obstacle to an invading army; but, in this instance, the Confederates and their natural allies, the Mormons, preponderated so largely in that region that they could have maintained control of all the water-holes on the desert, and thus could have prevented Union scouts from observing and reporting promptly the movements of the invading army. Our forces probably could not have received notice of the route of the invading column in time to concentrate upon the Tejon Pass. Simultaneously with the arrival of the Confederate column, diversion by guerrilla attacks at various points throughout the State could, and, no doubt, would, have been made so as to compel a still further weakening of our forces at the main point of attack. Owing to all these causes it would have been impossible for the Union commander to meet Sibley with equal forces. For the Union army defeat under these circumstances in Southern California would have been defeat in an enemy's country, and it would have been very difficult for it to escape capture had it been routed. However superb the material of which the California volunteers were composed, 2 they were raw troops and would have been confronted by larger numbers of men, many of them already seasoned to war in a victorious campaign, who would, moreover, have been compelled to fight with desperation because they had the desert at their backs. It is true the fortunes of war are uncertain, and none of these things might have happened; but, in view of the above facts, the probabilities seem altogether in favor of the success of the Confederates, backed by an army which had conquered New Mexico and Arizona. Hence, in view of the situation in California and of the momentous consequences of its capture by the Confederates, the conflict in New Mexico should be regarded as one of the decisive campaigns of the war. The soundness and brilliancy of General Canby's management rendered it decisive in our favor. For the invading column the result was practically annihilation, unless the reports brought into our lines were gross exaggerations. It is to be hoped that this discussion may elicit from some of the survivors of Sibley's column a detailed account of that retreat.

Soon after Canby assumed command of the department, and before he had time to get it fairly in hand, he was confronted with the appalling disaster of San Augustine Springs. This was quickly followed by the intelligence that two expeditions were forming to attack him, -- one in Northern Texas under Van Dorn, to enter by the Canadian route against Fort Union; the other at San Antonio, under Sibley, intended to reenforce Baylor at El Paso. He was therefore compelled to keep a strong force at Fort Union, another at Fort Craig, and to hold a third at an intermediate point [*699] whence he could succor the division first attacked. This prevented him from acting aggressively against Baylor early in the campaign. After Sibley had passed Fort Craig, Canby called a meeting of his senior officers and outlined to them his plan of campaign, which was to follow the enemy closely in his march up the valley, harass him in front, flanks, and rear with the irregular troops and cavalry -- burn or remove all supplies in his front, but avoid a general engagement, except where the position was strongly in our favor. The numerous adobe villages along the line gave admirable opportunities for carrying out this plan at intervals of a few miles. Canby had no confidence in the capacity of the New Mexico volunteers to face the Texans in the open field, and the results fully confirmed his judgment on that point. But the adobe villages could be quickly loop-holed and converted into admirable defenses for raw troops. By placing the New Mexicans in these improvised fortresses, and using the regulars and Colorado volunteers aggressively in the open parts of the line, the efficiency of his force would have been doubled. Should the enemy refuse to attack us in any of these strong positions until he passed Albuquerque, Canby could then form a junction with the reenforcements at Fort Union, and Sibley's fate would have been sealed. The late Major H. R. Selden, who was present at the meeting, is the writer's authority for this outline of Canby's intended plan of campaign. This plan was marred at the very outset by the impetuosity of that rash old fighter, Lieutenant-Colonel B. S. Roberts, who, at Valverde, January 21st, precipitated a decisive engagement with the enemy, where the latter had the advantage of position. It must be said in justice to Colonel Roberts, however, that had not two of his subordinates shown a lack of their commander's dash, the result of that day's battle would have been different. Mr. Pettis intimates that all went well on the field until Canby arrived. Such was not the case. Roberts had failed to dislodge the enemy from his strong position behind the sand hills. Had it not been for the fatal gap in our center, the Texan assault on McRae's battery could not have been made, as the attacking column would have been taken in flank by our center. That gap was caused by Colonel Miguel Pino's 2d New Mexican Regiment remaining under the river-bank and refusing to move forward into line. For this, of course, Canby was not responsible. His plan of pivoting on his left and doubling up the enemy's left flank so as to sweep him out of his natural intrenchment was an admirable one.

After the reverse at Valverde nothing remained for Canby but to strive for a junction with the troops at Fort Union. In this he was thwarted for a time by the fact that Colonel John P. Slough, against his instructions, brought on a decisive engagement with the enemy at Canon Glorietta on the 28th of March. Slough's main force was driven from the field, and the defeat would have been a disastrous one had not the flanking party, under Major Chivington, of the 1st Colorado Volunteers, and Captain W. H. Lewis, 5th U. S. Infantry, succeeded in destroying the Texan train. The rumor is said to have spread among the Texans that they were being attacked in rear by Canby's column. This caused a panic among part of their force, and prevented an effective pursuit of Slough's defeated troops.

After the junction with the troops from Fort Union, and the overtaking and surprising of the enemy at Peralta, on the 15th of January, Canby had it in his power to capture the entire column. But this was impracticable, because he could not have fed his prisoners. The country was stripped of provisions of all sorts, his own troops were on short rations, and he was at Peralta, one thousand miles from his base of supplies. His only alternative was to force the Texans into their disastrous retreat.

The account of the battle of Valverde in Greeley's "American Conflict" is erroneous in two important statements. First, speaking of the fighting in the morning he says: "The day wore on with more noise than execution, until 2 P.M." As a matter of fact our losses in the morning were heavier than in the evening, when most of the casualties were confined to McRae's Battery. Also Mr. Greeley states: "Our supporting infantry, twice or thrice the Texans in number, and including more than man for man of regulars, shamefully withstood every entreaty to charge, and the Colorado volunteers vied with the regulars in this infamous flight." There were only one thousand regulars in the field altogether, and the bulk of them were on the extreme right, out of supporting distance of the battery. In the morning fight the single company of Colorado volunteers behaved admirably, showing as much steadiness as old regulars.


1. For Captain Pettis's article and accompanying maps, see Vol. II., p. 103. -- EDITORS.

2. A remarkable march through the hostile Indian country of Arizona to join Canby was made by eleven companies of infantry, two of cavalry, and two batteries, under Colonel J. H. Carleton, which were dispatched by General George Wright, commanding the Department of the Pacific, overland from Southern California. The column started April 13th, 1862, and arrived at Santa Fe September 20th. -- EDITORS.

Original Source for This Version

Home | Articles | Bibliography | Maps | Links | Contact