Confederate Purposes in Colorado

The vast designs of the Confederates in occupying New Mexico were put into motion when Gen. Henry H. Sibley was directed to invade and hold all of New Mexico Territory. Sibley was a native of Louisiana and a West Point man; he won an enviable reputation in the Mexican war, and near the outbreak of war in 1861 was stationed in New Mexico. He resigned from the Federal service in May, 1861, and was given the office of brigadier-general in the Confederate army, with orders to form a whole brigade in Texas and two batteries of light artillery. This completed, he was to take possession of all New Mexico, capture the Federal supplies and forts, and drive all Union troops out. This done, it was believed many enlistments would be secured from this territory and also Colorado.

The complicated purpose of this move is well described by J. C. Smiley in the preface to Whitford’s Colorado Volunteers in the Civil War; the New Mexico Campaign in 1862, which was published by the Colorado State Historical and Natural History Society (1906). This follows:

“The men in whom were the military ability and the very bone and sinew of the Union cause in that campaign, and who bore the burden of hardship and sacrifice in winning the victory which abruptly checked and turned the rising tide of Confederate successes in the southwest, were citizen-soldiers of the Territory of Colorado.

“On the part of the Confederates that campaign meant far more than appears when it is considered merely as a military enterprise, as an ambitious inroad into a section of the national domain outside the boundaries of the Southern Confederacy. Back of it was a political project of vast magnitude, upon which enthusiastic southern leaders had set their hearts.

“In i860, 1861, and well into 1862, the militant spirit of disunion was not confined to the slave-holding states of our country. Disruption of the old Union was boldly advocated among and favored by a large and influential element of the population of California, an element that predominated in number and influence in the southern half of that state. Far-northwest Oregon had many earnest and active supporters of secession, who thought their interests demanded an independent government on the Pacific Slope. In the Territory of Utah, which then (until the spring of 1861) included the area of the present State of Nevada, those of its people of the Mormon persuasion had been embittered against the United States Government by reason of their long-continued embroilments with it, and were ready for any change in which immunity from interference in their church-and-domestic affairs was conceded to them. The inhabitants of New Mexico were divided in sentiment, but while probably more than one-half of them were for the Union, those of the western part of the territory (the present Arizona) were almost unanimously against it; and these, as well as the other sympathizers of the breaking-up policy, were led by men of high standing among them and of extreme determination. When the Territory of Colorado was organized in 1861, a large majority of its population was in the Town of Denver, and in the Clear Creek, the Boulder and the South Park mining districts. Perhaps rather more than two-thirds of the people were loyal to the Union, but among their friends and associates and neighbors were many who were ardent and outspoken for the Southern Cause. The first discovery of gold here that was followed by practical results had been made by Georgians in 1858, and a host of southern men had come into the territory in 1859 and ’60. These Colorado pioneers from the South were, as a rule, men of sterling character and of much personal popularity.

“In this backward glance at the political conditions existing in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and on the Pacific Coast, we may see the reasons for the exuberant hopes that were sanguinely cherished by some southern leaders in 1861-62. Because of these conditions they confidently expected to split off from the Union, in addition to the states which had already seceded and formed the ‘Confederate States of America,’ these three territories and the larger part, if not all, of the Pacific Coast proper. Their anticipations and plans embraced even more than this, for it was their intention to acquire, also, either with money or by force of arms, a large part of northern Mexico, which was to be annexed to the Southern Confederacy. Maj. Trevanion T. Teel, one of General Sibley’s very efficient officers, in a brief account of the objects of the Confederate campaign in New Mexico in 1862 and of the causes of its failure, written and published about twenty years ago, said that if it had been successful, ‘negotiations to secure Chihuahua, Sonora and Lower California, either by purchase or conquest, would be opened; the state of affairs in Mexico made it an easy thing to take those states, and the Mexican President would be glad to get rid of them and at the same time improve his exchequer. In addition to all this, General Sibley intimated that there was a secret understanding between the Mexican and Confederate authorities, and that, as soon as our occupation of the said states was assured, a transfer of those states would be made to the Confederacy. Juarez, the president of the Republic (so called), was then in the City of Mexico with a small army under his command, hardly sufficient to keep him in his position. That date (1862) was the darkest hour in the annals of our sister republic, but it was the brightest of the Confederacy, and General Sibley thought that he would have little difficulty in con-summating the ends so devoutly wished by the Confederate Government.’

“But we have not yet reached the limit of southern purposes in that memorable campaign. Confederate control of the gold-producing regions of the West then known, Colorado and California, was another great result expected from its successful issue, and which figured largely in the calculations. President Lincoln held these sources of gold supply as being of vital importance to the Union Cause, as forming ‘the life-blood of our financial credit.’ Jefferson Davis, President of the Southern Confederacy, also comprehended their value in that time of stress, and hoped to make them an acceptable basis of foreign loans to his government.

“It is usually unprofitable to speculate about what ‘might have happened’; yet there can be no reasonable doubt that if the Confederate army which entered New Mexico at the beginning of 1862 had not been stopped and defeated at La Glorieta, or somewhere else in that vicinity about the same time, our histories of the War for the Union would read differently. In their dreams of the near future some southern leaders saw their Confederacy extended to the Pacific Coast and embracing more than one-half of the territory of the United States, while in those of others it formed a junction and an alliance with another division of the old Union, with a ‘Western Confederacy’ having dominion over all that part of our country lying west of the Continental Divide, save in the South an outlet to the Pacific for the southern people. Had General Sibley succeeded in taking Fort Union, with its large stores of arms, artillery and general military supplies, his further progress before he could have been confronted by an adequate force perhaps would have been over an easy road toward fulfillment of the plans of his government. We are further informed by Major Teel that ‘Sibley was to utilize the results of Baylor’s successes,’ and that ‘with the enlistment of men from New Mexico, California, Arizona and Colorado, form an army which would effect the ultimate aim of the campaign, for there were scattered over all the western states and territories southern men who were anxiously awaiting an opportunity to join the Confederate army.

“With the Pacific Coast in their possession by conquest, or with a free way to it by alliance with a ‘Western Confederacy,’ the world would have been opened to the Confederates, since it would have been impossible for the Federal navy effectively to blockade the coast. Furthermore, the oceans could have been made to swarm with Confederate cruisers and privateers preying upon the commerce of the Union. An approach to success in this great scheme, with a prospect of the domain of the United States becoming broken into three minor nationalities, probably would have secured recognition of the Southern Confederacy from the English and French governments at once, and perhaps from others in Europe. What, then, might the consequences have been?

“It was such considerations as those outlined in the foregoing that induced Confederate leaders in 1861-62 to attempt to establish provisionally a military government in western New Mexico, and to send General Sibley forth to carry the war into the Rocky Mountains. Regarded solely from a military standpoint, the mere conquest and occupation of New Mexico, and even of Colorado in addition, could have worked no advantage of importance to the Southern Confederacy; but possession of both would have strongly fortified subsequent efforts to consummate the greater purposes. Bearing in mind these comprehensive designs, we shall be better prepared to appreciate the services rendered the Nation by Colorado volunteers in the New Mexico campaign in 1862.”

Preparations To Resist Sibley

General Canby, as stated before, hastened to assemble all available troops at Fort Craig, in order to meet Sibley’s Confederates. One of his acts during this time was to request Governor Gilpin to send him troops from Colorado Territory. The two companies recruited by Ford and Dodd were accordingly sent.

Dodd’s unit departed from Canon City December 7th and Ford’s December 12th. The troops marched to Fort Garland, by way of the Sangre de Cristo Pass, and there the two companies were mustered into the United States service, as Companies A and B respectively, of the Second Colorado Volunteer Infantry. In the latter part of December Company A marched to Santa Fe, then down the Rio Grande Valley to Fort Craig, reaching the latter place in February Company B stayed at Fort Garland until February 4, 1862, then went to Santa Fe, thence to Fort Union, arriving March 11th.

Volunteers were also raised in northeastern New Mexico, when it became evident that the Confederates intended to take possession of the territory. An attempt was made to raise five regiments there. z\bout the middle of February, one of these regiments, of which the redoubtable Kit Carson was the colonel, together with portions of the other four and a number of unattached units, came to Fort Craig to join Canby.

Confederate Preparations

By the first of the year 1862 Colonel Sibley had his force encamped near Mesilla and Fort Fillmore, while Baylor was quartered at Mesilla, acting as governor of the Confederate Territory of Arizona. All of New Mexico below the thirty-fourth parallel had been annexed to the C. S. A. on January 21st by the Confederate Congress and had been named the Territory of Arizona. President Davis appointed Baylor as military governor and also the commander-in-chief of all troops therein stationed.

Sibley, acting under instructions, made an attempt to enlist Mexican volunteers from the Rio Grande Valley, but in this was not successful. Delegates, or envoys, were sent to the Mexican states, such as Chihuahua and Sonora, to gain the good will of the people there toward the Confederacy, and a detachment of soldiers was marched to Tucson, in order to maintain obedience in that section of Arizona Territory. Having failed to obtain any appreciable number of volunteers from among the Mexicans, Sibley then placed all of his hopes in getting them from the Americans in New Mexico. As it later transpired, however, he was disappointed again.

Sibley followed his troops from Fort Bliss about the middle of January, 1862, bringing with him some additional soldiers who had come from San Antonio. On January 16th he and his command as a whole left Mesilla for Fort Thorne, arriving February 7th. Then, with 2,700 men, fifteen pieces of artillery and an immense wagon train, he started on the northern march, for conquest.

The First Conflict

Sibley’s force marched up the west side of the Rio Grande and on February 16th encamped seven miles below Fort Craig. He sent a challenge to Colonel Canby to fight him upon the plain on the east side of the river. Canby refused to do this, although his report shows that he had the preponderance of man-power. His report, in regard to this, states:

“His (Sibley’s) force consisted of Riley’s and Green’s regiments, five companies of Steele’s and five of Baylor’s regiments, Teel’s and Riley’s batteries, and three independent companies, making a nominal aggregate, as indicated by captured rolls and returns, of nearly 3,000 men, but reduced, it was understood, by sickness and detachments, to about 2,600 when it reached this neighborhood.

“To oppose this force I had concentrated at this post five companies of the Fifth, three of the Seventh, and three of the Tenth Infantry, two companies of the First and five of the Third Cavalry, and a company of Colorado Volunteers (Dodd’s). The New Mexican troops consisted of the First Regiment (of which Carson was colonel), seven companies of the Second, seven of the Third, one of the Fourth, two of the Fifth, Graydon’s Spy Company, and about i,000 hastily collected and unorganized militia, making on the morning of the 2ist an aggregate present of 3,810.”

On the 19th Sibley took his men across the Rio Grande and two days later formed them in battle array five miles north of the fort, having detoured to the east of Fort Craig. Here, early in the morning, the Federal troops sallied out and met the Confederates. For a time an intensive bombardment was conducted by each side, then began a series of attacks and counter attacks, with the usual accompaniment of hand-to-hand fighting. The contest waged fairly even until late in the afternoon, when the Confederates, by a particularly brilliant charge, captured the crack battery of the Federals, a six-gun unit, and then the tide changed. Very soon the Union troops were compelled to retire from the field and return to Fort Craig.

Upon both sides the casualties were extremely heavy, taking into consideration the number of men engaged. This may be explained by the fact that among the troops engaged were men inured to warfare, dead shots and, in all, cunning fighters. These frontiersmen were accustomed to fighting Indians and to make every shot count, so it was a case of diamond cut diamond. Canby reported that 3 of his officers and 65 enlisted men were killed outright, while 3 officers and 157 men were wounded, some mortally, also i officer and 34 men were missing. Later reports, however, placed the Federal dead at about 100 men. The Colorado company lost 2 killed, 2 fatally wounded and 26 slightly or severely wounded. Sibley reported that the Confederate loss was 40 killed and 100 wounded, although it is believed that his casualties were greater than this figure shows.

After the conclusion of the battle, Sibley demanded the unconditional sur-render of Fort Craig, but Canby refused. Thereupon, he again took up the north-ward march. The Union troops were left in the fort, but their lines of communication were cut and they were otherwise rendered without power of opposition.

Sibley himself was at first retarded on account of his wounded, but many of these were left at the Village of Socorro. By the 17th of March his whole force had reached Albuquerque. The small force of Federal troops which had occupied Albuquerque fled to Santa Fe, thence, with the troops at Fort Marcy in Santa Fe, had gone to Fort Union, taking with them all the Federal supplies and equipment which had been stored in the New Mexican capital. These troops barely escaped capture by Maj. Charles L. Pyron’s Confederates, some five hundred strong, who had been sent ahead of Sibley’s force and had taken Santa Fe. After this city had been taken, the main force of the southern army encamped at Galisteo, about twenty miles south of Santa Fe. Accompanying the Union soldiers in their hurried exodus from the city were the civil officers of New Mexico, including the governor, and the seat of administration was accordingly transferred to Las Vegas.

History of Colorado

Source: History of Colorado, Wilbur Fisk Stone, Editor, Volume I, Chicago, The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918

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