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Decommissioned more than 130 years ago, Fort Craig still holds an important place in Civil War and military history

Steps lead to an overlook where a visitor can view the fort from atop the earthworks. In the foreground are the commissaries or warehouses where food and supplies were stored. The commanding officer’s quarters is visible, and the dark volcanic Black Mesa, or Mesa del Contadero, dominates the background. (Courtesy of Brenda Wilkinson)

Commanding a high spot overlooking the middle Rio Grande Valley, soldiers stationed at Fort Craig were well-positioned to meet threats along the El Camino Real.

It was near here, south of Socorro, where Confederate soldiers sweeping north through New Mexico tried to lure Union troops from the fort for a pitched battle in what became known as the Battle of Valverde – one of two significant Civil War clashes in the state.

Established in 1854, Fort Craig was one of eight outposts built along El Camino to protect travelers and traders, said Brenda Wilkinson, who was a Bureau of Land Management archeologist stationed in the area for 25 years.

Although now little more than a few rows of adobe walls, and a couple of masonry walls, the fort holds plenty of interest with some 300 visitors monthly, said Mike Comiskey, BLM outdoor recreation planner.

Its role in the Civil War is still examined by Army officers, who visit it to visualize how the 1862 clash unfolded, Wilkinson said.

“About once year on average, we’d get requests for military staff rites,” she said. “To me it’s amazing an impact for this fort that was decommissioned over 130 ago and it is still relevant to today’s military,” Wilkinson said.

The battle unfolded as southern Gen. Henry Sibley moved north with a force of 2,510 officers and men. Fort Craig was seen as vital to the success of a campaign into the north because of its supplies.

The visitor enters the fort through the sally port, a military term for the entrance and exit to a fortified compound. The adobe structures on both sides of the trail have melted, and the ruins of the rock guard house remain.

Col. Edward Canby commanded the fort with 3,800 men, but only 1,200 were Army regulars. The rest were made up of volunteers from New Mexico, Colorado and about 500 militia.

Canby refused the bait to attack the mounted southerners, who eventually moved north to the Rio Grande ford at Valverde, where a battle was joined.

Although the battle was essentially inconclusive, it was notable as the first major Civil War clash in the West. But it sucked precious resources from the southern troops.

The battle was additionally noteworthy because it featured a failed lancer charge by the Confederates. It was the first and last lancer charge of the Civil War.

Following the war, the fort was home to Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry and 38th and 125th Infantry, the predominantly Hispanic New Mexico Volunteers and New Mexico Militia.

It also brought together people from across the country, Wilkinson said.

“It was such a melting pot,” she said. “They were from all over. In the 1860s, you could be hearing different languages and accents from all over.”

And, of course, what’s an old fort without some ghost stories to give it a sense of the supernatural?

The commanding officer’s quarters (COQ) were constructed of two masonry walls, and two adobe walls which have fallen and melted.

“A lot of people won’t tell you about ghost experiences for fear of losing respect or credibility, but I have heard a number over the years,” Wilkinson said. “Here’s one. About 15 years ago, our resident on-site hosts had friends visiting overnight. A little after dark, the wife went outside the host compound to take the dog out. When she came back in she was pale, and asked the host ‘Were you just out there?’ He told her he hadn’t moved from the couch. She said she had seen someone outside who looked a lot like him, but his clothes were shabby, and he was holding a lantern.”

Visitors can follow a newly ADA-compliant, self-guided interpretive trail around the fort. A small visitor center features some displays and some information, Comiskey said.

“The adobe walls are the officer’s quarters and are the most prominent ones,” he said. “As you go along the trail, you can see the ruins where they stored the supplies and things like that. In the back, you can see where the corrals were, where they stored the livestock and some of the walls of the hospital.”