Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
John P. Wilson, a researcher and writer of history, recalls an experience a friend had when she started teaching at New Mexico State University about 30 years ago.
“She got these blank looks from the class when she started talking about the Civil War in New Mexico,” Wilson said during a phone interview from his Las Cruces home. “She thought at first they did not know the Civil War had been fought in New Mexico. But then she found out they did not know there had been a Civil War – period.”
Well, yes, there was an American Civil War, or War Between the States. Ignited by the fractious issue of slavery, the war was fought from 1861 to 1865, pitting the Union, states loyal to the United States, against the Confederate States of America, Southern slave states that seceded from the U.S.
And, yes, the war did claw its way into New Mexico, although that chapter of the conflict was relatively short. Some might think of it more as a footnote than a chapter.
“Things started in the summer of 1861 when Southern troops from Texas occupied Mesilla (just south of Las Cruces) and the Confederates were basically out of New Mexico and heading back to Texas by late June or early July 1862,” said John Taylor, author of “Bloody Valverde” and co-author of “The Battle of Glorieta Pass,” books about Civil War battles in New Mexico.
During that time, Confederate troops occupied Albuquerque from March 2 to April 12, 1862, a fact commemorated in Albuquerque’s Old Town plaza by several plaques, two replicas of Confederate cannons and an early version of the flag of the Confederate States of America.
“Just because the Confederates were here only a short time does not mean it was not significant,” said Paul Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico. “The occupation of Albuquerque threw the Union into a panic and led to the dispatch of 3,000 California volunteers, who would eventually occupy New Mexico and Arizona. It made the Union suspicious of the loyalty of the citizens of New Mexico and delayed statehood.”
Recently, some Albuquerque residents have called for the removal of the Confederate flag and other references to the Southern occupation from Old Town Plaza because they view them as offensive reminders of a repressive period of American history, a celebration even of a fight to sustain slavery.
Hutton feels differently. “I don’t think we should be taking down commemorative markers,” he said. “I just think New Mexicans, a lot of people, don’t know the Civil War came this far west. And New Mexicans need to be proud of the part we played in the Civil War.”
Despite the presence of some Southern sympathizers in New Mexico, the part played by the territory’s soldiers – regular troops, New Mexico volunteers and militia, and Colorado volunteers – was to turn back the Southern invasion, to put an end to the Confederate hope of a stronghold in the West.
“We need to remember our history, not sweep it under the rug,” Hutton said.
In February 1862, Southern Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley started marching north from a post 40 miles north of Mesilla. He was in command of 2,600 troops, most of them young men from east and south Texas.
“Sibley had a dream of a Western Confederate empire,” Taylor said during a phone interview from his home in Peralta. “If they could take over the West, the Colorado gold fields, the silver in Nevada, and then run a railroad to California, they could break the Union’s blockade (of Southern and Eastern seaports). He thought he could take the (Western) forts and live off the land. It may have been an alcohol-infused vision.”
Sibley’s men called him a walking whiskey keg.
The first clash between Union and Southern troops was at Valverde, 29 miles south of Socorro and six miles north of Fort Craig, where Union Col. Edward R.S. Canby was in command of 3,800 regular soldiers and volunteers.
Technically, it was a Southern victory because Canby’s soldiers retreated to Fort Craig. But the Confederates lost valuable supplies in the fight and failed to take control of the fort.
“The fact that Canby withdrew from the field was a pivotal decision because Canby saves his Army,” Taylor said. “Now Sibley has a (Union) Army behind him and has to move north.”
Union troops burned supplies and left Albuquerque to the advancing Southerners, who seized control of the city. Today, the Confederate flag is flown in the plaza along with the flags of Spain, Mexico, the United States and the state of New Mexico to reflect the different governments that have exercised authority over Albuquerque since its founding in 1706.
On March 20, 1862, Southern troops left 200 men to hold Albuquerque and marched to Santa Fe. From there, they moved about 20 miles southeast to Glorieta Pass where, on March 26, they encountered a Union force of regular troops and New Mexico and Colorado volunteers.
The Battle of Glorieta Pass lasted several days. Again, the Confederates experienced success on the field only to lose their supply wagons to a raid by Colorado volunteers on March 28 and, with that, any chance of achieving their empire in the West.
Desperately short on food and supplies, the Southerners withdrew to Santa Fe, then to Albuquerque and from there to Texas, harried along the way by Union soldiers.
On April 8, before the retreating Southerners got back to Albuquerque, about 1,200 of Canby’s troops from Fort Craig attacked the 200 Confederates who had remained in the city. Canby called off the attack after the two sides exchanged artillery fire for two days without inflicting any casualties and little property damage.
A plaque placed in Old Town Plaza by the New Mexico Sons of Confederate Veterans in 1982 commemorates this incident as the “Skirmish of Albuquerque” and commends the Southern soldiers for repulsing the attack even though outnumbered 6-to-1.
Taylor sees it differently.
“The so-called ‘Skirmish of Albuquerque’ was just a show of force,” he said. “Canby wanted to get them (Confederates) out of there, but he did not want to capture them because he did not want to care for or feed them. He knew the Confederates were retreating from Santa Fe, and he did not want to wait and get caught in a battle.”
In Albuquerque, the Confederates buried eight small cannons so they could use the guns’ carriages to transport other supplies on the trail back to Texas. They are also said to have buried some of their dead – casualties of battle or illness – in Albuquerque, but no Confederate graves ever have been found.
The cannons were dug up in 1889 and, for years, two of them were on display in Old Town Plaza. The original cannons eventually were moved from the plaza to the Albuquerque Museum and replaced with the replicas there today.
Those replicas, the plaques and the Confederate flag are a reminder of a time when the Confederate Army came to New Mexico looking to create an empire. It’s a time some would prefer not to commemorate and a time others think we should not forget.
“My own sense is that you should not ignore history,” Taylor said. “Of course, I’m a historian. But to simply say it didn’t happen, or try to pretend it didn’t happen, is kind of silly. We ought to say, ‘Yeah, it happened,’ understand why it happened, learn lessons from it and go from there.”