On a frigid Sunday morning in February, two armies stared at each other across the open plain. A stiff wind blew needles of sleet. Slush formed on the edges of the Rio Grande, and the ghostly cottonwoods rattled along the banks.
The Confederate cavalry had drawn up less than two miles from Fort Craig—and stopped. Their commander, Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley, studied the bulwark through his field glasses. He saw the Stars and Stripes snapping in the wind, saw the fresh earthworks and ramparts set with loopholes, saw the smoky encampments of the New Mexico volunteers spread like tattered aprons on the brown grass all about the walls. Originally built to fend off Indian attacks and named after a U.S. Army officer killed while pursuing deserters, Fort Craig was a collection of several dozen adobe buildings set on the west bank of the Rio Grande some 150 miles south of Santa Fe. Nearly four thousand soldiers were dug in around this mud citadel. Ranged along the thick walls, formidable-looking cannons were trained south on the Rebels.
Sibley put away his binoculars in disgust. The general was not feeling well and could barely sit a horse. He was suffering from some undisclosed medical condition—“colic,” some speculated—that was certainly being exacerbated by his well-known weakness for the bottle (his troops nicknamed him “the Walking Whiskey Keg”). A Confederate officer said that General Sibley “needs no information” before blundering into battle. “It is enough for him to know that there is to be a quantity of whiskey used in the enterprise.” One of his colleagues later wrote that Sibley’s “love of liquor exceeded that of home, country, or God.” For long stretches at a time he’d been confined to his ambulance, indisposed and apparently incapable of making decisions.
Still, General Sibley could be a commanding presence. Romantic, ambitious, handsomely debonair when he wasn’t drunk, the curly-haired West Pointer was a career veteran of the U.S. Army, having served with distinction in both the Mexican War and on the Western frontier. He was also well-known as an inventor; he had patented a design for a conical tent—the Sibley field tent, loosely modeled after the tepee of the Plains Indians—widely used by Union and Confederate armies alike. Perhaps like many inventors, Sibley was a bit dreamy and not very adept at nitty-gritty logistical planning. With good reason, a subordinate declared that he was “too prone to let the morrow take care of itself.”
Sibley was intimately familiar with New Mexico. His last post before joining the Confederacy had been in Taos, where he commanded dragoons and led a campaign against the Navajos. He knew Fort Craig well—or at least the old Fort Craig, before it had been reinforced with fresh troops and revetments. He concluded, however, that the new Fort Craig was now too strong to be taken in a frontal assault.
But somehow he would have to take the fort, he realized, or else his campaign in New Mexico was doomed. It was an all-or-nothing proposition. His overextended supply line from El Paso flowed in a mere trickle, his army being a thousand lonely miles from its home base and training grounds in San Antonio. The only way he could keep going was to forage off the land, stealing from the Union forces as he conquered them. And he knew that Fort Craig was stuffed with the food, ammunition, and medicine his starved army so desperately needed.
To get it, he would first have to draw the Union troops away from the fort, luring them out by some distraction, and then fight them on the open field beyond the range of their superior artillery. Sibley could not compete with the Union arsenal, which included 12-pounder Napoleon guns and 24-pounder howitzers as well as those mysterious new cannons. But on exposed terrain, Sibley believed, his twenty-five hundred men, most of whom were mounted, would hold a distinct advantage over the Federal forces—which, though more numerous, were primarily infantry.
It was February 16, 1862. As the sun rose like a cold stone over the bosque, Sibley sat for a while, creaking in his saddle, then turned and conferred with his officers about what to do next.
Two miles to the north, the Union commander, Col. Edward Canby, was sitting on his favorite horse, Old Chas, and chomping an unlit cigar. Canby was a tall, clean-shaven Kentuckian, cool and cagey, with enormous fleshy ears. Hardened by decades of fighting Indians, he had cultivated a healthy hatred for this new enemy lately arrived in his midst. He called the Confederates “an arrogant and rapacious invader.”
Canby knew his principal adversary all too well. He and Sibley had been classmates together at West Point, and Canby had been best man at Sibley’s wedding. They were even related by marriage: Their wives were cousins. In New Mexico the two men had fought Indians together and commiserated on the sorry state of the territory. After news of Fort Sumter reached New Mexico and Sibley quit the U.S. Army for El Paso, he told some of Canby’s loyalist colleagues, “Boys, if you only knew it, I am the worst enemy you have!”
Now they were enemies, facing each other on this unlikely battlefield, so far from the armies of the East.
Colonel Canby was so taciturn and cautious—“He counsels no one!” a subordinate groused—that his men had no idea of his larger strategy for defending New Mexico, or even if he had one. A Union soldier described him as “tall and straight, coarsely dressed, his countenance hard and weather beaten, a cigar in his mouth which he never lights. He certainly has an air of superiority, largely the gift of nature, though undoubtedly strengthened by long habits of command.” Descended from a family of Quakers, Canby had nonetheless pursued a military career with gusto—fighting fiercely against the Seminoles of Florida, winning accolades from Gen. Winfield Scott in the Mexican War, and serving with William Tecumseh Sherman in Monterey, California. Though not brilliant—at West Point he graduated thirtieth in his class of thirty-one—Canby’s intellect had a certain plodding, tortoiselike consistency that usually carried the day. All descriptions of Canby emphasize his careful, quiet, and sometimes saturnine disposition. One army general later judged Canby “too modest and reserved to win the popular recognition that he merited,” but noted that “wherever he went, order, good feeling, and tranquility followed in his footsteps.”
With almost no resources to work with, Canby had accomplished near-miracles in preparing Fort Craig for the coming Confederate onslaught. He’d had little more than a month to get the fort supplied and reinforced. Only two days earlier a train of seventy wagons had come from Santa Fe with food, supplies, and ammunition, and now he was well dug in and ready for whatever his former friend the Walking Whiskey Keg had to offer.
But in truth, the fort wasn’t nearly as strong as it appeared: Those big artillery pieces ranged along the ramparts were nothing more than decoys—props hewn from pine logs and painted black to look like cannon. “Quaker guns” the men called them, perhaps in deference to Canby’s own religious background.
And Canby’s 4,000 men were not nearly so formidable as they may have looked. Only 1,200 of them were army regulars. The rest were volunteers or militiamen, mostly Hispanic men from the territory, local boys whose lack of fighting experience was matched only by their lack of a concrete rationale for fighting—understandably, they had little interest and seemingly no stake in the issues of this Americano war begun the previous year in some utterly foreign place called South Carolina.
Canby took a dim view of these Spanish-speaking volunteers and considered them “worse than worthless.” As he put it, every New Mexican who deserted the ranks “only adds to rather than diminishes our strength.” He questioned their loyalty, believing, with good reason, that “the Mexican people have no affection for the institutions of the United States and have a strong, but hitherto restrained hatred for the Americans as a race.” Certainly his own racial prejudices entered into his assessment of their military competence—like many U.S. Army officers who fought in the Mexican War, Canby thought Hispanic soldiers were virtually incapable of organizing an orderly defense. But his concerns were also practical: These New Mexican paisanos, he knew, were not bred to firearms, had never been around artillery, and, of course, spoke almost no English. All of which, in the heat of battle, with American officers shouting commands this way and that, could make them highly ineffective and prone to confusion and flight. If possible, Canby intended to keep the volunteers inside, or at least close to the fort so they would not have to maneuver under direct fire.
Now the two armies formed battle lines on the plain. They sent out skirmishers and reconnaissance parties, each army initiating gambits to test the resolve and disposition of its foe. Slowly, tentatively, the Rebels and Federals moved within a thousand yards of each other, close enough that, in the shifting winds, they could hear bugles blaring and the mingled shouts of the men.
Then Sibley’s troops let out a Rebel yell, or at least their best approximation of one; since they had trained in Texas and had never fought in the East, few of these Confederates had actually heard the famous battle cry, though they had heard of it. Most of the Rebels were armed with little more than fowling pieces, squirrel guns, pistols, and other frontier weapons—one quixotic unit was composed entirely of lancers. But they were young and lustful for battle, and seemed supremely confident that it would all be over soon. One of their officers, a Major Lockbridge, saw the American flag flying over the fort and boasted: “I’ll make my wife a nightgown out of it!”
The commander of the 1st New Mexico Volunteers was none other than Christopher Carson, now a colonel in the Union Army. Encamped near the fort, in the cool shadows of its earthen walls, Carson and his eight companies now prepared for battle. Like Canby, Carson was personally acquainted with his adversary. Before the war, he and Sibley had spent time together in Taos—Sibley’s post was only a few miles down the road from Carson’s house. A soldier acquaintance of both men said that although Sibley had tried to convert many men to the Confederate cause, he never attempted to convert Carson. “I don’t think Sibley tried any missionary work,” the soldier recalled, “for [Carson] had his opinion on both the North and the South.”
Carson, who hated any sort of debate or quarrel, kept his feelings to himself. Said another pro-Union friend in New Mexico: “Kit was loyal, but he was like me and would not argue the point.”
Carson reported for duty in Albuquerque, and it was there that he trained his volunteers. Serving in the regular army was a new and trying experience for him; at first he was rather awkward at it. The protocols, the nomenclature, the dress codes seemed to run contrary to his nature. A volunteer from Colorado named Edward Wynkoop recalled that Carson’s “uniform did not set well on him at all.” Carson’s illiteracy caused embarrassment. Once a group of his men asked him to sign a commissary requisition for several kegs of molasses. He happily signed the request, only later to find some of his men good and drunk: The commissary order had been for kegs of whiskey. Humiliated by this little prank, Carson from then on never signed a requisition without first having his adjutant read it out loud.
We have no record of how he punished these particular malefactors, but in general Carson was not shy about disciplining his men. Wynkoop thought that he “had the utmost firmness and the best of common sense…and could punish a culprit with vigor. He had a beautiful mild blue eye which would become terrible under some circumstances and like the warning of the rattlesnake always sounded the alarm before the spring.”
Wynkoop tells another story from Carson’s army duty in Albuquerque, an incident that occurred on a day the colonel was away from his post. It was a Sunday morning, and a boat full of “gaily dressed senoritas” was crossing the Rio Grande on the way to mass. From the launching point, “a rough looking Mexican ranchero” hopped aboard. The boatman politely asked the stranger to await his turn, for the boat was now overcrowded and dangerously tippy. The man refused. Wynkoop says that Carson “then approached and in a mild manner pointed out to him his wrong doings, but without avail.” Carson then adopted a “peremptory” tone, but the man “was still obstinate.” Suddenly Carson sprang into action. “Like a flash of lightning Kit raised his sheathed sabre which he carried in his hand; struck him a tremendous blow along side of the head, knocking him headlong into the turbid waters of the Rio Grande. The fellow sunk like lead.” The man would have drowned, but “quicker than thought, Kit plunged after and dragged him out.”
It was classic Carson: In an instant he had performed an act of chivalry and then saved the man who gave the ladies offense.
Carson had been chosen to lead the volunteers for his fluency in Spanish and his high standing among the old families of New Mexico. From the start, his greatest challenge had been overcoming the natural apathy of his men. He was able to recruit them and keep them interested in their training only by drawing on an old dread: New Mexicans had long held a fear of and a revulsion for Texans, and, except for Sibley (who was from Louisiana), that was what these attackers were, almost to a man—Texans, having marched from San Antonio with the single-minded intent of claiming New Mexico for the Confederacy. The word “Confederate” meant nearly nothing to Carson’s volunteers, but the prospect of an invasion from the south set up a visceral reaction among them and kept them at their guns.
Colonel Carson peered across the plain at the dust clouds being kicked up by the Texans and studied their movements with his field glasses. He’d been hearing about their advance for months and had been trying to convince his men that the coming threat was real. These Texans were an uncommonly brazen people, his in-laws back in Taos had always said. In New Mexico, Texans were like bogeymen: Parents used to tell their children that if they didn’t behave, the Tejanos would come get them.
The canard was partly true. The “people of the single star” had long nursed an interest in New Mexico—in owning it and having it, on paper and in fact, even though Texans held great disdain for New Mexicans and considered their seared land hardly worth possessing. Their desire to absorb New Mexico was as curious as it was incorrigible. It had something to do with the immaculate tidiness of the Rio Grande as a concept: Ever since Texas became an independent nation in the 1830s, it had claimed, on no particular evidence, that its border extended all the way to the Rio Grande’s origins in Colorado, and that most of New Mexico, including the capital of Santa Fe, was thus rightfully part of Texas. In 1841 an armed party of Texans had actually invaded New Mexico in a half-cocked mission of conquest that ended in their prompt capture and brutal imprisonment in a notorious castle-like jail near Mexico City. And in the 1850s, when the New Mexico Territory was being formally established, Texas lawmakers had drawn up new county lines in New Mexico to claim some of the land for the Lone Star state. The Federal government put a stop to it.
But apparently the lust for New Mexico still burned deep in the loins of Texas, like a spurned love that had festered all the more bitterly for the fact that the suitor judged himself superior to his quarry. Sibley’s hopefully named “Army of New Mexico” had marched all the way from San Antonio, losing nearly five hundred men to smallpox, pneumonia, exhaustion, and attacks by Apache Indians. One Texan diarist wrote in despair, “The mountains here are full of Indians, and we dread them worse than we do the Lincolnites.” (The Texans managed to capture and kill at least one Indian horse thief, an Apache who was so thickly coated in dirt that he looked “like a horned frog”; the body was given over to a team of fascinated brigade surgeons, who fed their anthropological curiosity by dissecting the corpse.) Moving steadily westward, the Texans stole what they could not buy and engulfed Hispanic villages along the way, occasionally “appropriating” the local women, as one participant put it.
Now, here they were in the heart of New Mexico, pressing their old claim once again. It is remarkable the extent to which Sibley misread the mood of the New Mexican population—he truly seemed to expect that the local people would embrace his cause “with a sincere and hearty cooperation,” as he put it. In his delusions, Sibley believed that with Hispanic sentiment solidly behind him, his large army could easily “live off the land.” The Texans would quickly seize Fort Craig, and then take Socorro, and Albuquerque, and Santa Fe.
After Santa Fe, their designs grew more ambitious, transcending even New Mexico: Sibley’s men planned to continue on to Denver and capture the goldfields of Colorado for the specie-starved Confederacy. After that, they hoped to march through Utah to the Pacific, take over the California mining operations, and open up the Golden State to the Peculiar Institution—Cotton plantations on the Sacramento! Slave markets in Los Angeles!—so that Confederate railroads would connect the Confederate ports of Charleston, New Orleans, and Houston to the Confederate port of San Diego. While he was at it, Sibley also wanted to conquer (or purchase) the Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Baja California.
As grandiose as it seemed, General Sibley’s mission had the blessing of the Confederate high command. In fact, the previous year Sibley had traveled to Richmond to meet with President Jefferson Davis and unfurl his plan for conquering the West. Sibley’s optimism and hubris seemed to permeate his entire army. “Our leaders were crazy,” one of the Texan volunteers later wrote, “and believed they had the game in their own hands; no enterprise was too rash for them to undertake. Every man, from the general downwards, [was] confident of victory.”
For Carson, these territorial schemes must have sounded oddly familiar. The Texans aimed to cover ground that he had already covered for the greater glory of the United States, on routes that he himself had blazed. Theirs was a kind of Empire Retread. It was Manifest Destiny all over again—a Confederate Manifest Destiny.
But now Canby, Carson, and the four thousand men at Fort Craig stood in the way, the first true obstacle in Sibley’s singularly bizarre adventure.
Carson’s reasons for joining the Yankee fight are not altogether clear. He was from Missouri, a border state violently divided on the issue of secession. The people of Missouri had narrowly decided, after much debate and fighting, to follow the ambiguous course of staying pro-slavery but also pro-Union. Many if not most of Carson’s Missouri relatives were Southern sympathizers, and at least one of his brothers would fight—and die—for the Confederacy. Although New Mexico’s barren soil and arid climate had never encouraged agriculture on a scale large enough to make Southern-style slavery profitable, Carson had nonetheless been around enslaved Negroes all his life, both in Missouri and in New Mexico, and he was not known to be openly critical of the institution. (Nor was he an advocate of it—during his roving life as a trapper he had befriended many freed and mix-race blacks, including the legendary mountain man Jim Beckwourth.)
But certainly Carson was no abolitionist. On the contrary, he owned slaves himself—Indian slaves. He and Josefa had three Navajo servants: a boy named Juan, another named Juan Bautista, and a teenage girl named Maria Dolores. The precise terms and arrangements of their servitude are not known (relatives later suggested that they were actually adopted and considered full-fledged family members). Carson apparently purchased the three Navajos from other Indian tribes who had previously captured them in raids. He had all three baptized in the Catholic faith—“according to the custom of the country,” as the local church records state—and they lived in the Carson household for a number of years. Details about Juan Carson’s life are sketchy, but it appears that he was raised free like Carson’s other children and that he later married a New Mexican woman.
The enslavement of captured Indians was an old convention in New Mexico—as was peonage, another form of servitude in which poor, usually Hispanic workers became indebted to wealthy estate owners. Peonage was a kind of feudal arrangement that kept the landed class rich while the majority of the citizens, illiterate and powerless to improve themselves, stayed mired in a financial misery from which they could rarely escape. William Davis, who as the United States attorney for the territory made a close study of the practice in the 1850s, thought that peonage was “in truth but a more charming name for a species of slavery as abject and oppressive as any found upon the American continent.”
Neither Carson nor the better-off New Mexicans he lived among had shown moral qualms about slavery. In fact, the people of the southern part of the New Mexico Territory had, in 1861, seceded from the Union to create their own Confederate state, which they called Arizona. Centered around the towns of Tucson and Mesilla, the population was composed largely of Hispanic landowners who farmed along the Rio Grande, and Anglo Texan transplants who’d moved farther west to try their hand at ranching or mining. (Kit’s own brother, Moses Carson, was now a settler living in Mesilla.) Arizonans vigorously cast their loyalty to Richmond and hoped their New Mexico brethren to the north would eventually come over to the Rebel side. The new territory of Arizona was governed by a bold, ruthless man named John Baylor, who sought to import Southern-style Negro slavery while simultaneously pursuing a stated policy of “exterminating all Apaches and other hostile Indians.” (Among the more sordid outrages in his career, Baylor was once charged with killing sixty Indians by giving them a sack of poisoned flour.)
Many of the army soldiers who lived in the New Mexico Territory were Southerners. Sibley wasn’t the only one who had left the U.S. Army at the first word of war—fully half the officers in the territory had quit New Mexico to fight for the Confederate cause. Officers could resign, but enlisted men in the lower echelons of the department could not without facing charges of desertion (punishable, in some cases, by death). So the ranks of Canby’s army on the Rio Grande were sprinkled with regulars who hailed from Southern states—men whose loyalty and motivation he understandably did not trust.
Conceivably, Carson might have been one of them—a Rebel in Union blues—but he wasn’t. Most likely, Carson’s pro-Union stance grew from a straightforward patriotism, and a straightforward sense of allegiance to his former employer, the United States Army. And also, a devotion to his former commander and friend, John C. Fremont. During the 1850s, Fremont briefly served as U.S. senator from the new state of California while growing immensely wealthy from mining and ranching claims. Fremont was an abolitionist, and like his father-in-law Senator Benton (who died in 1858), a staunch Unionist. Fremont had campaigned in large part on an antislavery plank in 1856, when he ran for president of the United States as the first candidate of the new Republican Party. At the outset of the Civil War the Lincoln administration promoted Fremont to general and named him commander of the Western Department, a vast region, headquartered in St. Louis, that included New Mexico. From afar, Fremont was, in a sense, Carson’s boss once again.
Unlike Fremont, Carson had gained neither great wealth nor political prominence during the 1850s, but his celebrity status had continued to wax. Much to his chagrin, pulp publishers had continued to churn out the cheesy blood-and-thunder novels, with titles like Rocky Mountain Kit’s Last Scalp Hunt, The Fighting Trapper: Kit Carson to the Rescue, and Kit Carson’s Bride: The Flower of the Apaches. A popular play based on Carson’s supposed adventures had toured the Eastern cities. Herman Melville had mentioned Carson in Moby-Dick, calling him “that brawny doer of rejoicing good deeds” and comparing him favorably to Perseus, Hercules, St. George, and the Hindu god Vishnu. Counties, towns, and rivers bore Carson’s name. A sleek clipper ship, Kit Carson, was now plying the trans-Horn route between Boston and San Francisco (an amusing irony, since his only ocean voyage had left him green with seasickness).
On an 1853 trip to Northern California, Carson took a new measure of his growing fame. He traveled there on an odd but, as it turned out, extremely lucrative venture: He’d bought more than six thousand sheep in New Mexico and, fighting off wolves and Indians along the route, drove his vast herd all the way to California to sell to the gold miners there. To our cattle-tuned sensibilities it now seems like a wimpy sort of Western idyll—a sheep drive?—but in the bargain, Carson made what was to him a fair fortune, netting about seven thousand dollars.
While he was in San Francisco, gawkers overwhelmed him. The papers heralded his arrival; people waylaid him in the streets. Even when strangers didn’t recognize him, Carson still heard them talking about him. At restaurants and taverns, according to one account, “men sitting next to him would speak of him and Kit would quietly eat his meal and walk off, signaling his friends not to give him away.”
Perhaps hoping to seize some measure of control over his spiraling celebrity, Carson had in 1856 dictated a bare-bones memoir to an amanuensis whose identity is unknown. He then authorized an enterprising friend from Missouri to take the manuscript east to seek out writers who might turn it into a more ambitious narrative. Among others, Washington Irving considered the job but passed. Eventually the project was taken up by DeWitt Peters, a rather fanciful doctor, who in 1859 published what would be the first full-fledged biography of Kit Carson. Peters’s book, The Life and Adventures of Kit Carson, the Nestor of the Rocky Mountains, From Facts Narrated by Himself, wasn’t as bad as the pulp thrillers, but the good doctor couldn’t help himself. When Carson finally got around to having the book read to him, his only comment was, “Peters laid it on a little thick.”
And yet it was understandable, for in truth Carson had continued to live a life of swashbuckling hyperbole. In 1853, just to take one in a host of exploits, Carson rode a hundred miles east on the Santa Fe Trail in a desperate attempt to warn two traders, whose names were Weatherhead and Brevoort, that the party with whom they were traveling planned to kill them on a remote section of the trail and rob them of the considerable sum of money they were known to be carrying. (One of the conspirators had apparently defected a week earlier and leaked the plot in a Taos tavern.) Carson overran the men just in time to foil the murder. For his trouble, he asked for nothing in return, but the following spring Weatherhead and Brevoort insisted on presenting him with a pair of beautiful silver pistols, which he prized for the rest of his life.
For most of the 1850s, Carson had served as an Indian agent to the Ute tribe, with his own home in Taos serving as the agency office. He gave up most of his ranching interests on the Rayado River so that he could pursue his new official duties while helping Josefa raise their growing family. The Carsons now had four children, plus they were helping Ignacia Bent raise several of her children. By all accounts he was a devoted father, someone who opened up to his children more readily than to adults. He could be whimsical with his kids. A soldier in his volunteers observed that Carson “used to lie down on an Indian blanket with his pockets full of candy and lumps of sugar. His children would then jump on top of him, and take the candy from his pockets. Colonel Carson derived great pleasure from these little episodes.”
At last, Carson had achieved the sense of stability he’d longed for during the 1840s. He had become a pillar of the community, a member of the local gentry, a good Catholic, a provider, a diplomat to the Indians. He had even become, of all things, a Mason—having joined the fraternal lodge in Santa Fe, whose membership included nearly all of the most prominent citizens in the territory, tough Western stalwarts wearing funny hats and chanting mantras in a dark hall.
He had slowed down a bit. Now fifty-one years old, Carson was beginning to show signs of his hard life. In 1860 he’d had an accident that nearly killed him. He was hunting elk in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, leading his horse on a steep scree slope, when the animal lost its footing. Somehow Carson became entangled in the reins and he tumbled down the mountain, with the horse apparently rolling over him several times. It’s not clear exactly what injuries he sustained in the fall, but he never felt the same again. He had an odd pain in his chest that never left him. His days in the saddle were over, he vowed. He told an Eastern journalist that, having reached the age of fifty, he “designed thenceforward to avoid horseback riding and travel only in carriages.”
Still, he didn’t waste a minute signing up for the war. The moment that news of Fort Sumter reached Taos, he is said to have joined a group of Union loyalists in marching to the town plaza and hoisting the Stars and Stripes on a cottonwood pole high over town, ignoring the angry shouts of Southern sympathizers. To protect the Union standard, the men took turns guarding the plaza around the clock. (Even now, an American flag flies over the Taos square day and night to commemorate this event.)
As soon as it was possible for him to do so, Carson offered his services to the Union Army—and never looked back.
On the afternoon of February 16, 1862, the battle lines at Fort Craig continued to form and re-form as each side tested the other. Neither of the two leaders could shape the field to his liking. Sibley realized he could not lure Canby from the safety of the fort, while Canby saw that Sibley was too smart to attempt a full frontal attack. They had arrived at a stalemate before the battle had even begun. After a tepid skirmish that resulted in a few casualties, Sibley decided he needed a better plan, that this was not his day to fight. He called for a general retreat from the plain south of the fort, and the Confederates retired to their camp several miles down the Rio Grande.
Then, from the west, a dust storm sailed in from Chihuahua. For nearly two days the wind howled and the cold, brown sky swirled with snow and grit. Visibility shrank to fifty yards. A fine talc pecked at the men and animals and blew into their tents and gear. Both armies hunkered down and waited for the storm to pass. One Texan said the sleet “fell so hard as to almost peel the skin off your face.”
It was during this interlude that Sibley’s second-in-command, a colonel named Tom Green, hatched an alternate plan of attack. He proposed that their men cross over to the east bank of the river, then march north, bypassing Fort Craig altogether while taking advantage of a large invervening mesa that would hide their movements and afford the Texans good protection from Canby’s long-range guns. Then, Green suggested, the Confederates should cross back to the west side of the river and seize a critical ford located at Valverde. This ford, just a few hours’ march upstream from Fort Craig, was so vital to the Union supply lines that it would surely draw Canby away from his bastion. The Rebels could then finally have the engagement they were hoping for, and on their own terms—away from the big Union artillery and earthworks, out in the open.
Sibley liked the sound of this leapfrog maneuver and gave his immediate approval. It was a promising plan, but also a risky one—by jumping ahead, Sibley would be in the precarious position of having the Union army between him and his supply line—a placement that runs counter to the tenets of military thinking. On the morning of February 18, with the dust storm having cleared, the twenty-five hundred Texans forded the icy Rio Grande and followed the course that Green had described. On the nineteenth they passed behind the mesa, slogging up a sand-choked draw, their groaning supply wagons buried up to the axles.
When Colonel Canby got wind of what was going on, he promptly sent Kit Carson and several companies of volunteers to the east bank of the river to occupy a high point from which they could keep a closer eye on the Confederate movements. Canby feared that Sibley’s pullout might be an elaborate feint, and that the Rebels were actually planning to veer suddenly, cross the river again, and attack the fort. He needed Carson’s forces to check this possible scenario.
Carson took the eminence without incident and from his higher vantage was able to follow Sibley’s crawl north. Carson correctly guessed that the Texans were bypassing the fort and instead heading toward Valverde ford—and this was the message, sent via runners and semaphore signals from high points on the mesa, that was relayed to Canby.
Another thing became apparent to Carson: The Texans and their animals, having left the Rio Grande on the eighteenth, were now desperate for water. The rocky topography largely blocked their access to the river, and no other watering holes were to be found for many miles. The Texans, being primarily a cavalry force, were especially vulnerable. In another day, Carson knew, their situation would be critical. The Confederate horses and mules would literally grow mad with thirst. They would become jittery and unpredictable and subject to bolt at the slightest disturbance.
Recognizing the predicament the Texans were in, Colonel Canby authorized a bold mission. The adventure was led by a colorful Irishman—and former saloon-keeper—named James “Paddy” Graydon. For the past several months, Graydon, as the head of a self-styled reconnaissance unit called Graydon’s Independent Spy Company, had been gathering intelligence for the Union forces. Known for employing various ruses and disguises, he had once ventured into a Confederate camp as an apple peddler.
A man with a gift for unorthodox solutions and, as one Civil War historian put it, “a widely acknowledged reputation for the spectacular,” Graydon came up with a plan for shocking the Confederate animals and setting off a major stampede. He filled two boxes with mountain howitzer shells and improvised two fuses. Then he cinched the boxes to the backs of two mules. Under cover of night, he led the mules across the Rio Grande and crept up to within a few hundred yards of the Confederate camp, close enough that Graydon could hear the Texans talking and laughing around their fires. All around the bivouac site he could make out the silhouettes of the Confederate mules and horses, hundreds of them hobbled or picketed for the night.
Graydon took a deep breath and lit the two fuses. Then with a loud “Yawwwww!” he swatted the mules’ rumps, sending them off on a suicide gallop toward the Rebel campfires.
The mules arrowed across the field, with the long fuses steadily fizzing on their backs. But as the two animals approached the Texan camp, something stopped them: some unfamiliar smell, perhaps a realization that they did not belong there. In an instant they turned around and started galloping back toward Graydon. Spotting this most inconvenient reversal in his plan, Graydon started running for his life. The doomed animals would have overtaken their master, but the fuses ran out.
Boom! Boom! The night skies lit up, and the Confederates turned their heads in panic as mule meat splattered over the chamisa fields.
Amazingly, Graydon’s plan seems to have worked: At the noise, the Confederate animals stampeded. Mad for water, wild-eyed and snorting, they broke their pickets and dashed for a gap in the rocky terrain that led down to the river, where Union soldiers were waiting.
After the animals got their fill, the troops easily collected them and led them back to Fort Craig. In just a few bewildering minutes of pyrotechnics, the Texans had been relieved of more than 150 valuable horses and mules—a loss that an invading army so far from home could not afford.
Valverde was a tranquil bend in the Rio Grande choked with copses of willow and cottonwood. In recent years, by the mysterious logic of rivers, the main current had deviated and found a new course, so that at Valverde the Rio Grande curled beside the sandy dry bed of its former channel, like a snake beside its own shed skin. Because the banks here were gently sloped, and the river broad and shallow, Valverde had for centuries been an important ford on the Camino Real. Towering over the ford was an imposing mesa of dark volcanic rock.
Valverde—“green valley” in Spanish—had also been a village of some importance during the colonial period. But in the early 1800s it had fallen on hard times. After repeated attacks by Navajos and Apaches, the settlers abandoned the place. Valverde became a ghost town, and now its walls were listing and cracked, its roofs collapsed, its baked adobe bricks crumbling back into the earth from which they had come.
Kit Carson knew Valverde well and probably detested it—for this was the same spot where he had met General Kearny during the Mexican War, and where the general had so unceremoniously turned him around for California. Once again, the ruined village was about to impress itself upon his career—this time with Carson playing a central role on the westernmost battlefield of the American Civil War.
Early on the cold and cloudy morning of February 21, the Texans struck their camps on the back side of the mesa and began marching toward Valverde. General Sibley was no longer effectively in charge; he was having one of his bouts with “colic,” or drunkenness—or both—and once again he confined himself to his ambulance. The Texans were enraged by their general’s incapacity in this hour of need—one called him “an infamous coward and a disgrace to the Confederate States.”
Sibley’s second-in-command, Col. Tom Green, was left to pick up the pieces. Sensing that battle was imminent, Green exhorted his men: “You’ve come too far from home hunting a fight to lose now—you must win or die on the battlefield!”
By eight that morning the Texan vanguard had taken up a position on the east bank of Valverde, and soon Union troops from Fort Craig arrived on the west bank to contest the Confederate claim on the ford. An intense firefight erupted, and the Federals quickly seemed to gain the upper hand. Among the Union troops was Capt. Alexander McRae, a stalwart artilleryman who, although a native of North Carolina, “had given his allegiance to country rather than to state,” according to Valverde historian John Taylor. McRae’s six-gun battery of howitzers pounded the Texan positions across the river, and his shells ignited the dry grama grass all around the Confederate artillery. In the late morning, fighting through intermittent snow flurries, Union troops crept across the icy-cold river and pursued the enemy into the bosques on the east side.
Now the cottonwoods pinged with hot lead. The Texans were able to absorb the Union assault, but not without significant casualties. According to one Union soldier, “Their cavalry was completely destroyed, their horses and men dead and dying on the field.” The Union troops captured a Confederate twelve-pounder artillery piece, lassoed it “cowboy style,” and hauled it back to Union lines. One Texan who had been shot in the mouth produced a knife and cut out a large piece of his own tongue that was “hanging ragged.”
In desperation, the company of Texan lancers decided to mount a charge on Union positions. The flamboyant cavaliers carried nine-foot-long staves fixed with twelve-inch blades from which festive red pennants were hung, supposedly for the purpose of “drinking the blood” of impaled enemies. These stubborn horsemen had honed their skills after recognizing how surprisingly effective lancers were during the Mexican War. Now they hid with their animals down in the old river channel and prepared for battle. Bugles sounded, and suddenly more than fifty of these latter-day knights popped up from behind the sandy embankment and galloped toward the Union infantry three hundred yards away.
The Federals patiently waited until the Texans had drawn within a hundred yards. Then an officer was heard crying out—“They’re Texans—give ’em hell!” The Federal troops fired volley after volley and mowed down the onrushing lancers. Soon the field was a bloody tangle of horses and men. One Union participant wrote that it was “fun to see the Texans fall. On they came and fierce looking fellows they were with their long lances raised, but when they got to us we were loaded again and then we gave them the buck and ball. After the second volley there were but a few of them left. One of them got away. The others were shot and bayoneted.”
It lasted only a few minutes, but the Texan assault—widely considered the only lancer charge in the Civil War—ended in a complete slaughter. Nearly every one of the fifty horsemen was killed or wounded. The Texans would later mythologize the action—Colonel Green would call it “one of the most gallant and furious charges ever witnessed in the annals of battle.” Yet the surviving lancers recognized the impotence of their weaponry in the face of modern firepower. Enraged and humiliated, they collected their once-beloved lances in a pile and put them to the torch. And then they armed themselves again, with shotguns.
When Col. Kit Carson received word, in midmorning, that a withering firefight had broken out at Valverde, he and his volunteers hastened the seven miles to the ford and awaited orders. Carson thought that his unit should wait on the west side of the Rio Grande; if his green troops could stay removed from the fray long enough to study the action in relative calm, Carson suggested to Canby, they would be less likely to panic and bolt when their time came to fight. Canby saw wisdom in the idea, and so for an hour Carson and his men hugged the west bank—and watched.
On the east side of the river the firing raged on through midday. The Union forces seemed to have lost the momentum they had enjoyed in the morning, and for a time the battle smoldered in stalemate. Then Canby devised a plan to turn the tide: Using Alexander McRae’s howitzer battery as a hinge on the Union far left, he would swing the bulk of his forces toward the right like an enormous slamming door, trapping the Confederates in an enfilading fire.
To function as the center-right of his “door,” Canby ordered Carson and his men to wade across the river and take up active positions on the battlefield. Carson’s idea of waiting in reserve across the river had seemingly paid off: Unlike many of the volunteer and militia units up and down the battlefield, his men were already mentally immersed in the action and now, in their hour, did not flinch. Carson advanced about five hundred yards, swinging toward the right as planned. At one point his men successfully checked a concerted Texan charge on a Union 24-pounder howitzer. Carson described the action: “As the head of the enemy’s column came within 80 yards of my right, our whole column poured a volley into them and caused them to break in every direction. Almost at the same time a shell from the 24-pounder was thrown among them with fatal effect.”
Through it all, Carson was a calm, unflinching presence. Canby, in his official report, praised him for his “zeal and energy.” Carson paced up and down his line of volunteers, yelling, “Firme, muchachos, firme”—steady, boys, steady. His volunteers responded magnificently. The column, Carson said, “moved forward to sweep the wood near the hills.” Just as Canby had hoped, they had arranged themselves in an enfilade position—one in which they could rake deadly fire across the length of the enemy line. Capt. Rafael Chacon, who fought with Carson’s unit, later wrote that the volunteers “fought full of courage and almost in a frenzy, driving the enemy back through blood and fire…we put them to flight and drove them clear into the hills.”
But on the left, the Union lines were plunged in panic and disarray. Tom Green and the Texans, letting out a Rebel yell, had mounted an assault on Alexander McRae’s battery. More than a thousand Confederates charged on foot with what was later described as “wild ardor.” It was a frantic sprint, and the Rebels fully expected, as one of them later put it, that “raking fire would slay the last man of us.”
The initial Union response was thunderous—one Confederate officer recalled that his men charged into “a driving storm of grape and musket balls.” But the Federals were not prepared for the fury of the Rebel onslaught, and many of the New Mexico volunteers began to shrink before “the unsavory diet of canister” being hurled at them from Confederate artillery pieces hidden in the dry riverbed. As the Texans charged in a second wave, and then a third, the Union lines faltered and many Federal troops bolted for the river. Complained one Union soldier: “Down they came upon us, rushing through the fire poured into them, with maddened determination.” (Some Texans later admitted that much of their “maddened determination” was born of their desperation for water—many were dying of thirst and were thus willing to risk anything to reach the river.)
In the intense barrage, Union casualties mounted. As Canby surveyed the scene and gnawed his dormant cigar, his beloved warhorse, Old Chas, was shot out from under him.
The men in McRae’s six-gun emplacement held on as long as they could, but the Texans finally reached the battery. A fierce hand-to-hand combat commenced. Fighting with bowie knives, clubbed rifles, and revolvers, the Rebels soon overwhelmed the Union gunners. Captain McRae was killed while defending his own artillery piece—according to one account, he and a Texan died simultaneously while struggling over his howitzer, with the blood of the two enemies “mingling on the barrel.” A quick-thinking Union gunner, recognizing that capture was inevitable but determined to deny the Texans his stockpile of artillery shells, lit a fuse to his ammunition box and blew it (and everyone in the immediate vicinity) to smithereens.
Canby stood dazed beside the carcass of his horse and watched all this unfold with deepening gloom. Realizing that his crack artillery unit had now been enveloped by the enemy, and perhaps still unnerved by his own brush with death, Canby decided he had risked too much. (For a field commander with a lifetime of battle experience, he seemed unusually sensitive to the sight of his own casualties; a contemporary account noted that later “he went through the ranks of the wounded and wept.”) At around five o’clock he called for a general retreat, up and down the line. All Union forces were to cross back to the west bank and return posthaste to Fort Craig.
Kit Carson and his volunteers were dumbfounded by Canby’s order—from their point of view on the Union far right, the battle was faring well; in fact, they felt they were on the verge of victory. Capt. Rafael Chacon, fighting with Carson, wrote that he “could not understand the signals to retreat. We had penetrated the enemy zone and considered that our charge had won the battle.”
But a command was a command, so Carson called his men back to the river and made sure the crossing was executed in orderly fashion. As the volunteers wallowed across, Chacon recalled that the Texans “were shelling us with our own guns, but their fire fell short and did us no harm.”
Elsewhere along the river, however, the retreat took the form of a disorganized rout—“It looked more like a herd of frightened mustangs than men,” observed one Texan eyewitness. “We rushed up to the bank and poured a deadly fire upon them. The mortality in the river was terrible. The shot guns came into play and did great execution.” So many Union troops were shot dead in the water that, as one Confederate account put it, “the Rio Grande was dyed with Yankee blood.”
Even so, as nightfall approached, the Texans in their thirst-crazed legions descended on the river and drank their fill.