Modern history

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Chapter 38

THE SONS OF SOME DEAR MOTHER

The next morning, a raw winter sun crept over the tablelands to reveal a desert battlefield strewn with corpses. On both sides of the cold, brown river, the bodies of men and animals lay mangled. A truce was declared so that both armies might bury their dead. In the morning stillness, the cries of the wounded could be heard up and down the river as surgeons labored in open-air hospitals.

The one-day battle of Valverde had ended in a Confederate victory—at least tactically. Just as they had hoped, the Texans had lured Canby away from his fort and then engaged him on their terms. They had driven the Federals from the field while capturing, in the desperate late afternoon charge, all six guns of Alexander McRae’s battery. And over the course of the battle, the Confederates had sustained fewer casualties: Canby’s army reported 263 dead, wounded, or missing, while Sibley’s total casualties numbered about 200.

On the other hand, Sibley’s army had failed to achieve its one vital strategic objective—the capture of Fort Craig. Canby’s forces were again safely ensconced behind the fortress walls; their ammunition stockpiles and crammed storerooms lay unharmed so that Canby might fight another day. The Union troops had ample medicine, plenty of fuel to keep them warm, and enough rations for months.

The previous night, some of the men had called Canby a traitor—to his face, even—for so ignominiously quitting the battlefield. But now, in the clarity of morning, the logic behind Canby’s retreat impressed itself upon his army. If he had not hastened back to the fort when he did, the Texans, reinvigorated by their successful assault on McRae’s battery, might have overrun the Federals and stormed the fort. Canby’s much-criticized conservatism had thus paid off: He had cut his losses in order to protect Fort Craig, the only prize that really mattered.

The “victorious” Confederates, camped along the river, were starving, freezing, and running out of ammo. They were also desperately short of horses. What with Paddy Graydon’s suicide-bomber stampede, the disastrous lancer charge, and the overall equestrian casualties on the field, the Texans had lost some 350 horses and mules. Prior to the battle the Confederate army had largely been a mounted force—Texans were ferociously proud of their horsemanship. Yet now, almost overnight, Sibley’s cavalry had effectively become an infantry.

Still, the Texans were buoyed by their victory at Valverde and optimistic about completing the campaign. Said one of Sibley’s officers: “If we can subsist our men and horses, there is very little doubt we will be conquerors of New Mexico, and have it in our power to establish Southern principles in the Territory.”

The seldom-seen General Sibley emerged from his ambulance that morning to congratulate the valorous troops he had failed to lead. His men were embarrassed by their apparently craven commander and angry at him for absenting himself in the heat of battle. Under their breath they said that a real Texan, not a Louisianan like Sibley, should be leading the campaign. Some accused Sibley of deliberately trying to lose the battle by colluding with his old pal Canby. Said one critic: “He was the very last man on earth who ought to have been placed in command…he had formed too intimate an acquaintance with ‘John Barley Corn.’”

Sibley did rise out of his bibulous stupor long enough to issue a demand that verged on the ridiculous. Via subordinate officers sent under a white flag, he instructed Colonel Canby to “capitulate” the fort—even though there were thirty-five hundred well-armed, well-fed Union men behind its thick walls. Sibley grandiosely thought that if he could not take the bastion in battle, then maybe his old friend Canby would just…give it up. Canby politely but firmly declined.

In feigned indignation, Sibley pulled together his tattered men and began marching along the river toward Albuquerque—away from Fort Craig. Creeping northward, using cow chips for campfire fuel, the famished army swallowed up the tiny villages along the Rio Grande and picked them clean. Finally, the Rebels had abandoned their original (and completely naïve) notion of “living off the land” in the embrace of friendly locals; they had now become an army of looters.

Sibley knew that Albuquerque was a major Union supply station, and he assured his men that they would soon enjoy this “promised land” of ammunition and foodstuffs. But when Sibley reached the outskirts, he was crestfallen to see three enormous columns of black smoke rising over the town: Canby had sent messengers on fast horses ahead of Sibley to instruct Union quartermasters to torch the Albuquerque depots rather than let them fall into Rebel hands.

Now Albuquerque was something of a ghost town, many of its residents having taken to the hills to escape the feared Confederate onslaught. Josefa Carson, who’d been temporarily living in Albuquerque while her husband trained his volunteers, fled with their children and servants back to Taos, where she hid family belongings and heirlooms much as Georgian belles would do, a few years later, in the path of Sherman’s despoiling march to the sea. Carson’s son Kit Jr. years later recalled how his mother “concealed her valuables in the garments of a faithful Navajo girl servant she had raised from babyhood [probably Maria Dolores].”

Sibley’s men entered Albuquerque in triumph and, though disappointed not to have captured Federal stores, proceeded to beg, borrow, or steal from the anxious townsfolk. The ravening army was terrorizing the very citizens whose hearts it needed to win over if the occupation was to have any chance of long-term success. Vaguely aware of this, Sibley issued a proclamation to the people of New Mexico that was equal parts forgiveness and threat. “Those of you who volunteered in the Federal service were doubtless deceived by designing officials,” he said. “But the signal victory which crowned our arms at Valverde on the 21st of February proves…our powers and ability.” He went on to declare “a complete and absolute amnesty to all citizens who have, or may within ten days lay aside their arms. Return with confidence to your homes and avocations, and fear not the result.”

Then the Rebels sprinted on toward the capital. On the snowy day of March 13, Sibley’s men entered Santa Fe without a fight and hoisted the stars-and-bars over the plaza for the Confederacy, and for Texas. Like Albuquerque, Santa Fe was largely abandoned, its Hispanic residents dreading the prospect of Tejanos living in their midst. Most of the Union spouses—including Canby’s wife, Louisa Hawkins Canby—had stayed behind in Santa Fe to treat the casualties they expected to come in war’s wake. But the territorial government had picked up and moved seventy miles east to Las Vegas (the same tiny high plains village where General Kearny had delivered his rooftop speech upon entering New Mexico in 1846).

Occupying Santa Fe did much for the army’s morale—this was the prize Texans had sought for generations—but it did little to satiate the men’s hunger. The Rebels were dismayed to find that most of the Federal supplies at Fort Marcy had either been destroyed or transported to another important army stronghold, located twenty-five miles beyond Las Vegas on the Santa Fe Trail, called Fort Union. In anticipation of the Confederate invasion, the Federals had strengthened the battlements of this “star fort” set on the edge of the plains in northeastern New Mexico. An officer stationed at the new and improved Fort Union judged it to be impregnable, boasting that “all Texas can’t take it!”

Sibley’s army was caught between two isolated forts: Fort Craig to the south, Fort Union to the east. He knew he could not successfully occupy the territory, or advance toward the goldfields of Colorado, without the supplies these two citadels so stingily held. His grand scheme to seize New Mexico seemed to be working magnificently—he held the capital, after all, and had not lost a single battle. But his army was withering from within.

Canby knew this. The Union colonel was still hunkered at Fort Craig, more than 150 miles from Santa Fe. He was happy to turn the defense of the territory into a war of attrition. His plan, cruel in its simplicity, was to stay put at Fort Craig—strategically situated to block the Confederate supply lines coming from Texas. From there, he would let the invaders savor the husks of their victory in Santa Fe until they slowly, surely starved. Periodically, Canby would dispatch guerrilla parties to harass Sibley’s advance and tear at his flanks. But otherwise, Canby resolved to withhold the mass of his men—including Carson’s unit—and wait.

Meanwhile, Canby requested reinforcements from faraway California and also from Denver, where Union loyalists were raising a sizable volunteer army from the legions of miners who had flooded to Colorado in the 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush. Canby expected these rough-and-ready reinforcements—“Pikes Peakers,” they were called—to arrive at Fort Union by mid-March. Once they did, Canby planned finally to emerge from Fort Craig, unite with the Coloradans, and drive Sibley’s weakened army from the territory for good.

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The Coloradan volunteers were coming, and coming in record speed. Their four-hundred-mile trek from Denver City, through snow and howling winds, across plains and mountain passes, ranks as one of the most spectacular marathons of the Civil War.

The Coloradans, nearly one thousand in number, were already on their way to New Mexico when they received word of the Union defeat at Valverde, and this served to quicken their already brisk pace to forty miles a day. Then they heard that the Rebels had captured Albuquerque, and even Santa Fe—further goads. They knew that whatever happened, they had to get to Fort Union before the Texans did. So the Pikes Peakers marched day and night, wearing out their shoes, wearing out their draft animals until they dropped in their harnesses. Near the end the men jettisoned all unessential belongings to “add wings to our speed,” as one private put it. Their pace became truly extraordinary: In a single thirty-six-hour stretch they covered ninety-two miles.

One of the officers leading this sprinting column was Maj. John Milton Chivington, a formidable man who would soon become one of the most notorious figures in the American West. Originally from Ohio, the forty-one-year-old Chivington was a Methodist preacher who brimmed with a sort of muscular Christianity. He had a bull moose physique—standing nearly six-feet five-inches and weighing 260 pounds. A soldier acquaintance once said that the thick-necked, barrel-chested Chivington had the most perfect figure of a man he’d ever seen in a uniform. His doughy face was set with hard, seedlike eyes that seemed to contain a yearning ambition.

Chivington had ability, intelligence, resolve, and stamina—and as a staunch abolitionist who had actively supported the Underground Railroad, he was deeply committed to the Union cause. He possessed ample stores of courage as well. A biographer once said that Chivington was “entirely a stranger to the emotion of fear.” But something about the man was distinctly “off.” Like most zealots, he was too literal-minded, too uncompromising, too eager to embrace tidy, extreme nostrums. He irritated people. As soon as Chivington came to Colorado in 1860 after a stint performing missionary work among Indians in Kansas, the preacher set about cleaning up the sin he saw everywhere in the mountain mining camps. He seethed and fulminated, he named names and pointed fingers, he cast his disapproving eye on the brothels and gambling halls. As a “circuit rider” traveling about the lawless and violent West, he came to view himself not only as a pastor but also as a one-man vice officer—God’s own enforcer.

Once, in Nebraska City, he took it upon himself to destroy the entire liquor supply of a saloon that had, by a perfectly legal deed, located itself in an abandoned church. A shocked witness demanded to know by what authority could he seize and destroy another man’s property. Chivington replied: “By the authority of Almighty God!” In one frontier settlement, angry townsfolk literally tried to tar and feather him. The following Sunday, Chivington lumbered to the pulpit brandishing two pistols. He laid them beside his open King James Bible, and then declared: “By the grace of God and these two revolvers, I am going to preach here today.”

Having heard stories like this, people in Colorado gave Chivington a wide berth. From him they felt the hot breath of an angry God; if they had no love for Chivington, they at least feared and respected him. He became a fixture around Denver and the goldfields of the Front Range. His sermons were of the fire-and-brimstone variety, his voice booming so loudly it could be heard three blocks away. Aside from his constant rounds of preaching, he founded Denver’s first Sunday school.

Everywhere he went, people called him “the Fighting Parson.”

When the territorial governor of Colorado called for Union volunteers in 1861, Chivington promptly signed up. Naturally enough, the governor offered him a post as chaplain. But Chivington balked at this—he didn’t want a “praying commission,” he said; he wanted a “fighting commission.”

And so he got one. Now the Fighting Parson was a major in the Colorado 1st Volunteers, racing toward New Mexico with a unit of cussing, irascible miners under his watchful eye.

The overall commander of the Colorado Volunteers, however, was a stern and woolly-bearded lawyer from Denver City named John Potts Slough. A native Ohioan like Chivington, Slough in 1857 made an unsuccessful bid for the governorship of Kansas before moving to Colorado to become the judge of a miner’s court. He was the scion of a distinguished military family (during the Revolutionary War one of his uncles was first colonel under George Washington). Perhaps because of his heritage, and the fact that he lacked military training or experience himself, it seemed to many that Slough had a chip on his shoulder—and something dramatic to prove. Whatever the case, he was not in sync with his men. Most of them viewed him as a distant and tyrannical martinet. Their distaste for him was not mild: Once during the march, and several times later in the campaign, his men would conspire to kill him.

On the freezing night of March 11, “with drums beating and colors flying,” Slough, Chivington, and their thousand men marched jauntily through the gates of Fort Union to the great relief of the small force of New Mexican volunteers nervously garrisoned there. Their long sprint was, in the estimation of Civil War in the West authority Alvin Josephy, “something of an epic.” In just thirteen days the Coloradans had tramped four hundred miles.

Slough wasted no time taking charge of the fort, which was then commanded by an experienced, West Point–educated colonel whom Slough outranked only by some obscure loophole of commission protocol. Showing not the slightest deference to his able predecessor, Colonel Slough announced his intention to march toward Santa Fe to engage the enemy. This contravened higher orders coming from Colonel Canby at Fort Craig. Canby wanted the Coloradans to stay at Fort Union until he gave explicit instructions for a junction of the two Federal armies, a complicated maneuver that would require sound communications, exquisite timing, and a clear chain of command.

But the impatient Slough couldn’t suppress the urge to dash ahead and capture the glory he felt was rightfully his—even if it meant facing an irate Canby and a possible court-martial. So on March 22, Slough, Chivington, and their men left the fort and headed west on the Santa Fe Trail.

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The Texans, still stationed in the capital, were also spoiling for a fight. Their spies had informed them that a Federal force had left Fort Union, but they did not realize that the oncoming army was composed of recently arrived Coloradan reinforcements. Expecting an easy fight against poorly armed Hispanic volunteers, the Rebels believed they could make quick work of an apathetic enemy and push on to seize Fort Union.

General Sibley would not lead them. Again showing his knack for avoiding a battle, he remained at his headquarters in Albuquerque. Instead, the Rebels would be under the command of Maj. Charles Pyron, an extremely aggressive, no-nonsense Alabama native and veteran of the Mexican War. On March 24, Pyron’s small force of four hundred Texans left Santa Fe and soon found themselves in Apache Canyon, the storied defile where, sixteen years earlier, Gov. Manuel Armijo had put up his abortive stand against General Kearny’s invading army.

There, inside the canyon’s constricted walls early on the crisp afternoon of March 26, the Rebels ran right into Major Chivington, who, with some four hundred infantry and cavalry, was marching west as an advance guard of Slough’s force.

A brisk firefight erupted along the old ruts of the Santa Fe Trail. The Coloradans soon gained the upper hand, with Chivington galloping ahead, pistols blazing in each hand. While artillery pieces dueled from the canyon floor, dismounted troops on both sides scurried up the steep rock walls and took positions behind boulders and piñon trees, each army hoping to gain a higher vantage over its enemy. To stymie the Coloradan advance, the Texans destroyed a log bridge that spanned a steep arroyo, but the Pikes Peakers kept spurring on, forcing their horses to jump over the ravine.

By late afternoon Chivington’s men had pushed the Rebels back more than a mile and a half toward the western mouth of the canyon. At Chivington’s command the Coloradans drew their swords and mounted an audacious cavalry charge, which to one Rebel “looked like so many flying devils.” A Texan participant later wrote his wife: “On they came to what I supposed was [their] certain destruction, but no lead or iron seemed to stop them, for we were pouring it into them from every side like hail in a storm.”

The two forces fell into a hand-to-hand fight along the road. The Union troops captured so many Texans that Major Pyron thought better of the engagement and withdrew to find more reinforcements.

The canyon fell silent. With dusky light filtering through the ponderosa pines, Major Chivington and his men were left to savor a small turning point. It was only a skirmish, but their stand at Apache Canyon was the first Union victory in the Civil War of the West. Amazingly, they had taken seventy-one rebel prisoners while driving the rest of the Texans from the field.

The skirmish at Apache Canyon was an opening salvo, a sharp and violent throat-clearing before the larger contest could begin. The Federals had won, but the outcome easily could have swung the other way. It was precisely the sort of hot-and-bothered engagement that the prudent Canby would not have countenanced—and when he did learn about it, by messenger several days later, he was furious.

And yet a legend was born that day. In his first brush with battle, the Fighting Parson had distinguished himself as a bold and fearless leader. His men saw something in John Chivington they didn’t quite expect from a Sunday school teacher. One account described Chivington this way: “In action, he became the incarnation of war. The bravest of the brave, a giant in stature, and a whirlwind in strife, he had also the rather unusual qualities that go to make soldiers personally love [him], and eager to follow him into the jaws of death.”

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Two days later the Texan and Coloradan forces regrouped and clashed again, this time a few miles to the east, in much bigger numbers and with far greater fervor. Pyron’s small contingent had fallen in with the larger forces of his superior, Col. William Scurry, a chiseled Mexican War veteran turned Texas lawyer, and now the Confederate forces numbered about 1,000. Leaving their supply train of some eighty wagons safely tucked in a protected stretch of canyon, Scurry pushed east in search of the Union troops.

By late morning he had found them: Some 1,500 men under Col. John Slough were advancing west along the trail. The main action took place in a pine-feathered mountain pass called Glorieta, a beautiful stretch along the Santa Fe Trail not far from the ancient ruins of Pecos. Bugles sounded, the boulder fields seethed with acrid blue smoke, and artillery shells sliced the tops off the trees. A savage fight raged all day in this stunning gold-green wilderness, with the Confederates driving Slough’s men several miles back through the pass to the adobe buildings and corral fencing of a settler’s ranch.

By dusk, however, the battle was inconclusive: The Texans had gained the most ground, but the Coloradans still blocked the Confederates’ path to Fort Union. The Rebels had lost 42 killed, 61 wounded, and 20 captured; the Union casualties were only slightly higher.

Possibly the most memorable action of the day concerned the widely hated Colonel Slough: At one point in the heat of battle, his own men became so disgusted with him for keeping so far to the rear of the action that they turned a howitzer on him and opened fire, raking the hillside with shrapnel in an attempt to frag him; the colonel barely escaped with his life.

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Neither side knew it yet, but the battle of Glorieta was conclusive—in fact, the war in New Mexico was all but over. The two field commanders would not discover this spectacular wrinkle until late that night, and it would take several more days for both armies to comprehend its full import.

John Chivington, again, was at the center of it.

On the morning of the Glorieta battle, Chivington had pulled away from Colonel Slough at around dawn with a detachment of 490 men. His party was guided by Manuel Chaves, the popular Navajo fighter recently slapped on the wrist—and then absolved—for his role in the massacre at Fort Fauntleroy. Quietly climbing into the mountains, Chaves led Chivington’s men on a shortcut toward Apache Canyon, where he was to sneak around the enemy flanks and attack the Confederate rear. By midafternoon he came to the rim of the canyon and peered seven hundred feet down into the gorge, where the Rebels had appropriated an old ranch as a campsite.

“You are right on top of them, Major,” Chaves whispered.

Chivington was surprised to find that the valley floor was almost perfectly quiet; the Confederate camp seemed all but abandoned. Scurry’s men had moved on well east of here, to engage Slough.

Then, through his field glasses, Chivington spied something that must have made him salivate: Eighty wagons, piled high with supplies, the entire Confederate supply train, lay before him on the canyon floor. He couldn’t believe his eyes. This trove appeared to be casually guarded by only a hundred men—many of them sick and injured—armed with a single cannon. Not far away, corralled in various places, were hundreds and hundreds of horses and mules. Here, concentrated in one place, trapped by canyon walls, were the Confederate hopes and dreams: nearly all the rations, ammunition, medicines, blankets, and other essentials that were meant to sustain the Rebels all the way to Fort Union and beyond.

Sensing a new opportunity, Chivington abruptly changed his plans. Instead of dropping into the canyon and heading east to attack the Confederate rear, he resolved to do something that would prove infinitely more costly to the Rebels: He would attack here and destroy everything.

Securing themselves with ropes and leather straps, his men began to drop over the rim and slip as quietly as possible down into the gorge. Inevitably someone dislodged a rock, which, in turn, started a small avalanche. The Confederates in the canyon heard the commotion and promptly fired their one cannon, but their shots were ineffectual. Chivington’s men reached the floor without incident, seized and spiked the cannon, and then stormed the grounds of the ranch.

The Texans had been caught almost completely off guard. Terrified by the sight of several hundred Colorado miners descending on them from the mesa, most of the Confederates bolted while the others—seventeen, in all—surrendered. Within minutes the ranch was in Union hands.

The shuddering booms coming from the battle at Glorieta could be heard in the distance somewhere to the east, but Chivington couldn’t tell how far away the engagement was, or whether it might be moving in his direction. Anxious about the possibility of an ambush, Chivington issued a chilling order: The moment Scurry returned, the moment his vanguard was spotted in the canyon, all Confederate prisoners were to be shot on the spot.

Some of Chivington’s men recoiled at the thought of it, but the Fighting Parson was adamant: Kill every one of them.

The Texan prisoners heard the order and reeled in fear. Most of them were sick or wounded and had no possible means of escape. One Confederate officer thought that Chivington had “lost all sense of humanity.” Harvey Holcomb, a Texas soldier, considered Chivington “a contemptible coward” for issuing an order to have helpless prisoners “shot down like dogs.”

Chivington posted pickets to scour the canyon for Rebel movements and then turned to the main business at hand: sabotaging the Confederate supply train. He directed his men to huddle the eighty wagons tightly together and torch them all. Soon a crackling fire licked the air and clouds of thick black smoke billowed from the canyon. One of the ammo wagons exploded in the intense heat of the flames, severely injuring one of the Coloradans. Nothing escaped the torch—tents, flour, Bibles, horsetack, bedrolls, cookware, coffee, clothing, tools, whiskey. Watching their belongings going up in smoke, the prisoners’ hopes sank.

Chivington, meanwhile, stood and stared with perverse glee, the ruddy heat of the bonfire spreading over his face. This was a funeral pyre, he must have realized, a cremation. All the Confederate designs on the West were now turning to cinders.

One Coloradan’s account characterized the destruction of the baggage train in more romantic terms: “We pierced the Confederate vitals and drew from thence the life blood.”

Then Chivington turned to the enemy horses and mules, some five or six hundred of them corralled in various places around the ranch. Without flinching, Chivington ordered his men to kill them all. To save on ammunition, though, he instructed his men to do the work with bayonets. For the next half hour or so the canyon walls echoed with the shrill neighing of horses wild-eyed with fright, with the low groans of stuck animals, and perhaps with the nervous laughter of men lost in this unpleasant errand of slaughter.

In his memoirs, Chivington boasted that his men bayoneted eleven hundred animals that day; it was certainly an inflated number—the Texans insisted it was about half that—but the fact that he would exaggerate shows something of his misplaced pride as well as his remorselessness.

The Texan prisoners watched the massacre of their animals with deepening dread: They figured they were next. Luckily for them, their army never showed itself in the canyon. If it had, Chivington surely would have made good on his vow.

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The Confederates were broken. With their supply train destroyed, they had lost the will and the wherewithal to fight. The Texans retreated from the Glorieta battlefield and reconvened in Santa Fe to sift their dwindling options.

In Santa Fe, the casualties from Glorieta began to stream in. Colonel Canby’s wife, Louisa, turned her own house into a hospital. When some of her Union friends castigated her for showing generosity to the enemy, she snapped: “Friend or foe, their lives must be saved if it is possible. They are the sons of some dear mother.” The Texans were moved by her kindness. One of them wrote of Mrs. Canby: “That Christian lady captured more hearts of Confederate soldiers than her husband ever captured Confederate bodies.”

It took General Sibley a week or more to fully appreciate it, but his campaign was over. In his official military correspondence, he tried at first to put the best face on it. Cheerfully noting the tactical successes scored at Glorieta, he wrote his Confederate superior: “I have the honor and pleasure to report another victory.” But then he closed his letter with an understated cry for help: “I must have reinforcements.”

In a letter to the governor of Texas, however, Sibley was considerably more blunt: “We have been crippled,” he said. Sibley’s pride would not let him admit that perhaps the Union Army had played a role in the crippling. “We beat the enemy wherever we encountered them,” he reasoned. It was, he claimed, “the famished country that beat us.” Sibley had grown to loathe New Mexico, asserting that the territory was “not worth one-fourth the blood and treasure we have expended in its conquest.” He felt a “dogged, irreconcilable detestation of the country and its people.” His great dreams of a Confederate West had withered.

Sibley was already formulating plans for a total exodus from New Mexico. It was not to be a retreat, he euphemized, but rather a “precipitate evacuation.”

Canby, meanwhile, decided to act. On April 1 he emerged from Fort Craig with a force of twelve hundred men and headed north along the river. Not yet realizing that Sibley had already resolved to quit New Mexico, Canby’s intention was to join forces with the Colorado Volunteers and drive Sibley from the territory. Canby left Kit Carson and ten companies of New Mexico Volunteers at Fort Craig, telling him to defend the stronghold “to the last extremity.”

Canby marched north in a welter of emotions. News of the battle at Glorieta had left him both relieved and incensed. Yes, Chivington’s raid had hobbled the Confederates, but Colonel Slough had violated Canby’s clear orders not to leave Fort Union. As he told Colonel Slough in a series of irate messages, the defense of the territory might have been jeopardized by the Coloradans’ rash advance. In truth, Canby could have been tasting sour grapes: It’s possible that he resented Slough and his Pikes Peakers for stealing some of the glory that might have been his.

In any case, Canby’s withering letters convinced Colonel Slough that he might well face a court-martial. To forestall this humiliating possibility, Slough resigned his commission and absconded to Denver, with Major Chivington replacing him as commander of the 1st Colorado. (In fact, Slough had another, more pressing reason for quitting the service: After the fragging incident at the battle of Glorieta, the unpopular colonel feared that his own men would succeed in killing him. As Slough himself acknowledged in a letter: “I resigned the colonelcy because I was satisfied that a further connection might result in my assassination.”)

By April 9, when Canby reached the outskirts of Albuquerque, he began to get a much clearer picture of just how desperately starved and anemic Sibley’s army had become. Canby made a brief show of attacking Albuquerque, but this was only a ploy to draw Sibley’s forces down from Santa Fe in order to protect the last Confederate reserves of supplies being held along the river. The ruse worked. As soon as Sibley’s men arrived in Albuquerque—having completely abandoned the capital—Canby slipped east under cover of night to meet with Chivington and the 1st Colorado.

By executing this little sidestep away from the Rio Grande, Canby had deliberately left the way open for the Rebels to escape. Sibley took the cue, and on April 11 the Confederates began marching south toward Texas.

Now that he was reinforced with the Coloradans, Canby knew he could easily destroy Sibley’s retreating army in a final, decisive battle; but he didn’t want to. Canby simply wanted the Rebels to leave the territory, quickly and forever. The Union Army could not afford to feed and house the many hundreds of sickly prisoners that would result from another battle. The territory simply didn’t have the resources.

So instead of forcing another engagement, Canby resolved merely to “herd” Sibley south along the river—to nag and worry him, to keep a close eye on him, and to make sure he didn’t try to attack Carson at Fort Craig as a sort of parting gesture. Sibley’s army marched along the west bank of the Rio Grande while Canby marched along the east bank, the two forces proceeding for a hundred miles in a tense and awkward lockstep. Each night they camped across the river from each other, so close they could hear each other’s songs and revels and smell each other’s food. One Texan thought the sight of the enemy campfires burning so close together was “both grand and awful.”

Many of Canby’s men hated this inglorious assignment of hounding the enemy without being allowed to fight. One Coloradan ridiculed the colonel’s strategy for being too kindhearted: “We do not want to take any unfair advantage of the Texans—that would not be chivalrous. God grant they may never get the same advantage over us.”

When Sibley’s army drew near to Fort Craig in mid-April, he decided to make a hundred-mile detour into the parched mountains to the west rather than risk a possible engagement with Carson and his garrison. And so one night the Texans secretly burned and buried their last unnecessary belongings and vanished into the desert.

The following morning Canby looked across the river and found to his surprise that the Texans had abandoned their camp, their fires still faintly smoldering. Canby sent scouts to follow them into the mountains, and their reports were grim. Under the unforgiving sun, the Texans were now dying of thirst and disease. Their trail was strewn with discarded clothes, ruined wagons, abandoned weapons, and the corpses of animals and humans alike, with a sprinkling of bones and the appendages of soldiers half-eaten by wolves. Their disgraceful march had become, as one Texan said, “every man for himself.” Since the expedition began, their numbers had dwindled by nearly one-third: Of the 3,500 men who marched out of San Antonio the previous year, more than 500 had died in combat or from disease, while another 500 had either deserted or surrendered.

Sibley was now riding in his ambulance, doubtless drunk again, entertaining the wives of Southern sympathizers who were vacating the territory. The general had lost everything, even his sense of shame. As a newspaper back in Austin would later put it: “He was chasing a shadow in a barren land.” His campaign was in shambles, his name ruined, his future uncertain, and his men roundly hating him.

It was a pitiful sight—so pitiful that at least one of the Coloradans was moved to feel sorry for the enemy as he dragged homeward, never to be seen again in New Mexico:

Poor fellows! The climate and Uncle Sam’s boys have sadly wasted them. They are now fleeing through the mountains with a little more than a third of the number with which they first assaulted us at Fort Craig. Very many softly lie and sweetly sleep low in the ground. Let their faults be buried with them. They are our brothers, erring it may be, still nature will exact a passing tear for the brave dead. And doubt not there are those who will both love and honor their memory if we cannot. Any cause that men sustain to death becomes sacred, at least to them.

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