Confederate Victory in New Mexico

February 21, 1862 (Friday)

Dawn slowly edged out the cold desert night, a clouded sky painting New Mexico gray. While most of the Confederates lingered around campfires, cooking breakfast and feeding their mounts, the 5th Texas, under Col. Tom Green, made a loud demonstration against Union Fort Craig, across the Rio Grande. A vanguard of 180 men scouted the road to Valverde Ford, a river crossing several miles north of the fort. If the Rebels held the ford, they severed the Union supply line.

The scouting party saw no Union soldiers at the ford and sent a message back to General Henry Sibley. By 8am, the 4th Texas was on the move. Col. Edward Canby, Union commander, however, saw through the ruse and sent cavalry under Col. Benjamin Roberts to the ford to halt the Confederate advance.1

By the time Roberts got to the ford, the 180 Rebels had taken cover in a grove of cottonwood trees. Not wanting to allow the Confederates to secure a foothold on the ford, he sent across a few companies who charged the Rebels through a hailstorm of lead, soon scattering them away from the water. This reprieve allowed Roberts to place his guns in anticipation of Confederate reinforcements.2

But Confederate reinforcements, nearly 500 troopers of the 4th Texas under Lt. Col. William Scurry, were, by 11am, moving into position on the right of the small scouting party with artillery of their own. Though outnumbered, the Rebels were intent upon retaking the cottonwood grove and then the ford.3

Before the Rebel artillery had a chance to do too much damage, Union artillery under Capt. Alexander McRae opened up, driving the opposing guns back. Though farther away, the Confederates found a better position and shelled McRae’s battery as best they could. In the meantime, additional Union reinforcements were coming up, while Scurry’s Rebels had to make do with what they had. Though their fight was desperate, they simply could not outgun Roberts’ Federal force.

The Rebels had been pushed back to higher ground, and Roberts securely held the ford. Just as things were looking up, word came through that 500 Rebels had crossed the Rio Grande and threatened the Union rear. Col. Kit Carson and part of his regiment had just arrived and so Roberts sent him up to stop the Rebels. There were, however, no Rebels coming in on the Union rear and Carson was effectively taken out of the fight, for the time being.4

The remaining Union reinforcements, under Capt. Henry Seldon, were ordered to attack a Confederate detachment that had moved closer to the Union left. They crossed the armpit-high river, reformed their lines, and drove the Rebels back.5 Col. Scurry had been on the Confederate right when Seldon made his attack. Fortunately, Major Samuel “Nicaragua” Lockridge, with several companies of the 5th Texas, arrived. Scurry immediately threw them in on the left, hoping to stop the advance.6

As the Union left was extended, it soon overlapped the Confederate right. Making their way towards Scurry’s right flank were 400 Federal troops. One company of the 5th Texas was commanded by Captain Willis L. Lang, who had outfitted his troopers with lances. These pikes were topped with blades three inches wide by twelve inches long. While certainly deadly against similar weapons, they stood no chance at all against Federals ten times their number armed with rifles.

In the words of Col. Tom Green, who had arrived on the battlefield, taking charge in Sibley’s absence (he was ill again, possibly drunk):

Captain Lang, of the Fifth Regiment, with about 40 of his lancers, made at this time one of the most gallant and furious charges on these light troops of the enemy ever witnessed in the annals of battles. His little troop was decimated, and the gallant captain and Lieutenant Bass severely wounded — the latter in seven places.

Though Green related that his foes were “repulsed by this gallant charge, and our right was for some time unmolested,” that was untrue.7 Col. Scurry, with more reason to be honest, since the landers were not part of his command, recalled that “desperate courage was ineffectual against great odds and superior arms.”8

The Union reinforcements tipped the scale by 2pm and allowed Roberts to throw his artillery onto the east side of the river. The guns, under Captain McRae, made quick work of their Confederate opponents.

With that, a lull fell across the battlefield, allowing some of the men to break for lunch.9 With more understanding of the Confederate position, Col. Canby knew that a frontal attack would fail. He had to move the Rebels from the ford and resolved to hit them on their left. Canby marched with the rest of his command to the battlefield at Valverde Ford. His plan was to pivot on his left, while charging with his right and center. Kit Carson, finding no Rebels to the north, was ordered to join in the assault. As the Federals prepared for this late-day action, the Rebels were preparing a little something of their own.10

They had taken a position behind a crest, out of view of the Federals. The Union artillery, not 600 yards to their front, became too tempting a target for the newly-arrived Col. Tom Green. All up and down the line, the order to advance flew. At the given signal, 1,000 Rebels scrambled to their feet, up over the embankment, and charged, running and screaming, towards the Union guns.11

Though shocked, the Union right held, repulsing the Rebels “with great slaughter.” The Union left, where Capt. McRae’s Battery was posted, was a different matter.12 The Rebels on the Union right did not come in a great mass, but were deployed as skirmishers, perhaps half a mile wide, led by Col. “Nicaragua” Lockridge. “Armed with double barreled fowling pieces and revolvers, and converging as they approached,” reported Col, Canby, “a rapid and destructive fire was poured into the battery.”13

Though McRae’s battery defended their guns, the Rebels were within their ranks, killing and dying. One of the first to fall was Col. Lockridge, who was killed after placing a hand upon one of the guns. Soon after, Union Capt. McRae was killed in much the same fashion.14

The guns had fallen silent, but the melee continued in a desperate hand-to-hand conflagration. Finally, the Union artillerymen were driven from the field, leaving behind them half their number and all of their guns.

For a short while, Canby entertained the idea that he could still win the day. But seeing the growing number of Rebels, he realized “that to prolong the contest would only add to the number of our casualties without changing the result.” He managed to retreat his force, minus the wounded and the artillery, to the other side of the river and finally back to Fort Craig.15

Though a Confederate victory, each side lost roughly the same in number. The Union sustained 68 killed,
160 wounded, and 35 missing.16 The Rebels reported their losses as 36 killed, 150 wounded and 1 missing.17

For the next two days, both sides cared for their wounded and buried their dead, usually under a flag of truce.

The topography of New Mexico is beautiful, sparse and unique. To get a better idea of what it looks like, please visit the Fort Craig site at CivilWarToday.com.18



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p489. Canby’s Report. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p495. Roberts’ Report. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p514. Scurry’s Report. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p495. Roberts’ Report. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p490. Canby’s Report. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p514. Scurry’s Report. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p519. Green’s Report. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p514. Scurry’s Report. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p495. Roberts’ Report. []
  10. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p490. Canby’s Report. []
  11. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p520. Green’s Report. []
  12. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p496. Roberts’ Report. []
  13. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p491. Canby’s Report. []
  14. Bloody Valverde by John Taylor. There’s a lot of romance and myth concerning the death of these two officers, including a duel that almost certainly never happened. []
  15. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p491. Canby’s Report. []
  16. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p493. Canby’s Report. []
  17. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p521. Green’s Report. []
  18. Sometimes I really go overboard with footnotes! Very sorry! []
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5 thoughts on “Confederate Victory in New Mexico

  1. A well-written account. I would like to add that if what I’ve read is correct, the charge of Capt. Lang and his men was the only lancer charge in the Civil War. (All others used sabers or firearms.) Also, according to John Taylor’s book, there were 200-odd desertions from the Union side rather than Canby’s reported 35 missing. If true, this would bring the Union loss to over 15% of the engaged force, a stiff drubbing by the Confederates.

    1. Thank you so much. Reading over it last night, I wasn’t completely sure about whether it made any sense at all.

      True about the Lance only being used here, though I think there were some in early 61 that had them, but never used them

      Taylor says that there were 200ish desertions, but he admits that he’s not really sure about that, as many soon came back. They were mostly from the 2nd New Mexico, whose collective heart just wasn’t in it. He talks about it on p143-144 a bit. It’s hard to tell just when they left, as well. We’ll probably never know for sure, I reckon.

      1. There was of course the 6th Pennsylvannia Cavalry – Rush’s Lancers – that did use lances in combat.

        1. Did they really? I’ve not actually done any real amount of research into this, but would love to see it (especially being from Pennsylvania). I’m somewhat familiar with the 4th Penna Cav, but not the 6th.

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