April 21, 1862 (Monday)
Nearly a week had passed since General Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico slipped away from the battlefield at Peralta. By this date, they had lost much more than the campaign, abandoning supplies, equipment, guns, clothes and ammunition in a struggle to survive the scorched and dehydrated desert.
Following the April 15th battle, Sibley’s Army was caught between Col. Edward Canby’s Union force of 2,500, just across the Rio Grande, occupying Peralta, and Kit Carson’s 800 men in Fort Craig, 100 miles down the river. As the Rebels retreated, Canby’s column followed them on the opposite side of the river. There was some slight rear guard action, but otherwise, no contact. However, whenever the Confederate Army would halt, the Federals would do the same. The next day, this odd escort was again relived.
In camp that night, the Confederate officers met to decide what to do. Since both Federal columns were on the river, Sibley accepted the idea of a detour away from the water, proposed by one of his officers. It would require a dangerous march away from the life-giving waters of the Rio Grande, behind the Magdalena Mountains and east of the San Mateo range. This path (as it could hardly be called a road), would bypass Fort Craig, swinging twenty miles west.
That night, Sibley’s Army again slipped away from Canby, leaving the Rio Grande for the mountains. Every bit of clothing not deemed essential was burned. Any ammunition that could not be carried met the same fate. Blankets and rations were stuffed into the few remaining supply wagons, as over thirty other wagons, containing the sick and wounded, were left behind.
By morning of the next day, they had made fourteen fairly easy miles, but stopped where no water could be found. By the 19th, just two days into the march, the unquenchable thirst was maddening. Hunger soon followed and then discipline. Regiments and companies no longer existed. The deepening sands swallowed the wagons up to their hubs. Throughout the night, stragglers wandered into camp, exhausted and near death.
The 20th offered little more, as morale simply disappeared. By this date, the 21th, the leading elements of the Rebel column saw both Fort Craig and the Rio Grande in the far distance. The former of no danger and the latter of no sustenance, ten miles away.
When the Rebels had left Peralta, they were, more or less, a fairly viable fighting force, at least upon the defensive. By this date, nothing could be farther from the truth. Though the vanguard had seen the river and the fort, the stragglers were as many as fifty miles back.1
All the while, Canby’s Federals held to their own road. They were well supplied, well rested and, most importantly, not dying of thirst in the desert. As Sibley’s men shuffled along, Canby had scouts trailing them, reporting back their location and condition. Holding close to the river, he had little opportunity to chase down Rebel stragglers, but before long, the deserters were coming to him. On this date, he was a day’s march from Fort Craig, probably the same distance away from the fort as the lead elements of the Confederate column were.
Canby would go no farther south than Fort Craig. He wouldn’t have to. The Rebel army, so bold and dashing not two months previous, was utterly defeated, Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign was all but at an end.2