New Mexico Rebels’ Week-Long Waterless Retreat

April 21, 1862 (Monday)

General Sibley

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.

Col. Canby

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.

Fort Craig

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

Very approximate routes of CS and US armies.

  1. Blood & Treasure by Donald S. Frazier, Texas A&M University Press, 1995. []
  2. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall, New Mexico University Press, 1960. []
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4 thoughts on “New Mexico Rebels’ Week-Long Waterless Retreat

  1. Where are your maps coming from? They are always so good, and they look old, which I like. Basically we are using the same sources, but no maps for me!!

    I think it was Col. Carleton who should get the credit for being prepared. Both he & Canby had served west for a long time, and Carleton really bore down on the supply issue. They both used the tactic of sending a unit forward to prepare food, water, and fodder at the next stop. Carleton even redesigned the uniform to be better adapted to the weather. For all I have read about Sibley, this aspect of campaigning is never mentioned.

    I think we ought to get something going out west here–a conference concerning this arena of action. What think you?

    1. Most of the maps come from the Library of Congress. I add little doodles here and there. The maps that are posting now were made about four or five months ago. I’ve gotten better.

      The map used today is a HUGE map of the west with old explorers trails marked on it. It’s incredibly detailed and (for a lover of old highway alignments) a dream come true.

      “Out west here” is so … huge. When I lived back east, I think I thought that Seattle was a few hours away from San Francisco. Things are so far apart out here. I like it, to be sure, but it’s deceptive. A drive to Albuquerque is two and a half days. Worth it, of course, but still.

      That said, I’d love for something like that to happen.

  2. I do so enjoy your posts about the Civil War in New Mexico. It’s too bad so many of our residents don’t realize our history includes this war. Fort Craig and Fort Union are definitely worth visiting (especially Ft. Union for their reenactments).

  3. Great post! I recently moved to New Mexico and am brushing up on my knowledge of the Civil War here. I find this part of the war, in particular the retreat from New Mexico, fascinating because I’m a fan of Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” I’m finding many similarities between the two when I look at the New Mexico campaign and the Sand Creek Massacre.

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