One Last Battle of New Mexico

April 15, 1862 (Tuesday)

CS Col. Thomas Green

Every great campaign of the war seems to end with a small and hardly-remembered battle following the major one. As we will see, the Antietam Campaign will have Shepherdstown, the Gettysburg Campaign will have Williamsport, and even Bermuda Hundred has its Ware Bottom Church. And so, Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign had Peralta.

Following the Rebel retreat from Albuquerque, General Henry Sibley and his victorious, though thoroughly whipped Army of New Mexico, now, but 1,800-strong, was marching south on either side of the Rio Grande. In pursuit was the Union force under Col. Edward Canby, numbering 2,400.

The presence of the Federals was unknown to the Rebels until a detachment of Union cavalry attacked seven remaining Southern wagons, which carried the last of the Army’s supplies (as well as some household items from a fleeing secessionist family). The mules pulling the wagons had refused to move and so the small train was left behind with a guard of thirty-four men under Lt. James Darby, to catch up later.

Union Col. Canby, seeing the vulnerability of the situation, dispatched some of his men to take them as they traveled down the eastern shore of the river. When Lt. Darby saw them coming, he circled the wagons and prepared to defend them, thinking that his commander, Col. Tom Green, would notice he was being attacked and help out.

The Union cavalry dismounted and advanced with a crouch, laying down flat to fire, until they were withing fifty yards of the Rebels. Then, with a woop, they charged the wagons, stopping when a dozen Rebels hoisted a dirty white rag on a ramrod, signaling their surrender. Four Rebels had been killed and six were wounded. The Federals made off with the wagons, the provisions, fifteen horses, seventy ornery mules and one field howitzer.

This, however, was not the battle of Peralta.

When the fleeing Rebels found their way to Col. Green, commanding one of the two columns, he was in the town with his force of 550 men. Reaching the place the previous evening, he had set up his headquarters in the house of Governor Henry Connelly, a Unionist from Virginia, appointed to the post by President Lincoln. Connelly was safely in Las Vegas, northeast of Santa Fe. With the news of the nearby Federals, Green sent a message to General Sibley for assistance.

Gov. Henry Connelly

Canby’s command had found the Rebels the previous evening and were waiting until morning to strike. After some brief reconnoitering, he began lobbing shells into the town, surprising the Confederates. Some were preparing their breakfasts, while other still slumbered as the Union infantry prepared to assault their camp.

The plan was for two Federal columns to sweep around the town, along the river, cutting off the ford and dividing the Rebel army. The columns, along with two pieces of artillery, moved towards the water, stopping now and then to throw a few shells into the Confederate camp. The Rebel gunners, having taken a fine defensive position, replied with great accuracy, keeping the Federal column stepping.

To get some idea of what Canby was about, Green placed two men up the church spire to get a better view. As the Federals manouvered, the lookouts would call down to Green their new location. Green would then shift troops to meet the coming threat. Soon, the Federals discovered the tower and hurled several shots at the house of worship. The first two missed, but the third struck it, sending the Rebels scurrying for ground.

Early 1900s photo of church in Peralta.

When Col. Canby arrived on the field, he saw that making an attack would be pointless. The town of Peralta was crisscrossed by irrigation canals and checkered with adobe walls, giving the Rebels an impromptu fortress, complete with moats.

Fearing that an attack would come, Green, outnumbered nearly five-to-one, kept an eye on the ford across the Rio Grande, hoping to soon see the rest of the army coming to his rescue. While he waited, he continued to shift troops, ordering some to take a particular wall or hold a certain canal. The fighting meandered about the town, flowing from yard to yard, wall to wall. All while the artillery blasted away.

Sibley, upon receiving Green’s message, hurried along the bulk of his force, leaving behind only a scant command to guard their camps and wagons. The reinforcements made a hasty march to the ford, waded through the river with icy water up to their armpits, guns and cartridge boxes held aloft. They appeared on the other side with a cry, ready to fight with their comrades.

1867 photo of Los Lunas, possibly taken by Alexander Gardner.

Seeing the Rebels crossing, Union cavalry swung into action, riding hard to get to the ford. General Sibley had just crossed the river and was about to take command of his entire force when the Federals were upon them. With bullets singing by their ears and lathered horses charging, the Confederate commander was cut off and had to recross the river to avoid being captured.

Around noon, Col. Canby called for a halt to allow his troops to get some rest and to eat. They had gone over a day without either. Some Federals, however, were sent to find other approaches into Peralta and received neither respite nor sustenance.

When they returned, Canby worked out a new plan of attack. Before he could put it into action, however, the winds blew, kicking up great clouds of dust, blinding the men and rendering the army useless. With no other choice, Canby called off the attack.

That night, with the winds still up, Green’s Confederates slipped across the Rio Grande, uniting the Army of New Mexico with their commander at Los Lunas. By 4am, they had all escaped, reporting only two men wounded. The Federals probably lost several men in the aborted attacks.

Sibley would continue his march south, not wishing to tangle again with the Federals. Canby would follow along on the opposite bank, acting almost as an escort, keeping them moving, but from a respectful distance.1

  1. The two trusty books on the campaign told very different stories of this affair. I did my best to weave the two together. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall, and Blood & Treasure by Donald S. Frazier. []
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