February 17, 1862 (Monday)
It had been several days that had passed since Union Col. Canby at Fort Craig, New Mexico had a very slight brush with General Henry Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico. Though the narrowly-averted battle was with Sibley’s Texan scouts, Canby knew that the rest of the Rebel army was near at hand.
“Army” was a generous term. What General Sibley had under his command was little more than a brigade, possibly 2,500 men. Canby’s force was about 3,000. As the Rebels marched the eighty or so miles north from Mesilla, New Mexico, they had been strung out, but in the past couple of days, they had been brought together into one unit, comprised mostly of Texans, with a smattering of Arizona men.
Sibley’s plan was to take Fort Craig, defeat Canby, and then march north along the Rio Grande for Albuquerque and Sante Fe. Taking Fort Craig, knew Sibley, would be no easy task. He hoped to somehow draw Canby out of his fortifications for a fair fight in the open.
The previous day, the Army of New Mexico, minus a sickly General Sibley, marched about a mile south of the Union fort, formed line of battle on a ridge and waited for something to happen. Not surprisingly, the Union troops, behind the safety of their ramparts, had little inkling to venture towards the Rebels entrenching on the high ground.
While Canby refused to give the Confederates the battle they wanted, he nipped at their heels with his cavalry as they returned to their camp.1
With Sibley taken sick, Col. Tom Green assumed command. On this date, while the February winds kicked up a brutal dust storm, Green and several regimental commanders (and possibly Sibley), met to decide what to do next.
During the meeting, a recklessly brave major offered to lead a night assault against the fort, but even in the darkness, the chances of success were slim. Since Fort Craig could not be taken, Canby’s force would have to be drawn out and defeated. As the previous day’s action showed, they were timid about attacking over the ground south of the fort. Perhaps this was because they had nothing to gain or lose. But to the north was a vital ford across the Rio Grande at Valverde. Union supply wagons used this route to ship supplies to Col. Canby. If the Confederates held it, thought Green, Canby would have to attack.
Both the Army of New Mexico and Fort Craig were on the west side of the river. There was another ford a few miles south of the Rebel camp that they could use to cross to the eastern side, continue north to Valverde and wait. The Rebel army, which was low on supplies, could live off the stores that were, no doubt, en route to Fort Craig.2
Inside Fort Craig, nerves were stretched to near breaking. Though Canby had dispatched scouts to watch the Rebels, he had no real idea what they were up to. Likewise, the Union soldiers dealt with the unknown in different ways. One particular soldier caused quite a rattling.
During the night, a succession of gunshots was heard close at hand. Thinking it was a Rebel night attack, the long roll was sounded and the entire garrison was impelled from their beds into the cold night. When it was discovered that it wasn’t the Rebels, but a Union soldier who turned to the bottle to relieve his anxiety, they were allowed to return to their slumber and to return to their ignorance and dread.3
General Sterling Price, once the commander of the Missouri State Guard, now commanded a wing of the Confederate Army of the West, answering to General Earl Van Dorn. Price had occupied Springfield, Missouri until the 12th, when the threat of Union General Samuel Curtis’ Army of the Southwest made them beat a hasty retreat south on the Telegraph Road leading towards the Arkansas border.
In the days since, Price’s troops hardly stopped, even to sleep. On this day, they found themselves at Little Sugar Creek Valley, six miles south of the Missouri/Arkansas border, with the Union army only several hours behind.
As the Union troops crossed into Arkansas, their bands struck up “Arkansas Traveler,” written by Sandy Faulkner, who was now a colonel in the Confederate Army. By the early afternoon, the Union troops marched past Elkhorn Tavern and to the bluff leading into Little Sugar Creek Valley. Across the valley, a line of Rebel infantry and artillery could be seen, occupying choice defensive ground and appearing to make a stand.
Before long, General Curtis was told that the Rebels had been seen and he hurried to the front. By the time he arrived, however, the enemy had disappeared into the woods to their rear. He immediately ordered his artillery to fire into the trees. When no response came, he personally led a cavalry detachment in pursuit of the Confederates.
The Rebels that Curtis was currently chasing were not, however, of Price’s wing. They were three regiments of Arkansas and Louisiana troops under Col. Louis Hebert, part of General Ben McCulloch’s wing. They had been dispatched to aid Price, but Price had refused to make a stand. With the bulk of the Rebels on the run, Hebert had little choice but to act as Price’s rear guard as he made his way south.
The first Federal troops to catch up with them were cavalry, but Hebert was ready for them. He had positioned his three regiments on the eastern side of Telegraph Road, one of Price’s brigades on the western side, and his artillery on the road itself. With little hesitation, the Federal cavalry bolted forward, not realizing they were galloping into such a formidable force.
It wasn’t until the Rebel guns sounded, throwing steel over their heads, that they saw what was before them. The cavaliers split, some taking to the fields on either side of the road. The Rebels took advantage of the confusion so close at hand and fired into the panic-stricken swarm.
Meanwhile, General Curtis was hurrying forward his infantry and artillery. As the first brigade in line was filing into position, the Union guns were dueling with their Confederate counterparts across a half-mile wide plain. The infantry pitched in, but received an unwelcomed welcoming from the Rebel artillery. The Confederate infantry was fairing no better as the Union shells tore holes in their line.
This was the first battle in Arkansas. Losses were heavy for such a quick fight, with the Union reporting thirteen killed and twenty wounded. Col. Hebert never reported his losses, but according to (often questionable) Federal claims, there were twenty-six Rebels killed.
By this point, General Curtis realized that the two wings of General Van Dorn’s Confederate Army of the West had now joined. This was the same combined force that was victorious at Wilson’s Creek. Nevertheless, he would continue his pursuit.4
- Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. [↩]
- Blood & Treasure; Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald S. Frazier. [↩]
- Bloody Valverde by John Taylor. My copy of this book is rough and moldy. It’s pretty nasty, but it’s a fairly good read. [↩]
- Pea Ridge by William L. Shea & Earl J. Hess. [↩]