The Confederate High Water Mark in the Southwest

March 25, 1862 (Tuesday)

The Confederate “High Water Mark” is often seen as the invasion of the north during the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign. In the West (that is, the far west), however, the “High Water Mark” was the last week in March 1862. Sixty Rebels under Captain Sherod Hunter had captured Tucson, Arizona, already pro-secessionist, at the end of February. Since that time, they had moved even farther west to the Pima Villages, capturing 300,000 lbs. of flour and other supplies intended for Union troops, distributing them among the area natives.

Col. John Carleton

Opposing Hunter was the Union California Column, troops from the Golden State who had been raised to remove the Rebels at Tucson (thought by some to number around 1,000) and to retake the forts in Arizona and New Mexico. The force was still gathering at Fort Yuma, along the California/Arizona border, and it was suspected by Union commanders in California that they wouldn’t move out until early April, due to the conditions of the roads.

In the Southwest, news traveled only at the speed of a horse. Major Rigg, commander at Fort Yuma, was told to send a company of infantry to the Pima Villages if there was any danger of the Rebels capturing it. That company was to meet up with Captain William McCleave of the 1st California Cavalry, who had already been dispatched with forty men to act as scouts.1

Our hero, McCleave (fellow with beard).

Having not heard from McCleave, Major Rigg suspected the worst and wrote to his commander, Col. James Carleton, still preparing to head east from Los Angeles to head up the California Column, and expressed his fears that McCleave had been captured. Carleton, who seemed to idolize McCleave, replied “McCleave is too good of a soldier to have been taken. I think you will find him all right.” A few days later (March 20), Rigg received word that McCleave was not alright; he had been captured and the Rebels who captured him had also taken the Pima Villages.2

Carleton refused to believe that his hero had been captured. But Major Rigg did believe it, and on this date, began to act upon it. Losing McCleave would be a great loss, and so Rigg resolved to recapture him, quickly assembling nearly 300 men for the task. The plan was a simple one. The infantry would demonstrate on their front, while the cavalry (made up of McCleave’s company) would dash into the rear. Time was a huge factor, since it was looking more and more like the Rebels were merely a large raiding party sent to take Tucson and then retreat back to Mesilla, near the Texas/New Mexico border.3

Pima Village

Also of concern was the much larger force of Confederates under General Henry Sibley. Carleton had learned that Sibley probably defeated Col. Canby at Fort Craig (which was true), but was unsure where they were going next. As far as he knew, they may already be in control of all of New Mexico.

Sibley, however, was not quite there. After defeating Canby at Fort Craig, he and his Army of New Mexico headed north and captured Albuquerque and Santa Fe, leaving Canby’s wounded force behind.

The Confederate force of 2,500 had been divided into three columns. The first, now 380-strong under Major Pyron, was in Santa Fe. The second, under Col. Tom Green, was moving east from town. The largest column, roughly 1,000-strong, under Col. Scurry, was in Galesteo, fifteen miles south of Santa Fe.4

A rather large map. Click to see more.

In Santa Fe, Major Pyron had received word that Federal troops from Fort Union were heading his way down the Santa Fe Trail. By evening, they bivouacked eighteen miles east at Johnson’s Ranch [near modern Canoncito], at the mouth of Apache Canyon, a narrow, seven-mile long pass through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

It was true that the Federals were heading towards Santa Fe. They had encamped at Bernal Springs, forty miles away from the Rebel camp. Col. Slough, Federal commander, had dispatched Major John Chivington with 400 men to capture Santa Fe. On this date, he arrived near the Pecos Ruins, and set up camp. They were about thirteen miles east of Pyron’s Confederates.

Both sides sent out pickets. During the night, the Union scouts had gotten between the Rebel scouts and their camp, managing to capture four of them. The Confederate pickets, one being a former Union officer on Canby’s staff, were interrogated. From the prisoners, Chivington learned of Pyron’s force and decided to scrap his original plan to retake Santa Fe in favor of attacking the Rebels, which he would do the following morning.5

The Southwestern waters, shallow as they may have been, were about to recede for the Confederacy.

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 50, Part 1, p917-932. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 50, Part 1, p934; 939. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 50, Part 1, p944; 950-951. []
  4. The Battle of Glorietta Pass by Thomas S. Edrington & John Taylor. []
  5. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. []
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6 thoughts on “The Confederate High Water Mark in the Southwest

  1. Some very interesting information — my knowledge of the far west focuses on Glorietta Pass. I would like to respectfully state that my own humble opinion (backed by several more professional historians) is the Confederate high-water mark was shortly before Antietam/Sharpsburg. By the end of June 1863 the Confederate position in the Mississippi theater had deteriorated somewhat from the summer of 1862.

    1. This far, far west is pretty forgotten. Honestly, I wish I could have done more with it. Not a lot happened, but what did is interesting, wild west kind of stuff. The OR gives some hints and there was another book printed around the same time concerning Union troops in California that covers more. I wanted to use The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865 by Andrew E. Masich, but wasn’t able to procure it.

      Oh I would totally agree with you on the true high water mark of the CSA. But popular opinion (and the signage at Gettysburg) tends to point towards Pennsylvania. There probably wasn’t actually a “mark” – a specific date or event that swayed things. Unless Special Orders 191 could be considered as such. But then, Mac’s slowness the day before Antietam kind of negated that.

      Anyway… that’s all in the future and I’m not H.G. Wells (who wasn’t even born yet…).

      1. I am currently working on a fairly long post concerning Picacho Peak’s skirmish. It is for, and will probably be up the middle of April, in “celebration” of the anniversary of this kerfluffle.

        Next weekend, I will be photographing the graves of 2 of the three men who died at Picacho. They were initially buried in AZ, then disinterred and reburied in the National Cemetery in San Francisco, near the Presidio.

        Let’s not argue water lines here–let’s try to get our minds around the fact that the entire country was involved, East AND West. It is important to remember that most of the 16,000 members of the US Army was deployed in the west when Sumter was fired upon.

        What a distressing time for those who were 3000 miles away. Not only did many resign their live’s work to fight for the Confederacy, but many had to travel over 3000 miles just to get back to DC.

        This war just gnaws at me, even now.

        1. Thanks, Meg, I’m going to be linking to your post about it since I couldn’t figure out a way to work it into mine. It’s a fun battle that really deserves some attention.

          I gnaw at the war. Thankfully, I’m taking it in (nearly) bite-size chunks. 🙂

  2. check out -rebels on the rio grande,the cw journal of a.b.peticolas-blood and treasure,cs empire in the southwest by donald frazier-confederate pathway to the pacific,mj sherod hunter and arizona territory csa by l..boyd finch-confederate general of the west hh sibley by jerry thompson-the confederate invasion of new mexico and arizona 1861-62 by robt lee kerby-civil war in the southwest,recollections of the sibley drigade ,edited by jerrry thompson-plus blue and gray magazine has an issue on cw new mexico- and if anyone can the new mexico historical society in santa fe has/had a folder on the cw with stories of glorietta[it was a long time ago since i was there i can only imagine what they have now

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