March 2, 1862 (Sunday)
It would be easy to believe, even fitting, that the Union advance into the Shenandoah Valley could be quickly ground to a halt by such an obscure thing as a too-small lift-lock. But that was not the case. It was true, the semi-permanent floating bridge, constructed of canal barges, that General McClellan wanted to construct across the Potomac at Harpers Ferry could not be built. It was also true that to reconstruct the railroad bridge, destroyed by retreating Confederates at the start of the war, would take weeks. Still, this did not stem the flow of Union troops crossing to the Virginia shore.
The rickety pontoon bridge hastily strung across the river would not hold, but there were other ways to reach the Confederacy. General McClellan stayed at Harpers Ferry long enough to oversee General Banks’ initial crossing at Harpers Ferry, and to issue orders for nearby divisions to cross the Potomac.
Four divisions in all would be called upon. Banks’ Division of 16,000 were already across and encamped at Charlestown [or Charles Town, as it’s called these days] and Bolivar Heights, as were the 11,000 men of General John Sedgewick’s Division (except for the six regiments under General Alpheus Williams, who were to en route from Hancock and crossing at Williamsport, and ordered to move on Martinsburg, which they would take on this date). This left the division of General Frederick Lander.
Lander’s Division had been in Virginia on and off throughout the winter, as he followed orders to evacuate Romney, and nipped at Stonewall Jackson’s heels throughout February. It’s possible that this whole forward thrust into the lower Shenandoah Valley was happening due to Lander’s unceasing insistence to attack Stonewall Jackson, currently holding Winchester.
The 15,000 men of Lander’s Division had been holed up at Paw Paw Tunnel [now part of West Virginia]. As the snow whipped and slashed the faces of the men, they marched east to meet up with William’s Brigade at Martinsburg. Lander ordered the 39th Illinois to open the railroad to Martinsburg, entrusting its commander, “If the rebels come on you in force, fight under any circumstances, and if you are taken prisoner, I will release you tomorrow morning.”
General Lander, however, had been seriously ill for weeks. Being the tough and stubborn man that he was, he usually worked around it or through it, but all of this action, the cold and the snow, was finally taking its final toll. Early on this date, Lander was unconscious, sleeping under the heavy cloud of morphine, administered by surgeons who claimed he was too ill to lead an army in the field. Major Simon Barstow, his aide-de-camp, by his side kept General McClellan appraised of the illness’s progress. Though Lander’s Division was on the move, seeing that its leader was probably not going to make it another day, Barstow ordered the men back to Paw Paw.
As the winter sun sank quickly into the valley of the Potomac River, General Frederick Lander, railroad surveyor, trailblazer and poet, spoke his last words through his haze of delirium and passing: “Don’t sound the bugle.”
At 5pm, Major Barstow wired General McClellan, telling him that Lander had died, and that he turned over command of the division to Col. Nathan Kimball. McClellan would agree with Barstow’s choice, as Kimball was the senior-most brigade commander, but had another officer in mind.
General Frederick Lander was a crass, angry, and largely unlikable man who, even immediately following word of his death, would have few pleasant things said about him. Personally, he would be little missed, but it was he who had a firm grasp of the roads, terrain and abilities of the forces, Union and Confederate, arrayed in the lower Shenandoah Valley.1
While the North was on the move south in the Shenandoah Valley, the South was on the move north in the Rio Grande Valley. On February 26, Confederate General Henry Sibley captured the town of Socorro, New Mexico, seventy-five miles south of Albuquerque. There, General Sibley reorganized his 2,500-man Army of New Mexico, redistributed the healthy horses among his men, and tried to figure out what to do next.
Following the Battle of Valverde, Sibley had left Union Col. Edward Canby and his 3,500 Yankees behind at Fort Craig, licking their wounds, but not at all whipped. Fort Craig and Col. Canby were left behind on the Confederate supply line. While they had captured provisions in Socorro, it wouldn’t be long until his men had eaten through them.
He could either go south to destroy Canby or keep pushing north towards Albuquerque, where supplies were supposedly in abundance. Moving north, however, would place Sibley between two large Union forces. Canby would be to the south, while Fort Union, north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, was to the north. Sibley’s beautiful dream of taking all of New Mexico had the inceptive stirrings of a nightmare.
Still, on February 28th, Sibley left Socorro, heading north towards Albuquerque. This move surprised many of his men, who thought it folly to leave Canby to their rear, and figured that they’d meet him soon again. But Albuquerque held provisions and supplies needed to subsist off this desolate ground.2
While the main body’s march was slow, the vanguard of the army, 200 men, most of the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, were ordered to ride quickly ahead to secure the Union depot in Albuquerque before word of their advance reached the city.
This was an idea that was late in coming. The several days Sibley spent resting after the Battle of Valverde, along with the several days spent deciding what to do at Socorro, were about to haunt him.
On March 1, As the 2nd Texas was storming north, a messenger had already arrived at the Federal depot, informing its commander that part of Sibley’s army was but thirty-five miles south. He immediately took action, ordering whatever supplies could be saved to be loaded onto wagons and taken to Santa Fe. The rest would have to be put to the torch.
By the evening of the first, the Rebels were reported to be fifteen miles away, but there was no sign of them through the night. At 6:30 in the morning of this date, the Union depot was set ablaze. During the start of the fire, the natives of Albuquerque rushed forward, not to save the building, but to scoop up whatever provisions they could carry, risking their lives for the essentials of life, and maybe a bit extra for comfort.
As the Texans reached the city, they saw large, black pillars of smoke and realized they were too late.3
- As this was mostly a “catch up” post, I used a variety of sources. Mostly, Russel H. Beatie’s Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign and Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command (the third and second volumes, respectively) were used. Also, the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p732 provided the divisional strengths of the commands involved. Vol. 51, Part 1, p545 contained wires from McClellan and Barstow. Lastly, Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens shed light on the Confederate reaction, but I’ll be getting to that tomorrow or the next day. [↩]
- Blood & Treasure by Donald S. Frazier. [↩]
- Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. [↩]