The Water Begins to Recede for the Rebels in Apache Canyon

March 26, 1862 (Wednesday)

Old Church in Apache Canyon

All through the cold night, the 380 Confederates under Major Charles Pyron, unable to sleep, shivered against the biting wind at the western mouth of Apache Canyon. They had few blankets and fewer supplies, but were resolved to hold Santa Fe, New Mexico against the Federals advancing upon it from Fort Union. By the frozen dawn, Pyron led his band into the canyon, along the Santa Fe Trail, to shield them from the weather. As the wind whipped above, the men spent the morning basking and drowsing among the rocks while the sun warmed their bones.1

About thirteen miles east, 400 Union troops under Major John Chivington were also greeting the day, having encamped near the ruins of Pecos. The previous evening, several Rebel scouts were captured by several Union scouts and brought back to Chivington’s camp. Before long, knowing full well of Pyron’s Confederates, they entered the canyon.2

Both Pyron’s and Chivington’s commands were vanguards for larger forces. Separated into three columns (of which, Pyron led one), the Confederates numbered 2,500. Chivington’s party scouted for the main body from Fort Union, under Col. John P. Slough, numbering 1,400 in total. Both Pyron and Chivington had sent out pickets and advanced scouts, but only Chivington’s men reported back that the Rebels were in the canyon.

By 2pm, Chivington’s Federals had reached the summit of the pass. As the advance skirmishers picked their way along the trail, rounding a bend into a cluster of trees, they stumbled into thirty advancing Confederate pickets. Taken by surprise, all thirty surrendered before any shots were exchanged.

A Union scout ran back to the main body, still advancing, to share the news. “We’ve got them corralled this time! Give them hell, boys! Hurrah for the Pike’s Peakers!” The infantry threw off their knapsacks, flung away their canteens, closed ranks and stormed down into Apache Canyon.3

When Pyron saw the charging Yankees, he threw out a skirmish line and unlimbered his two howitzers. Soon, they were launching grapeshot into the hurrying Federal ranks. Most of the Federals had never seen combat before and were taken aback that they could actually be killed out there. Chivington somehow calmed them and they formed a line of battle across the canyon floor.

Major Chivington

Wanting to stay as far away from the Rebel artillery as possible, Chivington split his force, sending both wings up opposite sides of the canyon, while his cavalry hung back, ready to charge. Seeing that he was about to be enveloped, Pyron limbered up his guns and began to withdraw, as the Federal bullets flew all around him.

The Rebels retreated for nearly a mile, the Federals nipping close behind. In this confusion, a Confederate company was caught with Union soldiers on three sides. Almost too late was still soon enough, however, and they were able to fight their way out after losing sixteen of their number as prisoners.

In their new position, things seemed to be going well for the Rebels. They were holding their ground and even advancing on the right. Before Pyron could get too comfortable, however, a company of Federals, who had scrambled around a hill, appeared in their rear. Pyron sent his artillery even farther back and refused his line, facing his men north. This security was short-lived. The right flank had advanced too far out to hear Pyron’s orders and was soon enveloped by the Federals. They too had to slash their way out as thirty of their comrades fell into enemy hands.4

Escaping from the canyon, a Confederate horseman raced to Col. William Scurry’s camp, sixteen or so miles south, with a message from Pyron to come quickly to Apache Canyon.5

Pecos Ruins, near Union camp.

Pyron again began to abandon his position. He limbered his guns and, as they were withdrawing, Chivington’s Union cavalry, nearly 100-strong, charged down the Trail towards the Confederate ranks. The Rebels fired, hitting a few, but this barely slowed them down. As they chased them, they came to a bend in the road, halting to exchange fire.6

Across the canyon floor and across the Santa Fe Trail ran an arroyo, a fifteen foot wide dry stream bed, spanned by a rickety wooden bridge. The boards were quickly chopped up and removed in hopes that this gully would stop the Federal advance. But it was not to be.

Twenty years after the battle, Chivington embellished the scene, writing that all but one of the horses made the leap, landing among the Rebels, “shooting them with their revolvers, clubbing them, sabering them and slaughtering them generally, just spreading destruction among them.”

In reality, Pyron found another fine defensive position and the cavalry decided that they were too far away from the main body to risk an attack. They returned to their commander, the battle at an end.7

Col. Scurry

This was the first Rebel defeat in the New Mexico Campaign. They lost four killed, six wounded and about seventy captured. The Union troops, with an advantage in number, lost five killed, fourteen wounded and three missing.8

Pyron had lost almost a third of his command, and fell back to his old camp at the western mouth of the canyon. Chivington fell back even farther to the old Pecos ruins and his commander, Col. Slough.

Before the battle was over, the Confederate messenger arrived at Col. Scurry’s camp, sixteen miles south in Galisteo. Wasting no time, Scurry formed up his 1,000 troops and began their difficult march north to Apache Canyon. The hills were so steep that in places the men had to pull the cannons, as the horses could not. They arrived around 3:30am, placing their supply wagons a full six miles to the rear of Pyron’s camp.

There, they dug in and awaited the dawn and the inevitable Federal attack.9

  1. Blood & Treasure by Donals S. Frazier. []
  2. The Battle of Glorieta Pass by Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor. []
  3. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. Edrington and Taylor claim that both groups of pickets met, but each ran the other way and no prisoners were taken. []
  4. The Battle of Glorieta Pass by Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor. []
  5. Blood & Treasure by Donals S. Frazier. []
  6. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. []
  7. The Battle of Glorieta Pass by Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor. Chivington’s quotes come from this fine book as well. []
  8. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. Edrington and Taylor put the Rebel losses at three killed and one wounded, with an indeterminable amount of prisoners. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p542-542 (Scurry’s Report). []
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The Water Begins to Recede for the Rebels in Apache Canyon by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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4 thoughts on “The Water Begins to Recede for the Rebels in Apache Canyon

  1. Riviting account of the Battle of Apache Canyon…your web page is the gift that keeps on giving. Love this discussion of the War in the Southwest. Please keep them coming…


  2. Eric:

    I was thinking recently that as the 150th of Civil War winds down (April 2015) that you could start on the 75th of the US involvement in WW 2. Dec 7 2016.

    Dave Boyes

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