March 13, 1862 (Thursday)
Through the hermetic Mississippi fog came explosions of artillery from some nearby, yet shrouded embrasure. And then the cheers of the enemy. The Union bombardment of New Madrid, Missouri came suddenly, but as no surprise.
The 18,000 men of the Union Army of the Mississippi, commanded by General John Pope, had begun showing up outside of the Confederate town ten days before. Pope wanted to take the town, which was held by but a few thousand Confederates, but was waiting for Commodore Andrew Foote’s gunboats to arrive to take care of the Rebel gunboats, which would certainly have caused more than enough trouble for Pope’s army.
Mostly, they spent the time drilling and skirmishing with the Rebels. Pope spent his time waiting for his heavy artillery to arrive. Coming by railroad, three 24-pounders and an 8-inch howitzer were slowly catching up with the army. They arrived the day before and Union troops spent the night getting them into place.
New Madrid was the left of General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate line in Tennessee. The Rebels had held the town since the war opened. Pope’s real objective was Island No. 10, a small island fortified to the gills that effectively closed off the river to Union ships. To take the island, New Madrid had to fall first.
Throughout the night, Pope had arrayed his army around the town, and as the sun illuminated the fog, the heavy artillery let loose their deadly fire. The Rebel gunboats were beaten to the punch, as they had not even gotten their steam up when the bombardment commenced.
The Confederate guns were quick to reply with mortal accuracy, quickly silencing one of the 24-pounders and a few of the pieces of field artillery. To avoid certain annihilation, a Union brigade was forced to move out of the action.
New Madrid was defended by two Rebel forts, Thompson and Bankhead, each holding the Confederate left and right, respectively. Pope first wanted to take out Fort Bankhead, but the fire from the Rebel gunboats, finally up, caused it to be aborted.
Though secure in the forts, it was clear to Confederate General John P. McCown that they could not hold out much longer. He had no more than 3,500 men, and figured that the Union army was 25,000-strong. The arrival of the siege guns alarmed him, as well. When the rumor that Union General Franz Sigel was nearby with forty regiments of infantry, McCown decided to abandon New Madrid.
Through a brutal thunderstorm, the Rebels evacuated the forts. Confusion and panic quickly set in, making the whole affair a haphazard mess. Still, by dawn the next day, New Madrid, the forts and much of the artillery were left behind for the Union.1
Though the Rebels were falling back in Missouri, farther south and west, in New Mexico, they were advancing. After capturing Albuquerque on March 2nd, Confederate General Henry Sibley fully invested the town a few days later and established his headquarters.
Though he and his Army of New Mexico stuck around Albuquerque for a week and a half, the small Union force that previously occupied the town retreated north, even abandoning Santa Fe on the 4th. Six days later, the first Rebels ventured into the old city, capturing whatever supplies had not been burned by the retreating Yankees.
The citizens were in a panic, but the eleven or so Rebels somehow managed to establish a bit of order. While occupying Santa Fe, the press of a former Unionist newspaper was used to print General Sibley’s offer of amnesty, written on this date.2
Sibley, from his headquarters in Albuquerque, sixty miles south, published a proclamation in hopes of winning the hearts and minds of the good people of New Mexico. He reminded them of his victory at Valverde, specifically of his army’s powers and abilities. He also granted amnesty to anyone who had taken up arms for the Union, if they “lay aside their arms and return to their homes and avocations” within ten days.
Also on this date, a larger Rebel vanguard of about seventy troops entered Santa Fe, formally occupying the town for the Confederacy.3
On the other side of things, the Federal forces weren’t just retreating, they were gathering at Fort Union, north of Las Vegas (New Mexico), nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, nearly 100 miles east.
According to Col. Gabriel Paul, commander at the fort, things had been “daily growing from bad to worse. All the militia and a large number of the volunteers (natives) who were called into the service of the United States have deserted and taken to the mountains.”
He had been unable to communicate with Col. Edward Canby, Union commander at Fort Craig, Valverde, 250 miles south, in over two weeks. Still, to combat the Confederate force, he planned to leave Fort Union and meet up with Canby somewhere.
Though communication with Canby had been interrupted by the Rebels, a message finally came through, telling Paul what he already knew. “Do not trust the Mexican troops,” was his first bit of advice. Paul was well aware that the native New Mexican population didn’t care, one way or the other, about the war. Some had enlisted, but lost interest when the bullets started to fly. This he followed with another tip: “If the Colorado or Kansas or California troops have not joined you, do not risk an engagement until they do.”4
But 900 Colorado troops had made their way from Denver to Fort Union, bolstering his numbers towards 1,400. While welcomed, their arrival created another problem. Col. Paul was no longer the senior commander. The commander of the Colorado troops was Col. John Potts Slough, a former Ohio politician and lawyer from Denver, who had recruited a company of Unionists. He had no military training and never served a day in his life. Col. Paul, on the other hand, had graduated from West Point, was an officer in the Seminole Wars and captured an enemy flag during the Mexican War.
Slough, however, was made a colonel a few weeks prior to Paul and so the wily politician commanded the professional soldier.5
- Island No. 10 by Larry J. Daniel and Lynn N. Bock. [↩]
- Blood & Treason; Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donal S. Frazier. [↩]
- Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. Sibley’s proclamation would not be printed in Santa Fe until March 22ndish. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p645-647. [↩]
- The Battle of Glorietta Pass by Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor. [↩]