Visiting Fort Craig National Historic Site
In 1854, the U.S. Army established a post named Fort Craig near the west bank of the Rio Grande in New Mexico Territory, about 35 miles south of the town of Socorro along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the road that ran from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Mexico City. The fort was a welcome rest stop in the desert for travelers along the road, but it’s primary military mission was to provide security against Apache, Comanche, and Navajo attacks on the influx of settlers from Texas and the rest of the U.S. following the Mexican War.
Fort Craig took on added importance when the Civil War began in 1861. By the summer of 1861, Confederate forces from Texas began to move in to the territory and captured Fort Fillmore north of El Paso, Texas in late July. At the same time, some officers and enlisted men serving with U.S. forces in New Mexico left to join the Confederate army.
One officer serving in New Mexico who switched sides was Henry Hopkins Sibley. Sibley traveled to Richmond and pitched an ambitious plan to President Jefferson Davis to invade the southwest and capture New Mexico and Arizona territories. From there, Confederate forces could march north into Colorado, taking the gold fields there, and west to California. The Confederacy would then have access to western seaports in California as well as adding vast amounts of territory for the expansion of slavery. Sibley believed that there was plenty of sympathy throughout the west for the Confederate cause, and many would join the Confederate army as it marched in. Davis was convinced enough to give Sibley a Brigadier General’s commission and permission to raise a brigade of Texans for his campaign.
The leading elements of Sibley’s Confederates set out from Fort Bliss, near El Paso on February 7th, 1862, marching up the Rio Grande Valley. Standing in the way along the river was Fort Craig. Although the invasion force brought some supplies with it, the plan called for both foraging off the land and capturing supplies that the U.S. Army had at military installations and supply depots. Sibley intended to capture Fort Craig both to eliminate the U.S. forces there and capture the large number of supplies stockpiled at the garrison.
Colonel Edward R.S. Canby was in charge of U.S. forces in New Mexico, and he called for volunteer regiments to supplement his Regular Army infantry, cavalry,
and artillery units at Fort Craig. In response, five New Mexico Volunteer infantry regiments, one under command of Colonel Kit Carson of frontier fame, two New Mexico Militia regiments, and some Colorado volunteers answered the call and arrived at the fort. Canby had between 3800 and 4000 men on hand as Sibley approached, and the fort’s physical defensive characteristics were strengthened as the U.S. forces awaited attack.
Deciding that Fort Craig was too formidable to take by assault, Sibley decided to bypass the fort and seize the Rio Grande ford at Valverde, seven miles north of Fort Craig and cut the Union garrison’s communications with Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Leaving a small force to hold Fort Craig, Canby attacked the Confederates on February 21st. The Confederates won the Battle of Valverde, but Canby successfully withdrew to Fort Craig. Sibley decided to continue north to Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Fort Union east of Santa Fe, to get his needed supplies, rather than attack Fort Craig, even though it meant leaving a sizable Union force in his rear that could strike north or cut off the Confederate supply line from Texas. Canby maintained his position at Fort Craig until late March, when he took a large force north, intending to trap Sibley’s Confederates between his troops and the those at Fort Union. As he got underway, Union troops from Fort Union defeated the Rebels at the Battle of Glorieta Pass east of Santa Fe on March 26th-28th, due in large part to the destruction of the Confederate supply train. Sibley retreated from New Mexico, ending the Confederate invasion.
During the 20 years following the Civil War, Fort Craig returned to its original purpose as a frontier fort in the campaigns against the Apaches and other native tribes. For several of these years, Buffalo Soldiers (African American cavalry and infantry units) were based at Fort Craig. Despite being out in the desert and several miles from the nearest civilian town, the fort was well equipped and well stocked with food and other supplies throughout its time as a military base; essentially it was a town in itself. Officers and enlisted men lived in stone and adobe quarters. Officers could have their families stay at the fort, and there was a school for their children (under certain circumstances, enlisted men could have their wives at the fort if the women worked as laundresses, but they could not have children there). There was a hospital and a sutler’s store where civilian merchants sold non military issue goods to the soldiers. Horses were well cared for with a blacksmith shop and stables; hay for the horses was grown in the land around the nearby Rio Grande. By 1885, the arrival of the railroad had made El Camino Real essentially obsolete, and with most Apaches forced onto reservations and resistance winding down, Fort Craig was decommissioned and abandoned by the army.
In 1894, the Fort Craig property was sold at auction; years later it was donated to the Archeological Conservancy and transferred to the Federal Bureau of Land Management in 1981. The BLM continues to manage the site.
Visiting Fort Craig National Historic Site
Fort Craig is accessed from Interstate 25. From the north, take exit 124, and from the south take exit 115 to Old Highway 1. Follow the signs to Fort Craig Road. The last 4 1/2 miles of the drive to the fort is on a gravel road. The site is open during daylight hours year round. There is a visitor center on site that is open April–October on Thursday through Monday. The old buildings are in ruins; there are signed hiking trails through the site identifying the buildings. Other than the Visitor Center and parking lot, the terrain around the fort site remains largely unaltered from the 1800s. The site of the Battle of Valverde, north of Fort Craig along the Rio Grande, is on private land not accessible to the public. The terrain there has been altered multiple times by river flooding in the years since the battle.
For additional information on the Civil War in New Mexico see:
The Battle of Glorieta Pass: A Gettysburg in the West, March 26-28, 1862 by Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor
Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald S. Frazier
The Battle of Glorieta: Union Victory in the West by Don E. Alberts
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