Kit Carson and the 1st New Mexico Infantry at the Battle of Valverde
In July of 1861, Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor led his Texas volunteers into New Mexico Territory establishing a Confederate presence there. With U.S. regular troops being sent east to the main theatre of the new Civil War (and with some, especially officers, leaving to join the Confederacy, department commander Colonel E.R.S. Canby began the process of raising regiments of volunteers to supplement the remaining regular army units.
One of these volunteer regiments was the 1st New Mexico Infantry. The regiment was organized in July and August of 1861 under the command of Colonel Ceran St. Vrain, but in September, St. Vrain resigned due to health reasons. He was replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Carson on September 20th.
Frontiersman, fur trapper, guide for the western expeditions of John Charles Fremont, Christopher “Kit” Carson had already achieved celebrity status by the 1860s, though he never sought it. Thanks to magazine articles of some of his exploits in the west, and dime novels with fictionalized accounts, the 51 year old Carson was well known, though, like many officers in Civil War volunteer regiments, he did not have combat command experience. With St. Vrain’s departure, Carson was promoted to full Colonel on October 4th.
The 1st New Mexico served at Fort Union, on the Santa Fe Trail east of Santa Fe, until ordered south in February 1862 to reinforce the garrison at Fort Craig on the west side of the Rio Grande
River, about 35 miles south of the town of Socorro. A Confederate expedition of between 2500 and 3000 men under the command of Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley was on the march north from El Paso, Texas along the Rio Grande into New Mexico Territory.
Sibley had an ambitious plan to capture the southwest and Colorado, and eventually establish a Confederate presence on the west coast in California. By the middle of February, Sibley’s army was approaching Fort Craig. Sibley had two objectives. One was the engagement and destruction of the Union forces at Fort Craig, and the other was to secure the supplies there. The expedition relied on the capture of Federal supplies at forts and supply depots in cities to sustain itself rather than depending on increasingly long and impractical supply lines from Texas.
Colonel Canby commanded the garrison at Fort Craig. He had about 3800 men, including U.S. Regulars, New Mexico volunteers, a small number of Colorado volunteers, plus two artillery batteries. They were packed in tightly, as the fort was designed for a few hundred rather than 3800. Nonetheless, the defenders were well supplied and the fort was a formidable obstacle to the Confederates.
With the Confederates approaching from the south, Canby set up a defensive line south of Fort Craig. He hoped to draw the Confederates into an assault on the heavily fortified position. The U.S. troops exchanged fire with the advancing Rebels on February 16th but Sibley decided the Union position was too strong for a frontal assault, and the Confederate commander called off his attack.
Over the next few days, the Rebels scouted the area to come up with a location and a plan of action to draw the U.S. forces out of Fort Craig and engage in battle. On the 20th, the Confederates crossed over to the East side of the river to avoid the fort, marched north past Fort Craig, and camped at a ford location called Valverde. On the morning of the 21st, the Confederates prepared to cross back over to the West side of the river, which would place the Rebels between Fort Craig and the Union department headquarters in Santa Fe.
Canby left the fort with 3000 troops, including Carson and the 1st New Mexico, to try to keep the Confederates from crossing the Rio Grande. The U.S. forces arrived before the Rebels could cross; Canby sent cavalry across the river to drive the Confederates back. This was followed by U.S. infantry and artillery. The 1st New Mexico remained in reserve on the West side of the river until it was sent across to reinforce the Union center, and then over to the right. The 1st New Mexico helped repulse an assault by Lieutenant Charles Raguet’s battalion of the 4th Texas. But reinforcing the right resulted in a weaker Union center; a Confederate assault there resulted in the capture of a Union battery and a Rebel breakthrough as many Federals fled to the rear. Although other Federals rushed in to plug the gap, they could not recapture the six cannon in Rebel hands. Canby ordered a withdrawal and the U.S. forces recrossed the Rio Grande and returned to Fort Craig.
Carson had led his untested volunteers effectively, and was surprised at the order to withdraw since the Federal right was in good shape, but he was unaware of the situation on the left. He filed these two after action reports on his 1st New Mexico at the Battle of Valverde:
HDQRS. THIRD COLUMN TROOPS IN THE FIELD,
Near Fort Craig, N. Mex., February 26, 1862.
COLONEL: I have the honor to make the following report of the operations of the third column, composed of eight companies of the First Regiment of New Mexico Volunteers, under my command, during the battle of Valverde, on the 21st instant, and prior to the arrival on the field of Col. E. E. S. Canby, U. S. Army, commanding department:
Pursuant to the order of the department commander my command marched from Fort Craig and arrived on the battle ground about 9 o’clock in the morning, soon after the batteries had opened fire. I remained on the west side of the Rio Grande, gradually moving up the bank of the river as the enemy extended his right in the same direction, until after the arrival of Colonel Canby, commanding, upon the field, when I was ordered to cross the river, which I did at once. My after operations will, as directed, be made to him.
I am, colonel, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Colonel First New Mexico Vols., Commanding Third Column.
Col. B. S. EGBERTS,
Fifth Regt. N. Mex. Vols., Comdg. Fort Craig, N. Mex.
HDQRS. THIRD COLUMN TROOPS IN THE FIELD,
Camp near Fort Craig, February 26, 1862.
CAPTAIN: I have the honor to make the following report of the operations of the third column, composed of eight companies of the First Regiment New Mexico Volunteers, under my command, during the battle of Valverde, on the 21st, and subsequent to the arrival on the field of Colonel Canby, commanding department, until which time my column had remained on the west side of the river and taken no part in the battle:
About 1 o’clock in the afternoon I received from Colonel Canby the order to cross the river, which I immediately did, after which I was ordered to form my command on the right of our line and to advance as skirmishers toward the hills. After advancing some 400 yards we discovered a large body (some 400 or 500) of the enemy charging diagonally across our front, evidently with the intention of capturing the24-pounder gun, which, stationed on our right, was advancing and doing much harm to the enemy. As the head of the enemy s column came within some 80 yards of my right a volley from the whole column was poured into them, and the firing being kept up caused them to break in every direction and retreat. Almost at the same time a shell from the 24-pounder was -thrown among them with fatal effect. They did not attempt to reform, and the column, supported by the gun on the right, was moving forward to sweep the wood near the hills, when I received the order to retreat and recross the river. This movement was executed in good order. The column, after crossing the river, returned to its station near Fort Craig, where it arrived about 7 o’clock in the evening.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Colonel First N. Mex. Vols., Commanding Third Column.
Capt. WILLIAM J. L. NICODEMUS,
A. A. A. G., Hdqrs. Dept. of N. Mex., Fort Craig, N. Mex.
The Confederates could claim victory in the Battle of Valverde itself, but they did not capture Fort Craig or its supplies. The Rebels continued on north, capturing Santa Fe and Albuquerque, before marching toward Fort Union. They were defeated at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in March, and the Confederate threat to New Mexico and beyond ended with the withdrawal of Sibley’s column back to Texas.
Although the actual site of the Battle of Valverde is on private land, the ruins of Fort Craig are preserved as Fort Craig Historic Site.
A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick H. Dyer
Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald S. Frazier
The Confederate Invasion of New Mexico and Arizona by George H. Pettis. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II. Edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel
Kit Carson: The Life of an American Border Man by David Remley
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume IX.
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