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American Civil War: Battle of Valverde

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American Civil War: Battle of Valverde

Major General Edward Canby, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Valverde - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Valverde was fought February 21, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders

Union

Confederate

  • Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley
  • 2,590 men

Battle of Valverde - Background:

On December 20, 1861, Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley issued a proclamation claiming New Mexico for the Confederacy. To support his words, he advanced north from Fort Thorn in February 1862. Following the Rio Grande he intended to take Fort Craig, the capital at Santa Fe, and Fort Union. Marching with 2,590 ill-equipped men, Sibley neared Fort Craig on February 13. Within the fort's walls were around 3,800 Union soldiers led by Colonel Edward Canby. Unsure of the size of the approaching Confederate force, Canby employed several ruses, including the use of wooden "Quaker guns," to make the fort look stronger.

Judging Fort Craig to be too strong to be taken by direct assault, Sibley remained south of the fort and deployed his men with the goal of enticing Canby to attack. Though the Confederates remained in position for three days, Canby refused to leave his fortifications. Short on rations, Sibley convened a council of war on February 18. Following discussions it was decided to cross the Rio Grande, move up the east bank, and capture the ford at Valverde with the goal of severing Fort Craig's lines of communication to Santa Fe. Advancing, the Confederates camped to the east of the fort on the night of February 20-21.

Battle of Valverde - The Armies Meet:

Alerted to the Confederate movements, Canby dispatched a mixed force of cavalry, infantry, and artillery under Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Roberts to the ford on the morning of February 21. Slowed by his guns, Roberts sent Major Thomas Duncan ahead with the cavalry to hold the ford. As Union troops were moving north, Sibley ordered Major Charles Pryon to scout the ford with four companies from the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles. Pryon's advance was supported Lieutenant Colonel William Scurry's 4th Texas Mounted Rifles. Arriving at the ford they were surprised to find Union troops there.

Quickly taking position in a dry river bed, Pryon called for aid from Scurry. Opposite, Union guns moved into place on the west bank, while the cavalry advanced in a skirmish line. Depsite possessing a numerical advantage, the Union forces did not attempt to assault the Confederate position. Arriving on the scene, Scurry deployed his regiment to Pryon's right. Though coming under fire from Union forces, the Confederates were unable to respond in kind as they were largely equipped with pistols and shotguns which lacked sufficient range.

Battle of Valverde - The Tide Turns:

Learning of the standoff, Canby departed Fort Craig with the bulk of his command only leaving a force of militia to guard the post. Arriving on the scene, he left two regiments of infantry on the west bank and pushed the remainder of his men across the river. Pounding the Confederate position with artillery, Union forces slowly gained the upper hand on the field. Aware of the growing fight at the ford, Sibley also sent reinforcements in the form of Colonel Tom Green's 5th Texas Mounted Rifles and elements of the 7th Texas Mounted Rifles. Ill (or drunk), Sibley remained in camp after delegating field command to Green.

Early in the afternoon, Green authorized an attack by a company of lancers from the 5th Texas Rifles. Led by Captain Willis Lang, they surged forward and were met by heavy fire from a company of Colorado volunteers. Their charge defeated, the remnants of the lancers withdrew. Assessing the situation, Canby decided against a frontal attack on Green's line. Instead, he sought to force the Confederate left flank. Ordering Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson's untested 1st New Mexico Volunteers across the river, he advanced them, along with Captain Alexander McRae's artillery battery, to a forward position.

Seeing the Union assault forming, Green ordered Major Henry Raguet to lead an attack against the Union right to buy time. Charging forward, Raguet's men were repulsed and the Union troops began advancing. While Raguet's men were being turned back, Green ordered Scurry to prepare an attack on the Union center. Surging forward in three waves, Scurry's men struck near McRae's battery. In fierce fighting, they succeeded in taking the guns and shattering the Union line. His position suddenly collapsing, Canby was forced to order a retreat back across the river though many of his men had already begun to flee the field.

Aftermath of the Battle of Valverde:

The Battle of Valverde cost Canby 111 killed, 160 wounded, and 204 captured/missing. Sibley's losses totaled 150-230 killed and wounded. Falling back to Fort Craig, Canby resumed a defensive position. Though he had won a victory in the field, Sibley still lacked sufficient forces to successfully attack Fort Craig. Short on rations, he elected to continue north towards Albuquerque and Santa Fe with the goal of re-provisioning his army. Canby, believing his was out-numbered elected not to pursue. Though he ultimately occupied both Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Sibley was forced to abandon New Mexico after the Battle of Glorieta Pass and the loss of his wagon train.

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