Sibley Campaign

By: Don E. Alberts

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

The Confederate Texan invasion of New Mexico Territory in 1861–62 was the westernmost campaign of the Civil War. In June 1861 President Jefferson Davis appointed Henry Hopkins Sibley, a former regular army officer, a brigadier general and authorized him to recruit a brigade of volunteers in central and south Texas to occupy the adjacent federal territories. Sibley planned an ambitious campaign. He intended to march north from El Paso, occupy New Mexico, seize the rich mines of Colorado Territory, then turn west through Salt Lake City, and take over the seaports of Los Angeles and San Diego. By one stroke, with a minimal force living off the land, Sibley would bring the entire Southwest under Confederate control. He believed the native people of New Mexico, as well as the recent immigrants to Colorado, Utah, and California would join his ranks. He also forecast that the Union troops in New Mexico would desert to his banner. By the early fall of 1861, in San Antonio, Sibley had raised three regiments—the Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Texas Mounted Volunteers—plus attached artillery and supply units. On October 22 he started west with 3,200 men along the San Antonio–El Paso road, moving in detachments so as not to drain the scant water holes along the route. Sibley reached Fort Bliss by late December and incorporated the vanguard of Texas soldiers under Col. John R. Baylor. The previous summer Baylor had entered New Mexico, captured Fort Fillmore, near Mesilla, along with its Union garrison. Baylor reported that Union forces were being organized further north by Col. Edward R. S. Canby, commanding the Military Department of New Mexico.

During January of 1862 Sibley marched to Mesilla, proclaimed his invading force the "Army of New Mexico," and at Mesilla absorbed several local "spy companies." In early February he dispatched Capt. Sherod Hunter and a company of Arizona Rangers to Tucson. Hunter was to seek support of the miners south of there and send scouts west along the Gila River to report on a build up of Union forces at Fort Yuma. On February 7 Sibley started up the Rio Grande toward Fort Craig, seventy miles distant. Leaving detachments to staff his hospital and guard supplies, he commanded 2,500 Texans, fifteen pieces of artillery, and an extensive supply train. At the Union post, Colonel Canby had taken advantage of the Confederate delay in organizing, and called in garrisons from Arizona, reinforced Fort Craig, activated the New Mexico volunteers and militia, and drawn ammunition and supplies from military depots at Albuquerque and Fort Union. Canby combined Col. Christopher (Kit) Carson's First New Mexico Volunteer regiment with regulars of the Fifth and Seventh Infantry, detachments of the First, Second, and Third Cavalry, and a company of Colorado Volunteers. By mid-February Canby had collected 3,800 men at Fort Craig, but only 1,200 were seasoned soldiers.

By February 16 Sibley, following the west bank of the Rio Grande, reached Fort Craig and found the fort too strong to be taken by assault. At the advice of Lt. Col. William R. Scurry and Col. Thomas Green, commanding the Fourth and Fifth Texas Mounted Volunteers, respectively, Sibley decided to cross the river below the post, bypass Canby to the north, and force the garrison to fight. Sibley's tactic brought on the Battle of Valverde on February 21. The Confederates moved 2,000 men onto the field, supported by artillery, to meet Canby, who had 1,200 regulars and 1,300 New Mexicans and Coloradoans. Sibley left the field, intoxicated and ill. Canby drove the Confederates back at first, but then saw his left flank collapse and ordered his men back into the fort. Sibley had won a pyrrhic victory. His soldiers were short of food and forage, and Canby blocked their supply line south to Mesilla. Rather than abandon the campaign, Sibley marched slowly north along the river toward Albuquerque. His major objective was Fort Union, the principal military depot in the Southwest. On March 2 Sibley reached Albuquerque and found the military depot destroyed. The Texans captured a small post at Cubero, west of town, and confiscated and purchased supplies from local merchants and citizens. An advance party rode north sixty miles and occupied the territorial capital of Santa Fe and its abandoned Fort Marcy. Snow storms stalled the Confederate advance for almost two weeks. Sibley remained in Albuquerque and entrusted Scurry with directing the attack on Fort Union, 100 miles northeast from Santa Fe.

Scurry learned that a Union force was hastening south to Fort Union, and dispatched Maj. Charles L. Pyron eastward along the Santa Fe Trail to meet the threat. The advancing host consisted of the First Colorado Volunteers from the gold mining districts around Denver City, along with regulars at Fort Union. Col. John P. Slough was in command. On the morning of March 26 Pyron's 400 Texans left their camp near Cañoncito and clashed with the Union vanguard, 420 strong, commanded by Maj. John M. Chivington in the battle of Apache Canyon. Chivington forced the Texans to retire. Pyron sent an appeal for help. At Koslowski's Ranch, Slough split his forces. He sent Chivington and 500 men in a flanking movement to hit the Confederate supply wagons. Slough led the main force of 850 regulars and Coloradoans to meet the Texans. On March 28, at Pigeon's Ranch, near Glorieta Pass, Slough struck Scurry's Confederates. The Texans, slightly outnumbering the Union troops, forced Slough back to Koslowski's Ranch. In the meantime, Chivington had destroyed the Confederate supply train. The wagons contained everything the Confederates needed to continue their march to Fort Union. The key battle of Sibley's New Mexico campaign was over. The battle of Glorieta was a significant Union victory and the high-water mark of the Confederacy in the far west.

After Glorieta Scurry retreated back to Santa Fe, then south to Albuquerque. On April 8, Canby, marching north with 1,200 men, reached the city and sent a small force, with artillery, to skirmish with the Confederates in a fight known as the battle of Albuquerque. Canby's feint drew the Confederates out of Santa Fe, then out of Albuquerque by April 12. Canby joined forces with Union troops arriving from Glorieta and followed Sibley's exhausted men southward. On April 15 at Peralta, twenty miles south of Albuquerque, Canby surprised Sibley's straggling column in the so-called battle of Peralta. One Union man and four Confederates were killed. This was the last Civil War battle in New Mexico. Canby decided that both armies could not subsist on the meager resources in the region and permitted the Texans to escape. Hunter's company had returned from Tucson, having skirmished on April 15 at Picacho Peak with California troops advancing along the Gila to join Canby. Sibley detoured around Fort Craig through the rugged San Mateo Mountains and during May reached the Mesilla Valley with 1,800 weary men. The Confederates spent May and much of June in the Fort Bliss vicinity. They gathered supplies and raided north into New Mexico for horses needed for the journey home. During June Sibley's men, traveling in small parties, headed for San Antonio. By early July the Confederate rear guard at Mesilla left for Texas. The California Column of 1,400 men, led by Brig. Gen. James H. Carleton, had crossed the Arizona deserts and arrived on the Rio Grande. Sibley's New Mexico campaign was a disaster. Of the 3,200 troops concentrated around Fort Bliss during the winter of 1861–62, 500 became prisoners of war. The able-bodied Confederates marched east to prison in Illinois, and in September 1862 were exchanged for Union prisoners. Some 500 Texans died from the effects of combat and disease. The most obvious casualty was Sibley's reputation. His men considered him incompetent, a drunkard, and a coward; he had not commanded in any of the battles they fought. The Sibley campaign held out the promise of wealth for the war effort and a Confederacy stretching from the Atlantic to Pacific, but the lack of resources and a determined foe sealed its fate.

Don E. Alberts, ed., Rebels on the Rio Grande: The Civil War Journal of A. B. Peticolas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984). Martin Hardwick Hall, The Confederate Army of New Mexico (Austin: Presidial Press, 1978). Martin Hardwick Hall, Sibley's New Mexico Campaign (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1960). Theophilus Noel, Campaign from Santa Fe to the Mississippi (Shreveport, Louisiana, 1865; rpt., Houston: Stagecoach Press, 1961). Jerry D. Thompson, Henry Hopkins Sibley: Confederate General of the West (Natchitoches, Louisiana: Northwestern State University Press, 1987).

Time Periods:

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Don E. Alberts, “Sibley Campaign,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 19, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996

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