Civil War in the Desert:

Rebels Push Into New Mexico Territory to Grab California Gold

Southern Sympathizers Break Away to Form Arizona Territory. Lincoln Pulls Back Troops, Leaving a Power Vaccum. The Battle of Glorieta Pass Proves To Be a Turning Point in the War for the West.

Sunday, August 31 2008 09:35   The Southwest
It surprises many people to hear that the American Civil War actually reached into the Southwest, into today's states of Arizona and New Mexico, and that Confederate forces once occupied Tucson, Arizona, and Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Compared to the battles that raged east of the Mississippi River, where tens of thousands of Union and Confederate forces faced and fought each other, the fighting in the deserts and mountains of the Southwest was more like a series of skirmishes.
Make no mistake about it: Men on both sides died, others were wounded and some were taken prisoner. Opposing forces, however, rarely numbered more than a couple thousand, and many times it was a few hundred doing the fighting.

What could be called the Confederate Southwest Campaign only lasted a little more than a year. It began when Southern sympathizers in New Mexico Territory seceded from the Union on March 16, 1861, and ended after the Battle of Glorieta Pass on March 28, 1862.

While there were several engagements during the Southwest Campaign, the most noteworthy battle sites for the North-South struggle can be experienced today at two places: Picacho Pass in Arizona and Glorieta Pass in New Mexico.

Both of these historic sites are now annual battlegrounds for Civil War re-enactors, and their popularity grows each year among the public.

The dates for Picacho Pass are held in March at Picacho Peak State Park. Operated by the Arizona State Parks, Picacho Peak SP is located roughly 60 miles south of Phoenix, and 40 miles north of Tucson. The Web site can be found at

The dates for Glorieta Pass are also in March at Pecos National Historical Park. Operated by the National Park Service, Pecos NHP is about 25 miles east of Santa Fe, New Mexico and includes the battleground. The Web site can be found at

Both battles were significant in the Southwest Campaign.

At Glorieta Pass, fighting took place over three days-March 26-28, 1862-and the net result was that Union forces halted Confederate efforts to control the Southwest. Because it stopped the Rebel westward advance, some historians call the three-day fighting the "Gettysburg of the West."

At Picacho Pass, on April 16, 1862, a small advance detachment of Union forces from California attacked a Confederate scouting party. The battle lasted for about 90 minutes. It was the most significant Civil War battle in Arizona.

Background to the Struggle

As the Civil War began in the East, decisions coming from President Abraham Lincoln and his War Department quickly rippled into the Southwest, actions that would open the door to a Confederate invasion.

First, the Union Army began pulling back troops from the frontier for use in eastern campaigns. That meant settlers and towns would be left unprotected against Indian attack.

Second, the federal government ordered the Butterfield Stage Line, which held the mail delivery contract between St. Louis and California, to change its route from going through Texas and New Mexico Territory to go further north through Nebraska and Utah.

Coming on the heels of troop withdrawals, the effect of ending Overland Mail through New Mexico Territory was devastating to settlers in the Southwest.

The two actions also had the effect of encouraging heightened Indian attacks. The Apaches, for example, watched the troop pullout and the closing of stage stops and concluded that their efforts to drive out the whites were having an effect. They decided to increase attacks.

The loss of the Butterfield Stage operations had another critical affect on settlers: communication with the outside world was severed.

Many of those who settled in the southern half of New Mexico Territory were from Texas and other southern states. Their sympathies were with the South. Plus they were angry at being abandoned by the federal government.

So in March 1861 Southern supporters gathered in Mesilla (New Mexico) and in Tucson (Arizona) to talk secession. On March 16, they voted to separate the southern part of the region from New Mexico Territory and the Union. The Arizona Territory was born.

Delegates declared that their new Arizona Territory, lands south of the 34th parallel from Texas all the way west to the Colorado River, should be attached to, and protected by, the Confederate States of America. Confederate flags began flying all over the new territory.

Arizona Territory was worth little to the Confederacy, except that it might provide a path to reaching Southern California. If the Confederacy could extend westward and take control of San Diego, it might give the South a Pacific Ocean port, provide the Confederacy with additional leverage to gain support from Europe, and threaten California gold shipments to the federal government.

Two men came forward with the dream of controlling the Arizona Territory and leading Southern forces into California: John R. Baylor and Henry Hopkins Sibley.

John R. Baylor, Adventurer

John R. Baylor had been a Texas rancher, farmer, slave owner, and Indian agent, and was someone who fiercely hated, and hunted, Indians. After Texas seceded from the Union, Baylor joined Confederate forces, was presented with the rank of lieutenant colonel and given command of the Second Texas Rifles. Baylor's responsibility was to occupy a couple of forts near El Paso, Texas.

CSA President Jefferson Davis on Feb. 14, 1862, ordered that the Arizona Territory be occupied and controlled. Baylor, now a full colonel, was one of the officers given a position in that effort, and he jumped at the chance.

On July 23, Baylor and about 260 troops planned an attack on federally-held Fort Fillmore near Mesilla (New Mexico). The fort's Union commander, Major Isaac Lynde, was warned about the pending attack, and Baylor decided to occupy Mesilla instead.

Lynde then took his force of 380 troops to Mesilla to demand Baylor's surrender. What followed was a series of skirmishes and raids that forced Lynde to retreat 80 miles to the northeast toward Fort Stanton.

Baylor followed Lynde and without a fight eventually captured the hundred or so Union stragglers. He returned to Mesilla with prisoners, Union supplies and $9,000 in federal Treasury notes.

On Aug. 1, Baylor made himself governor of the Confederate Territory of New Mexico, with its capitol in Mesilla. Ambitious and hungry for power, Baylor had a vision of an empire stretching to California. He planned to recruit 1,000 men, move his command to Tucson (Arizona), and move west. Baylor eventually would be discredited and forced to resign because of his order to slaughter every Apache in the country, but that's another story.

Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley

Before the war, Sibley had been a major in the Union army. His sympathies were Southern, so at the start of the war he joined the Confederacy. Like Baylor, Sibley had a vision. He went to Richmond, Virginia-the Confederacy's capitol-to persuade Southern leaders to invade the west. Afterall, Manafest Destiny wasn't' just for Yankees.

Sibley argued that with the Union withdrawing from forts throughout New Mexico Territory, a brigade (about 2,500 men) moving quickly could control the region and thrust into California.

Sibley wanted to take his forces into northern New Mexico Territory, control the valley of the Rio Grande, move along the Santa Fe Trail into Colorado, push to Denver, and then head west to California.

President Davis was supportive of the idea (especially the part where Sibley would take control of the Colorado goldfields) and commissioned Sibley as a brigadier general. Davis authorized Sibley to raise an army, but told Sibley he was on his own. The Confederate government could not help with money, supplies or troops. Sibley went back to Texas to begin raising the Confederate Army of New Mexico.

Early successes by both Baylor and Sibley were to be short lived. The Union army was not going to let the Texans alone for long.

Battle of Picacho Pass

The Arizona Rangers was a 60-man company of volunteers formed by Baylor. Captain Sherod Hunter, a Baylor supporter, was in charge. Gen. Sibley ordered the Rangers to move to Tucson and keep the old stagecoach roads to the west open. By late February, Hunter had occupied Tucson (the residents were supportive as long as Hunter kept the Apaches away) and sent out regular patrols along the road.

What was making Hunter nervous were reports that a large federal force was massing at Fort Yuma on the California side of the Colorado River, and was preparing to thrust eastward and engage Confederate forces. He was right.

Under the command of Union Colonel James H. Carleton, the California Column was a force of about 2,000 men, mostly volunteer militias with a few regulars tossed in.

On April 16, 1862, an advance party from the California Column attacked a small Ranger scouting party near Picacho Peak, which is about 40 miles north of Tucson. The brief engagement ended with three Union soldiers killed and three Rangers taken prisoner.

The Confederate westward movement ended right there.

Hunter had been effectively fighting a delaying action, but once Carleton and his California Column began driving east, the Rangers eventually had to evacuate Tucson and retreat east to Mesilla.

Battle of Glorieta Pass

Sibley, meanwhile, was hearing that federal forces were strengthening to the north and that Colorado volunteers, and possibly Kansas volunteers as well, were reinforcing the garrison at Fort Union, located about 100 miles northeast of Santa Fe, and preparing to move against him.

The National Park Service operates the American Battlefield Protection Program, and within that department it offers summaries of each Civil War battle, presented by the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission.

The following is the CWSAC's summary for Glorieta Pass.

"Glorieta Pass was a strategic location, situated at the southern tip of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, southeast of Santa Fe, and on the Santa Fe Trail. In March 1862, a Confederate force of 200-300 Texans under the command of Maj. Charles L. Pyron encamped at Johnson's Ranch, at one end of the pass.

"Union Maj. John M. Chivington led more than 400 soldiers to the pass and on the morning of March 26 moved out to attack. After noon, Chivington's men captured some Rebel advance troops and then found the main force behind them. Chivington advanced on them, but their artillery fire threw him back.

"He regrouped, split his force to the two sides of the pass, caught the Rebels in a crossfire, and soon forced them to retire. Pyron and his men retired about a mile and a half to a narrow section of the pass and formed a defensive line before Chivington's men appeared.

"The Yankees flanked Pyron's men again and punished them with enfilade fire. The Confederates fled again and the Union cavalry charged, capturing the rearguard. Chivington then retired and went into camp at Kozlowski's Ranch.

"No fighting occurred the next day as reinforcements arrived for both sides. Lt. Col. William R. Scurry's troops swelled the Rebel ranks to about 1,100 while Union Col. John P. Slough arrived with about 900 men[from Colorado]. Both Slough and Scurry decided to attack and set out early on the 28th to do so.

"As Scurry advanced down the canyon, he saw the Union forces approaching, so he established a battle line, including his dismounted cavalry. Slough hit them before 11:00 a.m. The Confederates held their ground and then attacked and counterattacked throughout the afternoon.

"The fighting then ended as Slough retired first to Pigeon's Ranch and then to Kozlowski's Ranch. Scurry soon left the field also, thinking he had won the battle.

"Chivington's men, however, had destroyed all Scurry's supplies and animals at Johnson's Ranch, forcing him to retreat to Santa Fe, the first step on the long road back to San Antonio, Texas.

"The federals had won and, thereby, stopped Confederate incursions into the Southwest. Glorieta Pass was the turning point of the war in the New Mexico Territory."

There were other battles and skirmishes that took place during the Southwest Campaign, such as the the Battle of Valverde (a Confederate victory), and they were an important part of the war in the West. But after Glorieta Pass, the Confederates were too busy fighting federal forces elsewhere, and Rebel finances, supplies and troops were being spread too thin as it was.

The threats to the California and Coloado goldfields where never again felt by Lincoln and his war cabinet.

[Editor's Note: The battle summaries were researched and written by Dale E. Floyd and David W. Lowe, staff members of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission and historians with the National Park Service. Edwin C. Bearss, Commission member and retired Chief Historian of the National Park Service, served as technical advisor. Editing and publication oversight was provided by Rebecca Shrimpton, Historic Preservation Planner, and Tanya M. Gossett, Historic Preservation Planner, both with the American Battlefield Protection Program (through a cooperative agreement with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers) We thank the National Park Service for providing us with the Battle of Glorieta Pass summary.]

The NPS' American Battlefield Protection Program's Web site can be found at


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