The Battle of Albuquerque: What Happened Here & Why

Throwback Thursday!!  ABQ & the Civil War

NOB HILL--This week marks the 148th anniversary of the so-called "Battle of Albuquerque." It started on April 8, 1862 and ended sometime after darkness fell on April 9th. There was only one casualty: A Union Major, Thomas Duncan, while dodging a bouncing six-pound cannonball on horseback, fell to the ground and seriously injured himself.

But this skirmish was important in the larger scheme of things, for it hastened the withdrawal of Confederate forces from Santa Fe and started the Texans on their way back down the Rio Grande. These Texans had retreated to Santa Fe after losing all their supplies in the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which is depicted in a stylized way in the banner to this story.

Albuquerque artist and amateur historian Ken Saville is convinced that as they were leaving Albuquerque at the conclusion of the "battle," Union troops marched through the Nob Hill area on their way from Old Town to Tijeras Canyon. And it is extremely probable that at the very least Union scouts stood atop Nob Hill and watched for signs of movement from the Confederate encampment near the Armijo Mill east of Old Town.

The Civil War in New Mexico
Briefly, the Civil War here started with Confederate Brigadier General Henry Sibley invading New Mexico with a force of 2600 Texans whose mission was to live off the land while advancing against the Union army. His objective was to capture Fort Craig (near Socorro) and Fort Union (north of Las Vegas) in New Mexico, continuing north to the Colorado gold fields and then (some say) turning west to conquer the gold fields and seaports of California as well.

The first confrontation was at Fort Craig. The Union troops were led by Colonel Edward Canby (pictured below). They were augmented by three regiments of New Mexico Volunteers, including Lt. Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson.

Bloody Valverde
That battle, on February 21, 1862 came to be known as "The Battle of Valverde." It is said to be the largest Civil War battle fought in the western United States. However, Canby refused to be drawn out of the fort for a huge all-out set-to and eventually the rebels continued north toward Santa Fe and Fort Union without being able to capture the supplies they so desperately needed. Canby's 3000 man army remained behind the adobe walls and berms to the rear of Sibley's forces. The Confederates next occupied Albuquerque. Then they occupied Santa Fe. Finding little opposition, they set off into Apache Canyon east of Santa Fe heading toward Las Vegas.

Glorieta
However, they ran smack into a couple thousand Colorado Volunteers under the command of Col. John Slough. There were two main battles there, which became known as "The Battle of Glorieta Pass." One was on March 26th, which the Union won. The second was on March 28th, which the Confederates won. But while they were winning that encounter on the field of battle, Lt. Colonel Manuel Chavez of the New Mexico Volunteers led some Union troops over Glorieta Mesa to the rear of the rebel attack units. They found all of Sibley's supply wagons and burned them to the ground. The Texans were left without food, water, clothing, cooking supplies, or ammunition. They retreated to Santa Fe, but there wasn't enough there to outfit the army. There was barely enough to eat.

The Battle of Glorieta Pass is sometimes called "The Gettysburg of the West" because it represents the high-water mark of the Confederacy in the western U.S.

Canby Advances North to Albuquerque
Back at Fort Craig, Col. Canby was concerned when he heard that Slough had risked his whole army in one big battle against Confederate forces. Canby was convinced that Sibley's effort was doomed from the start. For one thing, it is impossible for an army of several thousand to "live off the land" in New Mexico. For another, although most New Mexicans were none too enchanted with the federal government (New Mexico had only been taken over by the U.S. 16 years previously), they generally disliked Texans even more. Also, by holding Fort Craig, Canby knew he could prevent reinforcements coming from Texas to the invading forces north of him.

And he also knew that Sibley now had positioned himself between two large Union armies, each of which was equal in size to his own army of Texans. Thus Canby was not too pleased at the prospect of a big battle that could turn the tide against what he saw as an inevitable Union victory. Canby was convinced that the Confederates would be forced to withdraw eventually without that one big battle that Sibley sought.

Lobbing Cannonballs Into Old Town
Canby decided he better head north to join up with the Colorado Volunteers. He reached the outskirts of Albuquerque on April 8th. That would be the day after tomorrow 148 years ago. He decided to fire a few cannonballs into the town to see what it would stir up. He had no idea how many rebels were here. As it turned out there were about 200. He set up four cannons about a mile east of the Armijo Mill which had become a Confederate strong point, and pounded the area with a good amount of accuracy.

After a while, several citizens who lived near the mill informed the Union battery that the rebels would not allow the people living there to seek refuge. Canby saw he was doing more damage to civilians than to the Confederates and quit firing. He had made his point anyway.

The Confederates had sent to Santa Fe for reinforcements even before the barrage started. This was what Canby wanted: to entice the rebels to leave Santa Fe and start them headed south. He did not want to defeat them in battle. He did not want to capture them and have to feed a couple thousand prisoners. He wanted them to leave New Mexico.

Canby Sneaks Out
The Union way north was up the eastern side of the Sandia Mountains. That way Canby would not meet any Confederate forces who were retreating south. But he did not want the rebels to know that he was gone...at least not immediately. Skirmishing continued in Albuquerque on April 9th without casualties. After dark, with their campfires burning brightly, Union troops hiked or rode east through Carnuel Pass and Tijeras Canyon.

Try imagining the topography without streets and houses. It is easy to see how Union troops probably did march over and around Nob Hill that night...all the while keeping their eyes peeled for activity in the valley near Old Town.

As it turned out, Canby left just in time, for the rebel army arrived the following day. It would be hard to say that the Confederates were disappointed. After all, they had little food and few bullets. They had also lost many of their line officers at Glorieta. I would imagine that most of the Texans just wanted to go home.

Canby's Union forces continued north along the east side of the Sandias. They passed through San Antonio. As fate would have it, Canby was retracing the route the rebels took when they advanced north three weeks earlier.

A.B. Peticolas
Believe it or not, there is a record of what San Antonio looked like back then. In the Confederate forces was a corporal who kept a journal. Not only that, he sketched what he could as part of the record. Some of his journals did not survive, having been burned at Glorieta in the wagon train. He was able to reconstruct them, however, using the notes another soldier had made of his original journal. Here is his sketch of San Antonio made on March 16, 1862.

A.B. Peticolas was a tall man: 6 feet 4 inches. He was a quiet schoolteacher from Virginia. His journal makes for fascinating reading. It was only published within the last 25 years. Rebels on the Rio Grande: The Civil War Journal of A.B. Peticolas. Edited by Don E. Alberts. UNM Press: 1984.

Further Reading
The Battle of Glorieta Pass. Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor. UNM Press: 1998. This is an excellent place to start.
Sibley's New Mexico Campaign. Martin Hardwick Hall. UNM Press: 1960. Great read.

Further Adventures
The "fun" did not stop for the Confederate forces. They continued south, following the river through Belen, Still afraid of another battle at Fort Craig, they left the Rio Grande near what is now the Bernardo exit of I-25 and took off cross-country to the west. Their retreat without much food, no ammo, and no water except for their canteens is truly epic and worthy of a book of its own. Heading down the west side of the Magdalena Mountains and then the east side of the San Mateo Mountains they were totally exhausted by the time they rejoined the river south of Nogal Canyon. Their trail was said to be littered with bodies. They had been left to die because there was no way to carry them all in the foothills especially without wagons. Sibley eventually made it back to Texas with less than a thousand men and very few wagons. Texas never again made war in New Mexico.

Views: 536

Comment by once banned twice shy on April 6, 2010 at 10:02am
For another, although most New Mexicans were none too enchanted with the federal government (New Mexico had only been taken over by the U.S. 16 years previously), they generally disliked Texans even more

Some things never change.
Comment by Masshole in Fringecrest on April 6, 2010 at 11:36am
Great piece of writing JM! Thanks for the history lesson, very fascinating.
Comment by Granjero on April 6, 2010 at 11:56am
It is really interesting. Even as a tried and true Texan, I can appreciate the history. Bringing 2600 troops without supplies to wage a war is pretty asinine.
Comment by Granjero on April 6, 2010 at 12:07pm
Comment by Johnny_Mango on April 6, 2010 at 12:45pm
Granjero- Yes, Sibley was indeed court-martialed...for cowardice! He somehow missed being at any of the battles here in New Mexico. Incidentally he was also known as a "walking whiskey keg." The character of the drunken general in the bridge stand-off scene in The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly is based on Sibley.

But he did have his moments. Prior to the Civil War he invented the conical tent used by the military all the way into the Korean War. He also invented the iron stove used in those tents. One of the Sibley stoves is on display in the Albuquerque Museum.

There are lots of stories about Gen. Sibley in New Mexico floating around...most of them disparaging. Canby also had his detractors--primarily focusing on his leadership at Valverde and his not pursuing the Confederates after Glorieta. Within the last 30 years or so, however, most feel that Canby was correct in his handling of the war in New Mexico.
Comment by Michael Cadigan on April 6, 2010 at 1:19pm
See also: Blood & Thunder by Santa Fean Hampton Sides for more on the New Mexico civil war saga. Great read.
Comment by Phil_0 on April 6, 2010 at 1:47pm
Interestingly, Canby also has the distinction of being the highest-ranking US officer to be killed during the Indian Wars of the post-Civil War period ("General" Custer held only a brevet rank).
Comment by J. Paul Lanier on April 6, 2010 at 4:05pm
Another riveting piece. Thank you, Johnny.
Comment by Adelita on April 6, 2010 at 7:37pm
This is why I love Johnny Mango! Another great piece of writing!
Comment by cc on April 6, 2010 at 8:50pm
Good job of thinking, Canby. Good job of writing, Mango.

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