In 1861, just three months into the conflict, the Civil War reached New Mexico. Confederate leaders wanted to extend their territory to the Pacific Ocean. Control of New Mexico would allow easy access to Pacific shipping routes and the natural mineral resources of Colorado and California.
Between July 1861 and March 1862, two major battles and a dozen skirmishes happened in New Mexico, involving about 3,500 Confederate and 5,000 Union soldiers. More than 300 Union and Confederate soldiers died in New Mexico. Twice as many men were wounded, and many more captured.
Skirmish at Fort Fillmore
In late July 1861, 300 Texas troops led by Confederate Col. John Baylor captured Fort Fillmore, just outside of Las Cruces, without losing a man. More than 400 United States soldiers were taken prisoner. Baylor named the town of Mesilla as the capital of the new Confederate Territory of Arizona
Battle of Valverde
In early 1862, Confederate Gen. Henry Sibley and his 2,600 Texans marched up the Mesilla Valley to Fort Craig, about 15 miles south of Socorro. On February 21, 1862, the Confederate forces met 3,800 United States troops led by Col. Edward S. Canby outside the village of Valverde, near Fort Craig. After several hours of fighting, the Confederates took a key battery and forced Union troops to retreat to the fort across the river. Sibley’s supplies were depleted and, rather than attack the fort, he bypassed it and headed north.
Battle of Glorieta Pass
By the end of February, Sibley’s Confederate forces took Albuquerque and Santa Fe, but their success was short-lived. On March 26, 1862, Union forces from Colorado and northern New Mexico won a small battle at Apache Canyon. Two days later on May 28, and just a few miles south, the troops met in the wide mountain pass along the Santa Fe Trail.
Later referred to as “The Gettysburg of the West,” the Battle of Glorieta Pass was the decisive battle in New Mexico. Although the Confederates could claim victory in the battle, the Union forces destroyed the Confederate supply wagons. This was a critical blow to Sibley’s campaign. With the arrival of United States reinforcements, the Confederates retreated to Texas.