The Civil War

Fought Along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro NHT

Confederate Dreams

Soon after the Civil War broke out, Confederate political and military leaders hatched a plan for Western conquest. They would raise a force in Texas, march up the Rio Grande (along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro), take Santa Fe, turn northeast on the Santa Fe Trail, capture the federal supplies at Fort Union, head up to Colorado, capture the gold fields, and then turn west to take California. New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado were "giant recruiting grounds" for potential enlistees to the Southern cause. All three states had populations loyal to the Confederacy, and southern New Mexico had already effectively seceded from the government at Santa Fe and formed a separate territory extending all the way to California.

Need for supplies

War materials in New Mexico were rumored to be extensive-6,000-8,000 rifles and 25-30 cannon-and the morale of the federal troops guarding the territory was said to be abysmal. Capture of the southwest would mean more wealth for the Confederacy from the rich mines of Colorado. Slavery could be expanded-especially into fertile California-and Arizona could be used as a springboard to invade Mexico.

CSA Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley
CSA Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley

Circumvent the Blockade

And perhaps most important, there would be access to 1,200 miles of California coastline with many open, blockade-free ports. Open trading ports meant better chance of recognition by, and trading with, European countries.

In the spring of 1861, Jefferson Davis commissioned General Henry Hopkins Sibley to raise three full regiments in West Texas, which eventually became the Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Texas Volunteer Cavalry. The Fourth was commanded by Colonel James Reily with Colonel William R. Scurry second in command. The Fifth was led by Colonel Thomas Green with Lieutenant Harry C. Macneill, and the Seventh was commanded by Colonel William Steele with Lieutenant Colonel J. S. Sutton as second. Lieutenant Colonel John Baylor, self-appointed governor of the new territory, led the Second Texas Regiment, Mounted Rifles. By late fall 1861, there were 3,500 men prepared to invade New Mexico.

By June 1861 Lieutenant Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, Union commander of the Department of New Mexico, was alerted to the Confederate mobilization near El Paso. To prepare, Canby moved to enlarge his army of only 2,500 men. He appealed to Colorado Governor William Gilpin for two companies of militia and New Mexico Governor Abraham Rencher for 11 companies of volunteers. On July 23, 1861, Baylor crossed the line into New Mexico Territory to take the federal Fort Fillmore near Mesilla, which surrendered to them in a controversial move on the 27th.

Union General Edward Canby
Union General Edward Canby

The federals fell back and reorganized. Canby increased his requests for volunteers. By February, 1862, Canby reported that he had 4,000 troops at the ready, and 3,000 Confederates under Sibley's command were moving up the Rio Grande Valley (along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro).

February 21, 1862, saw the first major conflict between Union and Confederate forces in the West: the Battle of Valverde near Fort Craig, 100 miles south of Albuquerque. The Texans won the battle with 200 casualties attributed to each side. However, Fort Craig remained in Union hands under Canby. Needing supplies, the Confederates began a steady march up the Rio Grande and took possession of Albuquerque on March 2, 1862. Major Charles Pyron of the Second Texas Regiment was sent on to unprotected Santa Fe and hoisted the Confederate flag over the Palace of the Governors on March 13.

With supplies running low, Sibley knew they could not remain idle, so he determined to advance on Fort Union to capture its great stores and arsenal. That advance along the Santa Fe Trail resulted in the Battle of Glorieta Pass, a defeat that forced Sibley and his men to retreat south along El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Lacking supplies to continue their fight, they quickly abandoned both Santa Fe and Albuquerque, and by June 1862 the Confederate force had retreated back to El Paso, never to fight in the West again.


Fort Craig played a crucial role in the Civil War along El Camino Real. Visit Fort Craig online and then in person!

Visit Civil War 150 for more Civil War stories at National Park Service sites.

Last updated: February 13, 2020

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National Trails Office Regions 6|7|8
El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail
1100 Old Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe, NM 87505

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