Story by Michael Merritt, Archaeologist. Photos by Brenda Wilkinson, Archaeologist, and Matthew Brady.
February 2021 marked the 159th commemoration of the Battle of Valverde, a little-known yet important battle that took place during the American Civil War. Covetous of the Union’s Coloradoan goldfields and Californian harbors, in the winter of 1862, an expeditionary force of Confederate Texans was marching up the Rio Grande. If the Union-held territory of New Mexico could be captured, then the entire resource-rich Southwest might fall. Situated between the advancing Southerners and the New Mexican capital of Santa Fe stood Fort Craig.
Today, Fort Craig is a BLM Special Management Area and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
During the Civil War, the fort was manned in large part by native New Mexicans. Its formidable earthen walls were armed with what was commonly referred to as “Quaker Cannons,” or logs that had been painted black to resemble artillery. Rather than attack the fort, under the cover of darkness, Confederate forces crossed to the opposite side of the Rio Grande, thereby circling around Fort Craig to the north. Now, instead of Fort Craig blocking the Confederacy’s way to Santa Fe, it was the Union contingent that found itself trapped behind enemy lines. Formerly content to wait safely behind his fortifications, Union Commander Colonel Edward Canby was now forced to fight.
In an historical irony, the commander of Colonel Canby’s Southern opposition was one of his former comrades in arms, General Henry Hopkins Sibley. On the morning of February 21, Union soldiers advanced from the fort and engaged Sibley’s Confederates. The fierce fighting that followed saw around 500 casualties. While perhaps not as staggering a figure as those seen in more infamous Civil War battles, considering the relatively small number of combatants on both sides, Valverde was sanguinary, nonetheless. As one Confederate soldier put it: “the Rio Grande was dyed with Yankee Blood.”
Technically a Confederate victory, Valverde would prove to be a pyrrhic one (won at too great of a cost). When asked to surrender the fort, Colonel Canby flatly refused. Still intimidated by Fort Craig’s formidable barricades and “Quaker Canons,” General Sibley had no choice but to march his significantly depleted force north, leaving a Union threat looming behind him. Although successful in raising the Confederate flag over both Albuquerque and Santa Fe, by late March Confederate forces would be routed at Glorieta Pass, near Santa Fe.
In the aftermath, 500 of the formerly proud 3,500 Confederate invaders had been killed in battle or died of disease. Another 500 had either deserted or surrendered. Besides playing a role in the American Civil War, Fort Craig was also a crucial outpost in frontier campaigns and is associated with many notable Native American figures, including Victorio, Nana, and Geronimo. Other prominent figures whose stories are interwoven with Fort Craig include those of Kit Carson, Rafael Chacón, Captain Jack Crawford, as well as the renowned 9th Calvary, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
At Fort Craig today, an ADA accessible, self-guided interpretive trail is open seven days a week, from 8:00 a.m. to one-hour before sunset. The visitor’s center is open Thursday through Monday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The Archaeological Conservancy transferred ownership of Fort Craig to the BLM in 1981. It was designated as a BLM Special Management Area in 1989. For more information on Fort Craig, view the BLM brochure.