Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sibley's Retreat

"Sibley began his retreat on April 12, crossing the river with his main body to make camp that night, twenty miles south, on the west bank at Los Lunas. Next day, having stayed behind to bury their brass field pieces, for which they had neither shells nor powder, the remainder followed down the east bank to Peralta, nearly opposite. Canby marched in pursuit, his reinforcements having arrived that day from Fort Union. He was not trying to cut the rebels off and then destroy them. The last thing he wanted, in fact, was for them to turn and fight or even stop to catch their breath. What he wanted was for them to leave, the sooner the better; he wanted them out of the territory for whose protection he was responsible. At Peralta, coming upon the smaller Confederate segment, he gave it a nudge. "As we galloped across the bottom toward them they fluttered like birds in a snare," a Coloradan wrote. But that was all. When they scurried across the river, then turned south with the main body to continue the retreat, Canby turned south, too, but he remained on the eastern bank. For two days the retreat continued in this fashion, the two armies marching in plain view of each other, often within cannon range, on opposite banks of the fordable Rio Grande. Canby's men were outraged, shouting for him to send them across the river to slaughter the tatterdemalions who had been so arrogant two months before, when they were headed in opposite direction. The northern commander was deaf alike to protests and appeals, however passionate. If there was to be any killing done, he would rather let the desert do it for him.

"Beginning with the third day, the desert got its chance. When the Federals woke to reveille that morning near La Joya, they could see campfires burning brightly across the river. Dawn showed no signs of life in the camp, however, and after waiting a long while for the Texans to begin their march Canby send some scouts across, who returned with the news that the camp was abandoned; the rebels had left in the night. Sibley, it appeared, had wanted a battle even less than Canby did. Approaching Socorro, with Fort Craig only a day's march beyond, he had left under cover of darkness in an attempt to shake his pursuers and swung westward on a hundred-mile detour to avoid a clash with whatever troops the fort's commander might have left to garrison it. Canby did not pursue. He knew the country Sibley was taking his men through, out there beyond the narrow valley benches. It was a all desert, and he was having no part of it. He marched his troopers leisurely on to the safety and comfort of Fort Craig, arriving April 22. By that time Sibley's Texans were at the midpoint of their detour. Canby was content to leave their disposal to the desert.

It was one of the great marches of all time, and one of the great nightmares ever after for the men who survived it. They had no guide, no road, not even a trail through that barren waste, and they began the ten-day trek with five days' poor rations, including water. What few guns they had brought along were dragged and lowered up and downhill by men, who fashioned long rope harnesses for the purpose. For miles the brush and undergrowth were so dense they they had to cut and hack their way through with bowie knives and axes. Skirting the western slopes of the Madelenas, they crossed the Sierra de San Meteo, then staggered down the dry bed of the Palomas River until they reached the Rio Grande again, within sight of which the Texans send up a shout like the 'Thalassa!' of Xenophon's then thousand. From start to finish, since heading north at the opening of the year, they had suffered a total of 1700 casualties. Something under 500 of these fell or were captured in battle, and of the remaining 1200 who did not get back to Texas, a good part crumpled along the wayside during this last one hundred miles. They reached the river with nothing but their guns and what they carried on their persons. A northern lieutenant, following their trail a year later, reported that he 'not infrequently found a piece of a gun-carriage, or part of a harness, or some piece of camp or garrison equipage, with occasionally a white, dry skeleton of a man. At some points it seemed impossible for men to have made their way.'

"Sibley reached Fort Bliss in early May, with what was left of his command strung out for fifty miles behind him. Here he mad his report to the Richmond government, a disillusioned man. He confined his observations to the field of his late endeavor, and even these were limited to abuse: 'Except for its geographical position, the Territory of New Mexico is not worth a quarter of the blood and treasure expended in its conquest. As a field for military operations it possesses not a single element, except in the multiplicity of its defensible positions. The indispensable element, food, cannot be relied on.' Nor did he express any intention of giving the thing another try. The grapes had soured in the desert heat, setting his teeth on edge. 'I cannot speak encouragingly for the future,' he concluded, 'my troops having manifested a dogged, irreconcilable detestation of the country and the people.'

"The report was dated May 4. Ten days later he assembled the 2000 survivors on the parade ground, all that were left of the 3700 Texans he had taken north from there four months before. After thanking them for their devotion and self-sacrifice during what he called 'this more than difficult campaign,' he continued to retreat to San Antonio, where he took leave of them and they disbanded. It was finished. All his high hopes and golden dreams had come to nothing, like the newly founded Territory of Arizona, which had gone out of existence with his departure. Any trouble the Unionists might encounter in the upper Rio Grande Valley from now on would have to come from rattlers and Apaches; the Confederates were out of there for good. As far as New Mexico and the Far West was concerned, the Civil War was over."

- Shelby Foote
The Civil War,
Fort Sumter to Perryville

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