On February 21, 1862, at the Battle of Valverde, Confederate troops under General Henry Hopkins Sibley attack Union troops commanded by Colonel Edward R. S. Canby near Fort Craig in New Mexico Territory. The first major engagement of the Civil War in the far West, the battle produced heavy casualties but no decisive result.
This action was part of the broader movement by the Confederates to capture New Mexico and other parts of the West, and thereby secure territory that the Rebels thought was rightfully theirs but had been denied them by political compromises made before the Civil War. Furthermore, the cash-strapped Confederacy could use Western mines to fill its treasury. From San Antonio, the Rebels moved into southern New Mexico (which included Arizona) and captured the towns of Mesilla and Tucson. Sibley, with 3,000 troops, now moved north against the Federal stronghold at Fort Craig on the Rio Grande.
At Fort Craig, Canby was determined to make the Confederates lay siege to the post. The Rebels, Canby reasoned, could not wait long before running low on supplies.He knew that Sibley did not possess sufficiently heavy artillery to attack the fort. When Sibley arrived near Fort Craig on February 15, he ordered his men to swing east of the fort, cross the Rio Grande, and capture the Valverde fords of the Rio Grande. He hoped to cut off Canby’s communication and force the Yankees out into the open.
At the fords, five miles north of Fort Craig, a Union detachment attacked part of the Confederate force. They pinned the Texans in a ravine and were on the verge of routing the Rebels when more of Sibley’s men arrived and turned the tide. Sibley’s second in command, Colonel Tom Green, filling in for an ill Sibley, made a bold counterattack against the Union left flank. The Yankees fell back in retreat, and headed back to Fort Craig.
The Union suffered 68 killed, 160 wounded and 35 missing out of 3,100 engaged. The Confederates suffered 31 killed, 154 wounded and 1 missing out of 2,600 troops. It was a bloody but indecisive battle. Sibley’s men continued up the Rio Grande. Within a few weeks, they captured Albuquerque and Santa Fe before they were stopped at the Battle of Glorieta Pass on March 28.