Heritage, Volume 14, Number 3, Summer 1996 Page: 20
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been ordered to do, only five days after his
resignation from the Union. A strict adherent
of military protocol, Sibley waited
patiently for his dismissal papers to arrive.
Finally on June 13, 1861, Sibley left command
of Fort Union to return to Richmond,
Virginia, the capital of the Confederate
States, to await his orders from
Jefferson Davis. The Southern War Department
immediately promoted Sibley to
the permanent rank of lieutenant colonel
of the infantry and to the provisional rank
of brigadier general.
On August 12, 1861, Sibley arrived in
San Antonio where he began to gather
men for what would become known as
"The Army of New Mexico". The purpose
of the "Army" was to drive Federal forces
from New Mexico, conquer Colorado, and
secure the gold and mining interests of
California and the entire western United
States for the Confederacy. It was a grand
and bold strategy for the South, amounting
to a complete seizure of more than half the
territorial lands from the Federal government.
Undoubtedly, a triumphant outcome
for the South would have gravely hindered
the Union and categorically altered the
outcome of the Civil War. Certainly, General
Sibley was not lacking in mettle and
daring, but the military genius and soldier's
luck that had served him so well in the past,
brought him to the forefront of so many
historic and decisive battles, would abandon
him as he faced his own disastrous
Waterloo in the mountains outside Santa
Fe. Poorly equipped and scarcely supported
by the already financially strapped Southern
bureaucracy, Sibley was given little
more than their blessings to accomplish his
Undaunted, Sibley enlisted more than
2,000 men, the vast majority being Texas
farmers and laborers eager to fight for their
newborn country of Confederate states.
Rowdy, undisciplined, and green, the Army
of New Mexico acquired their arms from
Federal forts taken in the Lone Star state.
In October of 1861, Sibley, along with
Colonel James Reily (who fought in the
Texas Revolution), commander of the
Fourth Regiment; Colonel Tom Green (boy
hero of the Battle of San Jacinto), commander
of the Fifth Texas Cavalry; and
Colonel William Steele, commander of
the Seventh Texas Cavalry, left San Antonio
in a staggered march so as to provide
sufficient water and grazing for the animals
in their expedition.
By February of 1862 the bedraggled Confederate
troops were positioned alongside
the Union's Rio Grande stronghold, Fort
Craig. (Ironically, in a war replete with
extraordinary ironies, Fort Craig was commanded
at the time by General Sibley's
brother-in-law, Union General Richard
Edward Canby.) "The Battle of Valverde",
as it was to become known, was a costly
Confederate victory. Although many of
General Canby's 1,200 soldiers were slain
by Confederate fire and Sibley ended up
capturing valuable Union weapons and
ammunition, the Fort itself was never penetrated.
Sibley and his men, anxious to
proceed north, left the barely alive survivors
of Fort Craig to lick their wounds. (In
hindsight, this was an unusually unwise
decision to leave behind a garrison of defeated,
embittered enemy soldiers to "guard"
your migrating rear.)
The stories of Sibley's prodigious drinking
habits began to proliferate around this
time. Called the "Walking Whiskey Keg"
by some of his troops, Sibley became "exhausted"
from his all-night drinking bouts
during the battle of Valverde and had to be
relieved by Colonel Tom Green. He resumed
command as the Federal soldiers
began their retreat. In the siege of Santa Fe
and during the Confederate trouncing at
Glorieta Pass, Sibley was described at vari
ous times as being highly intoxicated.
Granted, there is no excuse for Sibley's
conduct, but it should be noted the extent
to which he was plagued by serious kidney
ailments for most of his adult life. Frequently
bedridden, he took "medication"
habitually. The excessive use of alcohol
that existed in most medications at the
time was no doubt a chronic influence on
his behavior. Whether continued alcohol
consumption offered further relief or mere
escape, whether his "addiction" was prescribed
at an early age or simply acquired -
all remain conjecture. Certainly alcohol
and the life of a frontier soldier were no
strangers. For whatever reason - years of
isolation stationed at desolate posts, warding
off hunger, boredom, cold, pain, or fear,
alcohol was frequently a soldier's sole, consistent
ally. From Ulysses S. Grant, who
was reported to have been drunk at both
Shiloh and the siege of Vicksburg (Grant
went so far as to resign from the army in
1854 to avoid being court-martialed for
inebriation), to Generals Sheridan, Totten,
Breckinridge, Cheatham, and countless
other Civil War veterans, the label of alcoholic
tainted all of them.
Sibley and his men continued north
from Valverde, easily overwhelming the
populations of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
In Santa Fe Sibley determined the huge
Federal warehouses at Fort Union, his
former command post, would be the next
Confederate acquisition. Due to ill health
or drunkenness (or both), Sibley stayed
behind and sent Colonel Bill Scurry ("Dirty
Shirt Bill") along with 1,100 troops, eastward
over the Santa Fe trail (the same trail
platted by Sibley's Uncle, George C. Sibley,
40 years before). What followed was to
become the largest, most calamitous battle
ever fought in the American West during
the Civil War.
Colonel John P. Slough had marched
on foot from Colorado with 1,300 Union
troops (the "1st Regiment of Colorado
Volunteers") to counter Sibley's advance.
Colorado Territorial Governor William
Gilpin had hastily organized the inexperienced
recruits himself. (In another ironic
coincidence, Sibley and Gilpin had once
been close schoolmates at West Point together.)
On March 26, 1862, in what would be
called "The Gettysburg of the West", the
two forces met up with each other quite by
surprise, 20 miles east of Santa Fe in Apache
Canyon. The site was the old Pigeon Ranch
20 HERITAGE *SUMMER 1996
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 14, Number 3, Summer 1996, periodical, Summer 1996; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45405/m1/20/: accessed April 27, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.