Bringing the Civil War to life in New Mexico

When we saw a couple of women in hoop skirts and sunbonnets walking across the dusty parking lot, we knew we were in the right place: the annual re-enactment of the Civil War Battle of Valverde near Socorro, NM.

The New Mexico campaign is a Civil War footnote. Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley invaded the New Mexico Territory with a brigade of Texas volunteers in a grand scheme to capture the Colorado gold fields and open a supply route to California. His force of 2,500 men met a Union force of about 3,000 from nearby Fort Craig at Valverde ford on the Rio Grande in February 1862.

highres_447302775Before the battle we wandered through the Union and Confederate camps, where re-enactors were living in rustic comfort with canvas tents and folding wood furniture. Womenfolk and kids in vintage costume were cooking hearty meals over campfires, though a few hardcore re-enactors subsist on coffee and crackers that simulate Civil War hardtack.

Despite their zeal for roughing it with historical accuracy, the re-enactors were more comfortable than their 1862 counterparts. The Confederate invaders were lightly equipped and learned that living off the land is not a good strategy in the New Mexico desert. Shortly before the battle of Valverde they lost some of their supply wagons and mules in a skirmish, and were desperately short of water because the Union battle line was between them and the Rio Grande.

Civil War re-enacting is a serious hobby. An “authentic” wool uniform costs around $200 and working-replica muskets are $700. Vintage tents start at around $200. One re-enactor couple even had a Matthew Brady-style camera and their very own cannon. A weekend Civil Warrior may need a fatter checkbook than the average golfer.

Re-enactors come from all walks of life. We met a history professor and a grad IMG_2223student. A few women wore uniforms instead of hoop skirts and carried muskets. There’s also a lot of fraternization with the “enemy.” The Confederate and Union camps were about 50 yards apart. One re-enactor told me he owns both Union and Confederate uniforms and joins whichever side needs to fill its ranks.

No re-enactor admitted to playing the role of Confederate Gen. Sibley, who had a drinking problem and was “indisposed” in his tent during the entire battle.

This year’s battle left much to the imagination. The re-enactment site is about 30 miles north of the Valverde ford, where shifting of the river’s course obliterated a battlefield that’s now part of Ted Turner’s wildlife reserve. Spectators set up folding chairs on a bridge overlooking the scene, and a narrator with a megaphone described what was happening.

By necessity, re-enactments are a microcosm of Civil War battles that involved tens of IMG_2228thousands of troops. On this day a couple of dozen re-enactors represented about 5,000 soldiers in both armies. Unlike the re-enactment I attended a few years ago, neither army had horses (and, happily, did not attempt to simulate cavalry with Monty Python coconut shells).

Still, the re-enactors soldiered on and accurately portrayed a Confederate infantry charge that captured a battery of Union cannon. The mini-armies exchanged cannon shots and musket volleys across an open field. Then the Confederates advanced and a few soldiers on both sides fell as “casualties.” (In larger re-enactments, participants draw cards to select casualties in advance.) A final Confederate charge overran the Union line and the battle was over. Then the casualties came back to life, and everybody shook hands and lined up to pose for pictures.

The original battle of Valverde was a costly Confederate victory. Sibley’s depleted force marched on to capture Albuquerque and occupy Santa Fe. They had expected local farm workers to rise up against their Spanish landlords and join their army, but New Mexicans disliked Texans more and supported the Union.

The final battle of the New Mexico campaign took place a month later at Glorieta Pass, northeast of Santa Fe. The Confederates again won the battle but a Union raiding party, guided by local Hispanics, attacked the rear of the Confederate force and destroyed its supply train – forcing the Confederates to retreat back to Texas.

This year’s battle had a happier ending. The re-enactors strolled back to their camps for lunch, to gather later in nearby Socorro for a Civil War fashion show and “fandango” party. My friends and I got in our cars and left the field in search of green chile cheeseburgers.

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