Fort Craig — Preserving Important History of the Old West - SantaFe.com
The remains of Fort Craig in New Mexico. Photo by Bud Russo.

Just south of Socorro, on the west bank of the Rio Grande, sits the remains of Fort Craig, among the prominent bastions of defense in the new American territory. It’s unlikely many would remember it.

PLIA’s Virtual Fort Craig

Perhaps that’s why the Public Lands Interpretive Association (PLIA) created a virtual reconstruction of the fort. “PLIA partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to bring public awareness about this little-known fort with a big history,” says Camisha Cordova, PLIA Fort Craig outreach coordinator. “We want to bring the visitor back in time to when the fort was in its prime — full of bustle, full of life, and to make the visitor aware of its unique history here in New Mexico, as well as its part in Civil War History.”

The virtual model is available for viewing at the Fort Craig Visitor Center. Learn more here.

Cordova says many people are aware of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, but most are not aware of the largest battle that took place before Glorieta, nor the fact Fort Craig was one of the largest and well-known forts in the area for its time.

Old image of Fort Craig in New Mexico.
Old image of Fort Craig in New Mexico.

Largest Fort in the Southwest

Fort Craig was built in 1854, replacing an earlier installation. When flooding washed out the fort, a new one was established on higher ground. The fort consisted of some 22 buildings on 40 acres of land. It included officers’ quarters and enlisted barracks, warehouses and commissary buildings, stables, hospital, ordinance shed, and sutler’s store — all surrounded by earthworks and a defensive ditch. The only access to the fort was through the stone guard house and sally port wide enough to accommodate a single wagon.

El Camino Real Secured

Colonel Canby
Colonel Canby

The fort existed principally to protect travelers and settlers from raiding Apaches, outlaws, and Mexican revolutionaries along El Camino Real at the northern end of the Jornada del Muerto.

Confederates Prevented from Reaching California

By July 1861, after the first battles of the Civil War back east, Fort Craig, with over 2,000 soldiers, had become the largest fort in the Southwest. The U.S. government was insistent Texas Confederates would not be able to use New Mexico to access gold fields in California or deep-water Pacific ports for resupply, both of which the CSA desperately needed.

Enough Food to Feed an Army

Several years before the war, the U.S. Army had constructed two bomb-proof commissary buildings, each large enough to hold as much as 100,000 pounds of rice. In February 1862, Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley — with 2,500 Confederate troops — approached the fort, intent on capturing its stores to feed and outfit his army. Sibley was a West Point classmate of Colonel Edward Canby, who commanded Fort Craig. They were related by marriage to cousins.

Tricks Of a Clever Commander

The Yankees had interspersed Quaker guns — fake wooden cannons — and empty soldiers’ caps among the real cannons and caps with real soldiers under them around the perimeter. The appearance of impregnability squelched Sibley’s plan for a direct assault. Instead, the Confederates moved north to lure Union soldiers away from their fort.

A drawing of a Quaker gun - a fake wooden cannon - of the type used at Fort Craig.
A drawing of a Quaker gun – a fake wooden cannon – of the type used at Fort Craig.

Forces Meet at Valverde

When the U.S. Army pursued, the two forces finally engaged at Valverde, six miles north. By battle’s end, the Rebels had won the field but were so short of supplies they could not press for victory. The Confederates lost 200 dead or wounded, the Union 263. A month later, Sibley was defeated at the Battle of Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe, terminating the Confederate initiative. They retreated to Texas and never threatened New Mexico again.

Post-Civil War

At the end of the Civil War, the Army returned its attention to pacifying Apaches. Led by Geronimo, Victorio, and Nana, they proved to be superior guerrilla fighters, stymieing the Army’s every attempt. But the gentle breeze of a few soldiers soon turned into a tornado of humanity as ranchers, farmers, miners, and others persisted in settling the land. The sheer number of Americans coming into the area denied the Indigenous people the resources they needed to maintain their lifestyles. What guns couldn’t achieve, increasing settlements and development succeeded in doing. In 1880, Victorio died in Tres Castillos, Mexico. Five years later, Geronimo and Nana surrendered.

A hand-drawn map of Fort Craig.
A hand-drawn map of Fort Craig.

Fort Craig’s History Comes to An End

Fort Craig was disbanded in 1885 and sold at auction nine years later. The fort was excavated in the 1930s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The property was eventually donated to Archaeological Conservancy and transferred to the Bureau of Land Management in 1981 as a special management area.

Enter PLIA

“PLIA’s goal is to design a virtual interpretive program with a 3-D reconstruction model of the fort,” Cordova says. “It will be hands-on and interactive, with a three-part mini docuseries, providing information about the fort’s historical significance.” The existing model/diorama will be moved to a museum in Socorro where it will continue to inform and provide educational value. “The new virtual model,” she adds, “will be programed into a touchscreen computer kiosk unit which will give the visitor center a fresh and updated look.”

PLIA began the project with New Mexico Records and Archives to look through old site plans, photographs, and maps of the fort. “Based on this information and with the help of a Civil War consultant,” Cordova says, “our graphic design team began work on the digital reconstruction of the fort. The virtual model will include all aspects of the fort with minute details, such as dirt textures, trees, cannons, the mast, carts, and other aspects of fort life that is virtually identical to that of what Fort Craig would have looked like while it was operating during the Civil War.”

Indigenous People Included

“We feel it’s important to shed light on all sides of the story, including those of New Mexico’s Indigenous population,” Cordova says. “For far too long, history has only been told by the victor, erasing stories of Indigenous people.”

It is PLIA’s goal to strengthen government-to-government relationships with sovereign Tribal nations through actively coordinating with nearby reservations and pueblos. “This will ensure cultural and historical content is accurate and respectful,” she continues, “and grant tribes the opportunity to share their own perspective on the history of the area.”

Support the Fort Craig Virtual Reconstruction Project

PLIA would welcome your support. Contributions to PLIA, especially their efforts at Fort Craig, gives them the ability to deliver a sophisticated, entertaining, and well-researched interpretive display at the site of one of New Mexico’s most important contributions to the Civil War. Donations can be made to PLIA. Check out the web site.

A visitor strolls among the ruins of Fort Craig.
A visitor strolls among the ruins of Fort Craig near the old commissary.

Visit Fort Craig

The visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday through Monday and is closed Tuesday and Wednesday. There is a self-guided interpretive trail and picnic area open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to one hour before sunset. There are no fees to visit the fort.

Fort Craig is about 35 miles south of Socorro. From the north, take I-25 to the San Marcial exit, then east over the Interstate, and south on Highway 1. From the south, exit I-25 at mile marker 115 and travel north on Highway 1. Follow the signs to Fort Craig.

Read an 1864 letter home from Fort Sumner here.

Story by Bud Russo.

 

This story sponsored by the PUBLIC LANDS INTERPRETIVE ASSOCIATION

Public Lands Interpretive Association logo

This article was posted by Cheryl Fallstead

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