Remembering a Civil War hero

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By Sherry Robinson

Over the past month, we’ve been recalling New Mexico’s role in the Civil War.
It’s often a surprise to newcomers and even New Mexicans that we did, in fact, have Civil War battles and skirmishes here. They’re not Gettysburg, but we have battlegrounds: Mesilla, Valverde, Cubero, Albuquerque, Glorieta  and Peralta.
And we have heroes. In the retelling, our chroniclers usually say we were rescued by Coloradoans, which isn’t entirely true. They forget Manuel Antonio Chaves. Every school child should know this name.
In late January 1862, Brig. Gen. Henry H. Sibley led an invasion of Texas Confederates to take New Mexico and Colorado territories.  Sibley moved north from El Paso along the Rio Grande. At the Battle of Valverde, outside Fort Craig (south of Socorro), Confederates bested the Union regulars and poorly trained volunteers in a hard fight, and then pushed north to occupy Albuquerque. There they resupplied from a small Union outpost at Cubero, taken over by Southern sympathizers.
The Confederates marched toward Fort Union, as Colorado volunteers, led by Maj. John Chivington, hurried from Denver to shore up the thin Union forces in New Mexico.
New Mexico had militia companies and volunteers, but New Mexicans were largely ambivalent about a war they didn’t consider theirs. New Mexico had been a U.S. Territory for just 13 years. Besides, it was planting season. But Lt. Col. Manuel Antonio Chaves, a seasoned fighter known as “El Leoncito” and commander of the Second Regiment of New Mexico Volunteers, had pledged his loyalty.
“He intended to fight on to the end, whether his fellow countrymen joined him or not,” wrote Marc Simmons in “The Little Lion of the Southwest.”
Chaves led a spy company into Santa Fe and informed Chivington of the rebel troop strength and their movement toward Glorieta Pass, in the mountains east of Santa Fe. On March 28 Chivington engaged the Confederates, and a hot battle raged. Chivington also wanted to attempt a flanking action and attack from behind, but he needed a scout who knew the terrain. Chaves knew the country well.
As the two armies fought all day near Pigeon’s Ranch, Chaves led Chivington and his men through the forest to a rocky rim 200 feet above the Texans’ wagon camp. “You are right on top of them, Major,” Chacon said.
They descended over Chacon’s chosen route, charged, and burned 61 wagons in Sibley’s supply train, destroying food, forage, medicine, and reserve ammunition. They spiked a cannon and pushed it into an arroyo. As they debated the quickest way to return to the main body of troops, a priest from the village of Pecos, known by Chaves, appeared and offered to lead them.
It was a decisive action. Without supplies, the Confederates had no choice but to turn back. After a few more actions in Albuquerque and Peralta, Sibley and his men retreated along the Rio Grande, as Union soldiers watched from the opposite bank. They didn’t want captives they’d have to feed.
All the while, Chaves and his friend Lt. Col. Miguel Pino served as spies, keeping the Union officers informed of movements.
When Chaves finally returned to his ranch on the western flank of the Manzano Mountains, Indian raids had swept away 30,000 sheep and all his cattle and horses. Chaves rebuilt his ranch and moved several times, finally ending his long life in San Mateo, north of Grants. Old wounds troubled him greatly, but the aged warrior never complained.
Historian Simmons laments that we celebrate Kit Carson and Billy the Kid, “while Manuel Chaves, and others like him, have been neglected and their memory all but lost.” Here, for a moment, we can remember.
Sherry Robinson
New Mexico News Service