Sibley led the famous but ill-fated attempt to conquer New Mexico for the Confederacy. Defeated more by alcohol than Union resistance, he failed to secure a major command for the rest of the Civil War.
Henry Hopkins Sibley was born in Natchitoches, Louisiana, on May 25, 1816, and educated at private schools in Ohio. In 1833, Sibley gained admission to West Point and was held back one year before finally graduating thirty-first out of a class of 45 in 1838. Commissioned a second lieutenant of the Second U. S. Dragoons, he fought in Florida’s Second Seminole War before performing garrison duty at posts throughout the Old Southwest. Sibley also fought in the Mexican War (1846- 1848), receiving praise for courage at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, and Molino del Rey and a promotion to brevet major. Afterward, he resumed service along the Texas frontier. There Sibley proved somewhat given to tinkering, and while at Fort Belknap he had the opportunity to examine several Comanche Indian tepees. He then designed the “Sibley tent,” based upon the Indian version but equipped with a small metal stove and a single stove pipe to keep smoke out. Warm and functional, the Sibley tent was adopted by the frontier army and was also employed by both sides during the Civil War. However, Sibley, who probably suffered from kidney stones, was in constant physical pain and drank heavily for relief. By middle age, he was severely alcoholic and had behavioral problems with superiors. In 1858, he accompanied Maj. Philip St. George Cooke’s column during the Mormon Expedition, but he quarreled with Cooke and was court-martialed. Thereafter, he spent his time in various garrisons throughout New Mexico and campaigned against the Apache Indians under Maj. Edward R. S. Canby. Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Sibley resigned his commission the same day he gained a promotion to major.
In May 1861, Sibley ventured to Richmond, Virginia, to confer with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He prevailed upon him for a brigadier general’s commission and the authority to raise an expedition to conquer the American West for Dixie. It was anticipated that this expedient, once successful, would grant Confederate access to the goldfields of Colorado-and a steady source of revenue. Furthermore, ports seized in California were not subject to Union blockade. Although a grandiose scheme, it would have materially assisted the Confederacy, but Sibley, in poor health and drinking heavily, was scarcely up to such a demanding task. He nonetheless arrived in San Antonio that fall to raise the “Sibley Brigade” of three regiments. In January 1862, he embarked on his quixotic dream of conquest by marching out of El Paso and westward into New Mexico.
From the onset, several factors militated against Confederate success. First, although Sibley commanded a force of some 2,000 men, mostly experienced frontier fighters, his logistical arrangements were slapdash at best. Unable to gather sufficient supplies, he hoped to survive by foraging in the barren New Mexico countryside and living off of captured Union stocks. Second, Sibley also anticipated a general uprising by the large Hispanic population, but given their traditional antipathy for Texans, such an outburst never occurred. The third factor was Sibley’s drinking. He was almost constantly inebriated due to renal pain, and the only leadership came from his colonels and other staff officers. Hence the Army of New Mexico remained unsupplied, unsupported, and generally bereft of strategic direction.
On February 21, 1862, Sibley’s expedition got off to a promising start when it engaged a larger Union force under Canby at Valverde. After a stiff fight and considerable losses to both sides, Canby withdrew to the security of nearby Fort Craig. However, Sibley lacked artillery and resources for a protracted siege, so he bypassed Canby and marched up the Rio Grande River toward Albuquerque. This left a large enemy garrison astride his lines of communication, a major strategic mistake. Having occupied Santa Fe, the Confederate column pressed on to its next objective, Fort Union, where a large cache of supplies was stored. However, logistical problems mounted as the retreating federals destroyed everything they could not carry off. Sibley’s men then defeated a Union force of Colorado militia, the so-called Pike’s Peakers, at Glorieta Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on February 28, 1862. Unfortunately, another Union force successfully attacked and captured Sibley’s entire supply train at Apache Canyon. This unexpected reverse proved decisive. Lacking food and ammunition, Sibley had no recourse but to retrace his steps back to Texas, before the California column under Col. James H. Carleton arrived. The Confederates then withdrew while Canby’s soldiers shadowed their every move. The grayclad soldiers finally trudged into San Antonio in July 1862, minus a third of their number. No further expeditions were ever mounted from Texas, so the West remained securely in Union hands for the remainder of the war.
Sibley had no sooner arrived than he was summoned to Richmond to answer charges of intoxication. He was subsequently cleared by a court of inquiry and restored to the command of a brigade in Gen. Richard Taylor’s army in Louisiana. However, Sibley mishandled his men during the April 1864 Battle of Fort Bisland-on account of drinking-and Taylor had him arrested and court-martialed. Acquitted once again, Sibley’s reputation was ruined, and he spent the final months of the war without a command.
After the war Sibley ventured to New York City, where in 1869, along with former Gen. William Wing Loring, he was recruited into the army of Khedive Ismail I as a brigadier general. He served several years in Egypt constructing coastal fortifications before he was dismissed for drinking in 1873. Sibley returned to the United States, where he settled down in Fredericksburg, Virginia, living in poverty. He spent the last few months of his life trying to obtain royalties arising from the government’s purchase of his Sibley tent. Unfortunately for him, all contractual payments had ceased the moment he entered Confederate service. Sibley died in Fredericksburg on August 23, 1886, one of the South’s most ineffective military figures.