Edward R. S. Canby

(November 9, 1817–April 11, 1873)

Army General

Edward Richard Sprigg Canby was one of the most talented Civil War generals of the far West, and his actions preserved New Mexico for the Union. He later became the only regular army general to be killed in a war with Native Americans.

Canby was born at Piatt’s Landing, Kentucky, on November 9, 1817, and raised in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He graduated from West Point in 1839 near the bottom of his class and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Second U.S. Infantry. Between 1839 and 1842, Canby fought in Florida’s Second Seminole War as a quartermaster and then performed several years of routine garrison duty out west. He rose to first lieu tenant in June 1846, advanced to captain the following year, and functioned as regimental adjutant general in the army of Gen. Winfield Scott. Canby then fought with distinction at the battles of Vera Cruz, Cerro Gordo, and Contreras, winning two brevet promotions to major and lieutenant colonel. After the war, he served in the adjutant general’s department of the 10th Military Department in California until March 1855, when he gained appointment as a major in the 10th U.S. Infantry. In this capacity he accompanied Col. Albert S. Johnston on a difficult expedition to quell the Mormon disturbances in Utah during 1857–1858. Canby then resumed his routine frontier activities, which included a protracted and inconclusive campaign against the Navajo in 1860–1861.

When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Canby was posted at Fort Defiance, New Mexico. Within months he had risen to colonel of the 19th U.S. Infantry and commanding officer of the Department of New Mexico with a rank of acting brigadier general. The Union position in the West was precarious because most soldiers had been withdrawn for combat in the eastern theater, leaving behind scattered garrisons that were poorly manned and equipped. Fortunately, Canby excelled at administration and before long he organized defenses to meet a Confederate invasion from Texas. This effort was spearheaded by Gen. Henry H. Sibley, Canby’s former second-in-command, who intended to capture California. The rebels defeated Canby in a hard-fought encounter at Valverde, New Mexico, on February 21, 1862, and continued advancing. Rather than risk another pitched battle, the Union leader resorted to Fabian tactics, burning supplies in Sibley’s path and harassing his line of march. At length volunteers from Colorado under Maj. John Chivington arrived, and Sibley was soundly defeated at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico, on March 28, 1862. Canby was not present personally, but his sound administration laid the groundwork for victory. The battle proved to be decisive, for the Confederates retreated to Texas and never again threatened the far western frontier. When the California column under Gen. James H. Carleton arrived, Canby was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers and recalled to Washington.

After serving several months as assistant adjutant general in the War Department, Canby was dispatched to New York City in the wake of the antidraft riots of July 1863. Having restored order, he was promoted to major general of volunteers in May 1864 and made commander of the Division of West Mississippi. Canby then superseded Gen. Nathaniel Banks, recently disgraced by the failure of the Red River expedition, and totally reorganized his demoralized troops. While scouting along the White River in Arkansas, Canby was severely wounded by a guerrilla raid in November 1864, but he recovered and resumed operations in the spring of 1865. His objective was Mobile, Alabama, the Confederacy’s last remaining port, and he worked in conjunction with Adm. David Farragut’s fleet. Canby, although he had been promoted to major general, lacked experience commanding such large numbers of men, and he proceeded with his usual caution. Nonetheless, Mobile surrendered to his forces on April 12, 1865, shortly after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s capitulation at Appomattox. The army of Gen. Richard Taylor, son of Zachary Taylor, also surrendered to him on May 4. Canby then ventured west to Texas to receive the sword of Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, the last Confederate leader to surrender an army, on May 26.

After the war, Canby performed Reconstruction duties throughout the South, where a leniency toward former Confederates angered his superior, Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, and resulted in a transfer back to Washington. In 1870, he volunteered to take charge of the Department of the Columbia, which was comprised of the Washington and Oregon Territories and northern California. Three years later, he rose to command the Division of the Pacific. The region at that time was in the grip of an uprising by the Modoc Indians, who resented the intrusion of white settlers and speculators on their land. In the spring of 1873, Canby traveled to northern California to parley with Modoc leaders and attempt a negotiated settlement. Motivated by genuine feelings for peace, he attended the meeting unarmed. While in conference at the Lava Beds in Siskiyou County, California, Canby was suddenly shot and killed by Captain Jack, the principal Modoc leader. This treachery was to cost the tribesmen dearly, for Commanding Gen. William T. Sherman ordered an all-out campaign against the Modocs, which resulted in their forced relocation to Oklahoma. Captain Jack was hanged after being apprehended. The cautious, dependable Canby remains the only U.S. Army general to be killed in an Indian war.


Alberts, Don E., The Battle of Glorieta: Union Victory in the West, 1998; Alberts, Don E., “The Battle of Peralta,” New Mexico Historical Review 58 (1983): 369–379; Bennett, Charles, “The Civil War in New Mexico,” Palacio 96 (1991): 8–15; Edrington, Thomas S., The Battle of Glorieta Pass: A Gettysburg in the West, 1998; Fincher, Jack, “The Grisly Drama of the Modoc War and Captain Jack,” Smithsonian 15 (1985): 134–154; Hearn, Chester G., Mobile Bay and the Mobile Campaign: The Last Great Battles of the Civil War, 1993; Heyman, Max L., Prudent Soldier: A Biography of Major General E. R. S. Canby, 1959; McNitt, Frank, Navajo Wars: Military Campaigns, Slave Raids, and Reprisals, 1992; Mobley, Joe A., “The Siege of Mobile, August, 1864–April, 1865,” Alabama Historical Quarterly 38 (1976): 250–270; Murray, Keith, The Modocs and Their War, 1984; Perrine, David P., “The Battle of Valverde, New Mexico Territory, February 21, 1862,” Journal of the West 19 (1980): 26–38; Scott, Robert, Glorieta: The Gettysburg of the West, 199




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