Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Mighty Guns of Val Verde




They appeared like a mirage in the rising summer heat of West Texas; the tattered remnants of a failed military campaign.  San Antonio teamsters drove supply-laden wagons out to greet them.  With their horses and wagons left behind, their weapons traded away for food, and their shoes worn out, they arrived home with just the clothes on their backs.  A stagecoach passenger recalled, “they were suffering terribly from the effects of heat; very many of them were a-foot, and scarcely able to travel from blistered feet.  They were subsisting on bread and water, both officers and men; many of them were sick, many ragged, and all hungry.” Accompanying the survivors were five captured Union cannons; their only trophies from the campaign. 

In October, 1861, three thousand mounted Texans set out for the New Mexico Territory. Their goal was to secure the Southwest Territories for the Confederacy and perhaps sway the West Coast to their cause.  Commanded by General Henry Hopkins Sibley, the Texans defeated Colonel Edward Canby’s regulars near the village of Val Verde.  A well- timed, desperate charge overran a Union Battery that included 3 six pound cannons and 2 howitzers.  From there, Sibley drove north to the territory capital of Santa Fe.  The absence of large farms, the New Mexicans' hatred of Texans, and the arid climate made it extremely difficult to sustain an army.  Survival depended on their long train of supply wagons.  In addition, Sibley was a flaming drunkard who offered little inspiration and no real leadership.  Their luck ran out at the Battle of Glorietta Pass.  The Texans won the field, but a detachment of Colorado volunteers marched undetected to the Confederate rear and destroyed the wagons.  Without food and ammo, the Texans couldn’t sustain the campaign.   They had to retreat. Out of three thousand, five hundred would not see their homes again.

Each of the captured guns was hitched to a limber and assigned to a company.  To avoid Canby’s pursuing army, Sibley took his army into the rugged San Mateo Mountains.  The guns had to be lowered and raised across the canyons by rope; an arduous task for starving soldiers.  "Both banks were extremely high and steep, and there seemed no chance to cross,” recalled Sergeant A.B. Peticolas. “But nothing daunted, we locked the wheels and our guns were slided down the hill, with men holding back by a long rope.  Then up the next hill we dragged the pieces, with many weary steps and many a groan.”  Upon arrival in El Paso, a new Confederate battery was formed using the captured Union guns.  Christened the Val Verde Battery, the new unit was placed under the command of future Texas Governor, Captain Joseph Draper Sayers. 

The battery achieved lasting glory in the bayous of Louisiana.  At Grand Lake, The Val Verde Battery ambushed the Union gunboat Diana.  With deadly accuracy, the Diana was riddled like a Swiss cheese.  The commander was killed while the crew was pinned down below deck.  After the rudder was damaged, the gunboat was out of control and forced to surrender to the jubilant Texans. 

The Red River Campaign brought an overwhelming number of Union troops to the eastern border of Texas.  At Mansfield and Pleasant Hill, Union General Nathaniel Banks met grief against Confederate forces under General Richard Taylor.  During the Battle of Mansfield, the Val Verde Battery outdueled Union batteries while General John G. Walker's Texas Division routed Bank's forces.  Once again the guns of the Val Verde Battery helped the Confederacy achieve a signal victory. 

At the end of the war, the guns were buried rather than surrendered to Union forces.  They were exhumed after Federal occupation ended.  Three were badly deteriorated and two were placed on display at the Confederate Reunion Grounds near Mexia and the Freestone County Courthouse in Fairfield.  The Val Verde Battery was born during a humiliating retreat and ended with a distinguished record defending its home state.

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