Sunday, June 22, 2014

Defeat by Thirst

 
John R. Baylor
 
 
Major Lynde was in a quandary.  Rebel Texans were gathering in overwhelming numbers to attack his command at Ft. Fillmore, a lightly fortified post on the Rio Grande River in New Mexico Territory.  The only alternative was to evacuate at night and try to reach the nearest Union fort one hundred fifty miles away to the northeast.  Such a trek would require a full canteen of water, or so you would think.  Lynde's men thought they had something better.
After Texas seceded in February 1861, General Earl Van Dorn, Commander of the Confederate Army in Texas, ordered Lt. Colonel John R. Baylor to occupy Ft. Bliss in El Paso and defend Confederate held forts in West Texas.  These forts had been built by the U.S. Army to protect settlers and guard stagecoach routes against Indian attacks.  When the Civil War began, a number of these frontier forts were abandoned as U.S. troops surrendered or headed back north.   On July 3, 1861, Baylor's 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles reached Ft. Bliss.  Concerned about a Federal incursion from New Mexico Territory, Baylor decided to move against Ft. Fillmore, just up the Rio Grande from El Paso.  He set out with three hundred men.
John R. Baylor had a consuming hatred for Native Americans, especially Comanches, and felt a firm hand, as opposed to signed treaties, was the only way to deal with them.  As the son of an army surgeon, Baylor witnessed firsthand the tragic results of frontier life.  He later settled in Texas and became a prominent rancher, lawyer, and single term member of the Texas House of Representatives.  After a Comanche reservation was established on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River, Baylor was appointed the Indian agent; a worse agent couldn't have been appointed.  He quarreled incessantly with his supervisor, Robert Simpson Neighbours, who wanted to protect the Comanches from an indifferent U.S. Cavalry and angry settlers bent on killing any Indian they could lay their hands on.  Baylor accused the reservation Comanches of providing aid and comfort to non-reservation Comanches still raiding  nearby settlements.  In 1857, he was dismissed, but that didn't stop him from stirring up settlers and forming vigilante groups to attack the reservation.  He even established an anti-Indian newspaper, "The White Man."  Things got so bad, Neighbors was forced to move the reservation to the Indian Territory.  He became a marked man for his efforts and was later assassinated.
The southern half of New Mexico Territory was an area plagued with constant Apache raids.  The Apaches were determined to drive out every white man in the Southwest.  Feeling unprotected and abandoned by the territorial capital in Santa Fe, the residents of Mesilla turned toward the Confederacy for support.  Many of the residents were Southern transplants, who controlled the politics and local economy.  It's not surprising they warmly welcomed Baylor's men.
The nearby Union garrison, at Fort Fillmore, would not be as accommodating.  The Union commander,  Major Isaac Lynde, decided to attack Baylor before he could advance on him.  Leading three hundred eighty men and two small mountain howitzers, the 58 year old Vermont native tried to force Baylor out of Mesilla.  Upon reaching the outskirts, he demanded Baylor's surrender.  Baylor replied, "If you wish the town and my forces, come and take them."   The Texans took up positions behind a stout adobe wall and Mesilla's rooftops.  Hampered by a dense cornfield and loose sand, Lynde's attack fell apart at the start.  Armed mostly with double- barreled shotguns, Baylor's men poured a deadly fire on Lynde's disjointed advance while Mesilla's residents cheered them on.  Lynde's aggressive spirit also fell apart with the loss of nine men.  He retreated back to the fort and made a half-hearted  attempt to fortify it with sandbags.  Hearing from a spy that Baylor was going to be reinforced with more men and artillery from El Paso, Lynde  decided to evacuate Ft. Fillmore.  The evacuation would require a daunting  trek to across the vast New Mexico desert and Organ Mountains to Ft. Stanton.  To fortify their resolve, Lynde's men helped themselves to the fort's supply of medicinal whiskey.  They filled their canteens with the stuff before heading off into the night.
Relief would come from the mountain springs, which were much further away than Lynde expected.  His men began dropping by the wayside from the effects of soaring desert heat, overwhelming thirst and whiskey filled canteens.  Seeing their dust trails from Mesilla, Baylor set off in pursuit. For him, it was a simple matter of scooping up staggering, thirst crazed stragglers without firing a shot.  Needless to say, Lynde was forced to surrender.  He was paroled then later discharged for abandoning his post.
Baylor set up a Confederate government with himself as governor in Mesilla.  He declared the southern half of New Mexico Territory to be the Confederate Territory of Arizona.  The new territory stretched from Mesilla to Tuscon in present day Arizona.  Almost immediately, the new Confederate governor was hit by a wave of Apache raids; ranches were burned, people were killed, and livestock was stolen on a daily basis.  Criticism of the new governor mounted steadily in the local newspapers;  something the thin-skinned Baylor couldn't abide.  After a critical piece appeared in the "Mesilla Times," he sought out the editor, Robert P. Kelly, and shot him in the face.  Severely wounded, Kelley died a few weeks later.
Baylor's frustrations with the Apaches grew by the minute.  Frustration led to extermination as the only viable solution.  Written orders were issued to his rangers to kill all adult Indians and sell their children to defray the costs.  Such orders horrified the Confederate Congress and President Jefferson Davis who sought peace with the Native Americans.  Baylor was removed from office and his commission was revoked.
The Confederate Territory of Arizona lasted just short of a year.  It was to be the only territory held by the Confederacy outside of state boundaries.   After the Confederate setback at Glorietta Pass, the Texans were forced to retreat back into their home state.  At the Battle of Galveston, where many of the New Mexico veterans fought, John R. Baylor fought as a private in the Confederate Army.

 
 
 
 

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