Where is Fort Craig?
Fort Craig sits near the Rio Grande River about 35 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees this historic site, so it is not a national park. Click here for the BLM website.
The site features:
- Visitor center
- Sheltered picnic tables
- Self-guided tour on accessible pathways
- Free admission
Why is Fort Craig significant?
Fort Craig was built on the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, which means Royal Road of the Interior Land. Following the Rio Grande River, the National Historic Trail runs roughly 400 miles from El Paso, Texas to Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico. However, the original trail began in Mexico City and ended at San Juan Pueblo north of Santa Fe. Explorers, missionaries, traders, and settlers utilized the trail from 1598 to 1882.
When the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty was signed in 1848, ending the Mexican-American War, Mexico surrendered what are now the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, California, and Utah. The US paid $15 million for 525,000 square miles of land, which also included parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming. Shortly after the end of the war, settlers began arriving in the new frontier via the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. Fort Craig was established in 1854 to protect travelers from attacks by disgruntled Apache, Commanche, and Navajo people who resented the intrusion. By the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Fort Craig was home to infantrymen, calvary, and Buffalo Soldiers. Just one year later, those men would clash with the Confederate Army in the Battle of Valverde.
Jornada del Muerto
Fort Craig replaced Fort Conrad which was located about nine miles to the north. Both forts were not only necessary for the protection of travelers on the Camino Real, but they also served as resting places and water stops for those who had managed to cross the Jornada del Muerto section of the Camino Real. Jornada del Muerto means Dead Man’s Journey and is a ninety-mile-long stretch of mainly waterless, barren desert. Still, with very little water, its desert wastelands, and sometimes rough volcanic terrain, the Jornada del Muerto remains largely uninhabited today.
Fort Craig was a self-contained community with a hospital, living quarters for officers and enlisted men, and large store houses. With such large store houses, Fort Craig, was able to supply other nearby forts. Children who lived at the fort attended school, and enlisted men’s wives worked doing laundry. There was also a sutler’s store which was a general mercantile usually owned by a civilian, a blacksmith shop, corrals, and carpenter’s shop. However, with the end of the Civil War and Indian Campaigns as well as travelers using train travel rather than the Camino Real, Fort Craig was abandoned in 1885.
Store houses, which were dug six feet underground, had soil reinforced above-ground adobe walls and wooden roofs. The interior walls and roofs were covered with jaspe, which was a locally made type of plaster.
Towns north and south of Fort Craig flourished as trade centers while soldiers continued to protect travelers on the Camino Real. Although, when the Civil War began, Fort Craig would face different kind of enemy.
The Battle of Valverde
Edward Richard Canby, Fort Craig’s commanding officer, likely stood watch as Confederate troops gathered along the eastern banks of the Rio Grande preparing to fight. But Canby was ready. He had 1,200 seasoned soldiers ready to do battle, plus 100 Colorado Volunteers, 500 militia, and 2,000 New Mexican Volunteers led by Kit Carson. The Battle of Valverde was fought in February of 1862 at a shallow ford in the Rio Grande River a few miles north of Fort Craig.
Colonel Henry Hopkins Sibley was intent on marching his Confederate troops into battle in order to claim the New Mexico Territory which included Arizona. His plan was to capture Fort Craig, take their supplies, then head north to capture the territorial capital of Santa Fe. Sibley wanted to move on to seize Fort Union and then take the Colorado gold fields. By conquering these sites, Sibley believed he could easily take California, thus expanding the Confederate States of America to include west coast ports. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
While Canby led his men north into battle, Carson and some of his men held down the fort. The battle ended with the Confederates claiming victory, but they were unable to take Fort Craig. Upon Sibley’s command to surrender the fort, Canby refused, and the Confederates retreated. In all, casualties included the deaths of over 100 men, injuries to more than 200, and several missing.
Fort Craig Cemetery
Some of the Valverde battlefield casualties may have been buried in Fort Craig’s cemetery, however, the burial ground no longer exists. In 2004, reports surfaced of a man having the mummified body of a Fort Craig Buffalo Soldier in his home. Upon the death of the man, Dee Brecheisen, a Vietnam War veteran and Civil Air Patrol pilot, officials began investigating. Mummified remains were indeed found, along with some artifacts, though it was speculated that many other stolen artifacts had been sold.
Authorities believe that Brecheisen had also robbed graves at other old forts as well as some Native American burial grounds. His obituary referred to him as a collector as well as one of the State of New Mexico’s foremost preservationists of historical facts and sites, he shared his extensive knowledge with historians around the state, adding significantly to New Mexico historical literature. Fort Craig’s cemetery excavations began in 2005 by archaeologists with the Bureau of Reclamation. Further excavations were made in 2007, and sixty-seven of Fort Craig’s remaining bodies were reinterred in the Santa Fe National Cemetery.
We would like to thank all of our followers and readers for your continued support of our site and for joining us at Fort Craig, New Mexico!
Do you enjoy Civil War history? Check out these other historic sites:
Antietam National Battlefield
Gettysburg National Military Park
Fort Donelson National Battlefield
Travel safely, y’all.
Mike and Kellye
As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.