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Todd Blomerth recently retired from the bench of the 421st Judicial District Court for Caldwell County, Texas. He has written military history articles for local newspapers for many years. In 2023-2014, the Lockhart Post Register and the Luling Newsboy published over 80 stories of young Americans who died in the service of their country in WW2. In 2016, Judge Blomerth published his first book, They Gave Their All, a cumulation and expansion of his earlier newspaper stories. Judge Blomerth continues to interview combat veterans. Those stories are kindly published in the County's newspapers. A member of the Fightin' Texas Aggie Band in Texas A&M's Corps of Cadets, Blomerth graduated in 1972, and later received him Juris Doctor from the University of Texas School of Law.

PATRICK MCGREAL ARMSTRONG JR.

ARMSTRONG - PHOTO GIG SHEET

PATRICK MCGREAL ARMSTRONG, JR.

 

Patrick McGreal Armstrong, Jr. was the second child of Patrick Sr. (“Pat”) and Elizabeth Martha (Strong) Armstrong. He was born on March 2, 1920 in Forth Worth, Texas. He had an older sister, Bennie, and four younger siblings, Stephen, Mollie, Margaret, and Churchill. Pat was born in Heidenheimer, near Waco, in 1896 and was in the oil business in some capacity for much of his adult life. As such, he and his family moved often, following the oil plays in various parts of Texas. His World War I draft card showed him to be living at 100 S. Thompson Street, Houston, Texas and working for Texas Supply Company in Beaumont. At the time of Patrick Jr.’s birth, he listed his occupation as a driller. The family lived in Wichita Falls in 1921 when Patrick’s younger brother Stephen was born. In 1923, the family was living in Houston. By 1929 the Armstrong family had moved to 123 Monroe Avenue, San Antonio, and Pat was manager of ABA Oil Company. By 1930 he had become an independent oil operator. In 1934, the East Texas boom brought Pat to Tyler. At some point in the late 1930s the family moved to Luling. The family residence fronted State Highway 29 (the road to Lockhart). In Caldwell County Pat’s finances took a downturn, and in 1940 he filed for bankruptcy. The federal court in Austin granted the bankruptcy on January 6, 1941, and the Post Register gave official notice to his creditors soon thereafter.ARMSTRONG -FATHERS BANKRUPTCY LULING

Pat moved back to San Antonio after the bankruptcy. He, Elizabeth and the younger children lived at 406 Dunning Avenue. He started a new business – Armstrong Iron & Salvage Company. He would later become a Methodist minister working with Goodwill Industries.

The family was still in Luling when Patrick, after completing one year of college, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was accepted for flight training.  His initial training was in the San Diego, California area. He then completed his advanced flight training at Kelly Field outside San Antonio. He graduated with Class 41-H on October 31, 1941, and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He was assigned to the 36th Pursuit Squadron, 8th Pursuit Group. Recently transitioning out of obsolescent P-36s into P-40s, the unit trained in anticipation of a war in Europe. The Group’s mission changed with the sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. After a short time of flying defensive cover over New York City the 8th Pursuit Group (which consisted at the time of the 35th and 36th Pursuit Squadrons) entrained to San Francisco in early January, 1942.

The suddenness of the attack and the swiftness of the Japanese advance across the Southwest Pacific caused substantial panic. The American Territory of the Philippines was quickly becoming a lost cause, and plans to sail there were scrapped. Sparsely populated Australia had by this time sent most of its able-bodied men to fight the Germans and Italians in North Africa and the Mediterranean. There was little to stop a Japanese advance into that vast and under-populated country. Hurriedly, the Americans cobbled together assistance to the beleaguered Aussies. The 8th Pursuit Group sailed from San Francisco on February 12, 1942 for Northern Australia on the United States Army Transport (USAT) Maui. ARMSTRONG - USAT MAUIA passenger steamship built in 1917, it had been purchased by the government in late 1941. The crossing took 24 days. Arriving at Brisbane on March 8, 1942, the Group began training on recently assembled Bell P-39 Airacobras. It then moved north to Townsville.

It is impossible to overstate the Allied concerns about the Japanese juggernaut in late 1941 and 1942. The Emperor’s forces had sliced through supposedly impregnable defenses at Singapore, taken Hong Kong, trapped American forces in the Philippines, and seized islands all over the Pacific. Somewhat surprised by the speed of their advance, the question for the Japanese high command was where to go next. It was decided that three axes of advance be made. One would move into the Solomon Islands, Fiji and Samoa to cut the supply route from the United States to Australia. The second would strike toward Midway and Hawaii, and the third would take control of the huge and virtually unexplored island of New Guinea, in anticipation of an eventual move into Australia. It was deemed necessary also to protect Japan’s huge naval facilities at Truk and Rabaul. Papua New Guinea, the southern half of the landmass was an Australian-administered territory. Both sides realized that control of its coastline was critical. Bombing of the territorial capital of Port Moresby began in late February, 1942. Japanese forces began unopposed landing at Salamaua and Lae on its northern coast soon thereafter. Lae, known because it was the last departure point for Amelia Earhart in her ill-fated 1937 attempt at circumnavigating the globe, was quickly turned into an advance airfield. The Japanese planned to ship men around the southern tip of New Guinea and take Port Moresby. From there it was a short hop to the Australian mainland. (This attempt would later be thwarted by a carrier battle in the Coral Sea, and the incredible bravery of Australian forces which prevented the Japanese army from crossing the New Guinea’s forbidding Owen Stanley Mountains)

ARMSTRONG - P39 IN NEW GUINEA
P-39 In New Guinea

Australian forces began reinforcing the Port Moresby area as the Japanese forces built up its forces for an anticipated attack.ARMSTRONG - GREAT PIC OF EARLY P-39

The 8th Pursuit Group’s ground and support units sailed to New Guinea on April 20, 1942 and its three squadrons’ (it had added the 80th Pursuit Squadron) P-39s flew up between April 26th and April 30th. The 36th Pursuit’s new home was Seven Mile Drome, a dirt strip outside of Port Moresby. To say that conditions were primitive would understate matters. Torrential rains, sudden and violent storms, exposure to malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and repeated bombings by the Japanese made life precarious.ARMSTRONG - 36TH FIGHTER SQUADRON PIC OF OFFICERS IN 1942

Air combat in P-39s against highly trained pilots and better Japanese aircraft shortened lives as well. The P-39 was of innovative design, with a tricycle landing gear, and an Allison V-1710 engine directly behind the pilot. Its export version, the P-400 would prove an effective tank buster for Soviet forces. But the P-39/400 was often an inadequate match against more advanced fighters in dogfights. Plagued with oxygen system problems and a low service ceiling, it could not reach high flying enemy bombers. Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, Saburo Sakai and other Japanese aces racked up impressive kill numbers with A6M2 “Zeroes” when P-39s were used as interceptors.

The 8th Pursuit’s units went into combat immediately, primarily defending the Port Moresby airfields. On May 4, 1942, Patrick Armstrong piloted a P-39D-BE, aircraft number 41-6971 in support of a raid against the enemy facilities at Lae. He was not seen again.ARMSTRONG - LAE

Although an official ‘finding of death’ was not made until December of 1945 it is almost certain that Patrick was the first Caldwell County casualty of World War II. His body was never recovered. He is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing, American Cemetery, Manila, Philippines.

Patrick was twenty-two years old.

ARMSTRONG - TABLETS
Tablets of the Missing – Manila

 

IWO JIMA – PART THREE

THE BATTLE FOR IWO JIMA – PART THREE

 

Attrition and Its Consequences

 

Press coverage of the raging battle on Iwo Jima reached a crescendo with the raising of the flags on Mt. Suribachi. The Marines’ bravery despite a ferocious enemy and having suffered horrific casualties was first page, ‘above the fold’ news across the country. But unfortunately, many reporters saw the symbolism of the flag raising as a convenient end point to their narrative of the battle. The island’s conquest seemed assured. There were other stories to cover. Vanishing news coverage did a disservice to the sacrifices that thousands of unsung American heroes would make over the next month.

At the end of the first five days the US forces had pushed across Airfield One and toward Airfield Two. However, Japanese resistance had just begun.

Advance Toward the North and East

 

Historically, Japanese troops penned up would, rather than surrender, make banzai charges. If successful, the charges would overrun American positions, but if not it usually led to the wholesale slaughter of the Japanese attackers. Kuribayashi forbade these types of attacks, and instead ordered his troops to remain under cover and to sell their lives with the highest cost to the attackers. By waging night attacks on Marine foxholes, using the elaborate tunnel network to infiltrate behind the American lines to attack advancing Marines from behind, and employing well-sited machine gun, artillery, and mortar positions to unleash murder cross fire took thousands of Marines’ lives.

The Marines’ small arm fire proved ineffective against these positions and tactics. The attackers soon discovered that flamethrowers, satchel charges, gasoline, and grenades were the most effective ways to kill the hidden defenders. Marines with flamethrowers packed 68 pounds of highly flammable gasoline in pressurized backpacks, would shoot a stream of flame into suspected enemy areas.  These Marines had an even shorter life expectancy than the riflemen.

Marine artillery units quickly deployed and fired from presumably secured areas, with forward observers like Luling resident Alton Rodenberg stationed on the slopes of Mt. Suribachi. Naval artillery was called in from battleships and cruisers offshore. The Marines landed Sherman medium tanks fitted with flamethrowers. The “Ronson” or “Zippo” tanks (named after cigarette lighter brands), were particularly effective. Navy and Marine aviators, flying off aircraft carriers, unloaded rockets, and napalm that allowed a slow and painful advance toward the northern tip of the island, where Kuribayashi’s headquarters were presumed to be.

From the beginning, the war in the Pacific had been typified by its unprecedented brutality, but napalm and flamethrowers and white phosphorus grenades incinerating human flesh brought war’s inhumanity to a new level. But Marines who had seen their buddies slaughtered on landing beaches or blown up by mortars, or shot in the back by snipers saw these weapons as indispensable equalizers against a hidden and ruthless enemy.

 

USMC Photographer Douglas Page Shot of Flamethrower in Action                    Marine with Flamethrower

 

Japanese Cave Complex on the North End of the Island-Photo by Douglas Page

 

In the midst of the carnage, the Navy was on the receiving end of kamikaze attacks. The USS Saratoga was struck by two suicide dive bombers, putting it out of action for the rest of the war. The escort carrier USS Bismarck Sea was struck as well. It blew up, capsized and sank, taking hundreds of her crew to the bottom with her. It was a harbinger of what was to occur a month later during the invasion of Okinawa, where more kamikazes would kill thousands more sailors.

Kuribayashi’s war of attrition seemed to be working according to plan. Marine units were held up and drained of manpower. Companies were commanded by captains, then lieutenants, then sergeants –there seemed to be no end in sight as the slaughter continued.

Japanese defenders retreated into increasingly rugged terrain. Their lairs were often immune from heavy bombardments attempting to ‘soften up’ an area before infantry advances. When the bombardment stopped and Marines advanced, the Japanese returned through their tunnel network into their pillboxes and machine gun emplacements to unleash withering fire on the attackers. Although still under constant fire, a group of 14 small unarmed aircraft used the airfield as a staging ground for round-the-clock artillery spotting, which proved invaluable.

 USMC Photographer Douglas Page Photo of Fighting in the Rugged Terrain

 

Heat and Rugged Terrain Made a Horrible Combination – by Douglas Page USMC

 

The three invading American divisions pushed north across the island. The 4th Division fought a battle of attrition against Hill 382, ‘The Amphitheater’, ‘Turkey Knob’ and an area aptly dubbed ‘The Meatgrinder.’ The 5th Marine Division attacked the Nishi Ridge, Hills 362A and362B and ‘The Gorge’, and the Third Division attacked across the unfinished third airfield and into an eerie killing ground that became known as ‘Cushman’s Pocket’.

A retired Marine officer remembers: “At one point we had 60,000 men occupying less than three-and-a-half square miles of broken terrain.” It produced a schizophrenic scenario. A command post a kilometer from Japanese lines, artillery still firing in the area near the landing beaches, and Seabees using heavy equipment to repair the airfields for the arrival of the B-29s. And all the while, the men in combat had to keep going – until they were killed or wounded. As James Bradley puts it: “Their daily routine – impossibly dull and impossibly terrifying – was turning them into human robots. Each day was the same: a morning artillery bombardment, then a crawling, slow advance over exposed terrain, then an afternoon bombardment, then another advance. At dusk the boys scuttled into shell holes or ravines for shelter. The next morning, it all started over again.”

In the first nine days attacking north, the Marines advanced a total of 4000 yards – and suffered over 7000 casualties.  Medical attention for the Americans was as good as it got in the Pacific – with Marines taken to aid stations, hospitals, hospital ships, and the more seriously wounded on to Guam for  care from physicians like Lockhart resident Dr. Philip Wales. But the problem was getting the wounded out of the combat zone. The Japanese had no compunctions about killing corpsmen, stretcher bearers, or the wounded themselves. Twenty-three doctors and 827 corpsmen were wounded or lost their lives on the island.

By March 4th, thirteen days after the landing, the first crippled B-29 landed on the re-constructed Airfield Number 1 and a large portion of Kuribayashi’s defenses had been taken. But the cost was so staggering, and the need for replacements so desperate, that the next day, March 5th, a ‘stand down’ order was issued to give depleted front line units some time to catch their collective breaths – and receive badly needed reinforcements. Then the fighting continued. Finally, on March 11th, the Japanese forces were split in two, with Kuribayashi’s main force in the north backed against the sea at Kitano Point.

On March 14th, the island was declared “secured” by Admiral Chester Nimitz. “Who does the admiral think he is kidding?” scoffed one Marine. “We’re still getting killed.”  The fighting continued unabated in the center of the island, but on March 16th, the Japanese pocket on the eastern side of the island was finally wiped out. Further north the 5th Division fought toward Kuribayashi’s headquarters in what became as “Death Valley.” This was an exceptionally deadly labyrinth of caves, bluffs, cliffs, and sulfurous emissions from the volcanic rock.  The end was near for Kuribayashi, who radioed Tokyo, on March 22nd, “We are still fighting. The strength under my command is now about four hundred. Tanks are attacking us. The enemy suggested we surrender through a loudspeaker, but our officers and men just laughed and paid no attention.” On the night of March 25th, what appeared to be last of the organized resistance ended. But not quite. Three hundred of Kuribayashi’s men infiltrated American lines and attacked unsuspecting airmen and reserve troops near the airfield. The enemy’s last gasp took another 100 American lives before the Japanese were wiped out. Kuribayashi presumably took his own life. His body was never found.

 

Colonel Joseph Alexander USMC (Ret) states, “In its 36 days of combat on Iwo Jima, the V Amphibious Corps [the Marines fighting onshore and the Navy offshore] killed approximately 22,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors. The cost was staggering. The assault units of the corps—Marines and organic Navy personnel—sustained 24,053 casualties, by far the highest single-action losses in Marine Corps history. Of these, a total of 6,140 died. Roughly one Marine or corpsman became a casualty for every three who landed on Iwo Jima.” Twenty-seven men received the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima – half of them posthumously. Americans were shocked at the cost. There were more Marine casualties than Japanese.

But the Army Air Force got its emergency landing field. By war’s end, a total of 2,251 B-29s had made forced landings on the island. Those planes carried 24,761 crewmen, many of whom would have perished at sea without Iwo Jima as a safe haven. Said one B-29 pilot, “Whenever I land on this island I thank God for the men who fought for it.”

In the word of Admiral Chester Nimitz, on Iwo Jima, “uncommon valor was a common virtue.” In its aftermath, many Marines have stated simply, “I know when I die I am going to heaven, because I’ve already been in hell.”

Iwo Jima taught the Japanese America’s resolve to take the war to the Japanese heartland. General Douglas MacArthur’s troops were retaking the Philippines, and the invasion of Okinawa was next. But the tenacious defense by the Japanese, and the very real fear that the American losses at Iwo Jima (and soon after on Okinawa) were a foretaste of what would lay in store in the event of an invasion of the main Japanese islands confirmed to many, including President Truman, that the atomic bomb, recently perfected and soon to be tested in the New Mexico desert, was the only way to force an end to the war.

Much information for this article has been gleaned from CLOSING IN: Marines in the Seizure of Iwo Jima by Colonel Joseph H. Alexander U.S. Marine Corps (Ret), and Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley.

 

 

IWO JIMA – PART TWO

THE BATTLE OF IWO JIMA

 

The First Flag Up – Photo by Lowery

 

D-Day and Desperation

 

The ‘softening up’ of Iwo Jima began in December of 1944 with high altitude bombings. The island was battered for 72 consecutive days. It did no good. Intelligence photos showed that the number of defenses actually grew during the massive air strikes. Then it was the Navy’s turn – and it didn’t do a very good job. Commanding the Marines was General Holland ‘Howlin’ Mad’ Smith. A veteran of amphibious landings, he demanded a ten day close-in naval bombardment – but many of the Navy’s big ships were too busy conducting somewhat useless – but good for newspaper headlines – coastal bombardments of the Japanese home islands. They were unavailable. The Marines would get parts of three days of shelling before hitting the beach. Smith would blame the Navy for many of the Marine deaths.

In the words of James Bradley, General Kuribayashi had “transformed Iwo Jima into one large blockhouse.” Steel doors, multiple entrances on gun positions, underground rooms, tunnels, hospitals, command posts, hidden artillery and mortar positions, sniper holes. The list goes on and on. And every inch of the island was covered by cross fire. Hell awaited the young men on February 19th.

30,000 men and boys of the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions hit Red, Yellow, Blue and Green beaches at 0900 hrs, with the 3rd Division in reserve. The volcanic sands were difficult to move in. Thus, men and equipment stacked up on the two mile wide landing area creating a confusion of landing craft, amphibious vehicles and personnel. Yet for an hour nothing happened. Were all the defenders dead? Then, as more and more Americans unloaded or were seasick in Higgins boats waiting their turn at the beach, all hell broke loose. Kuribayashi had refused to be drawn into a defense at the water’s edge. The Japanese defenders on and in Mt. Suribachi in the south, and in emplacements to the north interlaced the whole area with massive artillery, mortar, rifle and machine gun fire. The results were devastating. Desperate Marines trying to dig foxholes got nowhere in the volcanic ash. Tracked vehicles bogged down. Marines were killed as they left the landing craft. Landing vessels were blown out of the water and the Marines inside vaporized. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal landed with the 4th Division and ran for his life. He later said that “not getting hit was like running through rain and not getting wet.”

Somehow, the Marines took a toe hold. One by one, pillboxes fell. But time and time again, Marines would be shot down after taking Japanese fortifications. Underground tunnels allowed defenders the ability to re-enter what was presumed to be a secured area. In a suicidal charge, Company A, 28th Marines, charged across 700 yards of exposed ground and severed Mt. Suribachi from the rest of the island. By noon, there were 9000 Marines on Iwo Jima. Defensive tunnels from Suribachi to the rest of the Japanese defensive network had not been completed, but Kuribayashi had expected this, and Suribachi had been designated a semi-autonomous defensive area.

By noon on D Day, annihilation was no longer an issue. But the shock of the devastation and loss of life was profound. The American public would discover that more American lives had been lost in the first four days than in five months of fighting at Guadalcanal!

At Normandy, the Allies had pushed inland, and the landing zones became safe within a reasonably short time frame. Not so on Iwo. The landing zone would remain ‘hot’ for days. Correspondent Robert Sherrod came in at 1700 hrs on D Day. Another correspondent warned him, “I wouldn’t got there if I was you. There’s more hell in there than I’ve seen in the rest of the war put together.” Sherrod, who was no stranger to combat, was shocked by what he saw. He called the fighting on Iwo “a nightmare in hell.” Writing of the landing, he stated, “About the beach in the morning lay the dead…. They died with the greatest possible violence. Nowhere in the Pacific have I seen such badly mangled bodies. Many were cut squarely in half. Legs and arms lay fifty feet away from the body.”

 

The Landings and Advances by the Marines

 

Carnage on the Beaches

Yet somehow, as James Bradley states in Flags of Our Fathers, “the Marines kept advancing. Somehow, discipline held. Somehow, valor overcame terror. Somehow, scared young men under sheets of deadly fire kept on the doing the basic, gritty tasks necessary to keep the invasion going.”

Hundreds of Marines Never Got Off the Beach

You Couldn’t Dig in the Volcanic Sand

 

 

 

By D-Day Plus Two the tentacles of American persistence were reaching further from the beachhead. But it was a terrible thing to see. Recalling a doomed charge some 80 years before, “Howlin’ Mad” Smith later told a reporter, “Watching the Marines cross that island reminded me of the charge of Pickett at Gettysburg.”

The carnage would continue unabated. There wasn’t time or space to accommodate individual graves. Men were buried 50 at a time in bulldozed graves. Unsure of whether the dead Marines were Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, one chaplain, Gage Hotaling could only recite, “We commit you into the earth and the mercy of Almighty God.” He would do this for 1800 young men.

 

On February 23, 1945, D-Day Plus Four, Mt. Suribachi was finally surrounded. A patrol was told to try to climb to the top, and given a small American flag, told that IF they made it up, to hoist the flag. There was no guarantee they would get up or back alive as the area was still honeycombed with Japanese filled caves. At the top, a piece of pipe was found in the wreckage of a water catchment system, and Sgt. Lou Lowery took several pictures of the men involved. James Bradley says that as the flag became noticed, “Iwo Jima was transformed, for a few moments, into Times Square on New Year’s Eve….Here was the first invader’s flag every planted in four millennia on the territorial soil of Japan.” Lockhart resident Rev. George Goodman was a Coast Guard radio technician on an LST that had run equipment and men into the beach. He saw the flag go up and recalls, “We were thrilled. We knew the island was going to be ours – but taking it was going to be a long way off.”

It only lasted a minute, and all hell broke loose again. But for reasons unknown, the Japanese in caves immediately below the peak didn’t kill the interlopers, even though they outnumbered them in overwhelming numbers.

Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was with the invasion fleet. Seeing the flag raised on Suribachi, he decided he wanted it as a souvenir. This didn’t set well with Col. Chandler Johnson, the battalion commander of the 2nd Bn, 28th Marines. “To hell with that,” he said, ordering a larger and more easily seen flag to be brought up. He would secrete the first flag, and a much larger flag, the iconic one whose raising was shot by photographer Joe Rosenthal, was retrieved from a landing ship – tank (LST) at the beach. Fittingly, the flag had been recovered from a ship sunk by the Japanese at the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Marines again braved the hidden Japanese in caves and bunkers, with the new flag and instructions: “Colonel Johnson wants this big flag run up high so every son of a b____ on this whole cruddy island can see it!”

Rosenthal’s Iconic Shot

 

Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal accompanied the second flag up to the top of Suribachi. Rosenthal nearly didn’t get perhaps the most famous photo in history, as he stumbled as the first flag went down and the second one went up. He snapped the picture without looking through the viewfinder, and had no idea whether he’d even caught the raising of the flag. He took several other “gung ho” shots of the Marines surrounding the newly raised flag, and then headed back to the beach to turn in his developed film to be sent stateside. The image of Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, Harlon Block, Mike Strank, Rene Gagnon, and John Bradley – five Marines and a Navy Corpsman, shoving a flag on a pole into the rocks of an insignificant dot in the ocean would prove symbolic.

It was and is the singular memory many of us have of Iwo Jima. But battle had hardly begun. It would rage for another month, and thousands more Marines, including three of the flag raisers in Rosenthal’s shot, would not leave the island alive.

 

Next: A Battle of Attrition and Its Consequences

 

Much information for this article comes from Flags of Our Fathers, by James Bradley

 

 

IWO JIMA PART ONE

THE BATTLE FOR IWO JIMA

 

By Todd Blomerth

 

 

On February 19, 1945, American fighting men invaded one of the Empire of Japan’s ‘Home Islands’ for the first time when the 3rd, 4th and 5th Marine Divisions landed on the volcanic ash beaches of a tiny island called Iwo Jima. This eight square mile patch of desolation in the North Pacific became the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War.

 

This is an account of that battle.

 

Run-up to the Battle

 

By late 1944, it was painfully obvious to the Japanese that the American military juggernaut could not be prevented from striking the heart of Japan’s Empire. Initially hamstrung by the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Allies’ “Germany First” policy, and the inevitable delay in ramping up production and enlistments, the United States unleashed its full military potential against the Japanese offensive. In May of 1942, the US dealt Japan its first setback by turning back a fleet aiming to launch an invasion of New Guinea in preparation for the conquest of Australia.. Then, that August, ill-equipped, and poorly supported Marines landed and held onto an obscure island called Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Bloody and protracted fighting over several months resulted in the first land defeat for Japan. Coupled with the brilliant American defeat of Japanese carrier forces at the Battle of Midway, the US (with the help of Australian and New Zealand) was turning the tide against the Japanese offensive wave.

The Allies adopted a two-pronged plan to roll back Japan’s gains in the Pacific. General Douglas MacArthur’s command in the western Pacific would by-pass and isolate as many fortified areas as possible by cutting their supply lines. This proved successful against Japanese bases in New Guinea, the Admiralty Islands and ultimately the Philippines. There were many bloody battles to be sure, but the ability to avoid massive Japanese bases such as Rabaul saved thousands of American lives.

Admiral Chester Nimitz’ area of command in the vast expanses of the eastern Pacific didn’t have as many options, as island stepping stones were small and far apart. “Island hopping,” or advancing from one chain of islands to another, was an unavoidable necessity. This meant having to make bloody amphibious assaults on island bastions like Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, Guam, and Saipan and Tinian in the Mariana Islands. American advances caused the Japanese military to begin heavily fortifying islands closer to the heart of the empire. One of the outposts deemed crucial to stopping further American advances was Iwo Jima.

With the Marianas in US hands in 1944, new American B-29 bombers now had bases from which to attack the Japanese homeland.  A massive bombing campaign began to take the war to Japan’s cities and industrial centers.

Iwo Jima was important to the Japanese because it lay athwart the air route from the Marianas to Tokyo, and served both as an early warning site, and an interceptor location for fighter aircraft. To the Americans, Iwo Jima’s location only 650 nautical miles from Tokyo meant it was ideally located to recover disabled or damaged B-29s returning from bombing runs over Japan. It was also close enough to allow P-51 fighters to escort the B-29s all the way to Japan.

 

An invasion of Japan – something inconceivable only two years earlier – now loomed as a real threat to the Japanese high command. . The concept of surrender was abhorrent in Japanese society. This was one of the reasons why most Japanese soldiers, almost to the end of the war, fought to the death. And it was one of the many reasons Allied prisoners of war were seen as ‘cowards’ and horribly mistreated and tortured.  The Japanese leadership felt that beyond the military threat, it meant the demise of the Japanese concept of “self.” The very idea of an invasion of the homeland, governed by a divine emperor, raised fears about the continuation of the Japanese as a race. The loss of their way of life and system of government, in their view, would result in cultural, if not physical genocide. And the Japanese military, which had controlled virtually all aspects of political life since the early 1930s, would not longer be in power

 

As the Allies closed in, the Japanese military made sure that its attackers would known the cost of an attempt to subjugate the empire.

 

On May 27, 1944, Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo selected General Tadamichi Kuribayashi to assume the defense of Iwo Jima. Kuribayashi was a decorated veteran and proved to be an expert at waging defensive warfare. He took his 5000 troops then on the island and set them to work honeycombing Iwo Jima with over 11 miles of tunnels and over 5000 caves and pillboxes. Kuribayashi was also a pragmatist. Shortly after he arrived, what was left of the Japanese naval air forces was destroyed in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in a disastrous rout the Americans called “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”. American submarines, surface ships and airpower had already decimated most of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Iwo Jima would receive more defenders and supplies until the Americans arrived, but Kuribayashi knew that he would get no further support once the invasion began. Kuribayashi realized that without help he and his men were ultimately doomed, so he aimed to make the American invaders pay as high a price as possible for victory.

 

Aerial View of Iwo Jima

Before World War II, Iwo Jima was a backwater island with a civilian population of around 1000, administered as a prefecture of the capital city of Tokyo. The islanders survived by fishing, growing sugar cane, or mining sulfur. There was no fresh water source on the island and those living there had to rely on rainwater cisterns. Rice and other supplies were brought in every month or so on inter-island freighters. There was one policeman, one Shinto shrine, and one primary school. Shaped like an ice cream cone, its one dominant physical feature was Mt. Suribachi at the southernmost tip of the island. This dormant volcano loomed 530 feet over the rest of the island.

            

At first glance, Iwo Jima appeared to be a difficult place to defend. But the Japanese had proved masters of island fighting. The bloodbaths at Tarawa and Peleliu had taught the Americans that.

Intelligence figures estimated that at best the Japanese held the ‘dry wasteland of volcanic ash that stinks of sulfur’ (as James Bradley described it in Flags of Our Fathers) with only 12,000 troops. Hardly a small number, but 70,000 Marines seemed to be more than enough to overcome the defenders. American intelligence estimates conservatively stated that one week was all the time needed to secure Iwo Jima and its three airfields. But those intelligence estimates were wrong, and badly so. The actual number of defenders had grown to 23,000 before the island was blockaded. By the time it ended, the Battle for Iwo Jima had raged for five weeks. And even after the invasion commanders proclaimed the island ‘secured’, on March 26th, hundreds of Japanese stragglers remained concealed in tunnels, occasionally ambushing US troops. The last holdouts would not surrender until 4 years after the end of World War II.

 

NEXT: D Day and Desperation

The Red River Campaign of 1864 – Part 1

The Red River Campaign

THE INVASION OF TEXAS

By

Todd A. Blomerth

 

(This article is one of a continuing series on various campaigns and battles during the Sesquicentennial Era of the American Civil War)

 

By 1864, it was becoming increasingly obvious that eventually the Union would prevail against the South. The main question for Lincoln and his generals was how to speed up the demise of the breakaway states. Texas continued as a vital and yet largely untouched part of the Confederacy, providing men, munitions, foodstuffs, and cotton for export. Until this point Texas had avoided most of the ravages of war due to its geographic isolation in the far west of the Confederacy and also thanks to its relatively small population. It wasn’t on the route of any invasion forces, nor had the rebel forces stationed there inflicted much harm to the overall Northern effort. While Texas sent large numbers of men to fight elsewhere for the South, its ability to assist the overall southern war effort with materiel was hamstrung by a northern blockade of the Texas ports on the Gulf of Mexico, and the North’s control of the Mississippi River and the City of New Orleans. However, ways were found to funnel badly needed supplies to the eastern breakaway states, and also to obtain hard cash by the export of cotton (often across the lines to Northern speculators!).

In the third year of the war, following major victories at Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and elsewhere, the North finally had the manpower to consider several additional options to shut down the supply lines from Texas and northern Louisiana to the rest of the South. Lincoln’s General in Chief, Henry Halleck, devised a campaign to seize Shreveport, the capital of Confederate Louisiana ever since the Northern capture of New Orleans in 1862, and seize the vital shipping conduit of the Red River. In the process, the plan called for the destruction of Southern forces in northern Louisiana, capture of thousands of bales of cotton, and finally the organization of a pro-union state government. After solidifying control of Louisiana, Halleck felt that the Union forces could then strike into Texas, and sever the supply lines of goods and armaments flowing out of Tyler and Marshall in East Texas to the remainder of the besieged Confederacy.

 

Yet some of Lincoln’s top generals feared the invasion would prove a wasteful and time consuming side show to the Union’s primary efforts to defeat the South in the eastern states. Over the strong objections of Grant and Sherman, Halleck instructed General Nathaniel Banks, commander of Union forces in Louisiana, to divert his efforts from supporting Grant’s planned attack on Mobile, Alabama, and Sherman’s planned advance into Georgia. Banks was to send his forces up the sinuous Red River in a two-pronged advance. To support Banks, Halleck ordered troops from Arkansas and recently-captured Vicksburg, Mississippi to move into Louisiana.

The Union plan, such as it was, was for Banks’ ground forces, supported by Admiral David Porter’s ironclads and steamboats to press up the Red River toward Alexandria, and from there toward Shreveport. At the same time, General Frederick Steele was instructed to bring 7000 men southeast from Little Rock, Arkansas, to join forces. General A J Smith’s force of approximately 9000 men, who were to be part of Banks’ main offensive, embarked from Vicksburg, and assembled on Bayou Teche.

The Union forces, including a substantial number of freed African American slaves recruited into the northern army, were the first to encroach into this area where the Confederacy’s supremacy had remained unchallenged. Shreveport was a robust center of mills, foundries, and shipyards. Its shipyards built ironclads meant to challenge the North’s control of the Mississippi. And the North was concerned with the construction of submarines in the shipyards at Shreveport as well. On February 17, 1864, one of these newly invented weapons, the Hunley, sank a Union steamship, the USS Housatonic, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. In the attack, the Hunley and all her men were lost as well, but that didn’t remove the Union’s fear that similar weapons would be unleashed on Mississippi river traffic, or other blockaded Southern harbors.

By 1864, several of Texas’ ports were blockaded, and there had been small landings to reinforce the coastal blockades’ effectiveness. The Red River Campaign would strip many troops from that duty. Militarily this was very risky, but political considerations may have played a part in outweighing military strategy. France had invaded and overrun Mexico in 1862 and was sympathetic to the South. The Union was afraid that Mexico would make some pact with the Confederacy. If this happened, at the very least it would make maintain the Southern blockade difficult – and could even expand the scope of the war. Additionally, it was thought that the campaign would (at least in the minds of some) be a fairly easy way to knock Texas out of the Confederacy and thereby close the South’s last foreign outlet on the Mexican border.

In March, Admiral Porter began assembling his fleet at the mouth of the Red River. The rebels were aware of the Union plans and began strengthening Fort DeRussy at Alexandria. However, Union General Smith’s Vicksburg force was able to capture that fort and the town on March 14. Porter’s fleet arrived soon after, hoping to easily steam upriver during the wet season of the year.

However, the Red River had other plans. 1864 was an unusually dry year, and the low water level made river transport difficult. Normally the river was navigable by steamboat traffic as far as Caddo Lake and Jefferson in East Texas, but this year was proving to be different. Porter had ships of varying sizes and tonnage, many of which  already had problems moving up from the mouth of the Red. Sandbars and man-made obstacles placed by the rebels made it impossible for Porter’s deeper draft ships to proceed. Falling water levels also threatened the advancing troops’ supply lines if the shallower river boats used to bring provisions could not get upriver. Porter was also skeptical of Banks’ generalship. An outspoken old salt, he had little confidence in Banks as a combat commander, and felt sure that the promise of an easy victory could prove illusory, which would require even more naval support.

As the invasion got off to its shaky beginning, the rebel forces west of the Mississippi were under the overall command of General E. Kirby Smith. After the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, this vast area became an independent command, so much so that many in the Confederacy nicknamed it “Kirby Smithdom.” Smith placed Major General Richard Taylor (the son of former President Zachary Taylor) in command of the forces that he hoped who suffice to stop the northern invasion. Initially confused as to where the Union forces would strike, Smith and Taylor ordered their men – some of whom had seen little or no action – to be prepared to move at a moment’s notice.

 

By April 1, Union forces had captured Grand Ecore and Nachitoches and were moving upriver. Taylor’s Confederate forces shadowed the bluecoats, but were not strong enough to challenge them. A desperate call went out for additional forces. Responding to the call to defend Shreveport, several Texas units hurried forward from other posts. Some of these included men from Caldwell County, including Company K of the 17th Texas Volunteer Infantry Regiment and units of DeBray’s 26th Texas Cavalry. As the Union cavalry and infantry moved toward Shreveport, Banks’ forces became stretched out over miles of Northern Louisiana’s primitive roads. The main supply line for the area remained the Red River, and Union ground forces stayed well within range of the covering fire from the flotilla on its right. However, near Mansfield, Louisiana, the driest road in that swampy area curved away from the river – and out of the range of Porter’s fleet. As Banks’ men moved away from the river, the rebels chose to launch an attack, hoping to have enough men in place before Banks could get his forces organized in that vulnerable location. The Southern defenders formed a defensive line at a site called Sabine Crossroads (near the town of Mansfield). Brigadier General Thomas Green arrived soon after with cavalry units to support Taylor, and to also reconnoiter the Union lines.

 

 

Also Known as Sabine Crossroads

General Alfred Mouton’s division, made up of Texans and Louisianans, moved in on the Confederate left. “Walker’s Greyhounds,” a Texas division commanded by John G. Walker, and Colonel William G. Vincent’s Louisiana cavalry brigade also helped form the line. Mouton’s men moved forward late in the afternoon of April 8, but the general was soon killed and his men repulsed. But Walker’s Texan’s wrapped around the Union left, flanked it, and broke their line. Panicked Union soldiers broke and ran. Union commanders tried to form a second defensive line. This too was broken, and the rebels pursued the Union forces until a hastily assembled third defensive line. This last line held, and the rebels’ advanced halted.

As Civil War battles went, Mansfield was a small one. Union losses were put at 113 dead, 581 wounded, and 1541 captured. But the Southerners benefited from a huge haul of supplies, horses and mules, and artillery as well as from a big boost in morale following the victory. Taylor decided to press his advantage. On April 9, the advancing rebels met the Union forces again, this time at Pleasant Hill. Pleasant Hill was only a small village of 12 or so huts with a small, bare knoll in the middle of the settlement that gave Banks’ men good defensive positions. Yet lack of fresh water prevented him from holding the area for long.

The rebels began reconnoitering around noon prior to launching their attack. Instead of a single assault against one section of the Union line, the greycoats struck the entire line at once. The Union center and right bowed in, but finally held. A second attack stalled when late arriving Confederate forces, including General Hamilton Bee’s men, and those of DeBray’s Texas Brigade, were ambushed on their way to support the attack.  Bee showed incredible courage in rallying his men, and DeBray was seriously wounded. By the time they could extract their units, many of their men had been killed and wounded.

The battle finally ended at 1 a.m. Although Banks called Pleasant Hill a victory, this was an exaggeration. The Confederate advance had been halted, but the rebels still blocked the road toward Shreveport. The Union forces, lacking water, withdrew, and continued their retreat back toward Alexandria. For all intents and purposes, the Red River campaign was over. General lack of confidence in Banks’ competence had by now eroded any chance he had at regrouping and attempting to achieve any of the campaign’s objectives. Taylor wanted Walker’s Texans to assist his forces in hounding the Yankees back toward Alexandria, hoping to rout the withdrawing invaders. Instead, Kirby Smith sent Walker’s division to assist other troops trying to trap Union General Steele’s force, which was still en route from Little Rock. Short of food and supplies, and nearly surrounded at Camden, Arkansas, Steele refused to move any further south after becoming aware of Banks’ failure, and he turned his men around and headed back North. Walker’s men headed the chase but were defeated at the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry.

Later, Taylor would bitterly claim that Kirby Smith’s failure to provide adequate forces prevented him from striking a death blow to Banks’ and Porter’s forces.

The Red River Campaign had turned into a muddled mess. Banks’ window of opportunity closed permanently when Sherman and Grant required him to release all soldiers detached from Vicksburg no later than May 1.

Porter’s naval forces were now on their own on a river with falling water levels surrounded by rebels. The admiral now focused on saving  his ironclads and other ships from destruction or capture.

Next: A grand engineering feat by a Wisconsin logger saves the Union naval forces.

The Invasion of New Mexico – 1862

THE INVASION OF NEW MEXICO

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By Todd Blomerth

This is the second in a series of articles about the American Civil War, in this the Sesquicentennial Year of the beginning of that conflict.

On June 1, 1862 the citizens of Prairie Lea and the surrounding area met to make arrangements to “send for our soldiers in Arizona.” This emergency meeting was attended by folks from Caldwell and Guadalupe Counties, and some family names of those attending would be recognizable today: Watts, Hardeman, Pettus, Petty, Allen, Francis, to name a few. ”A committee was then appointed to solicit contributions and make all other arrangements for the trip. “Money, bacon and other supplies were pledged. What prompted this meeting, and why was it necessary for farmers and merchants from the Texas frontier to send help for soldiers 600 miles away?

This is that story.

Background

The war of secession began in Texas with a whimper. At the time, what few federal troops in the state were involved with protecting the frontier against Indian incursions. In San Antonio shortly after Texas’ secession the Federal commander, General David Twiggs, surrendered all US military property in the state to the commissioners of the State of Texas. Union troops were ordered to withdraw. Federal commanders of frontier posts, such as Fort Bliss in what is now El Paso, turned over huge amounts of supplies and quietly left. Most troops either surrendered and were paroled to return north or traded their old blue uniforms for the gray of the new Southern Confederacy.  Within weeks, federal power in Texas had been eliminated without firing a shot.

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New Mexico and Arizona 1861

Meanwhile, further west in the Territory of New Mexico, which encompassed all of what are now the states of New Mexico, Arizona, and some parts of Utah and Nevada, the outbreak of civil war back East at first seemed a distant threat. The overwhelming numbers of non-Indians in that territory were of Mexican and Spanish descent. Santa Fe, the capital, had a population of only 4653. Albuquerque and Las Vegas each numbered around 1000.

In 1861 few areas of America were as remote and sparsely populated as New Mexico Territory. Its tiny non-Indian population was in constant threat from marauding Apaches. Although seen by many at the time as a desert wasteland of no value, there had been major silver discoveries near Tucson and Tubac in what is now Arizona. The mining towns were filled with gamblers, horse thieves, and murderers, and home to a host of imported vices. Many law-abiding citizens decried the Federal government’s failure to bring order to the area.

Added to this was the constant fear of raids by the Apaches, whose ferocity constantly menaced settlers with the threat of a gruesome death. When Texas seceded, the Overland Mail line as well as many of the federal frontier garrisons quit the territory, further isolating an already remote region and emboldening the Apaches to attack remote regions without fear of retribution. A local reporter, Thompson Turner, six months earlier, had predicted that were this to occur, it would be “a death blow to Arizona.” In April 1861, the Butterfield mail contract, which ran stagecoaches through West Texas, also came to a halt. The Tucson Weekly Arizonian lamented on August 10, 1861 that, “We are hemmed in on all sides by the unrelenting Apache. Since the withdrawal of the Overland Mail and the garrison troops the chances against life have reached the maximum height. Within six months nine-tenths of the whole male population have been killed off, and every ranch, farm and mine of the country have been abandoned in consequence.”  Thompson’s prediction was coming true.

Black slavery was virtually non-existent in the Territory, but Miguel Otero, the territorial delegate, after marrying a South Carolinian, had adopted a decidedly pro-southern attitude that resulted in a harsh slave code. The southern portion of New Mexico Territory (which was generally referred to as Arizona during that period) was angry about Santa Fe’s seeming indifference to problems in that area. In Tucson, the few federal troops present around the mining areas spiked their cannon, burned their supplies, and departed without offering any resistance to a small militia of Southern sympathizers that then took over. Three hundreds miles east, Mesilla (now a part of Las Cruces, New Mexico) was also a hotbed of Southern sympathy as it had a large population of Anglos originally from Texas. They were aided by major Anglo entrepreneurs in nearby El Paso, who were vehemently pro-South.

Southern Strategy

Military authorities in Texas immediately began to look toward the west, in hopes of capturing additional territory for the newly created Confederacy. This interest was an a continuation of the Southern states’ pre-war effortsgadsden-purchase

Gadsden Purchase  of 1853

to propagate pro-slavery areas in the West any way it could, including  promoting a southern railroad route to California that had resulted in the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1853.

As noted by the Houston Telegraph in May of 1862, “…the Federals have us surrounded and utterly shut in by their territory, with the privilege of fighting us off from commerce with the Pacific as well as with Northern Mexico. They confine slave territory within a boundary that will shut us out of ¾ of the underdeveloped territory of the continent adapted to slavery…. We must have and keep…[New Mexico] at all hazards.”

After Texas seceded in January of 1861, it issued a resolution encouraging New Mexico to apply to the Confederacy for admission as a slave state. In Tucson and Mesilla, resolutions were unanimously passed declaring Arizona (at the time the lower half of what were later the states of New Mexico and Arizona) free of Federal rule and repudiating Federal authority.  In March of 1861, Arizona issued its own Articles of Secession at Mesilla, stating, “RESOLVED, That geographically and naturally we are bound to the South, and to her we look for protection; and as the Southern States have formed a Confederacy, it is our earnest desire to be attached to that Confederacy as a Territory…”

The South was confident that all of New Mexico and Arizona could be brought under Confederate rule. The territorial governor and military commander were from North Carolina. The territorial secretary was from Mississippi.  But it was not a sure thing. Adamantly pro-union miners from Colorado had settled in the territory, and the large Mexican-American population was ambivalent at best about any involvement in what it saw as an Anglo feud.

Early Confrontations

When Texas seceded, the newly appointed military commander of Texas, Gen. Earl Van Dorn, ordered Lt. Colonel John Baylor to take a portion of the new Second Regiment Texas Mounted Rifles west, to re-occupy the abandoned West Texas frontier forts. Baylor was instructed to follow the line of forts into New Mexico if possible and seize any Federal property there. Baylor did as ordered, entering Ft. Bliss (in present day El Paso), and then moving upstream to Mesilla in July of 1861. Mesilla, which presented itself as the capital of the newly formed “Confederate Territory of Arizona” welcomed the Texans with open arms. The Federal commander of nearby Ft. Fillmore attempted to push the Texans out, failed, abandoned the fort, and retreated northward. The Texans pursued, capturing (and later paroling) the entire command. This first Southern military victory emboldened the Confederates to follow-up with a full-blown invasion.sibley

                                                             General Sibley

Enter Henry Hopkins Sibley. a federal officer who had resigned his commission at the start of the war. lSibley left his New Mexico post travelling to Richmond, Virginia. There he met with the Confederacy’s new President, Jefferson Davis and convinced him that the South could defeat the few remaining Union troops and bring New Mexico into the Confederacy. He assured Davis that once his Army was raised and provisioned in Texas, it could sustain itself in New Mexico without further need of supplies. Although after the war he claimed that his plan was to take New Mexico, Colorado, southern California, and perhaps even conquer parts of northern Mexico, his stated plan in 1861 was not that far reaching. After convincing Davis of his New Mexico invasion plan, he was commissioned a brigadier general and received the following orders:

SIR: In view of your recent service in New Mexico and knowledge of that country and the people, the President has intrusted you with the important duty of driving the Federal troops from the department, at the same time securing all the arms, supplies and materials of war.

A Call To Arms

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          From the Austin State Gazette, September 7, 1861

 

Sibley headed to Texas and issued a call to arms. Units began to form. DeWitt, Caldwell, Guadalupe, Gonzales, Fayette, Aransas, Parker, Trinity, Austin, and Travis were some of the many counties that contributed troops. Company A, Fourth Regiment, made up of men from Caldwell and Guadalupe counties, was the first company mustered in. It was commanded by William Polk “Gotch” Hardeman, a Guadalupe County farmer who had until recently lived with his family in Caldwell County. The unit was mustered into service at San Antonio on August 28, 1861. Like the folks attending the Prairie Lea meeting nine months later, many of the young men enlisting had surnames recognizable to Caldwell County residents today: Hines, Maney, Nixon, Fentress, Thomas Watts (Luling resident Cal Watts’ great great granduncle), and Beaty, among of others. In all, three infantry regiments plus several artillery batteries were mustered in as one brigade under Sibley’s command.

The approximately 3200 men then received rudimentary military training at San Antonio. On the day of the expedition’s departure, Alexander Gregg, Episcopal Bishop of Texas, blessed the men, and Sibley’s Brigade began its long trek to El Paso. Traveling 600 miles over empty plains and desert with limited water meant the brigade’s units had to stagger their departure so water holes would not be overtaxed. The units trekked through Uvalde, Ft. Clark, San Felipe Springs (now Del Rio), Ft. Lancaster, Ft. Stockton, Van Horn’s Wells, Ft. Quitman, San Elizario, and finally arrived at Ft. Bliss. The three regiments reunited there in late December of 1861 and moved west to join forces with Baylor’s men holding Mesilla and Fort Fillmore.

Sibley then sent some troops toward Tucson and Ft. Yuma further west and detached others to help defend Mesilla and Ft. Bliss. He re-organizing his newly named Army of New Mexico, and launched the main thrust of his invasion with 2600 men supported by 15 artillery pieces. The mood of the army was optimistic at first.

But Sibley’s plan to live off the land by acquiring supplies as he went along proved to be disastrous. Hopes of buying supplies from Mexico evaporated when Mexican merchants in Sonora refused to accept Confederate paper money. This forced  the Confederates to forage from the native population. This alienated many New Mexicans, and the many counted-on recruits never materialized. To make matters worse, repeated outbreaks of measles, smallpox, and pneumonia ravaged the men. Despite these setbacks, Sibley and his men remained optimistic that the invasion would not be sorely tested because they did not believe that the Union had any competent commander to challenge them. This perception was wrong.

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Colonel Edward Canby

Colonel Edward Canby took control of the New Mexico Territory’s Union forces from their actual commander because he held a well-founded fear that that his superior was a Southern sympathizer. At the time of Sibley’s invasion, Canby had been struggling mightily for several months to recruit volunteers to help keep New Mexico in the Union. He also bolstered defenses at Fort Craig, upriver from Fort Fillmore, and at Fort Union, a huge supply depot in northeastern New Mexico. Many of his recruits were of Hispanic heritage. This enraged the Texans, who were still smarting from the aftermath of the Mier Expedition, a failed invasion into Mexico in 1841 that had led to the execution of many Texan prisoners of war. Adding to Canby’s woes was the fact that many troops still had to be diverted to defend against hostile Apache, Navajo, Kiowa, and Comanche tribes, all of whom were supplied by Comancheros, or Mexicans who traded with the tribes. This dual threat put Canby in a precarious position.

 

The Battle of Val Verde

 

Fort Craig was another thirty miles upriver from Fort Fillmore. Canby had managed to recruit over two thousand recruits to supplement Union regulars that he had moved down from Northern New Mexico and Colorado. One regiment was even commanded by the legendary “Kit” Carson.

In early 1862, Sibley’s men moved north against the fort but realized it was too heavily defended to take. Sibley decided to by-pass the fort, hoping to draw the Union forces out for a fight in the open. The Confederates were hampered by bad winter weather in the form of high winds, sleet, blowing sand, and rain. Ill-clad, they were forced to seek shelter in a wasteland of sand dunes and volcanic extrusions. On February 21 Sibley ordered a feint toward the fort. Canby was not tricked, but decided to challenge the Texans on the open field in spite of his many green troops.

He first sent cavalry to the Val Verde ford on the Rio Grande to block the rebels from crossing the icy river. His men beat the Confederates to the ford and fighting broke out. Around noon, Sibley, claiming illness (although possibly very drunk), retired from the field and turned his command over to Colonel Tom Green. Green’s cavalry charged a battery of two Union howitzers but was beaten back. However, the main Southern infantry assault on the Union left overran a six gun battery – re-named “The Valverde Battery” – and the Federal line broke and fled. The Union lost 68 men killed and 160 wounded. The Confederate losses were put at 36, with 150 wounded. Sibley then demanded Fort Craig’s surrender, but Canby refused. J.F. Boesel, a German-American from Austin County, noted in his diary, “On the 21st we met the enemy above, at Val Verde. We Germans stood our ground and fought bravely…We took the enemy in the evening. We got them to running. But our brave Captain, and many other brave men fell.”

It was a victory of sorts, but the Confederates had neither the time or supplies to starve Fort Craig into submission. A large number of horses had been killed in the battle, and many cavalrymen found themselves slogging along as infantry. Low on food, and with freezing weather, Sibley’s men by-passed the fort and continued north toward Socorro. The town, garrisoned by raw New Mexico troops, surrendered without resistance. However, Sibley’s army could not savor its victory because it was again short of supplies. The promise of provisions upstream in Albuquerque beckoned, but Sibley moved slowly, and Canby’s orders ensured that when the Texans finally arrived most of the supplies had been burned. It was a heavy blow to the men, who were ill-prepared for a protracted winter campaign. However, the brigade’s fortunes temporarily reversed when it seized supplies at a depot west of Albuquerque and then stumbled upon twenty-three wagons full of supplies bound for Fort Craig. Sibley had bought enough time to execute the next phase of his invasion.

 

The Battle of Glorieta Pass

 

After garrisoning Albuquerque and Santa Fe, Sibley turned toward the huge supply depot at Fort Union, north of present day Las Vegas, New Mexico. If taken, this fort would provide an abundance of badly needed supplies and cut off Canby’s main force at Fort Craig. There was just one problem – the fort’s defenses had been reinforced by Colorado miners eager for a fight.

These reinforcements, called “Pikes Peakers” by the Texans, were commanded by Colonel John P. Slough. Rather than wait to be attacked, he took his men and marched down the Santa Fe Trail in search of Sibley. The federals surprised a small advance party in Apache Canyon and captured seventy-one Confederates. Surprised by Union aggressiveness, the main body of the Confederate force, commanded by Lt. Colonel William Scurry, bivouacked the Army at a place called Johnson’s Ranch to prepare for further attacks. When none came, Scurry’s force of around 1000 men advanced into rugged Glorieta Pass. There they found and attacked the Union force, and after a fierce seven hour battle chased them from the field. It appeared as if the tide was again turning in the Texans’ favor.

However, while the Battle of Glorieta Pass raged, a small Union force under Major John Chivington had stumbled on the lightly-guarded Confederate supply train at Johnson’s Ranch and completely destroyed it. Instead of a glorious advance toward Fort Union, Sibley’s men had no choice but to limp back to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, bereft of food and supplies.  Scurry wrote, “The loss of my supplies so crippled me that . . . I was unable to follow up the victory. My men for two days went unfed and blanketless . . . I was compelled to come [to Santa Fe] for something to eat.”

A Bitter Retreat

 

Sibley sent a plea to Governor Francis Lubbock of Texas, asking for supplies and reinforcements. None were forthcoming. In the meantime, Canby brought 1200 men northward from Fort Craig, intent on joining forces with the men at Fort Union. He attacked Albuquerque, drawing the garrison at Santa Fe out. This allowed Canby’s forces to slip around the Confederate defenses and link up with the a unit from Fort Union. Now with 2400 Union troops united under Canby’s command, Sibley realized his invasion was doomed.

On April 12, 1862 the Army of New Mexico evacuated Albuquerque. The Confederates were hounded south, and as the remnants of his army neared Fort Craig, Sibley acknowledged that his exhausted men would have little or no ammunition to confront its defenders. To bypass the fort and avoid a potential attack by Union troops, the Confederate troops took a grueling, circuitous route through desert mountains. The detour worked, but used up their few remaining supplies and forced them to abandon several artillery pieces. (As an aside, when I was a kid in El Paso, I remember folks with metal detectors climbing in the mountains near Las Cruces, New Mexico, searching for the buried guns – I don’t think anyone had any luck in finding them).

The men vented their anger on Sibley. One stated, “Sibley is heartily despised by every man in the brigade for his want of feeling poor generalship and cowardice. Several [prostitutes] can find room to ride in his wagons while the poor private soldier is thrown out to die on the way. The feeling and expression of the whole brigade is never to come up here again unless mounted and under a different general.”

By the time the brigade arrived in the Mesilla area, only 1800 men were left – the rest had been killed, captured, or left sick or wounded in hospitals along the way.

To complete the defeat, the “California Column” of Union volunteers from that state swept into Tucson and continued east toward El Paso. The Army of New Mexico would have to retreat back to central Texas, or be captured.

After re-provisioning as best it could, Sibley’s brigade broke into smaller units and retraced its steps to San Antonio. Only this time, it was in the middle of the blazing summer heat. The men suffered terribly.

The San Antonio Herald wrote that “A woman who left El Paso on the stage on June 17, 1862 wrote that she had:

…passed the entire first [4th] regiment upon the road at different points. Maj. Hampton was camped at the Muerto….Col. Hardeman was at ….Lympia Canon. The men were suffering terribly from the effects of heat; very many of them are 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; but we did not see a gloomy face – not one! They were all cheerful, for their faces were turned homewards. ‘We are going home!’”

The Prairie Lea meeting was one of many, the result of pleas to send supplies and wagons to help the suffering survivors forced to straggle home across West Texas in the heat of summer. Its wagons met up with a host of troops near the Devil’s River (west of present day Del Rio), and assisted in helping the survivors home.

The Sibley campaign was an unmitigated disaster for the South. Of the 2600 or so men who began the campaign into New Mexico, approximately 1800 returned home. 119 men died on the battlefield or later of wounds, perhaps hundreds died of disease and exposure, and over 500 were captured (although most of these were later paroled). Sibley’s reputation was also a casualty. Recognized as an ineffective leader, a drunkard, and maligned as a coward, he was eventually demoted and relegated to running supply trains for the remainder of the war.

Martin Hall’s “The Confederate Army in New Mexico,” and “Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign” were excellent sources, as were excerpts from our own Plum Creek Almanac. And thanks to Donaly Brice for his assistance.