United States 7th Infantry
The 7th U.S. Infantry Service in the American Civil War
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In July 1861, three months after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the 7th Infantry was in southern New Mexico Territory. Companies A, B, D, E, G, I, and K garrisoned Fort Fillmore, the regiment's headquarters. Companies C, F, and H were on their way there from Fort Craig to the north and Fort Buchanan to the west (in present-day Arizona).
Meanwhile, menace was heading north from Texas in the form of Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John R. Baylor and the 350 men of the newly formed Texas Mounted Rifles. Baylor knew that the 700 Federals already at Fort Fillmore outnumbered him, but he marched up the Rio Grande Valley anyway.
He need not have worried about the U.S. Army Regulars of the 7th Infantry. Although their commander, Major Isaac Lynde, a 34-year veteran of infantry service, had been informed of the Confederate advance, he posted only the usual sentinels and no outlying pickets. Baylor was able to camp a mere 600 yards from the Union fort on the night of July 24 while he prepared for a dawn assault. During the night, a Confederate soldier who had served in the U.S. Army before the war felt a twinge of nostalgia, perhaps, and crept through the darkness to warn the Union forces.
When Baylor realized he had lost the element of surprise, he fell back to Mesilla, a village that his troops occupied, just northwest of the fort, and prepared for an attack by the 7th. Some of the village's inhabitants–mostly Confederate supporters but a few Texan-haters–gathered on a nearby hill to watch the fight they knew was coming.
Sure enough, Lynde advanced on the village that day and ordered a charge on the Confederates. But when four of his Federals were killed and seven wounded early in the fight, Lynde called off the attack and withdrew. He had the post at Fort Fillmore burned, and the next day, his seven companies of infantry and two companies of mounted rifles began a 150-mile march northeast over steep mountains and dry piñon forests toward Fort Stanton.
On July 27 Lynde's 700-odd Federals stopped to eat at San Augustin Springs in the San Andres Mountains. Displaying what a Union officer later called 'a sublimity of majestic indifference,' Lynde failed to post pickets. An advance guard of Texans soon made him pay for that oversight. The Texans first encountered the 200 troops of Lynde's rear guard. Many of these Union soldiers had filled their canteens with whiskey before leaving Fort Fillmore–and emptied them along the march. The Texans found the Federals strung out along the trail, dehydrated, too drunk to walk–much less fight–and barely able to comprehend that they were being captured. The drunken prisoners were hauled back to Mesilla in wagons, like sacks of wheat.
Next, the Texans reached Lynde's main force and demanded surrender. The Federal officers knew their troops far outnumbered the ill-trained Texans, and they implored Lynde to let them defend their position and their honor. But Lynde chose to surrender. In an attempt to salvage, literally, some shred of honor, the Union officers saved their regimental colors from capture by tearing them up and distributing the pieces among themselves as keepsakes.
Three days later, the Union prisoners reached Las Cruces, where they were paroled and began a 300-mile march to Fort Union, the Union's key military post between Missouri and California, located in the northeast corner of New Mexico. The northward route was a formidable one through areas short on food, forage, and water. Even today, landmarks along the route are known by names like 'Starvation Peak.' When the parolees reached the fort, they were immediately put to work, even though they had just hiked most of the length of New Mexico.
Fort Union was an attractive target to Trans-Mississippi Confederates. It was a huge supply depot with adobe warehouses full of gunpowder, rifles, artillery, uniforms, and food–and there were no fortifications to protect these valuables. So there they sat for the taking, only a two-day ride from the border of Confederate Texas. Attack could come at any time across the Oklahoma panhandle, or through the windswept grassland of western Texas's Llano Estacado, or up the Rio Grande Valley. To make matters worse for the Federals, Confederate agents had enticed Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs along the Santa Fe Trail to take the warpath for Jefferson Davis, thereby cutting off Fort Union from the eastern states.
By the summer of 1861, it began to appear that the Civil War could last a long time, and not only in Virginia. In early August, volunteer soldiers from New Mexico joined the U.S. Regulars at Fort Union to make a total force of more than 1,000 men.
The newly arrived men of the paroled 7th Infantry were not allowed to fight; parolees were sworn not to fight until an equal number of enemy prisoners were released in exchange for them. But nothing kept them from moving dirt. Just south of the old Fort Union parade ground, 200 men worked four-hour shifts plying picks and shovels, sweating in the summer sun, panting in the thin mountain air. They were turning the defenseless supply depot into a state-of-the-art 'four-bastioned rectangular polygon' with inner redans and outer lunettes.
Not all of the 7th Infantry's time at Fort Union was spent digging; court-martial records show that. Just over the hill south of the fort, on the banks of the Mora River, was the village of Loma Parda, though the term 'village' is an exaggeration. Loma Parda was nothing more than a dance hall, a bar, and a few small buildings that each held one bed and one prostitute.
Apparently the village's temptations were too strong for many of the 7th Infantrymen to ignore. 'I went to Loma Parda for my overcoat, which I had left there,' wrote Michael Patton. 'A few of my friends asked if I would like to have something to drink. I said yes. I got into a house where I thought my overcoat was and got a drink. I didn't know anything for ten hours. When I woke up, my money was gone. Then I started home.'
Patrick McKenney was convicted of being absent without leave for five days. As an excuse, he offered, 'I had the D.T.s.' Jeremiah Nolan, Patrick O'Brien, Edward O'Brien, Michael Smith, and John Marks were convicted of being AWOL for two days. James Lloyd, tried for the same offense, explained, 'I went to Loma Parda on Sunday and intended to come right back, but met some of the boys and got drunk. When I got sober, I came back.' Corporal Robert Walsh got drunk and released several men imprisoned at the fort. Each of the convicted visitors to Loma Parda were sentenced to three months of hard labor while wearing a 12-pound iron ball attached to the left ankle by a four-foot chain.
By the end of August 1861, the new Fort Union was in a condition to withstand a serious assault. Most of the 7th Regiment was ordered to proceed to Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, Missouri, whence they would eventually continue to noncombat posts along the Great Lakes. They were to leave Fort Union on September 19 and pass Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, along the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail.
A wagon train assembled in the plains just northeast of the fort several days before the 7th's scheduled departure. Private Thomas Hamilton, assigned to guard the wagon train on the night of September 17, left his post, hiked into the fort, got drunk, and was arrested on charges of disorderly conduct and leaving his post. The same night, another guard, Private Michael Runnels, was caught drunk on duty.
Two days later, the 7th Infantry headed for St. Louis, the advance guard scouting for danger and the rear guard alert for stragglers. On the night of September 23, the regiment camped near the Purgatory River in northern New Mexico, in an area probably filled with Confederates and hostile Indians. Private John Moloy, stationed as a sentry, was found sound asleep and was arrested.