Western Civil War Trips

In regards to the American Civil War there are several historic and unique travel stops for those planning a trip through the western U.S. If you’re looking for a unique trip idea in the West then trips to western Civil War sites might be just the thing.

civil war in new mexico

Civil War troops exhibition at Santa Fe's New Mexico History Museum

Western Civil War trips allow one to gain a different perspective of the overall strategy of the opposing sides and learn about some of the key engagements that occurred far away from the much publicized battlefields of Gettysburg and Shiloh.

Confederate activity in the West was primarily found in the Southwest. Why? The answer is that the American southwest had a good many Confederate sympathizers who had moved there from both Texas and other southern states and reaching a Pacific port such as San Diego could aid the Confederate cause greatly.

Below is a description of several of the sites which you may want to consider adding to your vacation trip planner. As with most historic sites they are either free or inexpensive to visit and provide both a fun and educational experience for the entire family. You’ll be able to take a trip back into history with great photo opportunities.

battle of picacho pass

Battle of Picacho Pass Monument

The Westernmost Battle / Battle of Picacho Pass

What was recognized as the westernmost battle of the Civil War occurred on April 15th, 1862 at Picacho Pass in present day Arizona, 50 miles northwest of Tucson and just to the south of Interstate 10.

That extreme southwest corner of the continent, while far removed from Dixie, was a Confederate sympathizer stronghold. The majority of the people who had migrated there were from the Old South and from Texas. The area was fairly neglected by the federal government and for the most part lawless so there were few reasons for strong allegiance to the Union.

John Robert Bayler was a key Confederate military figure in the New Mexico Territory. In 1861 he organized troops to fight southwest Union forces and after some success overtaking Union outposts declared himself military governor of the”new” Arizona Territory, which represented the southern part of present day New Mexico and Arizona.

plaza mesilla new mexico

Along the plaza in historic Mesilla New Mexico

Baylor appointed a cabinet and the Confederate Congress confirmed his position. He referred to Tucson as the western capitol of the Arizona Territory and Mesilla (present day Mesilla NM) the eastern capitol. .

The initial Confederate successes in Arizona turned against them due to the efforts of a Union general by the name of  James H. Carleton, pictured right. In 1862 Carleton marched the 1st California Volunteers from Fort Yuma eastward toward Texas. He linked up with Union General Canby in New Mexico and the Confederate threat in the territory was largely eliminated.

It was during this expedition that the Battle of Picacho Pass took place. On April 15th, 1862 twelve troopers and a scout of the 1st California Volunteer Cavalry led by a Lt. James Barrett was scouting the pass looking for rebels. They came across three Confederate pickets and, against his orders to wait for the main Union column to join him, attacked the pickets. Barrett failed to see seven other Confederates hiding nearby and when they opened fire Barrett and two of his men were killed.

Barrett made the same mistake that George Armstrong Custer made 14 years later but on a much smaller scale. After the ninety minute fight both the Union cavalry and the rebels retreated. The rebels retreated east to Tucson and warned of the advancing Union forces. Rather than stay and fight, the Confederates retreated eastward and left the strategic town of Tucson wide open for Union occupation.

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Ruins at Fort Craig NM across the Rio Grande from the site of the Battle of Valverde

The Battle of Valverde and Fort Craig

The Battle of Valverde took place on February 21, 1862 and lasted the entire day. This represented a big victory for the Confederates and they did move northward from there to capture both Albuquerque and Santa Fe. After the Battle of Valverde the Union troops involved retreated back to Fort Craig which was not attacked. The Battle of Valverde is considered the largest Civil War battle in the southwest. The battle site is about seven miles north northeast of the fort and on the east side of the Rio Grande.

Eventually, Sibley and his forces were defeated further north at the historic Battle of Glorieta Pass located just to the east of Santa Fe along the old Santa Fe Trail. The ultimate goal of the Confederates was to attempt to capture Fort Union further north and the Colorado gold fields further north yet. Stopping this Confederate advance was why the Battle of Glorieta Pass was so significant for the Union.

See the Trips Into History articles on the links below…

The Confederates Who Fled to Mexico

New Mexico Fort Ruins

People of the Civil War

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Map showing position of Fort Craig NM and the Battle of Valverde

Mesilla New Mexico / Confederate Stronghold

For years during the late 1850’s there were several efforts by people in the southern part of the territory to carve out their own government as the “Arizona Territory“.  This actually occurred when the Confederates invaded and took temporary control of southern New Mexico Territory naming Mesilla it’s capital. A good many civilians who occupied the Mesilla Valley were Confederate sympathizers. The local Mesilla newspaper ran editorial after editorial supporting the southern cause as well as a push for a new Arizona Territory.

This all went on while the Apache Wars were in full swing. If anything, the Civil War and the temporary withdrawal of U.S. troops made the Apache matter much worse for Mesilla Valley residents. It seems that the Confederates had no better luck, and probably worse luck, than that of the Union forces in trying to quell the Apache raids.

church mesilla new mexico

San Albino Church, Mesilla NM

Historic Mesilla NM
When you drive to old Mesilla, one of the first things you’ll notice is the beautiful cathedral on the north end of the plaza.This is the Basilica of San Albino.The church was originally built of adobe in 1855 and the current structure was erected in 1906. The church was designated a basilica in 2008.

Another very interesting and historic structure is the old home of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain. Colonel Fountain moved to Mesilla in 1873 and practiced law. He served as a member of the territorial legislature, a judge, a special prosecutor, a district attorney and a deputy court clerk. Fountain was a staunch Republican. The old Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain family home was located two blocks northwest of the Mesilla plaza. The restored and renovated home is now privately owned.

Both New Mexico and Arizona are filled with historic sites that tell the story of the Civil War in the Southwest. In addition to being able to learn more about this period of American history, the scenery is spectacular and you’ll have plenty of great photo opportunities.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Trips Into History. Photo of Picacho Pass Monument in the public domain)

 

Events of the Civil War

 

There have been thousands of books, movies and articles written about America’s Civil War. The vast majority of these chronicle the conflicts that occurred from the deep South all the way north to Gettysburg. This of course was for good reason because the most large and decisive battles took place in this eastern area of our country. Events of the Civil War that haven’t been publicized near as much were the battles and skirmishes that occurred as far west as the Arizona Territory border with California.

u.s. grant and robert e lee

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

The Remote Southwest

At the time of the Civil War, the Arizona region represented the southern part of the New Mexico Territory which was acquired from the Mexican government in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. Because of it’s geographic location in the southwest, the New Mexico Territory was a bit cut off from the Union states to the east as well as from Washington D.C. where most of the decisions were made. In addition to being remote the New Mexico Territory had a majority of it’s population emigrating from southern states, ex-Texans being one of the largest groups.

The Fight For Succession and the Southwest

There were several key events of the Civil War in the far west during the Civil War years. In Texas which was aligned with the Confederacy, Union forts which were established along the line of settlement were under attack by southern sympathizers. In most cases the outnumbered Union troops simply surrendered the fort.

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Confederate Mountain Howitzer display at Old Town Albuquerque NM

The Comanche Indians who roamed throughout central and west Texas were able to take advantage of the Civil War turmoil to step up attacks on settlers. The Texas Confederate sympathizers were no more close to the Comanches than the Union troops were and for decades these Texans also had battled the Comanches. The absence of Union troops to guard the settlements during the war just made things more dangerous for non-combatants on the southern plains.

Another situation at the same time was playing out in Arizona, then the southern part of the New Mexico Territory. Because of the vast size of the territory and it’s capitol being in the far north, Santa Fe, many of the southern territory occupants felt ignored by both Santa Fe and by the federal government in Washington D.C. This was the official reason however it was only part of the story. The other part that influenced events of the Civil War in the west was that the Confederacy was quite interested in establishing a route to the Pacific. If for no other reason it would be a new supply route which was needed badly.

john r baylor

John R. Baylor of the Confederacy

The Confederate John Baylor

A man by the name of John Baylor decided to take action. Baylor who was born in Kentucky spent time as a Texas politician and when the war broke out organized the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles. This occurred in 1861. Their purpose was to drive the Union forces out of the southwest.

Moving westward, Baylor prevailed in several battles and eventually made his way to Arizona and declared it part of the Confederacy. When word of Baylor’s southwest success reached Jefferson Davis he wholeheartedly endorsed the idea. The Confederacy and Baylor went ahead and proclaimed Arizona as being a Confederate state. John Baylor was thereby named governor of this new territory. He designated Tucson as it’s capitol.

It was during this time that what historians call the westernmost battle of the Civil War occurred. The site was a small distance northwest of Picacho Peak in southern Arizona between Tucson and Fort Yuma near the Butterfield Stagecoach route. The conflict was called the Battle of Picacho Pass involving the 1st California Cavalry led by a Lieutenant Barrett riding east from Fort Yuma California and a group of Arizona Confederates led by a Sergeant Henry Holmes.

picacho peak arizona

Picacho Peak Arizona

Another decisive battle took place at Glorietta Pass in New Mexico about 30 miles east of Santa Fe.

This battle was between Southern troops and the Colorado Militia. The southerners wanted to move north and engage Union forces in the western great plains. The Colorado militia prevailed and the Confederate attempt was thwarted. This battle ended the advance of Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley and his hoped for conquest of New Mexico. The events of the Civil War in the southwest were at first a breakthrough for the South but ended in defeat.

The Divisions in the Southwest

It’s interesting to note that the southwest was not the only area with divided loyalties. An example would be the mining camps spread throughout the west all the way from Montana down to Arizona including California.

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General Henry Hopkins Sibley of the Confederacy

All of these camps had people from all parts of the Union. Divisiveness was found in almost all camps. It usually just depended on where someone was from. Divisiveness was also very heavy in the states of Missouri and Kansas which during the 1860’s could be considered the west in some respects. The 1860’s saw much bloodshed in both states by opposing bands of militia who carried on an extremely violent campaign. The most publicized was the Massacre at Lawrence Kansas on August 21, 1863. Upwards of 200 men and boys were killed in this attack carried out by a group led by William Quantrill. The guerrilla group was referred to as Quantrill’s Raiders and were aligned with the Confederacy.
Significance of the Western Theater of the Civil War

Obviously the reason that so much more has been chronicled about the Civil War battles east of the Mississippi River is that more battles involving more soldiers took place there. The east is where the major battles were fought. The capitol’s of both sides were in the east and the population centers were in the east.

The far west was still a developing region with exception to California which gained statehood in 1850. All else were territories with limited troops spread over vast areas. Regardless, both sides understood that there were benefits to whoever gained control. The Confederacy looked at it as a kind of rearguard action. If possible they wanted to gain access to the Pacific Ocean through San Diego. They also tried to use the west as a way to attack the Union from the other direction.

prescott arizona

Today's Prescott Arizona, Arizona Territory's first capital

The Creation of the Arizona Territory

The Union on the other hand simply wanted to hold on to what they gained from the Mexican-American War and at the same time drive the southern forces out. The conflicts in the southwest during the war expedited the Union’s decision to carve out two territories in the region after the war ended. Creating the Arizona Territory alongside the Territory of New Mexico allowed the Union to govern the area much better. Becoming a territory was the first step to statehood. The Civil War was just the catalyst needed for the Union to organize the southwest territories more efficiently .

Links to additional articles you’ll enjoy include:

The Buffalo Soldiers of West Texas

People of the Civil War

The Surrender of Robert E. Lee / The Ironic Details

Historic Civil War Sites and Museums to Add to your Trip Planner

Arizona Military Museum

The Arizona Military Museum is operated by the Arizona National Guard Historical Society, a private non-profit corporation. The officers and directors serve as docents, and they perform other necessary functions in conjunction with National Guard support to operate and maintain the museum. The museum is located at the Papago Park Military Reservation, 5636 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, Arizona.

new mexico civil war volunteers

Civil War soldier reenactment at New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe

New Mexico History Museum / Palace of the Governors

Located in Santa Fe New Mexico, the 96,000 square foot museum behind the Palace of the Governors on the historic Santa Fe Plaza, presents six time periods key to the development of New Mexico and the American West. From the Civil War through the Lincoln County War and the Railroad Wars, New Mexico was a violent, vibrant place during its 63 years as a U.S. Territory.

Arizona History Museum

Located at 49 E. 2nd Street, Tucson Arizona, this museum’s focus is southern Arizona history from Spanish colonial through territorial eras. Included among the many exhibits are Geronimo’s and Wyatt Earp’s personal possessions.

Picacho Peak State Park

Lots of Civil War history at this site of a key Civil War Battle. Among the events held at Picacho Peak State Park are re-enactments of an Arizona Civil War skirmish and the New Mexico battles of Glorieta and Val Verde. The park is closed from late May through the summer. The 2013 reopening will be on September 14th. The park is located about 75 miles east of Phoenix Arizona just south of Interstate 10.

Two very interesting books I would recommend for a more detailed account of the Civil War in the southwest include The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865 by author Andrew E. Masich and Civil War in Apacheland: Sergeant George Hand’s Diary, 1861-1864  by author Neil B. Carmony.

(Photos and images of Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, John R. Baylor and Henry Sibley from the public domain. Remaining photos from author’s collection)

 

The Kimo Theater

If your western travels take you to Albuquerque New Mexico, a stop by one of the city’s most well known landmarks makes for a great side trip. The Kimo Theater located in the heart of the city at 423 Central Avenue NW is a historic site indeed. The first thing you’ll notice is the theaters very colorful art deco motif.

the kimo theater in albuquerque new mexico

The Kimo Theater, Albuquerque

The Kimo Theater was constructed in 1927 in what is referred to as an Art Deco-Pueblo Revival Style of architecture. The art deco look at the Kimo blends the Native culture of the southwest in it’s natural colorful spirit. The years of the 1920’s saw construction of movie theaters explode around the country with all types of architectural designs but the motif used with the Kimo was much more rare. The Pueblo Deco style had a relatively short life span during the 1920’s and the Kimo stands as rare and excellent example of that era.

The theater was originally built to show both motion picture and stage productions. It’s site had many passers by in as much as it sits directly on the old Route 66 through Albuquerque. The Kimo was built for Italian immigrant Oreste Bachechi at a cost of $150,000. The idea was to create a theater that stood out and it did. Bachechi, who arrived in Albuquerque in 1884, had been an operator of a general store near the railroad tracks and eventually found himself in the entertainment business.

kimo theater entrance

Entrance to the Kimo

Bachechi’s Albuquerque arrival was at a fortunate time for the city and his personal properity. The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad had recently laid track to the city with Albuquerque being made a division point. This meant more people and more jobs.  In 1919 he began the Bachechi Amusement Association. Along with a partner he ran the Past Time Theater. As far as the Kimo’s name, Bachechi had a contest to name his new theater. The winning entry was Kimo and the author of the name, the then Governor of Isleta Pueblo, received a $50 prize. As for what the name Kimo means, it’s a combination of two Indian terms which translate to “mountain lion” or sometimes “king of it’s kind“.

kimo theater albuquerque

The Kimo's beautiful Art-Deco Southwestern motif

As for the buildings appearance, the exterior of the brick three story building is made of textured light brown stucco decorated with ornamental details of glazed terra cotta tile. When you visit the Kimo Theater you’ll see just how uniquely designed it is. The interior for example includes air vents that look like Navajo rugs and chandeliers the shape of Indian war drums. There are also seven murals that show Seven Cities of Cibola or sometimnes referred to as the Seven Cities of Gold. This was the original goal of the 1540 Coronado Expedition through the southwest. The history of the Kimo Theater includes appearances by such big entertainment names as western star Tom Mix and famous actress Gloria Swanson.

Unfortunately Oreste Bachechi died just one year after the new theater opened. Management was then taken over by his sons who decided to showcase a combination of motion pictures and vaudeville acts.

restoration of the kimo theater

The Kimo Theater building's artisitc restoration

At one time the Kimo Theater faced the wrecking ball but fortunately it was saved when the city of Albuquerque stepped forward and bought the historic building. When the city bought the theater it had deteriorated significantly and several restoration projects were scheduled. The Kimo was completely restored to the shape it was in during it’s heyday and now is a much visited venue.

Today the Kimo Theater entertains with stage plays, movies and concerts, guest speakers as well as civic movies and events. The theater has also been used for school graduations. The auditorium seats 650 people and although there is a balcony section, the building was constructed without an elevator. Because of the works of art inside the Kimo, it also serves as a southwestern art gallery.

The Kimo is also one of those old historic buildings with rumors of a haunting. This particular haunting pertains to a boiler explosion that occurred in 1951 an killed a six year old boy. Some have reported actually seeing the ghost of the boy although an investigation made by an editor from the Skeptical Inquirer disputed the origins of the alleged haunting.

Two articles we’ve published on our Western Trips Site regarding historic stops near the Kimo Theater are Old Town Albuquerque and the Old Alvarado Harvey House.

Being located on Central Avenue in the heart of Albuquerque, there are plenty of historic stops very nearby. These include Old Town Albuquerque which is only about 2 miles to the west. Another is the site of the old Alvarado Harvey House which is now the Alvarado Transportation Center for city buses and the New Mexico Rail Runner train. This site is about one-half mile east of the Kimo on Central Avenue.

Indian Art Museum / Museum of Indian Arts and Culture

indian art museum in santa fe

Museum of Indian Arts and Culture / Santa Fe NM

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/ Laboratory of Anthropology is a gem of a museum located on Museum Hill in Santa Fe New Mexico. This fascinating Indian art museum hopes to inspire appreciation for and knowledge of the diverse native arts, histories, languages, and cultures of the Southwest. A museum highlighting and showcasing the American Indian gives us the opportunity to learn more about the first humans who occupied this beautiful part of the United States. After all, the Indians of the southwest were there thousands of years before the first Spanish explorers landed on the North American continent.

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is part of the New Mexico museum system. This Santa Fe museum originally came about in answer to the unsystematic collecting by museums in the east. An anthropologist by the name of Edgar Lee Hewitt established the Museum of New Mexico in 1909. Hewitt’s goal was to collect Southwestern Indian materials. The second stage in the development of the museum occurred when John D. Rockefeller founded the Laboratory of Anthropology which had it’s goal of the study of Southwestern Native cultures. While all of this development was going on and artifacts collected, the exhibition of the material really wasn’t open to the public simply because there wasn’t sufficient space. Finally, in 1977, the New Mexico Legislature passed a bill providing $2.7 million for the building of a new New Mexico Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. The Indian art museum opened ten years later and has been a great addition to the list of Santa Fe museums.

museum hill in santa fe

Museum Hill banners

New Mexico tourism is highly connected to it’s excellent museums. Museum Hill, a very popular tourist site in Santa Fe, itself is quite a remarkable setting. Museum Hill is the site of four world class museums in one of the most picturesque sections of Santa Fe. In addition to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture is the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Museum of International Folk Art and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.

The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture feature both permanent and rotating exhibits. In addition, the museum is the venue for many special events during the year. Artist demonstrations, workshops and lectures are scheduled throughout the year. To give you an idea of past exhibitions at the museum and the type of unique events scheduled, in the year 2009 the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture featured “Native American Picture Books of Change”. This exhibition featured original works by Hopi, Navajo, Apache, and Pueblo artists who illustrated children’s books in the 1920’s through the present. Based on the book of the same title by Rebecca Benes, the exhibition focused on illustrations in Native American children’s books of the last century. Emerging Indian artists illustrated the stories for Indian students based on Native oral traditions and narratives about everyday Indian life. Exhibitions and demonstrations of this type have helped this Santa Fe museum reach it’s world renown status.

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Sculpture on Museum Hill

Many people spend an entire day at Museum Hill. With four world class museums available at one site along with an excellent cafe and shops in each of the museums, spending the day touring all four museums is a touring day very well spent.

For those tourist visiting Santa Fe New Mexico, getting to Museum Hill is quite easy. If you have an automobile, Museum Hill is about one and a half miles southeast of the Santa Fe plaza. For those without an automobile, the museums located at Museum Hill can be reached by taking the “M” line operated in collaboration with Santa Fe Trails, the city’s bus line. Departures start at 7:15 am from the Sheridan Street station and continue throughout the day.

Another interesting article we’ve published is Santa Fe Palace of the Governors

(Photos are from author’s private collection)

 

How the Sharps Rifle Helped Get the Mail Through from San Antonio to El Paso

The end of the Mexican American War in 1848 meant a lot of things to a lot of people. To be sure, there were Americans residing in places such as El Paso Texas and Santa Fe New Mexico during the war. When the war ended and the territory we now know of as the state of New Mexico changed hands, the government and civilians in and around that region had their work cut out for them.

This was a time before stagecoaches. It was before the telegraph and it certainly was a time before the railroads ventured to the southwest. If this new southwest territory won as a result of the Mexican American War was to grow it needed a way to communicate. It needed a mail system. Easier said than done because in 1848 there was no distinct trail through the barren Texas southwest particularly from San Antonio (previously called Bexar) to El Paso. The two trails from east to west across the western frontier were the central overland trail which consisted of the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the California Trail. The other was the Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to Santa Fe. A trail from the southern U.S. to New Mexico wasn’t established before the end of the Mexican American War.

El Paso was a very important town because it was there where a road could travel all the way from south Texas to New Mexico and beyond to the Pacific Ocean ports. This was recognized early on and a few survey parties headed west out of both San Antonia and Austin Texas to try to map a suitable route. The route was needed for both military purposes as well as commercial. The route from Santa Fe south to El Paso had been used extensively by both the Spaniards and Mexicans for centuries. This was the route from Santa Fe in Nuevo Mexico down to Mexico City in New Spain. What hadn’t been mapped and used was a route west out of San Antonio across the desert to El Paso. At the end of the Mexican American War, San Antonio was the largest settlement in Texas.

Two routes were eventually found. One was out of Austin heading generally in a western direction and another out of San Antonio that went west/northwest and hugged the east bank of the Rio Grande as it approached El Paso. The two major obstacles of course were the desolation of the region (meaning little water) and the Indians. This was the land of the Comanches and was called Comancheria. To the far west were the Apaches and their Apacheria. Both tribes were nomadic and warlike. Both tribes regularly raided over the border into Mexico for decades and were long an obstacle to both the Spaniards and Mexicans. The route that was eventually chosen for the main way to El Paso was neither of the first two. The route chosen headed directly west out of San Antonio and then took a northwest direction after nearing the Rio Grande.

Henry Skillman Accepts the Challenge

As you no doubt have read in history books, transportation methods and routes were initially subsidized by the federal government. The subsidization came in the form of mail contracts. Throughout history, steamboats, stagecoaches, railroads and in some cases airlines all got their start with a U.S. mail contract. The first wagons to El Paso also relied on Uncle Sam to at least cover their overhead. It’s an interesting question as to why the federal government relied on outside contractors to find a way to deliver the mail. Possibly the government thought it was cheaper. The routes were surveyed with government aid during late 1848 and during 1849 but the independent contractor was the one who really forged the trail. The government did make provisions for outposts along the Rio Grande area which would afford some measure of protection. The reality however was that the outposts established were too sparse to provide any real protection. That would be left to civilian armed guards. The only real alternative to to a stage line to send messages along the route was by single horseback rider who was fast enough to outrun the Comanches. This was tried and there were some losses due to Indian attack.

The first official contract for mail delivery out of San Antonio was awarded to Henry Skillman. Born in Kentucky and having arrived in Texas in 1846, Skillman spent time as an army scout during the Mexican American War. He was a noted rugged frontiersman usually dressed with revolvers and Bowie knives. If there was anyone who could figure out a way to carry the mail 600 miles west through Comancheria it probably was Henry Skillman. The story told is that Skillman had the ability to read Indian intentions before the fact. In other words, he knew the right time to fight and the right time not to. His judgment on the Texas frontier was legendary.

The Post Office department gave Skillman a contract that paid $12,500 per year. The route would run from Santa Fe to El Paso and then east to San Antonio. The contract was to begin on November 1, 1851 and expire on June 30, 1854. The news was received with a lot of fanfare. The newspapers were quite positive on the development but pointed out the great risks involved. The first trip for Skillman was a success even though there was a skirmish with a party of Comanches. Skillman reportedly purchased some wagons while in Santa Fe but the history on this is a bit sketchy.

There was a stage line operating since 1847 between Houston and San Antonio and he may have bought some wagons from them. It’s also unclear if some of the purchases were for passenger service or only for freight. Nevertheless, Henry Skillman got his line up and running with the help of other rugged frontiersmen he was acquainted with. The Indian problem however was always front and center. In fact, with the opening of his service between Santa Fe and El Paso, the Apaches in that area of New Mexico Territory started giving him trouble. To be sure, there were losses incurred such as mules being shot and stolen. A good mule in those days was said to cost about $150. Not a small sum for a new shoestring outfit. Carrying the mail on the San Antonio to El Paso route was a challenge.

Henry Skillman Discovers the Sharps Rifle

On one of Skillman’s trips back to Washington to try to get additional funds (because of the losses from Indian attacks) he met a representative of the Sharps Rifle manufacturing Company. Henry was somewhat familiar with the rifle having seen it with some of the surveying teams sent out west in 1848 and 1849. He was impressed with the weapon because of it’s high accuracy and rapid firing. The Sharps Rifles also were considered excellent long range rifles. Skillman made the decision to purchase ten of these rifles which were from an early lot of new .52 caliber percussion breechloader models designed for the army. In the midst of battle, breechloaders worked much better than old muzzleloaders.

The models Skillman purchased were called “1851 Carbines” and about 1,800 of them were manufactured. This was a solid “boxlock” carbine with a walnut stock. The Sharps Rifle combined high accuracy with a potent .52 caliber punch. One of the best long range rifles developed. On a technical note, all of the Sharps .52 caliber breechloaders made over the ten years prior to the Civil War were referred to as “slant breeched” meaning that the breechblock was slightly at an angle to the barrel. The Civil War version of the Sharps was a “straight breech” and perpendicular to the barrel. The war model was easily converted to shoot metallic cartridges that were developed not long after the Civil War. The purchase of the ten rifles made a lot of sense to Skillman. He believed that these weapons just might give his drivers and guards and himself the advantage they needed over the Indians. He was right and proved it shortly after he returned to Texas.

The story written is that he knocked a warrior off his horse at some 300 yards. The story actually started at a distance of about 200 yards and kept getting longer with each telling. Regardless, the new Sharps breechloader got the attention of the hostiles. Prior to that episode the Indians had a pretty good idea of a pistol and rifle’s range and when they started to get picked off at unheard of distances they chose their attacks much more carefully. In fact, often they retreated. When fighting against Indian attacks in wide open expanses, distance meant everything. Most of Skillman’s guards accompanying the wagons were former Texas Rangers and virtually all of them were known to carry the Sharps carbines.

As an indication of how high in regard Henry Skillman placed his Sharps carbine rifle, he wrote a letter to the Sharps Company praising the effectiveness of the weapon. He told them that it was superior to any other rifle he was acquainted with and that he put the ten weapons he purchased from them to use as soon as he arrived back in Texas. The Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company was so delighted to hear this from Skillman that they published his letter in their sales catalog. This could have been one of the earliest commercial weapon endorsement by any frontiersman. It’s believed that Henry wrote this letter at a friends home in southern New Mexico shortly after what could have been a nearby Apache attack on his wagons.

This was in an area a good distance south of Albuquerque around Dona Ana where the topography placed mountains on both sides of the trail and made it an ideal place for Apache attacks. To fire off a letter from his friends settlement upon arrival tells quite a lot about what Skillman thought of his new rifles. From all that I have read and researched on the subject it is apparent that the Sharps rifle contained the Indian threat and the regular service of mail between San Antonio and Santa Fe was accomplished.

A few historical notes about the Sharps rifles. It’s alleged that many of the Sharps Rifle breechloaders were shipped to anti-slavery factions in Kansas during the 1850’s. After the Civil War there was a large surplus of military style Sharps which made their way to the buffalo hunters although special sport models were also being developed. It was in great part to the accuracy and distance of the Sharps breechloaders, and to the dismay of the Native Americans, that the buffalo herds were decimated in a relatively very short period of time.

Henry Skillman, the Butterfield Overland Mail and the Civil War

Skillman ran his stage, mail and freight lines successfully through the early 1850’s although there was some competition from easterners who managed to get in through their Washington connections. The competition didn’t last long and eventually he was partnered up with a man named George Giddings and they overcame the weak competition from the easterners. Some accounts I’ve read refer to Giddings and Skillman as being partners and others contend that Skillman yielded his mail contract to Giddings in 1854 and drove for him. It appears that Skillman did indeed have difficulty finding the resources to establish passenger facilities along the route which was being pushed hard by the federal government. This could have caused him to transfer the contract to Giddings since Giddings had the funds. Many times you find conflicting details when researching stories this old.

Later in the decade Henry Skillman is remembered as the driver of the first Butterfield Overland Mail stage, which arrived in El Paso on September 30, 1858. The Butterfield line also started with a mail contract between St. Louis and San Francisco via El Paso, Tucson and San Diego. While the mail contract was always the bread and butter of any new operation, the line also carried passengers. The Butterfield line was short lived since during the Civil War the Confederates controlled much of the southern routes and the Union had to then send their California bound mail over the central route which pretty much followed the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails.

Texas aligned itself with the Confederacy during the war and Skillman worked espionage for the Confederates between old El Paso del Norte and San Antonio. Unfortunately for Henry Skillman, his actions during the Civil War cost him his life. He was tracked down in April 1864, at Spencer’s Ranch, near Presidio by a detachment from the First California Cavalry and shot down.

As I mentioned, Henry Skillman’s activities during the 1850’s have been historically under reported but nevertheless are very interesting. Between Skillman’s frontier knowledge and bravery and the accuracy of the new Sharps Rifles, the mail made it through the south Texas Indian country. The Sharps Rifle is today a very popular collectors gun.

You can research this subject in much greater detail by reading “Sharps Rifles and Spanish Mules..The San Antonio-El Paso Mail 1851-1881” by author Wayne R. Austerman. This is a very good read and explains in depth both the Indian and political obstacles of running the southern mail and stage route.

One of the best historic sites that tell the story of early southwest Texas and the dangers of getting the mail and passengers through that part of the country is the Fort Stockton Museum in Fort Stockton Texas. The displays and artifacts in this museum are fascinating. Among the exhibits is a Sharps 1874 Sporting Rifle which was a constant companion of those trying to guard the stage and freight route. The link above will give you much more information about the museum and how to plan your trip there along with some very interesting photos of rare frontier exhibits. Another must stop in Fort Stockton is the Annie Riggs Hotel and Museum which is located only a few blocks west of the fort. Some interesting photos on this site as well.