Fort Craig — Keeping Important Old West History Alive
Fort-Craig-Officers-quarters_PC-Bud-Russo - The remains of Fort Craig in New Mexico. Photo by Bud Russo.

Situated a stone’s throw from Socorro, along the western banks of the Rio Grande, stand the ruins of Fort Craig, a vital military installation in the early days of American expansion. It has long since faded from public memory.

Plia’s Digital Revival of Fort Craig

Eager to rectify this lapse in historical recognition, the Public Lands Interpretive Association (PLIA) is working on a virtual reconstruction of this once-important outpost. “PLIA partnered with the Bureau of Land Management to bring public awareness about this little-known fort with a big history,” says Camisha Cordova, PLIA Fort Craig outreach coordinator. “We want to bring the visitor back in time to when the fort was in its prime — full of bustle, full of life, and to make the visitor aware of its unique history here in New Mexico, as well as its part in Civil War History.”

Cordova underscores that while the Battle of Glorieta Pass may be known to most people, the prelude to it — a significant battle— is less well known. Moreover, Fort Craig was one of the more imposing and esteemed military installations in the area during its operational years.

Old image of Fort Craig in New Mexico.
Old image of Fort Craig in New Mexico.

Largest Southwestern Outpost

Erected in 1854, Fort Craig took the place of a preceding fortification that had washed away in floods. Situated on elevated land, the new fort occupied a 40-acre space and featured 22 buildings. These encompassed living spaces for officers and enlisted soldiers, warehouses and food storage facilities, stabling for horses, a medical building, a munitions storage, and a trading post. A defensive trench and earthworks surrounded the entire compound, with entry restricted to a stone guardhouse and a sally port only wide enough for one wagon.

Colonel Canby
Colonel Canby

Protecting El Camino Real

The fort primarily existed to offer security to settlers and travelers against threats like Apache raiders, criminal elements, and Mexican revolutionaries. It was strategically positioned at the northern end of the Jornada del Muerto on the El Camino Real trail.

Blocking the Confederate Route to California

By mid-1861, following early Civil War engagements back east, Fort Craig’s personnel exceeded 2,000, making it the preeminent fort in the Southwest. The U.S. administration aimed to thwart Texas Confederates from leveraging New Mexico as a conduit to California’s invaluable gold resources and deep-water Pacific ports.

Ample Supply Reserves

Prior to the Civil War, the military had constructed two fortified food storage buildings at the fort, each with a capacity to store up to 100,000 pounds of rice. In the winter month of February 1862, Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley led 2,500 soldiers toward Fort Craig with the intention of commandeering its ample reserves. Sibley and Fort Craig’s commander, Colonel Edward Canby, were once classmates at West Point and related through cousins by marriage.

A Tactician’s Gambit

To discourage a direct assault, Union troops had strategically placed dummy wooden artillery pieces — commonly known as Quaker guns — alongside empty caps among real armaments and soldiers around the fort’s boundary. This ruse was enough to deter Sibley from launching a full-frontal attack, opting instead to move his forces north to divert Union soldiers from their stronghold.

A drawing of a Quaker gun - a fake wooden gun - of the type used at Fort Craig.
A drawing of a Quaker gun – a fake wooden gun – of the type used at Fort Craig.

Battle at Valverde

When the Union Army engaged, the clash occurred at Valverde, about six miles north of the fort. The Confederates emerged victorious on the battlefield but were unable to capitalize on the win due to low supplies. Casualties for the Confederates and Union were approximately 200 and 263, respectively.

Sibley’s subsequent loss at the Battle of Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe marked the end of the Confederate campaign in New Mexico. The Confederate forces then retreated back to Texas, never to challenge New Mexico again.

The Post-War Landscape

With the Civil War over, the U.S. military redirected its focus on containing Apache groups led by notables such as Geronimo, Victorio, and Nana. Despite the military’s repeated attempts, these leaders showcased exceptional guerrilla tactics. Yet, an increasing tide of American settlers — comprising ranchers, farmers, miners, and more — consumed the local resources, leaving the Indigenous communities unsustainable.

While force of arms failed, the sheer volume of settlers succeeded in changing the area. Victorio passed away in Tres Castillos, Mexico, in 1880, and five years later, Geronimo and Nana laid down their arms.

A hand-drawn map of Fort Craig.
A hand-drawn map of Fort Craig.

The End of Fort Craig

Fort Craig ceased operations in 1885 and was subsequently sold in an auction in 1894. Archaeological exploration took place in the 1930s, and the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places by 1970. Later, the property was bequeathed to the Archaeological Conservancy and passed on to the Bureau of Land Management in 1981 as a special management area.

Plia Takes Action

“PLIA’s goal is to design a virtual interpretive program with a 3-D reconstruction model of the fort,” Cordova says. “It will be hands-on and interactive, with a three-part mini docuseries, providing information about the fort’s historical significance. ”The current miniaturized model will be moved to a Socorro museum where it will retain its role as an educational tool. “The new virtual model,” she adds, “will be programed into a touchscreen computer kiosk unit which will give the visitor center a fresh and updated look.”

In alliance with New Mexico Records and Archives, the team delved into historical layouts, photos, and maps of the fort. “Based on this information and with the help of a Civil War consultant,” Cordova says, “Our graphic design team began work on the digital reconstruction of the fort. The virtual model will include all aspects of the fort with minute details, such as dirt textures, trees, cannons, the mast, carts, and other aspects of fort life that is virtually identical to that of what Fort Craig would have looked like while it was operating during the Civil War.”

Inclusion of Indigenous People

“We feel it’s important to shed light on all sides of the story, including those of New Mexico’s Indigenous population,” Cordova says. “For far too long, history has only been told by the victor, erasing stories of Indigenous people.”

The goal of PLIA is to deepen formal ties with sovereign Native communities by maintaining an active dialogue with neighboring tribal lands and settlements. “This will ensure cultural and historical content is accurate and respectful,” she continues, “and grant tribes the opportunity to share their own perspective on the history of the area.”

Back the Fort Craig Virtual Reconstruction Project

By supporting PLIA, specifically in their initiatives at Fort Craig, you can enable them to present an advanced, attention-grabbing, and meticulously researched exhibit at this critical Civil War site in New Mexico. Donations can be made to PLIA. Check out the web site.

A visitor strolls among the ruins of Fort Craig.
A visitor strolls among the ruins of Fort Craig.

Explore Fort Craig

The information center is open between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. from Thursday to Monday and closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. A self-led interpretive walk and areas for picnicking are available every day of the week from 8 a.m. up to an hour before dusk. There is no admission charge for visiting the fort.

How To Get to Fort Craig

Located approximately 35 miles to the south of Socorro, the fort is reachable through a couple of avenues. From the north, use I-25 and exit at San Marcial, continue east across the freeway, then make your way south on Highway 1. If approaching from the southern direction, leave I-25 at mile marker 115, then head north along Highway 1. Directional signs will steer you toward Fort Craig.

Read about the PLIA Whiptail Trails Club here.


PLIA logo


Posted by

Featured Businesses