A short distance south of Socorro, on the western edge of the Rio Grande, you’ll find what’s left of Fort Craig, a once-important military post in the newly acquired American territory. It’s a place that is now largely forgotten.
Plia’s Digital Recreation of Fort Craig
The Public Lands Interpretive Association (PLIA) is on a mission to virtually rebuild the fort to renew its historical prominence. “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 points out that although the Battle of Glorieta Pass is widely known, not many are aware of the significant conflict that preceded it. Additionally, Fort Craig was among the most substantial and notable forts of its era in that region.
Largest Stronghold in the Southwest
Constructed in 1854, Fort Craig replaced an earlier fort that succumbed to flood damage. The new fort was situated on raised terrain and spread over 40 acres, housing 22 separate structures. Among these were barracks for both officers and enlisted personnel, supply and food storage buildings, stables, a healthcare center, an ordinance storage, and a trading post. Defensive earthworks and a moat encircled the facility, and access was strictly controlled through a stone-built guardhouse and a sally port just wide enough for a single cart.
Guarding El Camino Real
The main objective of the fort was to provide security for those traveling and settling near the Jornada del Muerto, particularly along El Camino Real, shielding them from threats like Apache incursions, outlaws, and Mexican revolutionaries.
As of July 1861, after the Civil War’s initial conflicts in the eastern states, the fort boasted a troop strength of more than 2,000, earning it the title of the largest fort in the Southwest. The United States government was committed to obstructing any Confederate plans from Texas to use New Mexico as a pathway to the valuable gold reserves in California and crucial Pacific ports.
Stocked for Sustenance
Before the onset of the Civil War, the U.S. Army had erected two structures designed to be bomb-proof, specifically for food storage, each capable of accommodating as much as 100,000 pounds of rice. Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley, leading a force of 2,500, aimed to capture the fort in February 1862 to procure its abundant supplies. Interestingly, Sibley and the fort’s overseer, Colonel Edward Canby, had been classmates at West Point and were connected by matrimonial ties to cousins.
The Union had cleverly positioned false wooden cannons, known as Quaker guns, and empty soldiers’ caps among authentic artillery and personnel along the fort’s outer rim. This display of deceptive strength led Sibley to abandon a head-on attack, prompting him to proceed northward in an effort to lure Union soldiers away from their base.
U.S. forces followed, and the two sides eventually battled at Valverde, six miles to the north. Although the Confederates claimed the field, their limited supplies kept them from a conclusive win. Confederate and Union casualties were around 200 and 263, respectively. A subsequent defeat at the Battle of Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe put an end to Sibley’s designs in New Mexico, and they withdrew to Texas, never threatening the region again.
After the Civil War concluded, U.S. military attention shifted back to subduing the Apache, spearheaded by Geronimo, Victorio, and Nana. They proved formidable, effectively countering the Army’s efforts. However, the constant influx of American civilians — miners, ranchers, farmers and others — overwhelmed the local resources needed by the Indigenous communities. Military might failed where increasing settlement and development succeeded. In 1880, Victorio met his end in Tres Castillos, Mexico, and Geronimo along with Nana surrendered in 1885.
The Public Lands Interpretive Association is a nonprofit dedicated to enlightening and motivating visitors to America’s public territories.
By 1885, Fort Craig was decommissioned and was later auctioned in 1894. Excavations were conducted in the 1930s, and it earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. The property later became the responsibility of the Archaeological Conservancy and was transferred to the Bureau of Land Management in 1981 for specialized stewardship.
“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 existing model/diorama will be moved to a museum in Socorro where it will continue to inform and provide educational value. “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.”
The initiative commenced in partnership with New Mexico Records and Archives, where the team sifted through historical blueprints, photos, and maps associated with the fort. “Using this foundational data and aided by a Civil War advisor,” Cordova notes, “our designers commenced the digital rebuilding of Fort Craig. The resulting virtual version will cover all aspects in high detail, from soil characteristics and greenery to artillery, flagstaffs, horse-drawn carriages, and other features that replicate what Fort Craig would have authentically looked like during its time of Civil War activity.”
PLIA initiated the endeavor in association with New Mexico Records and Archives, sifting through historical blueprints, images, and maps related to 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.”
“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.”
PLIA aims to bolster official interactions with independent Tribal nations by proactively coordinating with adjacent Indigenous lands and villages. “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.”
Pitch in to Help the Fort Craig Digital Makeover
Helping PLIA, particularly in their Fort Craig projects, allows them to furnish an advanced, captivating, and thoroughly studied exhibition at a key New Mexico Civil War locale. Financial gifts are welcome and can be directed to PLIA. For additional details, see their official website.
The visitor’s hub is operational from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursday to Monday, and is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. A self-guided interpretative trail and picnic facilities are open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to one hour before sundown. Entrance to the fort is complimentary.
Situated about 35 miles from Socorro, Fort Craig can be reached via several routes. From the northern direction, take I-25 and get off at the San Marcial exit, proceed east over the Interstate, and then go south on Highway 1. If coming from the south, exit I-25 at mile marker 115 and drive northward on Highway 1. Signage will guide you to Fort Craig.