Fort Craig — Preserving the Old West’s Important History
The remains of Fort Craig in New Mexico. Photo by Bud Russo.

Located south of Socorro, along the western shoreline of the Rio Grande, lie the remnants of Fort Craig. This fort was a significant stronghold in the recently annexed U.S. territory, although it’s largely forgotten today.


To address this gap in public awareness, the  Public Lands Interpretive Association (PLIA) is spearheading a digital re-creation of the fort. Camisha Cordova, PLIA’s Fort Craig outreach coordinator, notes, “PLIA has teamed up with the Bureau of Land Management to raise awareness about this somewhat obscure fort that has a rich historical backdrop. Our aim is to transport the visitor back to the period when the fort was bustling, vibrant, and to inform them about its distinctive past in New Mexico and its role in Civil War history.”

Visit the fort on Friday, December 8, 2023, for the unveiling of the virtual model at the Fort Craig Visitor Center. There will be tours of the fort from 10 a.m. until noon, and the kiosk unveiling begins at noon. There will be live music by the New Mexico Musical Heritage Project, and guest speakers Bonnie Lievan and Buffalo Soldiers MC. Learn more here.

Cordova mentions that while many are familiar with the Battle of Glorieta Pass, fewer people know about the major battle that occurred before Glorieta, or that Fort Craig was among the most sizeable and recognized forts in the region during its heyday.

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


Established in 1854, Fort Craig replaced a previous structure that was washed away due to flooding. The re-established fort was set on elevated land and spanned 40 acres, comprising 22 structures. These included living quarters for officers and enlisted men, storage and commissary buildings, horse stables, a medical facility, an armory, and a merchant’s shop. The entire complex was encircled by defensive earthworks and a trench, with a stone guardhouse and a narrow sally port serving as the only entrance, fit for a single wagon.

Colonel Canby
Colonel Canby


Primarily, the fort served as a safeguard for settlers and travelers against Apache raids, bandits, and Mexican insurgents. It was strategically located at the northern tip of the Jornada del Muerto, along the El Camino Real route.


By the summer of 1861, following initial Civil War skirmishes in the East, Fort Craig swelled to over 2,000 troops, making it the largest fort in the Southwest. The U.S. government was determined to prevent Confederates from Texas from using New Mexico as a gateway to California’s gold fields and Pacific deep-water ports, both critical resources for the Confederacy.


A few years prior to the Civil War, the U.S. Army had built two bomb-proof commissary buildings at the fort, each capable of holding up to 100,000 pounds of rice. In February 1862, Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley led 2,500 troops toward the fort, aiming to seize its supplies for his force. Intriguingly, Sibley and Colonel Edward Canby, the fort’s commander, were West Point classmates and related through marriage to cousins.


The Union forces had cunningly scattered Quaker guns — faux wooden artillery — and vacant caps among the genuine cannons and troops around the fort’s borders. This discouraged Sibley from attempting a frontal attack. The Confederates instead shifted north to draw Union forces from their stronghold.


The U.S. Army pursued, and both armies clashed at Valverde, situated six miles north. While the Confederates won the battle, their dwindling supplies made a decisive victory impossible. Confederate casualties numbered 200, compared to 263 for the Union. Sibley’s defeat at the Battle of Glorieta Pass near Santa Fe a month later effectively ended Confederate ambitions in New Mexico. They retreated to Texas, never to threaten New Mexico again.


Post-war, the Army refocused its efforts on neutralizing Apache forces led by figures like Geronimo, Victorio, and Nana. Despite the Army’s attempts, the Apache leaders exhibited remarkable guerrilla skills. Yet the influx of American settlers — ranchers, farmers, miners, and others — denied the native populations the resources they needed. Where military force failed, relentless expansion succeeded. Victorio perished in Tres Castillos, Mexico, in 1880; Geronimo and Nana surrendered five years later.

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


Fort Craig was officially closed in 1885 and auctioned off in 1894. Archaeological digs were carried out in the 1930s, and the site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970. Ownership of the property eventually transitioned to the Archaeological Conservancy and was handed over to the Bureau of Land Management in 1981 as a special management area.

PLIA Steps in

“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 physical model or diorama will be relocated to a Socorro-based museum to maintain its educational role. “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.”


PLIA kicked off the endeavor in collaboration with New Mexico Records and Archives, delving into vintage site plans, images, and fort blueprints. “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 is committed to fortifying its relationships with sovereign Tribal governments by actively engaging with neighboring reservations and Indigenous communities. “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.”

Help Support the Project

Your support for PLIA is invaluable. By contributing, particularly to their initiatives at Fort Craig, you empower them to offer a high-quality, engaging, and rigorously researched presentation at a pivotal Civil War site in New Mexico. You can donate directly to PLIA. For more info, browse their website.

A visitor strolls among the ruins of Fort Craig.


The information center welcomes visitors from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from Thursday to Monday, and is shut on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. A self-directed educational trail and picnic zone are accessible every day of the week from 8 a.m. until an hour before dusk. There’s no admission fee to tour the fort.

Fort Craig is situated roughly 35 miles south of Socorro. To get there from the north, use I-25 and exit at San Marcial. Then head east across the Interstate and continue south on Highway 1. From the southern direction, exit I-25 at the 115-mile marker and go north on Highway 1. Keep an eye out for Fort Craig signage.

Read about PLIA’s Whiptail Trails Club here.


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