Manuel A. Chaves
2nd New Mexico Infantry
October 18, 1818 – January 1889
A man of multiple allegiances, Manuel Chaves was a life-long Soldier and cunning negotiator. Growing up on land that initially belonged to the Spanish Empire, Chaves served the Mexican Army, the United States Army, and finally the Union during the American Civil War. Habitually committed to the land and the people who lived there, Chaves was a beacon of strength amongst the changing political landscape of the Southwest during the 1800s.
Born on Oct. 18, 1818, in Albuquerque, New Spain, Manuel Antonio Chaves grew up tending sheep, turning soil in the fields, and constructing burrows with wood collected from the surrounding mesas. While little is known about his youth, it would have also been filled with raids by and against the native Navajo in the area. In fact, Chaves’ first taste of violence involved the Navajo. Sometime in the mid-1830s, he and a band of other young men engaged in a skirmish with Navajo scouts. Chaves was the only survivor. At various points in his early life, Chaves saw battle against Mexican rebels and soldiers from the Republic of Texas, serving as a sub-lieutenant of the local Mexican militia based in New Mexico Territory. Throughout it all, Chaves served as a staunch defender of his people, regardless of what flag he fought under. However, it wasn’t until after the Mexican War that Chaves joined the United States Army.
After President James K. Polk pushed Congress to declare war on Mexico in 1846, a force under American Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny marched toward Santa Fe. At this point, New Mexico was still a territory of the Mexican Empire and ripe for the taking. Manuel Armijo, the Mexican governor of New Mexico, called a council to discuss the crisis. There he expressed concern at the prospect of fighting the well-armed Americans. Loud opposition from the local militia, including Chaves, convinced the governor to try and fight. To counter the Americans Armijo dispatched Chaves and the Santa Fe militia to defend the city. Armijo also rode out with his force, but these moves were a sham. Armijo had already settled his affairs in Santa Fe, never intending to defend it. After the militia camped at Apache Canyon, Armijo declared the Americans too strong and disbanded his forces. Some officers, like Chaves, attempted to intimidate the governor and rally the troops, but to no avail. Fearing retribution, Armijo fled, leaving the people of New Mexico to their fate. Kearny entered Santa Fe and took ownership of New Mexico without firing a shot. Soon after American Soldiers took control of the territory, Chaves was jailed and accused by the Americans of attempting to foment an uprising in Santa Fe. He was later acquitted of all charges.
After his release, Chaves joined in the defense of the nation that had just acquired his homeland. In short order, he took an oath of allegiance to the United States, and he enlisted as a private in an “Emergency Brigade.” It is unknown why Chaves suddenly joined the U.S. as an eager defender, but the Army soon put his martial talents to use. He joined other Mexican volunteers and the U.S. Army to put down a revolt in Taos, north of Santa Fe. His ability in battle and newfound loyalty was quickly tested during the American Civil War.
New Mexico was a hotbed of activity for both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War. The territory remained in the Union, but many prominent residents, including high ranking Army officers, sided with the Confederacy. In contrast, Chaves was firm in his commitment to the United States. When asked by a former commanding officer to join the Confederacy, Chaves vehemently declined, declaring his love of the U.S. and his commitment to the oath he swore. Serving as a lieutenant colonel under Union Gen. Edward R. S. Canby, Chaves saw battle at Valverde, New Mexico in February 1862. Unfortunately, the force Canby commanded was unprepared, with new enlistees. Commanding this green force, Canby was unable to achieve his objective. It was not a total loss, as the Union forces retired from the field in good order, but they left the Confederacy in control of the field. While it was a stinging loss, Valverde was not the last time Chaves engaged in battle.
From March 26 to 28, 1862, Chaves and other Union forces engaged Confederates at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. It was here that Chaves gained lasting fame. During the battle on March 28, Chaves led a detachment of Soldiers around the main Confederate army. This important responsibility was given to Chaves since he knew the land well, having fought in the area previously. After locating the Confederate rear, Chaves remarked to his commanding officer “you are right on top of them, Major.” The Union forces then descended upon the Confederate forces and baggage train. They burned 80 supply wagons and either killed or drove off about 500 horses and mules. With no supplies to sustain them, the rebels retreated to Santa Fe, afterwards retiring from New Mexico altogether. Thanks to Chaves’ knowledge and bravery, the Union forces secured New Mexico.
After the war, Chaves retired to the land he had fought for all his life. He built a ranch in the San Mateo Mountains, where he worked as a rancher. He died in January 1889 and was buried in a chapel he built on his ranch, along with his wife and children.
Manuel Antonio Chaves lived a tumultuous life among the New Mexican mesas. Born into the Spanish Empire, he served as a key figure in the Union Army, saving his home from the advances of the Confederacy. His steadfast service to the Army and the people of New Mexico stands as testament to the courage of his convictions.
Graduate Historic Research Intern
Baynham, Jacob. “Battling History.” National Parks Conservation Association. 2018. https://www.npca.org/articles/1918-battling-history.
Sharpe, Tom. “Senate Honors Little-Known Hero of Civil War Battle near Pecos.” The Santa Fe New Mexican, March 7, 2013. https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/local_news/senate-honors-little-known-hero-of-civil-war-battle-near-pecos/article_187641d0-158c-581f-986e-7e4e83875f83.html.
Simmons, Marc. The Little Lion of the Southwest: A Life of Manuel Antonio Chaves. Chicago: Sage Books, 1973.