Louisa Canby – A Christmas angel or war time traitor?

December 25, 1818

On this Christmas Day, Louisa Hawkins Canby was born in Paris, Kentucky.  Half a century later she would earn her wings as the “angel of Santa Fe.” 

Married to Gen. Edward Spriggs Canby, (right) they became one of the military’s most controversial Civil War couples.  Gen. Canby was either one of the Army’s most heroic or foolhardy officers.  He died in 1873 at the hands of the Modoc’s Captain Jack.  He’d been   warned numerous times there was a plan afoot to assassinate him during peace talks with the Modoc leader.   

Louisa would face being branded a traitor. Her story of risk and reprisals began nearly a decade earlier,in the winter of 1862.   After Confederate general Henry Sibley’s Brigade captured  parts of New Mexico Territory, Confederate forces were bearing down on the territorial capital at Santa Fe.   Then Colonel Canby, the territorial commander, chose to abandon his headquarters in an unorthodox plan to entice Sibley’s forces to pursue them in to the desert.  

Plaza at Santa Fe

The  wives and families remained  in Santa Fe, left with as many supplies of food and medicine as Colonel Canby could spare.  The prospect of confronting Sibley (right) especially troubled Canby.  The newly minted Confederate General had served as Canby’s aide de camp just months  before defecting to the South.

 Canby’s strategy worked.  Sibley’s forces did follow the Union soldiers into the hills.  His decisive victory at Gloriata Pass, (below) is often called the Gettysburg of the West.  The defeated Confederate forces, lacking food, medical supplies and blankets in temperatures in the low 20s, struggled back to Santa Fe.

 Witnessing the Southerner’s desperation Louisa Canby persuaded the other wives to retrieve their store of hidden supplies.  Organizing the women into ad hoc corps of nurses to care for the sick and wounded, she turned her own quarters into a makeshift field hospital, often traveling into the desert to help survivors too ill to be moved.  

Her actions were heralded as heroic by many, treasonous by others who accused her of giving “aid and comfort to the enemy.”  It is unclear if she suffered any official consequences at the hands of the government for her actions but her husband came under fierce criticism in equal measure.  In addition, critics savaged Canby for allowing  Sibley’s forces to retreat back to Santa Fe.   An attack would have resulted in unnecessary bloodshed, Canby argued.  The Confederates, in fact, had already lost.

Despite his detractors, the Army assigned Canby to New Orleans during the last gasp of the war.  By all accounts, a superior administrator, Canby’s policies pleased President Andrew Johnson. (Left) Lincoln’s successor in the White House, while a strong opponent of secession, he also was a pro-slavery Republican sympathetic to the South.  

Once in New Orleans, not unlike her efforts in New Mexico, Louisa ignored her critics and the cynics and organized relief efforts for hundreds of Southerners made destitute by the war.

In 1872, the Canby’s received what would be their last posting, to Portland, Oregon. As commander of the Pacific Northwest, the general was soon embroiled in yet another bloody conflict, this time with the Modoc.   Unclear if he was to make peace or go to war with the tribe, he began a series of negotiations with Kintpuash, known as Captain Jack. (Right)  On April 11, 1873, Canby arrived at the talks, unarmed.   He’d given his word, he insisted, ignoring numerous warnings that he would be killed. 

Just as predicted, Canby was shot at point-blank range by the Modoc leader.   His death caused a public outcry resulting in fierce retaliation against the Modoc and the eventual execution of Captain Jack and three accomplices. 

The public was doubly outraged to discover that Louisa could only expect a $30-a-month pension from the government, about $500 today.  The people of Portland took matters into their own hands, raising an additional $5,000, amounting to about $400,000 now.

Mrs. Canby, true to form, however, considered the money a loan rather than a gift, using only the interest to supplement her widow’s pension.  In her will, she returned the principle to the people of Portland. She died in 1889 at age 70 and was buried next to her husband in Indianapolis.

Four years later, a Confederate veteran from Sibley’s Brigade, unaware if her death, contacted the War Department in an effort to locate “Mrs. Louisa Canby.”   “I wish to show her we still entertain kind remembrance and esteem for her,” he wrote, “and wish to invite her to the Brigade’s 30th reunion.”             

The New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Avenue, Santa Fe, encompasses 96,000-square-foot space on the city’s historic  plaza housing permanent and temporary collections on New Mexico history, educational and research facilities. In addition to the museum, the campus includes the Palace of the Governors.  The 400-year-old adobe building was originally Spain’s governmental headquarters in the New World before serving as New Mexico’s territorial capital. 

Palace of the Governors National Historic Landmark

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960, in 1999, was added to the list of National Treasures.   The state’s first printing press and an exhibit of 19th and 20th century letterpress printing technology is located adjacent to the Palace.  It was brought to New Mexico in 1834 via the Santa Fe Trail. 

Also on the grounds, the Portal Native American Artisans Program provides visitors with an array of authentic handcrafted products for sale created by tribal artisans.  Open 10 to 5 daily from May through October, it is closed on Mondays during the winter months, November to April as well as New Years, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.   Admission is $12 for adults, $7 for New Mexico residents, and free to children under 16.  New  Mexico residents may be eligible for a number of free admission days.  For more information go to nmhistorymuseum.org, call 505-476-5200 or 505-476-5100 or write New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Avenue, Santa Fe, NM, 87501.

Pecos National Historical Park, 25 miles east of Santa Fe is home to the The Battle of Glorieta Pass battlefield hike.  The  free 2.5 mile ranger led tour just requires sturdy footwear and snacks and water is recommended for warm weather visits.  The historic Pecos Mission, the 1920s Forked Lightning Ranch and portions of the Santa Fe Trail are also located in the park.  

Pecos Pueblo Mission

Open 8 to 6 daily Memorial Day through Labor Day, the visitor center is open 8 to 5 daily.  Winter hours, Labor Day to Memorial day are 8 to 4:30 and closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  Admission and all guided tours are free.  For more information go to nps.gov/Pecos Historical Park, call (505) 757-7241 or write Pecos National Historical Park, P.O. Box 418 Pecos, NM 87552

© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.