The objective of their commander, Colonel James Henry Carleton (promoted to brigadier general while the column was en route) was to drive Confederate troops out of New Mexico, which they had occupied the previous year. The soldiers of the California Column, both infantry and cavalry, often traveled by foot wearing woolen uniforms in the desert heat. Much like the Confederate Army of New Mexico (also known as the Sibley Brigade), which had entered New Mexico from Texas in December 1861, they traveled in small groups at intervals of a few days so men and horses would not exhaust the springs and wells along the way. They followed the established route of the Butterfield Overland Mail, which had ceased operation the year before.
Arizona Confederate volunteers the Company A, Arizona Rangers, managed to destroy supplies along the Column's route, making its progress extremely slow. Most of Carleton's attempts to send messages to General E. R. S. Canby, the Union's beleaguered departmental commander of New Mexico, were intercepted, and one entire patrol was captured by Confederates at White's Mill at the Pima Indian villages. It was not until late June that a scout named John W. Jones was able to outrun pursuing Apaches and get a message to Canby: "The Column from California is really coming." By the time the California Column reached the Rio Grande, the Confederates had already retreated to Texas.