The Gettysburg of the West

Nestled in the Southern Rocky Mountains, in the north-central part of New Mexico lies a battlefield that is known as the Gettysburg of the West. While the bulk of the Civil War occurred east of the Mississippi River, there were a few skirmishes scattered throughout the rest of the country, but the largest took place at Glorieta Pass along the Santa Fe Trail, just east of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

When the Civil War began, a lot of young men were recruited for both sides from the westernmost territories in the country, which virtually emptied the frontier forts leaving the settlements vulnerable to attacks by the Native Americans in the area. The Confederates soon realized that they, too, might be able to take advantage of the absence of good, strong soldiers and could bring the West effectively onto their side of the battle.

Henry Sibley would be the man to lead the Confederacy west in an effort to gain more support and turn the tide of war. The plan was a daring one. He would gather volunteer soldiers in Texas and drive up the Rio Grande, taking the weakened forts and recruiting potential sympathizers along the way. His ultimate goal was to drive the Federal army out of the territory completely. By the winter of 1861, the campaign was moving forward.

The only problem was that the Union Commander of the Department of New Mexico, Colonel Edward Camby anticipated Sibley’s actions and had already mobilized enough soldiers to establish a reasonable defense by early 1862.

The first encounter of the two armies was near Fort Craig, where the smaller Confederate army were able to defeat the Union army and send them scurrying back to Fort Craig. Certain that the victory was resounding enough, Sibley continued north. The only obstacle between Sibley and Colorado was Fort Union, situated on the Santa Fe Trail.

Farther north, the Union presence was bolstered by the presence of the First Colorado Volunteers, an infantry brigade of 950 miners, who marched the 400 miles from Denver through the snow to offer support at Fort Union. Led by Colonel John P. Slough, the First Colorado Volunteers, supplemented by any available Anglo and Hispanic volunteers in the area, marched westward, following the Santa Fe Trail, to meet Sibley’s army. By March 25, Slough and his Volunteers joined up with Major John M. Chivington who had set up Camp Lewis at the last stage stop before Glorieta Pass in the Sangre De Christo Mountains.

In the mean time, Major Charles Pyron, commanding the Fifth Texas Regiment, left Santa Fe traveling eastward on the Santa Fe Trail intending to march all the way to Fort Union. They set up camp at Johnson’s Ranch in Apache Canyon never realizing the enemy was a mere 9 miles away on the other side of Glorieta Pass. The Union commander, however, had sent out spies and knew exactly where Pyron and his Texans were located. The two sites met in a skirmish that lasted 2 hours and came to be known as the Battle of Apache Canyon.

The following day Slough got news that the Confederate forces had been reinforced, yet he divided his own troops, sending 900 west along the Santa Fe Trail, while the remaining 450 would be sent over Glorieta Mesa to attack the Confederate rearguard. Lieutenant-Colonel William R. Scurry decided to leave the Confederate supply line at Johnson’s Ranch and march east so to where he wanted the battle to take place. The morning of March 28th, Slough’s men broke ranks at Pigeon’s Ranch where the men refilled their canteens at Glorieta Creek. Scurry’s quick-moving Confederates soon came upon the scattered Union soldiers and immediately opened fire.The Union troops quickly formed a defensive line, but an hour later fell back to Pigeon’s Ranch.

The Confederate army faced Union artillery at Pigeon’s Ranch for three hours, until the Confederates were able to take the upper hand and Slough was forced into a third retreat. Just before sunset, the Texans charged the line and Slough ordered his men back to Camp Lewis, leaving the Confederates in possession of the field. At this point, Scurry believed he’d won a decisive victory, until he received devastating news: the supply line he’d left behind at Johnson’s Ranch had been massacred by advancing Union Troops.

Eventually, the Confederate troops withdrew from New Mexico altogether, leaving the Battle of Glorieta Pass as the defining moment which allowed the West to remain firmly in Union control.

As with most Civil War battlefields spread across the North and South, re-enactors who visit the area to relive the battles that took place in this little corner of New Mexico claim to witness apparitions of soldiers long dead.

Glorieta Battlefield Coalition
Ghost Hunt of the Glorieta Battlefield, New Mexico

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