A Civil War turning point in faraway New Mexico

Near Santa Fe, battle dashed Confederate hopes to reach Pacific

Destination: American West

February 09, 2003|By Michael Kilian | By Michael Kilian,Special to the Sun

It's called "the Gettysburg of the West," though few have ever heard of this westernmost of significant Civil War engagements. Many are unaware that there even was a major Civil War battle in the West, let alone one that might have changed the course of the conflict.

The battlefield, near Pecos, N.M., lies some 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe, along a winding stretch of the old Santa Fe trail that cuts through a narrow, rocky canyon between the southern tip of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and a huge prominence called Glorieta Mesa. Much of the ground is traversed by Interstate 25, which links Santa Fe with Denver.

Compared with the massive campaigns and slaughters in the East, the numbers here seem trivial. Only about 2,500 Union and Confederate soldiers took part in the fight. Casualties amounted to 331 men on both sides.

But this engagement, fought March 26-28, 1862, mattered enormously. All of what is now Arizona and the southern half of modern New Mexico had joined the Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis had set plans in motion to seize southern California, invade Colorado and annex or buy portions of the Republic of Mexico adjoining the northern end of the Gulf of California.

The result would have been the Confederacy's gaining blockade-free ports on the Pacific, access to the mineral wealth of the West and, possibly, long-sought official recognition as a nation by France and Britain.

France was then supporting the pro-Confederate side in the Mexican civil war being fought simultaneously with our own.

But all that was stopped cold by handfuls of men in scenes that might have come from a Western movie.

It should be noted that at Glorieta Pass you will not find historic cannons, or a succession of elaborate monuments, plaques or interpretive maps along well-marked trails -- such as one finds at Gettysburg. This is not a place favored by costumed Civil War re-enactors. Access to the two most key points of the pass is only by National Park Service guided tour.

But, thanks to the preservation and acquisition efforts of the park service and National Parks Conservation Association, you will find one of the most pristine and undisturbed stretches of Civil War battlefield ground in the nation. It's unmarred by the souvenir shops, fast-food restaurants and sprawling development that has intruded so shamelessly on Eastern battlefields like Gettysburg and Chancellorsville.

From one end of the pass to the other, visitors have a uniquely clear idea of how this pivotal battle was fought and how the Union won it. And the excellent visitor center at Pecos National Historical Park at the east end of the pass has books, maps and well-informed park rangers who can add further explanation and understanding.

I don't know that I'd recommend a trek out here from the East Coast just to visit Glorieta. But if one is visiting Santa Fe and would like to expand the experience beyond the art galleries of Canyon Road or the ancient cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument, the 45-minute drive here is well worth it.

Rebel invaders

The Confederate invading force came principally from Texas, following the Rio Grande north from El Paso. Bypassing some Union-held forts, it won an important victory at Valverde, N.M., then swept into Albu-querque and later occupied the territorial capital of Santa Fe.

The Rebels were led by Gen. Henry Sibley, a former regular U.S. Army officer who had invented a field tent much in use at the time and who was a commander who knew his stuff. But he was a man with an unfortunate whiskey habit who spent much of the time drunk.

Leading the forward element of the Confederates, however, was the able Maj. Charles Pyron. Though he was unable to prevent his ill-disciplined Texans from pillaging Santa Fe and harassing its largely Mexican population, Pyron was a plucky field commander.

Moving to head off Union troops who might try to retake Santa Fe from Fort Union on the other side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Pyron took his advance troops into the pass on the morning of March 26. To his surprise, he encountered a force of Union Army volunteers from Colorado -- most of them miners in civilian life -- under the command of the redoubtable Maj. John Chivington.

The two sides fought along the western reaches of the canyon for much of the day. Finally, the Rebels pulled back to the Johnson Ranch at the western end of the pass, where they had left their wagons and established a supply base. There they waited to defend themselves against a Union attack the next day.

Chivington pulled his troops to the east end of the pass at a wagon stop called Kozlowski's Ranch and also waited for an attack. A full day passed without either side attacking the other as reinforcements arrived for both small armies.

On March 28, both sides went into the pass again, clashing at a steep-sided, rocky stretch of canyon around Pigeon's Ranch -- so named for a local rancher said to dance at Santa Fe fandangos like a pigeon.

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