The sounds of Colorado National
Guard musket fire thundered across lonely Glorieta Pass. They quickly died. This
time, there was no return fire.
CONG staff traveled to Glorieta,
New Mexico, Sept. 16, to trace the actions of their predecessors at the Battle
of Glorieta Pass, 154 years earlier.
“A staff ride is where the students are the
teachers,” said former CONG historian Maj. Adam Morgan.
A cadre of Colorado Army National
Guard chief warrant officers guided staff through the battle sites.
Also known as the Gettysburg of the West, the Battle of Glorieta Pass unfolded
on sparsely wooded, steep ridges and within narrow, rugged canyons. For three
days in 1862, March 26-28, Union regulars and volunteers from Colorado and New
Mexico clashed with Confederates from Texas along the Sante Fe Trail at the
southern tip of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, southeast of Santa Fe.
Glorieta Pass was a means to an
end for the Confederates. Their objective was to take control of Fort Union, barely
100 miles to the northeast, and, from there, to launch a campaign that would
appropriate the mineral wealth of the West for the Confederacy.
Only one thing stood in their way: the Union Army made up largely of
the First Colorado Infantry Regiment—a territorial militia, established two
years earlier, of men from different walks of life with little military
In response to the Confederate threat, the Coloradans, under the
command of Col. John P. Slough, a Denver attorney, mobilized and began a march
of 400 miles that they completed in only 18 days.
On the way to confront the Confederate force, the Colorado troops
stopped at Fort Union to obtain supplies and grow their force.
Colonel Gabriel Paul, Commander of the Fourth New Mexico Volunteers at
Fort Union, tried to hold up the Colorado regiment, arguing that they should
wait until reinforcements from California and Kansas arrived. He based his
decision on orders from Col. Edward R.S. Canby, Commander of Union forces in
the New Mexico Territory.
Slough disagreed, pulled rank on Paul, took command of Union forces at
the fort, and led them towards Santa Fe.
“Col. Slough didn’t want to wait around at Fort Union,” said The
Adjutant General of Colorado Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards. “The Colorado
National Guard is still like that. We don’t want to deploy somewhere to do
nothing. We want to get the mission done and go home to our families and jobs.”
After a five-hour drive from their headquarters in Denver, the CONG arrived
at Apache Canyon, where Union Soldiers under the command of Maj. John Chivington,
First Colorado Volunteers, encountered Confederate forces. A former pastor, the
men under his command included a sheriff, a realtor, and a probate judge.
“The Coloradans had almost no experience. The Confederates were very
confident,” said Dave Schmidt, former CONG historian.
Perched on a rise, CONG warrant officers described how Union forces
took up positions on the sides of the canyon and fired down onto Confederate
forces. The Union routed the Confederacy here, forcing the Texans to retreat.
One of the Colorado soldiers received a mortal wound.
“Right out here was the Colorado National Guard’s first killed in
action,” Morgan said, pointing down into the canyon. “This is where we spilled
our first blood in defense of our country.”
The Federals lost four Soldiers. The Confederates lost three, but 71
Texans became prisoners, one-fourth of the Confederate force in New Mexico.
The main phase of the battle had not yet begun.
During the next day, which was bright and clear, CONG staff visited
various other points on the battlefield where Union and Confederate Soldiers
fought for most of one day, filling the air with explosions and acrid smoke
from cannon and rifle fire.
The Texans successfully pushed Union forces further down the Sante Fe
Trail, until late afternoon on March 28, when they came upon the Union center
atop Artillery Hill. Union resistance there slowed the Confederate advance,
which then switched from the Federal right to the Federal left flank,
overrunning them at Sharpshooters Ridge. Federals quickly withdrew to a place
called Pidgeon’s Ranch, a waystation for travelers. After a firefight with
Confederates there, Union forces retreated.
Meanwhile, Chivington and his 500 Soldiers marched the length of
Glorieta Mesa, as part of Slough’s plan to strike the Confederates from the
rear. The battle raged below, unbeknownst to them.
“Chivington didn’t know the battle was going on due to acoustic shadow
caused by Glorieta Mesa,” said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Elisa Locke, a
COARNG UH-60 helicopter pilot and civilian life skills teacher.
They came upon sparsely-guarded Confederate wagons filled with
supplies at Johnson’s Ranch at the base of the mesa. Chivington’s men lowered
themselves through 700 feet of steep terrain, regrouped, and attacked. They blew
up the supplies and wagons.
Later that night, a snowstorm descended on both armies in the midst of
a truce to bury the dead and care for the wounded, and dropped a foot of snow.
With the loss of their supplies, and knowing that Canby was on his way
from Fort Craig with a sizeable force, the Texans soon left the field at
Glorieta, never to return.
“It’s important to study
history and to understand how a victory occurred,” Edwards said. “We learn from
the failures. We learn from the successes. We also come to understand that a
victory can involve luck.”
After firing rifle muskets provided by Civil War reenactors, CONG
staff stopped at Fort Union to survey what remained of its crumbling defenses. If
the Confederates had made it that far, the Great Plains and a well-travelled
route through Raton Pass would have sealed their conquest of Colorado and the
The actions of the First Colorado at the Battle of Glorieta Pass wove
a different story for Colorado and for our nation.
“We’ve built our organization
on this past, on the Colorado Guard’s first campaign fulfilling its federal
duties, and we continue to grow,” Edwards said.