All was not quiet on the western front.
While the country braced for civil war, frontiersmen brought west their political leanings for the Confederacy or the Union. As both political bands began to form, Washington declared Colorado a territory in an attempt to control the area and its assets for the Union. When President Abraham Lincoln appointed his personal friend and former bodyguard, William Gilpin, to the position of governor of Colorado Territory, he took a crucial step in winning the war that would define his presidency.
The new territory drew people aplenty. The mining industry attracted miners from Georgia and Pennsylvania alike. Some entrepreneurs came to sell mining tools, booze and prostitutes to prospectors and miners. Other pioneers continued west after coming from as far north as Maine to Kansas in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, a government experiment in which popular sovereignty would decide the fate of slavery at statehood. Even more stopped temporarily or permanently on their way farther west. All undoubtedly understood the urgency of the situation brewing in the country.
The territory -- which was Union in name only -- was quite divided between Unionists and Secessionists. This was evident when the first two militia units formed; one Confederate and the other Union. At one point, a Denver citizen raised the Confederate colors over a local business and the enraged response included a well-aimed mountain howitzer pointed at the man, and collaterally, the business.
When Gov. Gilpin arrived in Denver, he immediately sensed trouble. The president urged him to secure Colorado for the Union. As rumors of an imminent invasion from the south grew from a hush to a roar, Gilpin organized the purchase and donation of all the guns in Denver in order to arm a Union force -- leaving nothing in the way of arms for any underground Confederates.
Gilpin is perhaps better known for his method of influencing contractors to equip his Union force. By issuing unsigned and unauthorized drafts on the U.S. Treasury, he was able to “pay” the suppliers. The governor was quickly unseated when this was realized; but perhaps few outside of Denver even suspected how big an impact this had on the territory in winning it for the Union -- or what dire consequences it might have for the nation had these actions not been taken by a man instructed by President Lincoln to secure the territory for the Union.
Maj. Henry Hopkins Sibley, born and raised in the slave-trading city of New Orleans, found it easy to sympathize with the plantation South. Often stationed in remote western posts such as Cantonment Burgwin and Fort Union in New Mexico, Sibley had an eternity to consider the opportunities for glory he was missing as the war waged in the east. Sibley was extremely innovative -- he had invented and developed the Sibley tent and Sibley stove, both in use by the Union Army at the time. This creative mind, perhaps affirmed by ample amounts of whiskey, established a plan to dominate the western region for the Confederacy. That liquid courage eventually took him in Richmond, Va., in mid-September 1861, where he convinced Confederate President Jefferson Davis to promote him to the rank of brigadier general and approve the brilliant plans.
Sibley’s plan to dominate the western portion of the continent had Texas Confederates marching from Texas through New Mexico, Colorado and Dakota Territories and establishing a western front. The coal, gold and mineral reserves nestled beneath the Rocky Mountains would then finance a march eastward to flank Union forces and link up with Confederate forces in Virginia. Control of the west coast would pique the military interest of Europe and perhaps Asia, while establishing trade with those continents. This would do much to increase the legitimacy of the Confederate cause in the eyes of European and Asian governments -- and perhaps an alliance could be struck.
Further, a Confederate spy with part-time residence in Denver maintained communication with the Texan force and had identified allies in Brigham Young and his nearly 1,000 men in Utah should the Confederate force make it that far. It was also presumed that the locals along the Rio Grande, with the horrible memories of the Mexican War fresh in their minds, would be happy to support the Confederate force.
Operating in frigid February, Sibley’s brigade would travel up the west bank of the Rio Grande, along which many Union forts were aligned. His idea was to pack light and resupply at each captured fort along the way. Speed was paramount in order to gain the most ground before the Union could discover the brigade’s intent. Sibley had spent a significant portion of his career at posts along the Rio Grande and at Fort Union. He knew the environment well, and that there were ample weapons and supplies en route. The plan was shaping up quite nicely.
As rumors of this Confederate invasion began to migrate north, a Union colonel named Edward R.S. Canby, a West Point graduate who commanded the Military District of New Mexico, appealed to Gov. Gilpin to gather all the soldiers and arms possible and send them south. Gilpin acted and a lawyer by the name of John Potts Slough was commissioned as a colonel to raise the First Colorado Infantry Regiment. Col. Slough offered a notable Denver Methodist minister a commission to serve as the regimental chaplain, but the minister refused, insisting upon a “fighting commission,” thus, John Milton Chivington attained the rank of major for the Coloradoans and was very well loved by all of his captains and men -- no doubt drawing on his lifelong experiences of leading and counseling congregations.
Meanwhile, back in Texas, newly promoted Brig. Gen. Sibley’s presidentially approved plan was growing mold. Sibley’s lack of decisive and immediate action allowed reports of the Texans’ planned movement to reach Denver and potentially allow the Union forces in the new city an opportunity for timely action. However, newly commissioned Col. Slough didn't act quickly and decisively either, and precious weeks passed before the unproven First Colorado Infantry Regiment was ordered from its newly formed Camp Weld in south Denver to Fort Union, N.M., in order to stop the rebel advance.
In the meantime, the soldiers found ways to make up for their restlessness. Whether patriotism, politics or profession was their motivation, all were ready and eager to fight the rebels. As precious days slipped by with no orders, some soldiers exercised their skills by unconventionally acquiring rations of every kind to enhance the soldier life. Tensions mounted in Denver between the soldiers and the citizens -- including newspapermen who expressed their discontent with the unpunished behavior.
Finally, the order came to move in the frigid February of 1862. As soldiers' energy began to wane during the forced march, they'd hop onto the back of a wagon train, eat rations quickly, and rejoin the trek on foot. The First Colorado moved this way for two weeks. Marching southward through the Colorado countryside, the Volunteers made upwards of 40 miles per day in near-blizzard conditions.
During the journey, Col. Slough made an unpopular move when a shortage of wagons didn't allow for even distribution of supplies. Most companies within the Regiment were allotted two wagons, but one company would have to make do with one. Company I, the predominately German, almost exclusively German speaking company, commanded by Capt. Charles Kerber, was selected. This choice caused such a stir that mutiny took place and Slough's life was threatened. He asked Maj. Chivington to calm the situation, as he was beloved by his men and their families. Chivington obliged, and the combat power of the regiment remained intact.
In 18 days, the column made it over rugged Raton Pass and across the barren, snowy flats of northern New Mexico -- a journey of more than 300 miles -- to Fort Union, arriving several days before Sibley’s Texans. Already unpopular with his own men, Col. Slough made still more enemies by establishing himself as the post commander over Col. Gabriel Paul by virtue of date of rank. Paul, a career officer, was promoted to colonel a matter of months after Slough was appointed colonel by Gov. Gilpin as a civilian, and Slough took advantage.
The journey up the Rio Grande was no less intense for the Texans. Believing correctly that the locals would welcome any opposition the Union, the Texans erred by carrying the Texan flag on their journey instead of the “Stars and Bars.” If there was an entity that the local Hispanic population hated more than the United States of America, it was most definitely the Republic of Texas. Whether merely unfriendly or intensely hostile, the Texans felt the wrath of the local populous through the duration of the trek north.
Furthermore, military posts and supply depots were intentionally burned and emptied prior to Texan arrival. When the Union successfully defended Fort Craig, N.M., in the Battle of Valverde, the situation became a bit dire for the Texans. They were now forced to take refuge in Santa Fe, divide their forces, and take Fort Union -- if they were to be able to continue.
Col. Edward R.S. Canby, who was commanding the Military District of New Mexico, had ordered the commander of Fort Union to hold the fort at all costs. In fact, he wrote, “Let the whole of Fort Garland and Denver burn, but hold Fort Union.”
Canby knew, based on its control of the Santa Fe Trail and its vantage point of hundreds of miles in all directions -- not to mention the arsenal of weapons, ammunition and supplies located there -- that Fort Union was the strategic location that controlled the western half of the country. As railroads had not quite made it that far west, the Santa Fe Trail was how things moved.
Hardly taking the time to rest, the Colorado “Pikes Peakers” immediately began to exhibit the type of initiative and ambition that would come to define them in this and several future campaigns. After Col. Slough took command of Fort Union, he told Maj. Chivington to prepare a force of three companies of foot soldiers and one mounted company for a search-and-destroy mission to target Brig. Gen. Sibley’s advancing men.
While camped for the night on March 25, 1862, near Glorieta Pass, N.M., Chivington assembled a 20-man security detachment from the mounted company to find some actionable intelligence. The men captured a small contingent of Sibley’s scouts -- including two Coloradoans who had turned traitor -- near an establishment called Pigeon’s Ranch. These scouts provided enough information on the whereabouts and intentions of the rebel force for Chivington to initiate movement.
Over the next three days, March 26-28, 1862, several Colorado units and individuals distinguished themselves. During a successful scouting mission led by Maj. Chivington to determine the location of Confederate troops, elements of the First Colorado apprehended several Confederate pickets. This did much to help the First Colorado determine the enemy situation in the area.
On March 26, the First Colorado began movement towards the suspected Confederate force. In what was essentially a movement-to-contact mission, the two forces finally officially met at the Apache Canyon on the west side of the Grand Mesa between Johnson’s Ranch and Koslowksi’s Ranch. Already accustomed to altitude and mountains, a few companies of sharpshooters took to the high ground offered by Apache Canyon, and after hundreds of well-aimed shots -- and a well-executed and well-timed mounted infantry charge led by Capt. Samuel Cook and Company F -- the counterattacking rebels retreated. March 26 ended with the Coloradoans establishing Kozlowski’s Ranch and the Texans establishing Johnson’s Ranch, both at opposite ends of Glorieta Pass. The Union had pushed the Texans several miles back to an area near Johnson’s Ranch at the mouth of Apache Canyon.
Taking a day of reorganization, both armies’ leaders began to plan their next moves. The Texan's plan involved making better use of bluffs and high ground, and securing supplies -- they'd place an entire crucial company of combat power behind to guard the supplies against looters or a surprise attack.
The Coloradoans planned to divide their forces as well, putting Maj. Chivington in charge of a 400-man column with a mission, with the assistance of New Mexico Lt. Col. Manuel Chaves, to locate and destroy the enemy supply trains. Col. Slough also gave Chivington a “be prepared to” mission: support with a charge on the Confederate’s right flank if he heard the sound of guns.
In the morning hours of March 28, 1862, the Colorado infantry, having come down through Bernal Spring and Pecos and moving now northward up Glorieta Pass, encountered a Texan Force moving southeast from Santa Fe, in one of the only instances in the Civil War that saw the North attacking northward and the South attacking southward. Confederate Col. William Read Scurry, the ground force commander at the time (Brig. Gen. Sibley was in Santa Fe “sick”), had left his German company in charge of securing his supply trains at Johnson’s Ranch. His column had proceeded south and, at first contact, he spotted Col. Slough’s regimental colors moving to an apparent assault maneuver on his right flank. Scurry began to concentrate his indirect fire assets toward that area in support of his three companies on the right side, maintaining the combat power already on his left.
This proved genius, as Col. Slough had merely assigned his color bearer to move to the Texans’ right flank with Capt. Jacob Downing’s Company D (under the protests of both Downing and the color bearer) in order to feign the main effort. The second part of Slough’s plan was to send Kerber’s Company I (the nearly mutinous Colorado German company) on an assault mission on Scurry’s left. Maintaining, for the moment, his position at the center of the line, Scurry was able to detect Company I’s shrewd movement along a gully to his left, and deployed two companies of Texans to turn back that assault.
What followed was some of the most intense hand-to-hand and close combat of the battle. One Texan unconventionally loaded his shotgun with five rounds in each barrel, followed by extra gun powder, and emptied the contents down into the low ground, killing at least four members of Company I with one blast.
Another account tells us that a Texan, who had been critically wounded in the stomach, tried to place his bowels back inside his body as he endeavored to keep up the fight. When his attempts at field medicine failed, he turned to his comrades, beckoned them to continue on, and destroyed his weapon so it wouldn’t be taken by the Coloradoans.
While the Texans were holding off the Coloradoans on the Confederate left, they were wreaking havoc on the Coloradoans on their right side.
Capt. Downing described his situation as the focus of the enemy’s wrath:
“Whiz, whiz, and the crack of the rifle was the only music heard for some time, during which many a poor fellow made the passage to ‘that borne from whence no traveler returns.’ Suddenly the guns of the battery were turned to the left (onto Company D’s position), followed by a loud explosion -- the whistling of grape, the falling of (tree) limbs, the low cry of some brave fellow, for some time was all that was heard.”
Company D sustained more than 25 percent casualties in that morning skirmish and would eventually be replaced by Companies G and K, and a portion of I, along with two artillery cannons to counter the massive firepower being received by Downing’s boys.
After turning away the assault on the left side and neutralizing the Coloradoans on the right, Col. Scurry turned his attention to the center. The Coloradoans and Texans would trade ground back and forth as a result of charge after charge at the center of the battlefield, none proving successful.
Illustrating the intense confusion of battle was the experience of a Texan who ventured somewhat ahead of his line and found himself closer to the Union line than his own. A commander of the Colorado forces instructed the soldier to get down and tighten it up before he was hit by the enemy. He pointed to the Texans and it dawned on this soldier that he was wearing a Union blue coat that he had stolen from a dead Colorado soldier. He waited for an opportunity and successfully returned to his own line.
After some time, it became evident to Col. Scurry that the key to taking the field was possession of an outcropping of high ground on the southeast portion of the battlefield that afforded command of the entire field. The Coloradoans had held that position the entire day, and Scurry was determined to confiscate it.
Meanwhile, Maj. Chivington’s column of mounted scouts had made their way across the Grand Mesa and had located the Texan’s supply train. Inexplicably, it appeared unsecured, with merely a handful of Texan soldiers guarding the entire train and holding some Coloradoan prisoners.
Chivington took his time making a decision that included several factors: Was this a trap? Were the rebels waiting for this attack? Did the main body need his support down near Pigeon’s Ranch? Was this the bulk of their supplies or would this make a dent in their logistical capabilities? Why was no one left to guard this area? There was a lot to consider, and Chivington and his men began to plan the descent and the retrograde movements.
The charge was quick and devastating, as nearly 400 Coloradoans descended more than 1,000 feet and easily defeated the smattering of Texans left behind to guard the supplies. The men destroyed the wagons, set the supplies ablaze, and freed several Union prisoners while capturing Confederates. This was indeed the sum total of the Confederate resupply, and without it, the Texans were crippled.
Meanwhile, the battle raged on near Pigeon’s Ranch and Col. Scurry contemplated how he would wrest it from the Coloradoans. From nowhere, it seemed, a new company of fresh Texans flanked the Colorado right side and, as the Coloradoans on the high ground were focused on the center of the battlefield, the Confederates split their attention and, after some intense fighting, eventually drove the Coloradoans from the ridge. These Texans were the same men left in charge of securing the company trains set up near Johnson’s Ranch. When they heard the battle waging, they moved quickly toward the sound of the guns and proved key in winning the strategic fight. Ironically, however, because that company left its post to assist with the fighting, the Texan’s supplies would not sustain their hard fought victory -- to say nothing of the remainder of their campaign.
Less than half a mile of the pass was contested over the course of the entire day, and the fighting at Pigeon’s Ranch ended with the Texans holding the key terrain and most of the contested field. The battle had seen flanking movements, hills taken and retaken, cavalry and mounted infantry charges, artillery barrages and hand-to-hand combat, but it was the Methodist preacher who was given a fighting commission whose actions would prove decisive.
Chivington, nicknamed “Fighting Parson,” would gain immense popularity for his leadership ability as well as his charge on March 26 and his destruction of the Texans’ sustainability on March 28. This lethal strike turned out to be the decisive blow, as it crippled the Texans. At the end of the day, the Texans were forced on a long, disastrous journey home, faced with starvation the entire way. Though no Confederate campaign would ever again surface in the west, the Coloradoans and Union forces in the area remained on their guard until the conclusion of the Civil War.
As for the Coloradoans, the tactical application of logistical support nearly spelled their doom as well. Capt. Herbert Enos, a regular Army ordinance commander, had some heated differences of opinion with Col. Slough as to where best to safely emplace the Union supply trains. Slough won the contest, of course, but Enos ensured the trains were emplaced in such a way as to be able to quickly retreat if compromised.
Col. Scurry had spotted these trains shortly after hearing about the destruction of his own supplies and ordered an attack that resulted in one of the wagons being burned, but due to Enos’ tactical prowess, the trains were pulled back before further damage could be done.
This was the first hostile engagement for the First Colorado Infantry Regiment and was a huge success. However, had the Texans won the battle, the outcome of the Civil War could have been decidedly different.
According to the 1993 Congressionally-appointed Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, the battle had as much or more impact on the outcome of the Civil War as the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam. A Texan victory could have transformed the conflict into an East-West battle and would have potentially invited alliances with foreign countries had the Confederates achieved that level of legitimacy.