“THE GETTYSBURG OF THE WEST” – THE BATTLE OF GLORIETA PASS
PART 1: THE NEW MEXICO CAMPAIGN TO SEIZE THE U.S. WESTERN TERRITORIES
Located less than a half hour away from the Inn on the Alameda, the battlefield of Glorieta Pass is situated in the forested foothills of the Pecos River Valley. The site of battle is very peaceful and beautiful now – ironic as this was the location of what many call one of the most integral battles of the American Civil War.
“The Gettysburg of the West” effectively prevented Confederate western expansion and ended the month-long Confederate occupation of Santa Fe.
The Battle of Glorieta was the climax of the Confederacy’s New Mexico Campaign, a brazen attempt launched from Texas to seize control of the U.S. Western Territories, thus providing the South with resources that then belonged to the United States. Led by Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley (Sibley), the invasion began in 1861 at the New Mexican town of Mesilla. The Confederates “annexed” the U.S. Territory of Arizona, including every part of New Mexico south of the 34th Parallel. In 1862, Sibley’s plan was to expand the Confederacy northward, intending to seize the rich gold mines of Colorado and to destroy Fort Laramie before capturing Nevada, California, and eventually, the Northern States of Mexico.
This ambitious strategy unfolded with Sibley’s December 1861 proclamation that all of New Mexico was now Confederate Territory and that citizens must be prepared to change their allegiance.
Sibley’s plan relied on speed and victory.
His forces were lightly outfitted with rations and supplies and they intended to restock at captured Union forts and depots along the Santa Fe Trail.
Around 2500 forces under the command of Sibley began their invasion in February of 1862, aiming for the rich supplies of Santa Fe and of Fort Union. Sibley’s primary obstacle was the heavily garrisoned Fort Craig (about 180 miles from Santa Fe and located near the scenic Bosque del Apache). Under the command of Colonel Edward Canby, the Fort was manned by1200 veterans and 2000 volunteers (of which Kit Carson commanded the First Regiment), as well as 500 militia.
Sibley felt bypassing this strategic fort was not an option. So to this end, for 3 days he unsuccessfully attempted to draw Canby’s forces to battle outside the protective walls of Ft. Craig (in terrain where he would have had the advantage). The Union forces simply refused to deploy. One of the Union’s harrying tactics included ‘kamikaze mules’, pack animals loaded with flaming barrels of gunpowder intended to destroy one of the Confederate camps.
The Union mules, accustomed more to routine than to suicide bombings, made their way back to the Union corrals.
Upon exploding, the mules panicked the Union supply animals causing stampedes and alerting the Confederates.
Due to his limited supplies, Sibley was unable to maintain the siege of Fort Craig and soon realized Canby wasn’t going to be drawn out. Sibley decided to cut the fort off from communication with Santa Fe. Bypassing Fort Craig, the Confederacy continued its march north towards Santa Fe. Canby sent forward units to reinforce the road to the city from the south and then finally the two Civil War forces met at a ford of the Rio Grande in the battle of Valverde. Here, after finding Union forces arrayed at the river ford, the commander in charge of the initial party, Major Charles Pyron, placed his troops in a well-defended position within a dry riverbed. The two forces were stalemated, as reinforcements arrived for both sides.
Within several hours the battle began, with a Confederate cavalry charge, which was repulsed, leading to the loss of twenty. As the day wore on, the Confederates’ lack of water and desperate thirst made the sight of the river beyond the Union lines an irresistible temptation. Using this advantage, Canby re-deployed his forces to better positions. (This would be the second time Sibley’s lack of adequate supplies eventually cost him the West.) In response to the movements of the redeployment, the Confederate forces charged the Union lines in three successive waves, driven and motivated not only by the exigencies of battle, but also by the sight of the river beyond.
Routed by the fierceness of the charges, Canby was forced to fly the white flag of surrender.
Sibley (who was largely absent from the battle reportedly due to either illness or drunkenness) sent orders not to press this new advantage and he allowed Canby to gather his dead and wounded and return to US Fort Craig. This left the road to Santa Fe undefended. Meanwhile, Canby dismantled the union forces under his command, focusing on mobile cavalry and Mountain divisions and sent them out to engage in partisan harrying and destruction of Confederate supplies. While Sibley made slow progress, additional Union soldiers reinforced US Fort Union near Glorieta Pass.
New Mexico is rich with history, and a visit to the Land of Enchantment will grant you ample opportunity to visit historical sites such as this. Check out our list of inspiring day trips.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE NEXT BLOG: PART 2