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Battle of Glorieta Pass: The “Gettysburg of the West”


The Battle of Glorieta Pass was the pivotal engagement of the American Civil War’s westernmost campaign. Fought from March 26-28, 1862, Union forces achieved a crucial victory that turned back the Confederate invasion of New Mexico Territory. Glorieta Pass is commonly referred to as the “Gettysburg of the West.”

After resigning his commission in the United States Army, Henry H. Sibley approached Confederate President Jefferson Davis with a plan to capture New Mexico and other parts of the West for the Confederacy. Sibley had previously served as an officer in New Mexico. Now he proposed to lead a mounted force there. Under his strategy, Confederate troops would live off the land, defeat the Federal forces that were encountered, seize valuable military supplies, and secure natural resources of the territory. Sibley’s next step would be to march north to capture the rich mines of the Colorado Territory. Then he would move west through Salt Lake City and across the Sierras to occupy the California seaports of Los Angeles and San Diego. While the scheme may have sounded a bit farfetched, it didn’t present a great cost to the Southern treasury. If Sibley succeeded, the Confederacy would control the entire Southwest, its gold and silver, and the terminus of the transcontinental railroad. The plan was approved and Davis commissioned Sibley a brigadier general, giving him the authority to raise a mounted brigade in Texas for the Campaign.

Henry Sibley. (Photo: Library of Congress)

During the late summer and early autumn of 1861, Sibley raised a brigade of three mounted regiments, the 4th, 5th, and 7th Texas Mounted Volunteers, along with supporting artillery and supply units. By late fall, some 3,500 Confederate troops had been assembled for the invasion. From San Antonio, Sibley’s force moved into southern New Mexico (which included Arizona at the time).

On February 21, 1862, Sibley’s troops clashed with Union forces at the Battle of Valverde near the Federal stronghold at Fort Craig, 100 miles south of Albuquerque. It was the largest and westernmost battle of the Civil War campaign in New Mexico. Both sides suffered some 200 casualties, but the Texans managed to capture one of the two Union artillery batteries and drove their opponents back to Fort Craig. The Confederates followed up their victory by capturing Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Sibley’s next target was Fort Union, an outpost on the other side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Major Charles L. Pyron of the 2nd Texas led the Confederate vanguard on the Santa Fe Trail, the military highway to Fort Union.

In late February, a newly raised regiment was on the march to reinforce Fort Union. The 1st Colorado Volunteers numbered over 900 strong and was composed of mostly rugged miners and frontiersman from the mining districts around Denver City. John P. Slough was appointed colonel of the regiment. By March 11, the 1st Colorado had completed a 300-mile journey through harsh winter elements to reach Fort Union. Because he was senior in date of rank to the fort’s commander, Colonel Slough assumed command of all Federal forces. On March 22, he led a Union field column of 1,342 men south on the Santa Fe Trail to find and fight the Rebels. Only a handful of defenders were left at Fort Union.

Col. John Slough. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On March 26, Major Pyron advanced to Glorieta Pass on the Santa Fe Trail and skirmished with Colorado infantry and regular U.S. Cavalry posted in Apache Canyon. Both sides received reinforcements the following day. On March 28, Confederate Lieutenant Colonel William Scurry attacked Union forces under Colonel Slough near Pigeon’s Ranch. The fierce struggle dragged on throughout the day and the Confederates gradually forced Slough’s men to abandon the positions around Pigeon’s Ranch. The Federals fell back down the Santa Fe Trail to a final defensive line. Confederate troops followed, but darkness and exhaustion halted their advance. The Battle of Glorieta Pass was over and despite their success at Pigeon’s Ranch, there was terrible news awaiting the Texans.

The Confederate attack against Union forces at Pigeon’s Ranch. Painting by Roy Anderson. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As the fighting raged around Pigeon’s Ranch, a Union flanking party descended on the Confederate camp at Johnson’s Ranch. 80 wagons were burned and everything that the Rebels needed to continue the fight in New Mexico went up in flames. With their supply train destroyed, the Confederates were forced to retreat to Santa Fe. Sibley’s men were never able to mount another advance against Fort Union and soon made the long march back to Texas. By July 1862, all Confederate troops had vacated New Mexico Territory. The area remained under Union control for the remainder of the war.

Casualties at the Battle of Glorieta Pass vary. Union forces are estimated to have suffered some 38 killed, 64 wounded, and 20 captured. Confederate losses are believed to have been around 36 dead, 60 wounded, and 25 captured.

In a way, the Battle of Glorieta Pass was the “Gettysburg of the West.” It was certainly much smaller than the famous eastern battle that was fought a year later, but Glorieta Pass marked another crucial moment when Union forces stopped a Confederate invasion.

Sources

Civil War Trust: Glorieta Pass.

Civil War Trust: The Battle of Glorieta.

History.com: Battle of Glorieta Pass.

National Park Service: Battle of Glorieta Pass.

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