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Friday, June 22nd, 2007

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

I’m cheating. I had every intention of posting this right away; but travel, work, and a general malaise associated with personal events kept me from doing so. But I’m going to change the time stamp on this post to reflect the time that it happened.

Today is a travel day. I finished up my work in Alamogordo yesterday, but we got a late start this morning because last night my coworker and I stopped in at VFW Post 7686, and it turned out to be karaoke night. This was my first experience with karaoke. My coworker, an exuberant young Texan, entertained fewer reservations about the prospect than I, and he was wily, for after hearing me spoof the situation from the safety of my bar stool and waiting for just the right time, he volunteered me to get up and sing Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire. It just went (sober perspective:) downhill/(inebriated perspective:) uphill from there. Alamogordo has got to be one of the friendliest places on Earth, so the reception that I got was no indication of the quality of my singing. Thankfully, the VFW pays for cab rides home.

Yeah. I was a little slow this morning.

My coworker is going on vacation from here, and I had already offered to take him with me back to Killeen, Texas. But there’s a weekend to fill before I can get back to work, and he enticed me into partying the night in Austin and tubing down the Guadalupe River tomorrow. However, our crash-for-the-night plans have fallen through, and rumors of tightened law enforcement on the river have changed our plans, so we’re heading for Houston.

On the way, we decided to stop in and see the Alamo in San Antonio. As a history buff, I couldn’t resist. However, you can see from the following photos that I am still a little hung over.

Greg Perry at the Alamo Greg Perry at the Alamo

Posted by Greg as History, Travel at 22:46 PST

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Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

Trinity

Working in the Las Cruces, New Mexico, area for the last two weeks, I got one significant side benefit: a personal tour of the Trinity test site – the location of the world’s first nuclear explosion, and the McDonald Ranch House, where the bomb was assembled. Here’s a picture of me standing in the crater at ground zero:

Greg Perry at the Trinity Test Site, 2007
Photo by George Baird

I’ve been working a lot in the American Southwest lately – Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – and one of the few things I’ve taken time out for is stopping in to visit places of historical significance, like Fort Craig, Picacho Peak, Glorieta Pass, and the place where Billy the Kid died. Trinity was a major coup, as the site is only open to the public on two days a year, and I got to skip the crowd. Since I’m a dilettante, not a history buff, I’m sure I’ve been driving right by places that I would find fascinating if I had known about them.

Posted by Greg as History, Travel at 08:38 PST

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Monday, March 12th, 2007

The Battle of Glorieta Pass

My interest in history, always strong, has become even stronger over the last four months. It seems to have been kicked off by seeing Picacho Peak rising out of the Arizona desert as I was driving down the I-10 interstate back in November.

At the time, I was struck by the peak because of its dominance of the surrounding terrain. I was working on an interstate pipeline corrosion control project, and as part of the data management and presentation part of that, I was trying to get open source and otherwise free GIS software working on my computer. This proved to be difficult, but while playing with digital line graphics, elevation models, orthophotos and plain-old USGS maps, I had been struck by the way this coalescence of contour lines just sort of popped out, even before I ever saw it.

Maybe it was because I was still relatively unexposed to the glory of the American Southwest landscape. I remember driving the I-40 a couple of times, taking the I-70 once through Utah, and seeing the Grand Canyon, but that was a long time ago. Since then, I had been kept content in my high desert/mountain experience within the San Diego – Bakersfield – Las Vegas triangle. So the sight of Picacho Peak and its little brother, Newman Peak, coming up over the horizon really struck me.

Then I came back to the office and was informed that it was the site of the westernmost battle of the American Civil War. The Civil War? In Arizona? I had to look that up.

So I did, and this lead me to the New Mexico campaign of the Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley and his Union opponent, Colonel Edward R. S. Canby. What a fascinating story, and as I spend more time in Arizona and New Mexico, the more it intrigued me. Three loosely affiliated interests came together – geography, history, and military strategy. I found myself pausing on hilltops to examine avenues of approach, wondering how far the dust kicked up by mounted and marching troops could be seen, looking how the natural spurs and draws would be far more difficult to haul a supply wagon across than the improved road I was driving on.

All this forced me into diverting my most recent long haul, from Kansas City to El Paso, so that I could visit the Pecos National Historical Park so that I could walk the ground of the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

Yesterday I wrote about the Native American and Spanish history value at this park, but the real highlight for me was taking the Civil War battlefield tour offered only on Saturdays. As it turned out, I was the only one signed up for the tour, but the park ranger there still wheeled out the van to take me around. When he found out that I already had some familiarity with the history, but that my limited on-line research was missing a lot of details, he seemed especially pleased.

I almost hadn’t bothered to go out of my way to see this place, but my reward for doing so was one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve had in a long time.

We started at Kozlowski’s Ranch, a stage stop on the Santa Fe Trail east of the pass, that served at the initial Union encampment on the night of 25 March, 1961. Looking over the field where the tents were pitched, I got my background briefing.

We then moved to the site of the first encounter and engagement, Apache Canyon, where Union and Confederate troops ran into each other on 26 March, when both must have been conducting a reconnaissance in force.

Next, we went to Johnson’s Ranch in Cañoncito, the site of the initial Confederate encampment. Because I’ve never seen Thermopylae (and nowadays it doesn’t look the same, anyway), I have never seen such an impressive bottleneck, so well suited for a military defense. Of course, the Confederates were invading.

On the afternoon of 28 March, while both sides were duking it out at Glorieta Pass, a force of 450 men under Major John Chivington and guided by Manuel Chavez, who had stolen over the mountains, descended a rugged cliff to destroy the Confederate supply train that had been left behind at this site. The beautiful bottleneck was bypassed.

Looking up at the cliff, I was awed. Even in my best shape, with modern equipment, this place would have been tough. The Colorado volunteers must have descended in at best a controlled fall, and in broad daylight under fire. I could easily imagine the fury with which they must have attacked the wagons and remaining Confederates – after what they had just gone through, they were pissed! And after wreaking havoc for four hours, they climbed back up the cliff and returned across the mountains through the night. I imagined the adrenaline high that powered their return and was jealous.

Finally, we traveled to the site of the climatic battle, near Pigeon’s Ranch. The Union soldiers had been surprised by the approaching Confederates while taking a water break. They formed a hasty defense in place, then under pressure, retreated to a second line at the ranch house. This second line was fronted by a winding creek and flanked by two hills that gave a commanding view of the Confederate route of attack. This was a kick-ass defensive position, and where the fighting was fiercest. Finally, the Confederate Colonel William Scurry forced Colonel John Slough’s men back by flanking their dominant positions from even higher on the walls of the valley. Slough fell back to a third line, but there was little time before nightfall, and just then the Confederates found out that the only food, ammunition and medical supplies they had left were what they were carrying in their pockets. The battle was broken off.

Locals call this engagement “The Gettysburg of the West”. That, in my opinion, is a huge exaggeration. Yes, this battle was significant, because it was the turning point where the Union stopped the Confederate effort to capture the Colorado gold fields and a passage to the West, specifically California. But the scope of the battle was far less – the number of troops involved, the casualties, and the consequences. At Gettysburg, Lee had the chance to begin a penetration into the Union homeland that could have achieved the Confederacy’s ultimate objective – forcing the Union to accept the South’s succession. But a Southern victory at Glorieta Pass would only have delayed the inevitable. Hell, Glorieta Pass was technically a Southern victory. But the destruction of their supplies forced the Confederacy to abandon the entire campaign. Sibley’s effort to take the West was doomed to failure because he did not have the resources to complete his aspirations of western conquest. Had he won at Glorieta without losing his wagons of food and ammunition, he could have pressed further – but there is no indication that he could have continued on and taken Fort Union further north. He had failed to take Fort Craig, with its immense storehouse of supplies, during his march up through the center of New Mexico. Sibley had counted on being able to live off the land in some of the harshest territory that exists in the world, and he expected that local sympathizers would assist him in doing so, when his forces were mostly Texans, and the majority of the local non-Native population were Hispanics who, until fourteen years prior, in 1848, had been subjects of Mexico, and the US annexation of Texas in 1845 had been the impetus for the Mexican-American War that lead to the cessation of the New Mexico and California territories. He had also counted on being able to take and hold Colorado, when most of the forces that faced him at Glorieta Pass were Colorado volunteers.

But still, walking the grounds of this conflict was an intense experience. The park ranger who guided me mentioned that one historian, upon viewing the site, had said that it was not a battlefield, it was a battletunnel. I could not agree more.

I’ve had experience in having to either defend or attack on a limited front. Most of those times, the boundaries were artificial – the limits to my left and right were dictated as being within the responsibility of allied forces; so the group size that I was training with, whether platoon, company or battalion, had to be imagined as part of a larger force. But the battlefield of Glorieta Pass was limited only by the terrain and the troops available – roughly 2 000 on each side. Slough’s decision to send a quarter of his force off on a difficult flanking maneuver was risky and brilliant, but ultimately relatively safe. His thrust to meet the Confederates had been in defiance of orders – which had been to defend the Union supplies at Fort Union at all costs. He could have sat back and waited for them to arrive, and then followed Canby’s example. Although Canby lost the Battle of Valverde near Fort Craig, he had been able to retain possession of the fort and its supplies. Sibley bypassed him, but in doing so, cut off his own lines of communication (read: supply link) back to Texas. He could only have done so if he wasn’t expecting further resupply from there. If Slough hadn’t stopped the Confederates at Glorieta Pass, he could have withdrawn back to Fort Union and held there, because Sibley didn’t have the manpower, equipment and supplies necessary to have taken the fort. Sibley couldn’t have bypassed this second point without risking losing his gains in New Mexico to a counterattack from the south by Canby.

Hmmm. I had been trying to get away from the strategic situation to the tactical at Glorieta Pass. I’m talking like a general, when my experience is far less. I was never an officer – I was a sergeant. My highest official position was squad leader, although at one time I ended up as an acting platoon leader, and in that situation my company commander took great pains to explain to me what I needed to do and why I needed to do it to affect the mission of the company. I also pulled duty as Battalion Staff Duty NCO – basically an acting Sergeant Major. I guess I soaked it up like a sponge. But then, I loved the military, and I had good leaders who constantly focused on training me how to do the jobs above me. I’ve never forgotten those lessons, and I think I’ve managed to advance my level of thinking even after I left. Maybe that’s why I took so much pleasure in walking this battlefield, being able to see so many critical factors – terrain, troop deposition, fields of fire, visibility, cover and concealment, supplies, risk of alternatives, even how morale could affect singular actions. Maybe a good wargamer could take all these factors into account, but he or she would have to be really good, and experienced at using an accurate model. My way of thinking has been shaped by being having to accomplish missions with no sleep for several days, of trudging miles and miles and doing more when I got there, of going without food and limited water, of following orders even when they made no sense to me at the time, and most of all, caring about my fellow soldiers, my mates, and doing for them so that I deserved to be cared about by them.

Will I ever get to a point in my life where being in the Army wasn’t the best thing in my life? I don’t think so. Moreover, why would I ever want to?

Tomorrow night I hope to write about my experience of visiting Fort Craig.

Posted by Greg as History, Posts About Me, Travel at 22:33 PST

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Sunday, March 11th, 2007

Following the Santa Fe Trail

Back to writing again. The big problems with WordPress appear to have been fixed, but there are still some tweaks required to get everything back the way it was, and I’ve been needing to review my plugins to make improvements anyway. Plus I need to revamp my categories.

It was time to drive from the Kansas City, Missouri, area (actually Lee’s Summit), where I’ve been living the last six weeks, back to El Paso, Texas. I’ve made the drive three times before, each with a variation. Once through Dallas, to see an old army buddy and his family; once through Killeen to take care of some business at Fort Hood, and once straight through. All these routes go through Texas, and the shortest one was 1 750 kilometers (1 087 miles), which I did straight through in 17 hours. Driving through Texas is a long, boring affair.

On this occasion I had some time over the weekend to spare, and I wanted a change in the scenery and to indulge in a little sightseeing. So I cut across Kansas on the I-70 (not much of an improvement over Texas), and started heading southwest in Colorado. I spent the night in Colorado Springs, and the next morning, started heading south on the I-25. The Rocky Mountains were off to my right, and I was driving through the foothills until I hit the Raton Pass and entered New Mexico. I was now following the Mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. Actually, the Santa Fe Trail started in Missouri, but the I-70 runs a little north of the original trail, although the terrain is similar.

When I got to the vicinity of Pecos, New Mexico, I took a little time out for history. I visited the Pecos National Historical Park. I was there to see battlegrounds of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, called “the Gettysburg of the West”, but I had an added bonus in that the Park hosts the ruins of a Spanish mission dating back to 1621, and a Native American pueblo dating back to the early 1400s, although it had been settled since 1100. I intend to write more about the American Civil War battle later, but now seems a good time to write about the Native Americans and the Spanish.

When I first came to the United States, my family was in a hurry to absorb as much of the American experience as we could, because we intended to go back to Australia. Since we were living in southeast Pennsylvania, we had ready access to a lot of Revolutionary War era and Civil War sites, and as a teenager, I visited a lot of battlegrounds. It was only later, when I was in the US Army, that I really learned to appreciate the significance of terrain. After I got out of the Army, I didn’t live near American historical battlegrounds and didn’t visit them. I was also older, and had more of an appreciation for history.

Standing on the site of the Native American pueblo, I was able to look out at the surrounding terrain and truly appreciate the brilliance of its location. The hill had a commanding view of the terrain for miles in all directions, but because it was in the mouth of a mountain pass, there were only two avenues of approach for other people, most of whom could be presumed to be hostile. There were ready water sources and surrounding fields for raising crops. At the foot of the hill was an open area that served as a site for trade. The plains-roaming Apaches could approach, camp at the foot of the pueblo, and trade between the agricultural Pueblo people and the hunter-gatherer Apaches could be conducted in safety for both.

The ruins of the Spanish mission were also fascinating. Much of the adobe walls of the second mission church, dating from the early 1700s, remained, built on the foundation of the earlier one, and low walls remained of the rest of the mission. You could stand in the monastic cells, the kitchen and eating areas, walk on the flagstone floors, and see the utility of the drainage. Having lived in California, I’ve been to many Spanish missions, but none had the sense of history, of what it was actually like to live here centuries ago, as this place had.

Late in the afternoon, I left Pecos and drove the short remaining distance to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Santa Fe has a reputation of being a great place to visit, and I was interested in seeing what was there. It’s a dusty, modern American small city that did not look impressive at all at first. The surrounding hills are littered with new homes built to look like old adobe buildings, but after seeing the real thing, they look as fake as a three dollar bill. My previous impression of the town was that it is full of aging hippie artists, but after seeing it, I can correct my view. It appears to be full of aging ex-hippie artists who, when they get together, probably spend most of their time trading stock tips. I checked into a room in the outskirts and plugged in to see what is really supposed to make this place an attraction. Their tourist site appears to be big on plugging arts and culture – 250 museums! I’m more interested in history, so I found the way to the historical center. I got in the car and headed there.

It didn’t take me long. I drove in and drove around. I stopped only because there were stop signs. My assessment of Santa Fe: if you’ve got a lot of money to spend on pretty things that you don’t need, it’s probably a great place to visit. I headed back to my room and went to bed very early.

So now I’m up, I’ve spent some time writing, and I’m ready to hit the road again. I’m going to take the I-25 south to El Paso; technically no longer the Santa Fe Trail but the El Camino Real, following the Rio Grande River. Hmmm. Isn’t the same name as the mission trail going up through California?

On the way, I see that I can stop by Fort Craig, as long as I’m willing to drive a few kilometers on a dirt road. Since I drive an SUV that I actually use to drive off road, this is no big deal. I’ve been told that I can’t visit the site of the Battle of Valverde – it’s on private land (Ted Turner’s name was thrown in.) I have the time, and it would round out my tour of retracing Sibley’s New Mexico campaign.

Posted by Greg as History, Posts About Me, Travel at 07:07 PST

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