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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 in History, Posts About Me, Travel

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