Glorieta Pass: The Forgotten Gettysburg?

I was only somewhat familiar with the Battle of Glorieta Pass at the time we visited the park there. Because it barely gets a passing mention in the many, many, many books I have read on the American Civil War. And there have only been a couple volumes dedicated to this more obscure battle in the far west. All said, I at least knew there was a fight there, but I would have been hard pressed to tell you much else. The details, as few as there are available, had eluded me for most of my studies.

Yet when my husband and I were passing through the area in 2019, visiting Pecos National Park and Bandolier National Monument, we decided to stop. It was right there, and you all know me. I wouldn’t really let the opportunity to visit a battlefield pass me by. So we drove the forty minutes or so out of our way and pulled into the park gates. The tiny, simple, and quite unmanned park gates. Gates that looked like the entrance to a private farm or horse ranch instead of a national military park.

I had my reservations, given how isolated the whole area was, but in we drove anyway. Down a twisted, mostly abandoned trail through heavy pine woods. We parked the car, picked out a trail on the dusty, long-forgotten map standing there, then we made our way into the park. There were trees, flowers, and tumble weeds. For our entire hike, we were the only people there. Even the wildlife didn’t seem interested in the place. It was, after so many long years, completely silent. Save for the park signs here and there, telling the story of what came to pass so long ago, you would never know a battle had been fought anywhere around this place.


But there was a battle. A fight so big and so fierce that many historians coined the phrase “the Gettysburg of the West” when referring to it. Since I have only my park visit to guide me (I confess I haven’t read the volumes dedicated to the battle), I still don’t really know the nitty gritty details. But the signage, the pamphlets, and my visit gave me at least enough to pass on the basics. Which are thus:

The far west didn’t have much to offer during the Civil War, being mostly rugged and hostile territory with little in the way of supplies our resources. Yet control of the west was enticing to the Confederacy for many reasons. One being that it was a rich area for mining – especially gold and silver. Another reason was expansion – bringing more territory into their struggling country, which would also give them more manpower in the continued struggle against the Union. And the third reason was public support. Given the neglect they had seen at the hands of the federal government, southern sympathy ran deep among the populace of the west – especially in places like New Mexico. The Confederate government figured that they could harness that support into something bigger – like control of Rocky Mountain passes, control of the west coast sea ports, and eventually, control of the entire west.

So, in 1862, with the war well underway and the Confederate troops dominating the Eastern theater, the rebels hatched an ambitious plan. They sent in a few battalions of Texas brigades, hoping to garner the support of the people and launch an attack on Glorieta Pass. If they could capture the pass and the area around it, they could then launch an assault on Fort Union – the biggest Federal stronghold in the area. Breaking up that fort would close off the west to the Federals, and no doubt pave the way for a full-on Confederate takeover they were lusting after.


Like everything, it looked real good on paper. Also like everything, it went awry pretty quickly. For starters, the Texans didn’t get as much support from the people as they thought they would. Especially not among the local Mexican population, who had some axes to grind with Texas over some past brutalities in past wars. Also coming into play was the rough terrain. Confederate troops found it a lot harder than they anticipated to move armies and supplies through the rugged landscape – with many soldiers falling victim to heat-related illnesses and ailments.

Even so, by the time the blue and the gray started clashing all over New Mexico, the Confederates had the clear upper hand. Because the Union forces at the western forts were small in number, comprised mostly of volunteers and old state militias, and hadn’t yet seen any real time on a battlefield. At fights around places like Fort Craig and Valverde, the Union Army suffered heavy casualties, and the Confederate forces took the field in swift and decisive victories.

Things were no different when the two armies met again in Glorieta Pass in the closing days of March, 1862. While the Union forces actually had strength in numbers this time, the Confederates had a better grasp of the lay of the land. Over the course of two days, they absolutely pummeled the Union troops with both field assaults and heavy artillery, eventually driving them from the blood soaked field. It was truly a solid victory in the making – the start of the coveted massive Western takeover… if not for the pesky interference of US Major John Chivington.


While the main battle was going on in Glorieta Pass, Chivington snuck a regiment of seasoned Union troops over the battle lines and launched an attack on the Confederate supply train. A crucial thing to have in the harsh desert territories. In a brutal assault, his forces burned almost a hundred supply wagons, and scattered or killed (mean) the countless herds of Confederate draft animals. It left the rebel forces stranded in the middle of the rocky desert Southwest with no supplies, and no methods of transportation to move their armies. Which really took the bloom off the rose for their tactical victory in Glorieta Pass.

The Confederates had no choice but to retreat to Albuquerque to resupply themselves. And with many of their troops scattered and their wagons destroyed, the South wasn’t able to muster enough support for another invasion. Glorieta Pass, despite its many triumphs for the boys in gray, spelled the end of Confederate plans to take control of the west. A decisive stroke for the Union, all because of a hairbrained attack on some harmless supply wagons.

Compared to some of the big blowouts like actual Gettysburg, and the gruesome Virginia campaigns of 1864, Glorieta Pass probably doesn’t amount to much. The armies who fought there were much smaller, casualties were much lower, and the victories weren’t as decisive. But it was still a crucial turning point for the Union Army – who was seeing more setbacks than not in 1862. With minimal forces, many of them completely untested, they stopped the Confederate army from seizing the west, and you’d think something like that would go down in the National memory bank somewhere. You would think, somewhere in that rocky, pine wilderness, there would be a monument or two at least commemorating the lives lost. But there is nothing. No statues. No memorials. There are barely any trail markers. Pine and scrub growth have completely taken over the battlefield, rendering it virtually unrecognizable. Glorieta Pass, and all that happened there, is rapidly being erased.


It made me feel… well, quite sad. I mean, as an enthusiast of military history, I’m sad when any part of it starts to fade from the collective consciousness. Not just because it fails to remember the people involved, but also because the lessons we learn fade with it. But I was especially sad in this case, because even in the history books, this battle is hard to find information about. Many of the volumes say outright that the battle wasn’t a big deal. A lot of historians argue that it’s not deserving of its “Gettysburg of the West” epitaph, and that really, considering the big picture and the all-important eastern theater, Glorieta Pass was just a meaningless drop in the Civil War bucket.

However, I’m guessing it didn’t feel that way to the soldiers involved. To them, it was anything but meaningless. It was a hot, dusty, bloody, and terrible couple days of fighting – days in which many of them lost their way, lost their limbs, and even lost their lives. Days that, make no mistake, if they survived, I’m guessing they never forgot them.

So, why should we? I’ll be the first to admit that Glorieta Pass falls outside my area of expertise. And to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t go down as the best battlefield visit I’ve ever had either. There just isn’t enough of it left to put together a solid picture of what happened, and it’s so grown over with trees and weeds. The past isn’t very alive there like it is at other places. The picture has definitely faded with time.

But you know what? I’m glad I went, and if I’m ever in the area, I’d probably go again. Maybe not for the photographs or the scenery, but that’s never really been the point, has it? History is important. The sacrifices our ancestors made to get us where we are, the price they paid, the pain they suffered – it’s all important. There are always lessons to be gleaned. Glorieta Pass was just a tiny puzzle piece in a very big jigsaw, but the fighting there wasn’t insignificant. I mean, things could have shook out much differently if the South took over the western territories.


Take it from me. When it comes to history – especially battlefields – sometimes it’s the tiny, seemingly insignificant things that make all the difference in the world. Soldiers needing new shoes sparked the entire battle of Gettysburg. Someone dropping their cigars turned the overwhelming tide at Antietam. A misunderstood dispatch here, a forgotten gun there. All of it makes a huge difference. And in New Mexico, a band of dust-covered, dirty soldiers fighting in the rugged mountains made their difference too. That, to me, deserves its space in the memory bank. It deserves at least a shout-out.

So that’s why I decided to write it down here, the little that I do know. Maybe it’s not my most detailed article, because the details simply aren’t out there. They’re slowly disappearing, just like that isolated, lonely battlefield in the mountains. But now you know the name of Glorieta Pass, and I can only hope it leads to the memory living just a little bit longer. Because it made a difference. It always does. Both then and now.



 Glorieta Pass National Battlefield

Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass Trail Guide – Pecos National Historic Park

The Civil War State by State – C.G. Hearn

The Civil War: A Visual History – Smithsonian


All photos by M.B. Henry. For more Civil War battlefield pictures, click here, here, and here

54 Comments on “Glorieta Pass: The Forgotten Gettysburg?

  1. I remember seeing a cowboy (Western) movie of Union and Confederate units fighting it out somewhere in the West. Nothing like Gettysburg, but still a good battle that the Union somehow won.

    • I was surprised to learn there was a decent amount of fighting in the far west. Nothing like the big blowouts in the east, but still. It’s scary to think what might have happened if things shook out differently at Glorieta Pass. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

    • I wish I knew more to recount more! I’ll have to buckle down and read one of the two volumes I found on this battle. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Excellent post, MB! You gleaned enough information about this battle to paint a good, evocative picture of it and its importance. Although the Union side was far from perfect, one shudders to think of an alternate history where the slave-holding Confederacy won The Civil War. So, this battle was indeed crucial.

    • Agreed!! I’m always glad when you stop by for a read Dave! And I’m glad my painfully small file on this battle still got the message across 🙂

  3. Hi MB. It’s great that you honored this forgotten battle with your informative and engaging writing. I was struck by your statement that the small details in history often have a profound effect on historic outcomes.

    • It is especially true in war it seems! Thanks so much for reading, and I’m very glad you enjoyed it

  4. The little things are not so little to those living through it, or dying through it. Great post M.B.

  5. We had a similar experience when we visited Glorieta Pass. If we hadn’t known about the battle and its importance, we could have easily missed the area.
    We were also familiar with Sand Creek in SE Colorado, where Chivington committed mass murder and genocide on a group of peaceful Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe in 1864, so there was another connection.
    If you ever want to read about Kit Carson role in the Battle of Glorieta Pass, and his highly complex life in general, I recommend “Blood and Thunder” by Hampton Sides.

    • Although I am familiar with Sand Creek, I didn’t know enough details to know Chivington was behind it. Thanks for pointing out the connection. As admitted in this post – the western campaigns are a bit beyond my area of expertise, and I’m always glad to learn more. Especially when they involve such horrible, tragic atrocities that should never, ever be forgotten.

  6. That certainly does seem to have been a crucial tide-turning event. Interestingly I was relieved to see “However, I’m guessing it didn’t feel that way to the soldiers involved. To them, it was anything but meaningless. It was a hot, dusty, bloody, and terrible couple days of fighting – days in which many of them lost their way, lost their limbs, and even lost their lives. Days that, make no mistake, if they survived, I’m guessing they never forgot them.” and the following brief paragraphs because they put your own personal stamp on enlivening history

    • Thanks Derrick! 🙂 I think sometimes the most forgotten things made the biggest difference, and as another commenter pointed out here – this “little” event set the stage for later events, which also left their own terrible marks on history. Either way – none of it should be forgotten. Thanks as always for reading!

  7. The last time I was in the Santa Fe area I fully intended to visit Glorietta Pass, but an unseasonable snowstorm put an end to that idea.
    I had not really understood the events of the Civil War era in the Southwest until reading “The Three-cornered War” by Megan Kate Nelson. It’s quite good. Chivington’s stunning success was so decisive. If he hadn’t done that, maybe the Sand Creek Massacre would never have occurred. He was quite full of himself and so “righteous.”

    • It’s a good reminder that many of the Union generals who fought in the Civil War went on to do TERRIBLE things, especially in the west, and it’s sometimes hard to wrap the head around. The book sounds like a very good one to add to my list! Thanks so much for the recommend!

  8. Thank you for writing and helping your readers to “never forget” the losses which paved the way to the freedoms we enjoy in this country.

  9. Good reading, as always with your posts. I’m OK with the area becoming more naturalized – there’s your post and around to maintain our historical record. I’ll be happy if those pretty orange wildflowers in your nice image at the end of your post flourish instead!

    • That’s a good point! The flowers, butterflies, and other pretty nature things sure did make for a peaceful hike and pleasant scenery. Guess I shouldn’t be complaining about that! 🙂 And yes, there are lots of wildflowers around up on that mountain. With your talents, I think you would get some beautiful pictures if you ever passed through.

  10. It’s the normal course of history for events to fade from memory. We know nothing about most of the people who ever lived.

    Last fall, not long after we left Santa Fe and headed for Texas, I saw a road sign for Pecos National Historic Park, which I’d never heard of. I abruptly decided to follow the sign, and we ended up at the park. By a happy coincidence, a college group was about to begin a guided tour, and we glommed onto it. It proved quite enjoyable, especially as there was some fall color.

    • We stopped at Pecos as well and very much enjoyed it. What neat captures of the fall colors! It was summer when we went so we didn’t get to see that

  11. Well done, you have jogged my old memory, I did read about this some years back and was very interested as a keen follower of your civil war I new all about the east , I’m not sure how I stumbled on to it but it was very interesting at the time.I’m glad you did this post as I find that the obscure battles can some times be more interesting ,a big pat on the back Matey.
    I just got stunned, Your book arrived today!!! my wife had ordered it for my birthday (68th)but it took longer to get here than she thought it would, cant wait to start reading it!! Cheers Pat.

    • Yay!!! How exciting! I really hope you enjoy it! And thanks as always for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  12. Always interesting, MB. Thanks. Having wandered the West extensively, I occasionally came across tidbits on how it was impacted by the Civil War. I found one of the more significant when I was hiking near our new home in Virginia a few weeks ago, however. Peggy and I had picked out Balls Bluff next to Leesburg because of it’s extensive hiking trails and because it was a Civil War battleground, and because it’s like a 20 minute drive from where we live. In reading the various information signs about the battle, I learned that Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, a U.S. Senator from Oregon, had been killed there while fighting for the Union. Apparently he was a friend of Lincoln’s and the only sitting Congressman/Senator to die in the Civil War.

    • I’ve always wanted to visit Balls Bluff, one of these days I’ll have to make it back out that way and have a look see! How are things going at the new place? I hope very well! Sounds like the hiking is good at least.

  13. I would have thought that for a war as thoroughly documented as the Civil War, even its more obscure battles would be well documented. But apparently not, so thanks for your good work here.

    • It’s definitely a bit harder to find stuff on the far west. I’m sure it’s out there, as you are right in how documented the Civil War is. Just a little harder to get my hands on it! 🙂

  14. This may be the best account left of the Glorietta Pass episode, M.B. So well written, as usual. I appreciated you setting the scene for why the Confederates would’ve wanted control of the pass, and of course all the details and information you were able to find and relay. I’m glad you stopped here and appreciate this moving story.

    • Thanks so much for reading, and I’m so glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 I’m very glad we stopped as well, as I love learning about all of that.

  15. Thank you for doing a post on Glorieta Pass — it is indeed an overlooked battle.
    I think there are several reasons. First, it didn’t happen in the east, which is where most of the population was and most fighting was taking place.
    Second, for the people out here, it was kinda a blip. They had been skirmishing with the tribes for centuries. There had been running battles with the Apaches and Navajoes (Indé and Diné respectively) just before Glorieta, and when they were done there, the Union soldiers went back to chasing them. The war in the east wasn’t their main focus. “The Three-cornered War” by Megan Kate Nelson is indeed a good discussion of what was going on, if a bit dry.
    Third, Chivington was a man most people today would like to see as a villian (he was), but would have to start with how he was the hero at Glorieta.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing!

    • Hey! Thanks so much for reading the post and sharing so much insightful information about the battle! I’m going to have to get my hands on this book, sounds like a very good one.

  16. I never had heard of this place or this battle until Steve Schwartzman posted about their visit some months back. It took me a second to put everything together, but I sent him a link to the post, sure that he’d enjoy it.

    It’s interesting that even historical events can be ephemeral: dissolving into the mists of time. One of the podcasts I listen to regularly takes it even farther; the guys mention from time to time that when the pre-internet and smart phone people all have died, all of the pleasures of our lives — like front porch conversations with real people — may disappear as well.

    More personally, my gr-gr-grandfather, who was part of the 34th Iowa, took part in another ‘disappearing battle’ — the Yazoo Pass expedition in Mississippi. Although it’s still a part of local lore, and has plenty of historical plaques around, I suspect anyone other than a Civil War buff or locals wouldn’t know about it. The theory was that breaching a levee near Helena, Arkansas, would allow Federal forces to move on Vicksburg from the north. That didn’t work out, and the troops involved moved south by land, to participate in the Vicksburg campaign.

    I’ve got stacks of information about it, and reading your post has stirred my juices a bit. Yazoo Pass might be worth a post or two itself; I visited the place a couple of times, and even have photos!

    • To your point, I am not familiar with Yazoo Pass! But then again my area of expertise lies outside that zone, I’m sure it garners a mention or two in some of my bigger volumes in the library. I’ll have to give it a look see! 🙂 And I’m always glad when my posts inspire others, that’s a very high compliment for me, so thanks very much! Plus, Iowa is where I grew up, so I actually have a Civil War volume in the library that’s all about the Iowa regiments. I’ll have to see if there’s anything on the 34th in there. Thanks so much for you amazing comment, can’t wait to see a future post about Yazoo!

      • I was lucky enough to make contact with and visit Ray Sibley, who lived in Slidell, Louisiana. He was the author of “The Confederate Order of Battle-The Army of Northern Virginia, Volume 1” and “Confederate Artillery Organizations-An Alphabetical Listing of the Officers and Batteries of the Confederacy, 1861-1865.”
        He was good enough to provide me with a complete itinerary of the 34th Iowa, which still is sitting in my documents file. I also have copies of various documents, like applications for invalid and widow’s pensions, and so on. I’ve got a pile of material: all of which is even more interesting because gr-gr-grandpa spent a good bit of time in Texas places where I now vacation. I can feel the juices starting to flow!

      • This all sounds very, very interesting. I’m cheering you on to write it up, because I’d love to read it!!

  17. Well related MB – I enjoyed this despite knowing little of the Civil War over there. Two thoughts – I wonder if there would be appetite for an archaeological survey/reconstruction of the battle as has been done elsewhere. (From what you say it wouldn’t appear so.) Second, I’d love to spend some solitary hours at a site like that, do a bit of meditation, see if there are any vibes or spirits remaining of those boys so sadly killed.

    • I’m betting you’d pick up some vibes were you to sit quietly in the area. I find that with most battlefields, there’s a certain heaviness/feeling in the air that I don’t think will ever go away. Thanks so much for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  18. You’re definitely right. Little ripples here and there can travel a long way. Small battle or not, it made a big difference, at least for everyone involved. It’s sad that at the end, we look back and think of them mostly as this unknown quantity.

    • “small battle or not, it made a big difference, at least for everyone involved” – couldn’t agree more! <3 Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  19. Thank you for writing this MB! I grew up in El Paso, TX and spent lots of time all over New Mexico, and never even heard of this battle. You are 100% correct – history is so important. Now I have a new place to explore. Thanks again for the great read.

    • Yay!! If you do go, I hope you enjoy it! It’s kind of nice how quiet it is with no one around to disturb as you hike and contemplate 🙂

  20. I like what you said about the little things that can make a huge difference.

    Also: This is such a beautiful area, and it’s hard to imagine the fighting that occurred there. Nature is relentless with its tendencies to reclaim what it lost, hey? Time and tide wait for no man, and neither does nature.

    • Yes! The whole area is very peaceful now, and I love what you said about nature being relentless. It perfectly sums it up 🙂

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