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