The sounds of Colorado National Guard musket fire thundered across lonely Glorieta Pass. They quickly died. This time, there was no return fire.
CONG staff traveled to Glorieta, NM Sept. 16-18, 2016 to trace the actions of their predecessors at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, 154 years earlier.
September 16, 2016 - Senior Advisor to the Army National Guard U.S. Army Lt. Col. Shannon Espinoza, left, and Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Mudlo, right, a Colorado Army National Guard Soldier, discuss key aspects of the Apache Canyon terrain during the Colorado National Guard staff ride to Glorieta Pass, NM. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Elena O'Bryan)
“A staff ride is where the students are the teachers,” said former CONG historian U.S. Army Maj. Adam Morgan.
A cadre of Colorado Army National Guard chief warrant officers guided staff through the battle sites.
Also known as the Gettysburg of the West, the Battle of Glorieta Pass unfolded on sparsely wooded, steep ridges and within narrow, rugged canyons. For three days in 1862, March 26-28, Union regulars and volunteers from Colorado and New Mexico clashed with Confederates from Texas along the Sante Fe Trail at the southern tip of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, southeast of Santa Fe.
Glorieta Pass was a means to an end for the Confederates. Their objective was to take control of Fort Union, barely 100 miles to the northeast, and, from there, to launch a campaign that would appropriate the mineral wealth of the West for the Confederacy.
Only one thing stood in their way: the Union Army made up largely of the First Colorado Infantry Regiment, Colorado National Guard—a territorial militia, established two years earlier, of men from different walks of life with little military training.
In response to the Confederate threat, the Coloradans, under the command of U.S. Army Col. John P. Slough, a Denver attorney, mobilized and began a march of 400 miles that they completed in only 18 days.
On the way to confront the Confederate Force, the Colorado troops stopped at Fort Union to obtain supplies and grow their force.
U.S. Army Col. Gabriel Paul, Commander of the Fourth New Mexico Volunteers at Fort Union, tried to hold up the Colorado regiment, arguing that they should wait until reinforcements from California and Kansas arrived. He based his decision on orders from U.S. Army Col. Edward R.S. Canby, Commander of Union forces in the New Mexico Territory.
Slough disagreed, pulled rank on Paul, took command of Union forces at the fort, and led them towards Santa Fe.
“Col. Slough didn't want to wait around at Fort Union,” said The Adjutant General of Colorado U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards. “The Colorado National Guard is still like that. We don't want to deploy somewhere to do nothing. We want to get the mission done and go home to our families and jobs.”
After a five-hour drive from their headquarters in Denver, the CONG arrived at Apache Canyon, where Union Soldiers under the command of U.S. Army Maj. John Chivington, First Colorado Volunteers, encountered Confederate forces at the unit's first battle. A former pastor, the men under his command included a sheriff, a realtor, and a probate judge.
“The Coloradans had almost no experience. The Confederates were very confident,” said Dave Schmidt, former CONG historian.
Perched on a rise, the warrant officers described how Union forces took up positions on the sides of the canyon and fired down onto Confederate forces. The Union routed the Confederacy here, forcing the Texans to retreat.
One of the Colorado soldiers received a mortal wound.
“Right out here was the Colorado National Guard's first killed in action,” Morgan said, pointing down into the canyon. “This is where we spilled our first blood in defense of our country.”
The Federals lost four Soldiers. The Confederates lost three, but 71 Texans became prisoners, one-fourth of the Confederate force in New Mexico.
The main phase of the battle had not yet begun.
During the next day, which was bright and clear, CONG staff visited various other points on the battlefield where Union and Confederate Soldiers fought for most of one day, filling the air with explosions and acrid smoke from cannon and rifle fire.
The Texans successfully pushed Union forces further down the Sante Fe Trail, until late afternoon on March 28, when they came upon the Union center atop Artillery Hill. Union resistance there slowed the Confederate advance, which then switched from the Federal right to the Federal left flank, overrunning them at Sharpshooters Ridge. Federals quickly withdrew to a place called Pidgeon's Ranch, a waystation for travelers. After a firefight with Confederates there, Union forces retreated.
Meanwhile, Chivington and his 500 Soldiers marched the length of Glorieta Mesa, as part of Slough's plan to strike the Confederates from the rear. The battle raged below, unbeknownst to them.
“Chivington didn't know the battle was going on due to acoustic shadow caused by Glorieta Mesa," said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Elisa Locke, a COARNG UH-60 helicopter pilot and civilian life skills
They came upon the sparsely-guarded Confederate wagons filled with supplies at Johnson's Ranch at the base of the mesa. Chivington's men lowered themselves through 700 feet of steep terrain, regrouped, and attacked. They blew up the supplies and wagons.
Later that night, a snowstorm descended on both armies, in the midst of a truce to bury the dead and care for the wounded, and dropped a foot of snow.
With the loss of their supplies, and knowing that Canby was on his way from Fort Craig with a sizeable force, the Texans soon left the field at Glorieta, never to return.
“It's important to study history and to understand how a victory occurred,” Edwards said. “We learn from the failures. We learn from the successes. We also come to understand that a victory can involve luck.”
On the way back to Denver, CONG staff stopped at Fort Union, N.M., to survey what remained of its crumbling defenses. If the Confederates had made it that far, the Great Plains and a well-travelled route through Raton Pass would have sealed their conquest of Colorado and the West.
The actions of the First Colorado at the Battle of Glorieta Pass wove a different story for Colorado and for our nation.
“We've built our organization on this past, on the Colorado Guard's first action fulfilling its federal duties, and we continue to grow,” Edwards said.
By U.S. Air National Guard Lt. Col. Elena O'Bryan
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