The Battle of Glorieta Pass

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

There were those in the Confederate States of America who envisioned their new country extending, not only from Virginia to Texas, but through the Southwest into California, northward into Colorado, and even southward into Latin America. The concept was impossibly unrealistic, of course, but in the fervor of secession, it seemed that anything was possible.

To that end, the Confederacy claimed both Arizona and New Mexico Territories and began the ill-fated "New Mexico Campaign" by sending the 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 7th Texas Mounted Rifles under the command of Brigadier General Henry Sibley up the Rio Grande River from Fort Bliss, Texas to capture Santa Fe and Fort Union. Fort Union was an army installation without defensive walls and could have been easily captured with a large enough force. In fact, Sibley, as a Union officer before the Civil War, had commanded Fort Union and was intimately familiar with the fort and surrounding area.

A victory over the Union's forces there would have opened up access to the gold and silver mines of Colorado and strengthened the campaign to the west to California with its own gold fields and open seaports with access to foreign trade. The flow of wealth to the Confederacy could have changed the course of the war – and history.

Sibley, more noted for his consumption of liquor than for his tactical abilities, moved his men up the Rio Grande valley in miserable weather in February, 1862. He encountered Union forces under Union Colonel Edward Canby at Fort Craig, located south of present-day Socorro. In the ensuing Battle of Valverde, a skirmish in which Col. Kit Carson participated with his New Mexico Volunteers, Sibley’s troops were able to capture one of Canby's artillery pieces and killed several of his troops and Canby managed to destroy much of Sibley's supply train before withdrawing his forces back to defensive position within the fort, essentially giving the victory to Sibley, though both sides suffered considerable casualties in the battle.

Lacking the men and resources needed to further attack the fort, Sibley decided to bypass Canby's troops and continued north to Albuquerque. Forewarned of the Texan's arrival, the citizens of Albuquerque met Sibley with a less than enthusiastic reception; indeed many had fled to Fort Union. Two days later, Sibley entered an abandoned Santa Fe and began to prepare for the attack on Fort Union.

The only reasonable route to Fort Union from Santa Fe was through Glorieta Pass, through which the Old Santa Fe Trail had carried supplies to Santa Fe for decades. Here, the forces of the Union and Confederacy were to meet in the "Gettysburg of the West" in a fearsome battle that would shatter the Confederacy's dreams of expansion and conquest in the West.

Fort Union's 800-man force had been reinforced by a 1,380-man volunteer force that had marched from Denver, covering 400 miles in two weeks, the last 100 in two days – an amazing feat. Not waiting to be attacked by Sibley's troops, Col. John Slough, commander of the volunteers, advanced to meet the Confederates and encountered them as he entered Glorieta Pass from the east.

On March 28, an advance Confederate force of 200 to 300 men under Major Charles Pyron encountered Slough's 410-man Union force. Slough's men were beaten back by Pyron's artillery, but he had ordered Major John Chivington (the same John Chivington of Sand Creek Massacre notoriety) to divide his volunteer force and catch the Confederates in enfilade fire from the heights around the battlefield. The maneuver forced a hasty Confederate retreat. Chivington then regrouped and pursued the retreating Confederates, succeeding in capturing their rear guard.

Impending darkness and general fatigue drove both forces into camp that night; the following day remained quiet as both sides regrouped, tended to their wounded and awaited reinforcements.

The following day, Confederate Col. Scurry decided not to wait for the Union troops to attack and moved his men forward to confront them. The savage battle – the "Gettysburg of the West" – raged back and forth in a six-hour carnage of charge and counter charge, devastating artillery duels and heavy casualties on both sides. The battle ended in an apparent Confederate victory as Col. Slough's men were forced to retreat to defensive positions in their earlier encampment at Kozlowsky's Ranch.

The victory was moot, however. The Texans had moved too far forward too soon, leaving their already depleted supply wagons behind – a fateful tactical error. Slough had sent Chivington with a 400-man force, guided by Lt. Col. Manuel Chaves of the New Mexican Volunteers, who knew the lay of the land, to bypass the Confederate lines. From a high point at the west end of the pass, they were able to look down on Sibley's supply train guarded only by a small force. Charging down the steep slope, they easily overcame the guard, destroyed more than 60 wagons with their contents, killed all the mules, and captured 17 Confederate soldiers. Guided by the local Padre Ortiz, they returned to their camp by a different route, again avoiding the main Confederate force.

Confederate Col. Scurry soon realized that he was in an untenable position and could not continue without the destroyed supplies. Arranging a truce to bury his dead, he quickly withdrew from the field and began a desperate retreat back to Santa Fe.

Interestingly, an order received from Canby sent Slough's troops back to Fort Union, denying them the opportunity to pursue and further destroy or capture Sibley's men.

Indeed, it turned out that Canby had no wish to slaughter the Texans, as he easily could have done, or to capture them, as he could not feed them. He simply wanted them out of the territory and drove them on their way by marching almost parallel to them on the opposite side of the river as they returned southward, much to the dismay of his troops. They wanted revenge for their failure to stop the Texans at the Battle of Valverde on their way north.

As both troops neared Fort Craig, Sibley, not wishing for a battle any more than did Canby, slipped out of camp in the night and began a terrible hundred-mile detour to the west to skirt Fort Craig. Canby, content to let the desert do the dirty work for him, did not follow; he knew the desert and wanted no part of it. He returned leisurely to the safety and comfort of Fort Craig, leaving the Texans to their fate.

The Texans’ retreat became one of the greatest marches of all time and a bitter lifelong memory for those who survived it. The ten-day march was begun with less than five day's meager rations through a rough, waterless hell of rocky hills and gullies, thick with brush and undergrowth that had to be painfully cut through with knives and axes.

Eventually the exhausted Texans reached the dry bed of the Palomas River, which led them back to the Rio Grande and water. By then, they were reduced to carrying only their arms and the tattered remnants of their clothing. A Union officer, who followed their path sometime afterward, reported finding a trail of cast off parts of gun carriages, harnesses, camp equipment – and more than a few bleached human skeletons.

The statistics are staggering: Of the original 3,700 man force, the Texans lost over 1,700 men in the campaign, of which almost 500 were killed in the Battles of Valverde and Glorieta Pass. Most of the remaining 1,200 casualties were suffered on this terrible hundred-mile march through the desert. Barely 2,000 men survived the ordeal.

Sibley reached Fort Bliss in May, a disillusioned man, with the remnants of his force scattered on the trail for fifty miles behind him. His report to Richmond was to the effect that the New Mexico Territory had nothing to offer of military value and lacked sufficient resources to support a military occupation. The report was dated May 4.

Two weeks later, Sibley convened the 2,000 survivors, thanked them for their service and sacrifice and disbanded them before retreating on to San Antonio and the end of the golden dream of the Confederacy.

Today, the Battles of Valverde and Glorieta Pass are re-enacted to commemorate the momentous events of those tragic days. The story is beautifully told on YouTube and one can watch the battles unfold and end with that tragic march back to Texas.

Kerby, Robert L.; The Confederate Invasion of New Mexico and Arizona, 1861–1862; Westernlore Press, 1958, 1995 

Taylor, John; Bloody Valverde: A Civil War Battle on the Rio Grande, February 21, 1862; University of New Mexico Press, 1995

Thompson, Jerry D.; Civil War in the Southwest: Recollections of the Sibley Brigade; TAMU Press, 2001

Thompson, Jerry D.; Henry Hopkins Sibley: Confederate General of the West; Northwestern State University Press, 1987

Whitlock, Flint; Distant Bugles, Distant Drums: The Union Response to the Confederate Invasion of New Mexico; University Press of Colorado, 2006