National Guard April 2012 : Page 84
G UARD R OOTS : T HE C IVIL W AR Gettysburg of the West By Maj. Adam Morgan A bold raid by Colorado militiamen turned a battle in New Mexico and ended Confederate designs to take the fight all the way to the Pacific 84 LL WAS NOT quiet on the nation’s western front in the middle of the 19th century. While America braced for a civil war, frontiersmen traveling west carried with them their political leanings for either the North or the South. As both political bands began to form, President James Buchanan, in one his ﬁnal acts before leaving office in 1861, declared Colorado a U.S. territory in an attempt to maintain Union control of the area. That same year, President Abraham Lincoln appoint-A | Na tional Guard
Gettysburg Of The West
Maj. Adam Morgan
A bold raid by Colorado militiamen turned a battle in New Mexico and ended Confederate designs to take the fight all the way to the Pacific<br /> <br /> ALL WAS NOT quiet on the nation’s western front in the middle of the 19th century.<br /> <br /> While America braced for a civil war, frontiersmen traveling west carried with them their political leanings for either the North or the South.<br /> <br /> As both political bands began to form, President James Buchanan, in one his final acts before leaving office in 1861, declared Colorado a U.S. territory in an attempt to maintain Union control of the area.<br /> <br /> That same year, President Abraham Lincoln appointed his personal friend, William Gilpin, as the governor of the new U.S. possession.<br /> <br /> The new commander in chief could not know it at the time, but the decision turned out to be an important step in winning the war that would define his presidency.<br /> <br /> In 1858, settlers discovered gold and silver in the Rocky Mountains. The prospect of instant wealth lured eastern Americans westward to capitalize. The attention that the gold put on the mountain range led to the discovery of coal and other minerals abundant in the state, and soon there was a huge migration.<br /> <br /> Miners from Georgia and Pennsylvania, many sporting the famous “Pikes Peak or Bust” slogan on their wagons, headed to the territory. Others continued west after coming from as far north as Maine to Kansas in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, a governmental experiment in which popular sovereignty would decide the fate of slavery at statehood.<br /> <br /> Still others came to sell mining tools, booze and prostitutes to prospectors and miners. Everyone undoubtedly understood the urgency of the situation brewing in the country, and the Colorado Territory was Union in name only. It was severely divided between Unionists and Secessionists.<br /> <br /> This was evident when the first two militia units were formed in1860. One had sympathies with the South; the other leaned to the North.<br /> <br /> When a citizen raised the Confederate colors over a Denver business, the enraged response was a well-aimed mountain howitzer threatening the man and the business. The offending flag was quickly lowered.<br /> <br /> When Gilpin arrived in Denver, he immediately sensed trouble. Lincoln knew the political division within the territory and urged him to secure Colorado for the Union.<br /> <br /> As rumors of an invasion from the South grew, Gilpin organized the purchase and donation of all the guns in Denver in order to arm a Union force and leave nothing in the way of arms for underground Confederates.<br /> <br /> Gilpin issued unsigned and unauthorized drafts on the U. S. Treasury, claiming the government would make good on the payment. This wasn’t true, however, and Lincoln was forced to remove Gilpin in March 1862, but not before his quick organization of a military proved a prudent course of action.<br /> <br /> A WESTERN FRONT <br /> <br /> When the cannons boomed at Fort Sumter, S.C., signaling the start of the Civil War in April 1861, it became increasingly dangerous to publicly declare one’s political leaning.<br /> <br /> It was, however, generally known or assumed who was Secessionist and who was not. It wasn’t uncommon to meet in secret, and Confederate officers formerly in the service of the Union knew who was on their side at their former stations.<br /> <br /> One such officer, Henry Hopkins Sibley, inventor of the Sibley stove and Sibley tent used by the Union, devised a brilliant scheme that would eventually invite cooperation from other Southern sympathizers. When he proposed the plan to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Sibley was immediately promoted to brigadier general and ordered to execute the plan.<br /> <br /> Sibley saw a way for the Confederacy to dominate the western portion of the continent. Texas Confederates would march through New Mexico and the Colorado and Dakota Territories, establishing a western front.<br /> <br /> The coal, gold and mineral reserves nestled beneath the Rockies would then finance a march eastward to flank Union forces and link up with Confederate forces in Virginia. Not to mention the lucrative opportunities available to slave-owners if that institution were brought out west.<br /> <br /> Control of the west coast would pique the military interest of Europe and perhaps Asia, while establishing trade with the countries of those continents. This would increase the legitimacy of the Confederate cause, Sibley reasoned.<br /> <br /> In February 1862, Sibley’s brigade planned to travel up the west bank of the Rio Grande, where many Union forts were aligned.<br /> <br /> His idea was to pack light and resupply at each captured fort along the way. Speed was paramount to gain the most ground before the Union could discover his intent. Sibley Had spent a significant portion of his career at posts along the Rio Grande and at Fort Union, and knew the area well.<br /> <br /> As rumors of this Confederate invasion migrated north, a Union colonel name Edward Canby appealed to Gilpin to gather all the soldiers and arms possible and send them south to assist in repelling the invaders.<br /> <br /> In one of his last acts as governor, Gilpin commissioned John Potts Slough, a lawyer, as a colonel and asked him to raise the First Colorado Volunteer Infantry.<br /> <br /> Slough offered a notable Denver Methodist minister a commission to serve as the regimental chaplain, but the minister refused, insisting upon a “fighting commission.” John Milton Chivington attained the rank of major for the Coloradoans.<br /> <br /> Sibley, meanwhile, failed to take the decisive and immediate action required for his plan to work, which allowed reports of the Texans’ northward movement to reach Denver. Slough and the unproven First Colorado were ordered from newly formed Camp Weld in south Denver to Fort Union, N.M. <br /> <br /> Marching southward through the Colorado countryside, the “Pikes Peakers” covered an average of 40 miles per day in near-blizzard conditions and reached Fort Union several days before Sibley’s Texans.<br /> <br /> Slough sent Chivington with three companies of foot soldiers and one mounted company—nearly 180 men— on a reconnaissance mission targeting Sibley’s advancing men.<br /> <br /> While camped for the night near La Glorieta Pass, N.M., a security detachment from the mounted company captured a contingent of Sibley’s scouts, who provided information on the whereabouts and intentions of the rebel force.<br /> <br /> Over the next three days, March 26 to 28, several Colorado units and individuals distinguished themselves.<br /> <br /> On March 26, the First Colorado and the Confederate force met at Apache Canyon on the west side of the huge mesa.<br /> <br /> A few companies of sharpshooters took to the high ground offered by Apache Canyon, and, after hundreds of well-aimed shots and a well-timed cavalry charge led by Capt. Samuel Cook and Company F, the counterattacking Rebels retreated. The day ended with the Coloradoans holding the field.<br /> <br /> After a day of consolidation and reorganization on both sides, the First Colorado executed a “bend but not break” defensive action, in which the Colorado soldiers ceded most of the field to the Texans over the course of an entire hard day’s fight.<br /> <br /> Under the brilliant leadership of Confederate Col. William R. Scurry, the Confederates out maneuvered the Coloradoans in the Battle of Pigeon’s Ranch in the heart of Glorieta Pass. Scurry quickly counteracted an aggressive and risky double envelopment attempt on the part of the Union, and was able to gain momentum and gradually push back Slough’s forces.<br /> <br /> Less than half a mile of the pass was contested over the course of the entire day, and the fighting at Pigeon’s Ranch ended with the Texans holding the key terrain and most of the contested field.<br /> <br /> The battle had seen flanking movements, hills taken and retaken, cavalry charges, artillery barrages and close hand-to-hand combat.<br /> <br /> But it was the Methodist preacher who had been given a fighting commission whose actions would prove decisive.<br /> <br /> Chivington, with the help of New Mexico’s Lt. Col. Manuel Chavez, led a 400-man column through the steep and rocky terrain and surprised the Texas supply train, destroyed it and freed several Union prisoners, while capturing several Confederates.<br /> <br /> Fortunately for Chivington’s forces, a local priest happened to encounter their column as darkness fell. He knew the trail system well enough to lead them back to the Union camp without incident.<br /> <br /> Ironically, Scurry’s forces were very close to delivering the same fate to the Union, and it was only the quick independent actions of the logistical commander combined with infantry support that saw the Union supply train maneuver to a secure location.<br /> <br /> In the meantime, Scurry received news of his logistical misfortune just as his tactical victory was concluding. He was forced to order his victorious soldiers to prepare for withdrawal.<br /> <br /> The bold raid led by a preacher turned out to be the decisive blow. The Texans were forced on a long, disastrous journey back to Texas, facing starvation the entire way.Forced to devour their mules for subsistence, they resorted to burying their cannons and unnecessary supplies rather than burdening themselves when the mules were gone.<br /> <br /> Though no Confederate campaign would ever again surface in the West, the Coloradoans and Union forces in the area remained on their guard until the completion of the Civil War in April 1865.<br /> <br /> Over the course of the three-day fight, 49 Colorado militiamen were killed, and remain to this day in unmarked graves near where they perished 150 years ago. The same number of Texans were killed in the skirmish, though most of their remains were reinterred in 1991 when they were discovered during a home-remodeling project in Pecos, N.M. <br /> <br /> The 49 Coloradoans who died in this battle 150 years ago, plus three who perished at Valverde, N.M. a month earlier, were the first Colorado Guardsmen to give their lives in defense of the nation. Their sacrifice helped end any Confederate threat in the West.<br /> <br /> This was the first hostile engagement of the First Colorado Volunteer Infantry and had implications for the entire war. It is often called the Gettysburg of the West because, like the famous battle in Pennsylvania the following year, it stopped for good a Rebel advance.<br /> <br /> PREVENTING AN EAST-WEST WAR <br /> <br /> In fact, according to the 1993 congressionally appointed Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, the battle had as much or more impact on the result of the Civil War as the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam.<br /> <br /> A Confederate victory could have transformed the conflict into an East-West battle and the outcome may have been different.<br /> <br /> This important turning point in our country’s history will be further memorialized this year. The National Guard Bureau has commissioned artist Domenick D’Andrea to render the battle in Apache Canyon as a Heritage Series painting.<br /> <br /> Maj. Adam Morgan is the historian for the Colorado National Guard. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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