Mountain Passes: Glorieta Pass

Somewhere back in time, probably when I was in college, I remember learning about La Glorieta, the mountain pass in which one of the few western battles of the US Civil War was fought. I used to think that the name Glorieta meant something like glory, and that’s one of the reasons I always remembered the name of the mountain pass.

Not so far back in time, when I began to travel through and then read about US mountain passes, I learned that in Spanish a glorieta is a town square, thus a hub or, as an online translator puts it, a roundabout. And way back in 1540, when Spanish conquistador and explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado first traveled through the pass and named it, he definitely named it appropriately, for Glorieta (it used to be called La Glorieta, but the La has been dropped in recent times) was a much-used roundabout traveled by Pueblo Indian tribes, Apaches, and others.

Coronado’s 1540 crossing of Glorieta is considered the first crossing of a Rocky Mountain pass by Europeans.

Mountain Range: Sangre de Cristo Mountains
Elevation: 7,500 feet
Location: Santa Fe County, New Mexico

Like all North American mountain passes, Glorieta was originally discovered and used by various Indian tribes. In this case it was used as the best passage of travel between the Pecos River Valley and the Rio Grande River Valley. Indians traveled through Glorieta in order to hunt, in order to trade, and in order to wage wars. Coronado traveled through it in order to explore the land north of Mexico, in order to find gold, and in order to impose military force on any peoples who lived in the land he was traveling through.

Although his expedition found no gold, it did encounter the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. On the way back to Mexico, Coronado and his expedition once again passed through Glorieta.

After the successful Mexican Revolution, North American territory that Spain had closed to residents of the United States was opened: citizens of Santa Fe (in Mexican territory) wanted US industrial goods. Thus in 1821 William Becknell blazed the Santa Fe Trail. In hauling goods from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, Becknell had to conquer the formidable Raton Pass. But he also traveled through Glorieta. If you study a map of the Santa Fe Trail, you can see that, in order to pass through the mountains, the trail goes south of Santa Fe and then hooks back northward. Glorieta Pass is part of that hook.

The Santa Fe Trail

In 1862, one year into the Civil War, former Army officer William Gilpin, Governor of the Colorado Territory, requested that the government send Union soldiers to help defend against Confederate troops which had captured Albuquerque and Santa Fe. These troops were led by Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley, who with his cavalry was seeking to capture Denver and its supply of gold, and also to conquer California and thus secure seaports for the Confederacy. (Union ships were blockading Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico ports.)

Gilpin was denied the troops he asked for, and so, convinced that he had to act on his own, he raised an impromptu rag-tag force made up of miners, muleskinners (mule-train drivers), bartenders, preachers, clerks, actors, and others. Gilpin’s force consisted of 1,342 people, most of whom had never fired a gun. The Colorado Volunteer Infantry was commanded by Col. John P. Slough and, under him, Maj. John Chivington.

Major John Chivington

As this force marched over Raton Pass on March 8, 1862, a rider from the town of La Glorieta arrived to tell them that Sibley’s 1,100 soldiers would soon march from Santa Fe to Fort Union (a US Army supply center north of Santa Fe). If Fort Union fell, the Confederacy would control the Rockies and Denver, the road to California, and California itself.

Much like the heroes of Yellow Mountain Gap, the heroes of the Battle of Glorieta Pass rose to the occasion, marching on the double through a blizzard that raged through Raton Pass. They reached Fort Union two days later, on March 10. Then they spent two weeks practicing how to shoot their weapons. The Colorado Volunteer Infantry was joined by detachments of the 1st and 3rd US Cavalry regiments, as well as parts of the 5th US Infantry.

On March 28 General Sibley’s Texan troops, armed with rifles, tomahawks, and bowie knives, moved through Glorieta Pass toward Fort Union. In the twenty-mile-long pass, they encountered Colonel Slough’s Union forces. The battle raged there, on the Santa Fe Trail, for several hours. When it was over, the outnumbered Union forces retreated — leaving the route to Fort Union wide open.

This appeared to be a crucial Confederate victory.  Except for one thing. Not all of the Colorado Infantry marched forth to encounter the Confederates. Earlier in the morning Slough had ordered Major Chivington, a Methodist Episcopal minister, to lead approximately 400 troops along another path, a sixteen-mile route through San Cristobal Canyon. 

Chivington asked Lt. Col. Manuel Chaves of the 2nd New Mexico Infantry (which was fighting for the Union) to guide his [Chivington’s] troops to the Confederate supply train. Chaves’ scouts found the supply train and reported back to Chaves, who led the regular Union soldiers and Colorado volunteers to a hill looking down on that spot: Johnson’s Ranch, on one end of Glorieta Pass.

From the top of that hill Chivington looked down on General Sibley’s entire supply train: 73 wagons loaded with ammunition, medical supplies, saddles, blankets, food, cooking utensils — everything an army of 1100 needed to wage war while traveling across vast territory. As the story goes, Chivington looked down at the supply train for a full hour, planning his attack.

Basically the attack consisted of the 400-plus regulars and volunteers rushing down the mountain side, screaming at the top of their lungs, and shooting as they attacked. In their wild charge they killed or scattered all the Confederate guards and teamsters. Rushing toward the single cannon, the Union forces quickly spiked it.

Glorieta Pass Battlefield

And then the Union forces spent four hours laying the Confederate camp to waste: setting the wagons on fire and throwing everything into that fire. It’s been estimated that Chivington’s troops destroyed more than half a million dollars worth of Confederate supplies. Everything that the Confederates required in order to conquer Fort Union and then Denver (and its gold supply) was gone. Up in smoke.

The Confederates of course realized this. They buried their dead soldiers in shallow trenches in Glorieta Pass and left their wounded soldiers to face what may come in Santa Fe as the able-bodied beat a quick retreat back to Texas, before they could be cut off by Union forces.

The Battle of Glorieta Pass — with a well-armed Confederate force against a combined force of regular Union soldiers and a bunch of poorly-armed Colorado irregulars —  secured New Mexico, Colorado, and California for the Union.

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Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Chilkoot Pass.