Courtesy of the State Records Center and Archives.
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By Shirley Cushing Flint and Richard Flint
The remains of the three Fort Unions, now a National Monument, are located along Wolf Creek at an elevation of 6,700' and only eight miles northwest of the village of Watrous in northeastern New Mexico. The Turkey Mountains to the east supplied the forts with much needed firewood and lumber. Mesas and the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Rocky Mountains provide a western backdrop to an otherwise open valley and the beginning of the Great Plains.
Why the United States government chose to establish a military presence in this remote corner of New Mexico is the story of America's “Manifest Destiny; reach the Pacific Ocean and control the vast territory between its coasts.
With the American annexation of nearly half of Mexico's territory during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, the conflicts between American troops and its new "citizens" of both the Mexican and Native American cultures caused great concern for the government in Washington. In 1846 Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny led his troops along the Santa Fe Trail from Fort Leavenworth, over Raton Pass and into Las Vegas, New Mexico. He famously declared that this part of the world now belonged to the United States and that all residents were declared American citizens. He pledged to maintain law and order and established the first of many forts in Santa Fe.
However, all conflicts did not immediately cease. In 1847 Hispano rebels and Pueblo Indians attacked and killed Governor Charles Bent in his Taos home. Although Bent was a long-time resident of New Mexico and had commercial and personal ties with both Hispano and Native Americans, much of the anti-American wrath fell on him. Armed conflicts against Anglo-Americans spread across the mountains to Mora before the Army gained the upper hand.
With New Mexico declared a territory in 1850 and most Hispano unrest quelled, the Army turned its attention to conflicts with Native Americans. Large land grants had been awarded in the final years of Mexican Governor Manuel Armijo's term of office. Of these, many were adjudicated and recognized by the United States. Thousands of acres in eastern New Mexico, formerly open range, was now fenced private property. Many of these new landowners saw in this expansive grassland, an opportunity to make money on cattle contracts with the U.S government. Jicarilla Apache and Moache Ute tribes were being closed out of their traditional hunting grounds but they refused to acknowledge this change of ownership. Attacks against cattle herds, sheepherders, and settlers east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains were perpetrated by many of the tribes who had historically used the Great Plains for hunting.
Ranchers and businessmen called for protection from the Army and Lucien Maxwell, one of the area's largest land holders, offered to house a regiment of dragoons at his house in Rayado, thus establishing a post in 1850. The Post at Las Vegas was built to deal with Jicarilla Apache raids against Hispano settlements and travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. However, it became painfully clear that billeting troops in towns was neither good for the troops or for Army-Civilian relationships. The Army decided that a military fort and supply depot should be established within the Apache conflict zone, outside of any town, but close to supply lines and civilian workers; Fort Union was established in 1851. Its main mission would be to protect the Santa Fe Trail and settlers from attacks from Indian depravations.
Troop strength understandably varied throughout Fort Union’s history. The average yearly number of stationed troops was approximately 250. However, for most of its active life, Fort Union had fewer men, with the highest numbers occurred during the Civil War when it reached a yearly average of 704 in 1861, with 1864 and 1865 not far behind. The lowest yearly average was 99 in 1881 and only 45 when it closed in 1891. Hispanos, Blacks and Anglos were all stationed at Fort Union at one time or another. Many of the Anglos were foreign-born and some were non-English speaking. The famous Ninth Cavalry or "Buffalo Soldiers" were stationed here between 1876-1881. Many of the volunteer units were composed of the native sons of New Mexico and commanded by distinguished Hispano leaders.
Lt. Colonel Edwin Sumner, commander of the Ninth Military Department, established the first Ft. Union in 1851 near the junction of the Mountain Route and Cimarron Cutoff of the Santa Fe Trail. The fort was built on land leased from grantees of the John Scolly Land Grant and later from Alexander Barclay. The location had a good water supply and was near enough to settlements that could provide additional supplies and labor. From this location soldiers could be sent out in three directions to protect settlers, commerce and other posts from Indian attacks. By August 2, 1851 Lt. Colonel Sumner transferred his headquarters, the quartermaster, commissary, and ordnance depots from Santa Fe to Ft. Union and closed the posts at Las Vegas and Rayado.
Soldiers were put to work building storehouses and officer and troop quarters, using timber that was at hand. With so little building skill available among the troops, the buildings were of a temporary nature. As Katie Bowen, the commissary officer's wife, reported that the rooms were “very tidy and comfortable" but that mice could not be kept out and that her mud roof leaked during rainstorms and dirt continued to drift down onto her belongings. Eventually the living quarters received clapboard gable roofs.
By June 1852 two company barracks each 140 feet long and 18 feet wide were completed, along with two wings of 50 feet by 16 feet. The first fort was arranged around a central parade ground with flagstaff. Officer’s quarters were to the west and formed a second square. The hospital, ordnance depot, sutler and laundry were north of the barracks and the stable, quartermaster and commissary stores and bakery were to the south. The corral and shops were situated at some distance to the east. Given the shoddiness of construction, the first fort was in constant need of repair, often threatening to collapse, and yet remained in use until the Civil War.
During this conflict it was determined that Fort Union's location at the foot of the valley's western bluffs was indefensible. The fort was ordered moved about one mile to the east: "The leaders of both sides understood that Fort Union and its supplies held the key to the fate of the territory." By late August 1861 construction of the square-bastioned, defensive fortification surrounded by earthworks and a ditch was completed, a mere month after Major Lynde surrendered Fort Fillmore to the Confederates. Again, the second fort, often called the Star Fort due to its configuration, was hastily constructed by unskilled soldiers, so that by June 1862 Colonel Canby suspended further building efforts there.
A four-day engagement between Union and Confederate troops, called the Battle of Glorieta Pass, ended with the Confederates withdrawing from New Mexico and by September of 1862 work was begun on the third and final Fort Union. At this time the Arsenal, a separate entity from the fort, remained at the location of the First Fort under the command of Captain William Shoemaker. The supply depot and military post also separate entities were located side by side just east of the Star Fort. New Fort Union was built in the Territorial Style with brick cornices on adobe walls, tin shed roofs, and long portals. It consisted of eight officer's quarters, commanding officer's quarters, two infantry and two cavalry barracks, two corrals with outbuildings, stables, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, wheelwright shop, six laundresses quarters, guardhouse, jail, library, various storerooms and a hospital. At the same time, work on the Depot commenced, matching the layout of the Post.
During the building of the Depot and Post, civilian workers from the neighboring villages were hired, dramatically impacting the local economy. Many teamsters and day laborers were on the government payroll and large amounts of supplies were purchased through middlemen located in Watrous and Las Vegas. The middlemen, in turn, bought supplies from local growers. Much needed cash was infused into a formerly subsistence and barter economy.
The mission of Fort Union continued to be the protection of supply lines but as the years mounted, protection was extended to the railroad and stage lines as traffic on the old Santa Fe Trail dwindled. Soldiers from Fort Union dealt with Indian raids, cattle rustling, train robberies and land title disputes over the course of their stay.
By 1878 there was talk of closing down Fort Union. The cavalry was transferred out in 1881 and the stables torn down for construction at Ft. Bliss. Santa Fe Trail traffic ended with the railroad arriving near Santa Fe in 1880. With its mission on the planes all but complete, Fort Union's depot and arsenal were phased out, leaving only the post to house soldiers not needed elsewhere. Finally on May 15, 1891, Fort Union was officially abandoned, the Post Hospital having closed in April and the remaining troops distributed to Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and Forts Stanton and Wingate in New Mexico. Because the fort was not on public lands it reverted to its owners, the Union Land and Grazing Company in 1894. Retired General Benjamin Butler had purchased the land surrounding Fort Union to graze cattle and with the troops re-deployed he occupied the entire site. The Quartermaster department had a custodian there until April 1, 1894, after which everything was handed over to Butler. Much of the building material was sold or stolen and nature took its toll on the unprotected adobe structures.
Public pressure to protect what remained of all the Fort Unions was finally realized after nearly thirty years of negotiation between public and private interests. The result was the creation of a National Monument of 720 acres on April 4, 1956.
It is the remains of the last fort that today comprise much of what is protected at Fort Union National Monument. Built of adobe on stone foundations, the remnant chimneys stand out against the blue New Mexico sky. One can walk the trails between the officers' quarters, the jail, laundry, company quarters and hospital and envision the many men, women and children who populated this fort during its 40 year life.
Emmett, Chris. Fort Union and the Winning of the Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
Flint, Richard and Shirley Cushing Flint. "Fort Union and the Economy of Northern New Mexico, 1860-1868." New Mexico Historical Review, 77:1 (Winter 2002), 27-55.
Oliva, Leo E. Fort Union and the Frontier Army in the Southwest. Southwest Cultural Resources Center, Professional Papers No. 41. Santa Fe: Division of History, National Park Service, 1993.
Zhu, Liping. Fort Union National Monument: An Administrative History. Southwest Cultural Resources Center, Professional Papers No. 42. Santa Fe: Division of History, National Park Service, 1992.
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