The Battle of Apache Canyon

March 26, 1862 – Detachments of the Federal and Confederate armies in the New Mexico Territory clashed east of Santa Fe.

Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, heading the Confederate Army of New Mexico, had established headquarters at Albuquerque after his troops captured that town and the territorial capital of Santa Fe. Toward the end of March, Sibley planned to destroy the Federal garrison at Fort Union, 60 miles northeast of Santa Fe. This would isolate the Federals at Fort Craig, 225 miles south of Fort Union, and accomplish the mission that President Jefferson Davis had assigned Sibley to drive “the Federal troops from that department, at the same time securing all the arms, supplies, and materials of war.”

Federal Colonel John P. Slough, commanding at Fort Union, planned to take his 1,400-man garrison out to attack Sibley. But Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, the overall Federal commander now at Fort Craig, sent orders stressing that “all other points are of no importance” besides Fort Union. Canby would lead his garrison out to join forces with Slough, but until then, “Do not move from Fort Union to meet me until I advise you of the route and point of junction.”

Slough, a politician with no military experience, interpreted Canby’s order to mean that he could go take on the Confederates as long as he covered Fort Union. Colonel Gabriel Paul, the second in command, a West Pointer and veteran of the Seminole and Mexican wars, argued that Canby wanted the Federals to stay put.

Paul was right, but Slough pulled rank and ordered the Federals to move out. Paul warned him, “With due deference to your superior judgment, I must insist that your plans… must inevitably result in disaster to us all.” Paul lodged an official protest, arguing that he “believed it in direct disobedience of the orders of Colonel Canby.” Slough ignored Paul, leaving him behind with “a feeble garrison and no suitable artillery for the defense of the principal and most important post in the Territory.”

The Federals marched out and camped at Loma on the night of the 22nd, where the soldiers spent the evening “carousing with the Mexican women and fighting with the Mexican men.” Three days later, Major Charles L. Pyron, heading one of Sibley’s three columns poised to close in on Fort Union, received word that a Federal force was approaching him on the Santa Fe Trail.

Pyron responded by leading his Confederates eastward out of Santa Fe to Johnson’s ranch (near present-day Canoncito), at the far end of La Glorieta Pass. The pass was located at the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about 20 miles southeast of Santa Fe, and was also known as Apache Canyon. The old Santa Fe Trail ran through this narrow, seven-mile-long pass.

Apache Canyon | Image Credit:
Apache Canyon | Image Credit:

By that time, Slough’s Federals had reached Bernal Springs. From there, Slough dispatched a 418-man raiding party from Major John M. Chivington’s 1st Colorado Volunteers to capture Santa Fe. Chivington set up camp at Kozlowski’s ranch, about five miles southeast of La Glorieta. Federal pickets captured several Confederate scouts and learned that Pyron’s force was nearby. This prompted Chivington to change his plans from capturing Santa Fe to attacking Pyron.

Early next morning, Pyron moved his Confederates into the western mouth of Apache Canyon, on the Santa Fe Trail, mainly to shelter them from the freezing winds. Meanwhile, Chivington, knowing Pyron’s position from the captured Confederates, entered the canyon to confront him.

Chivington’s troops captured a 30-man Confederate advance force around 2 p.m. as they reached the summit of the pass. A Federal scout hurried back to Slough’s main force shouting, “We’ve got them corralled this time! Give them hell, boys! Hurrah for Pike’s Peakers!” This prompted the troops to rush into Apache Canyon to take on the enemy.

The Coloradans attacked Pyron’s main force about a mile and a half west of Pigeon’s ranch, or six miles northeast of Johnson’s ranch. The Federal advance surprised Pyron, but he quickly deployed skirmishers to meet the threat. Confederate artillerists also unlimbered their two six-pound howitzers and began firing grapeshot.

The Confederate fire halted the Federals, many of whom had never been shot at before. But Chivington regrouped them and sent infantry columns up each side of the canyon. They were shielded by rocks, cottonwoods, and pines while the cavalry awaited the signal to charge. The advancing Federals caught the Confederates in a crossfire, prompting them to fall back.

Pyron withdrew about a mile and a half to a narrower section of the pass that could be better defended. As the Confederates fell back, they destroyed a bridge spanning a 15-foot arroyo. The Federals advanced nonetheless, with units working their way into the Confederate rear. Pyron adjusted his line to meet the threat, but another Federal unit soon enveloped his right flank.

The Federals enfiladed Pyron’s line, forcing him to fall back once more. As the withdrawal began, Chivington’s cavalry charged, leaping over the arroyo and sending the Confederates into a panic. They fled to a bend in the road, where they could hold off the Federals and prevent a complete rout. Chivington decided that they were too far to risk another attack and fell back to Kozlowski’s ranch.

The Federals sustained 27 casualties (19 killed, five wounded, and three missing), and the Confederates lost 125 (16 killed, 30 wounded, and 79 captured or missing). This small engagement marked the first Federal victory in the New Mexico Territory.

Pyron, having lost about a third of his command, sent a messenger to Lieutenant Colonel William R. Scurry’s column at Galisteo, about 16 miles south, urgently requesting reinforcements. Pyron then fell back to his original camp at the western mouth of Apache Canyon. Scurry immediately began heading Pyron’s way, scaling steep hills and arriving at Pyron’s camp around 3:30 a.m. on the 27th. This enlarged Confederate force awaited the next Federal attack.


References (multiple dates); Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 422-23; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 127; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17, 28-29; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 189

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