Following the engagement at Apache Canyon in the New Mexico Territory on the March 26, Lieutenant Colonel William R. Scurry’s Confederates from the 4th Texas arrived in the predawn hours of the 27th to reinforce Major Charles L. Pyron at Johnson’s Ranch. This combined force numbered about 1,100 men. Major John M. Chivington’s Federals from the 1st Colorado fell back closer to his supply base at Kozlowski’s Ranch.
Scurry, now the ranking commander, deployed a defense line across the Santa Fe Trail and awaited a renewed Federal advance that never came. Impatient for a fight, Scurry resolved to advance through La Glorieta Pass and confront the enemy. He left his 73 supply wagons at Johnson’s Ranch under a guard of 200 convalescing soldiers, teamsters, and cooks.
Meanwhile, Chivington’s 400 Coloradans and regulars had retired five miles east and their overall commander, Colonel John P. Slough, prepared to join them. Colonel Edward R.S. Canby, the overall Federal commander in the New Mexico Territory, had ordered Slough to remain at Fort Union, but Slough had violated the order by venturing out to confront the enemy.
Slough’s Federals reached Kozlowski’s Ranch around 2 a.m. on the 28th, where he joined forces with Chivington’s men. Resolving to attack the Confederates, Slough advanced on the Santa Fe Trail toward Pigeon’s Ranch around 8:30 a.m. He directed Chivington to lead his men south of the trail, where they were to scale the Glorieta Mesa, move around La Glorieta Pass, and attack the Confederates from the west. At the same time, Slough’s 900 remaining men would attack from the east. Slough arrived within a mile of Pigeon’s Ranch at 10:30 a.m. and stopped to rest. Confederate scouts looking down on Pigeon’s Ranch and Glorieta Canyon spotted Slough’s advance and informed Scurry. Slough sighted the Confederates within 800 yards, and fighting began around 11 a.m.
A Federal soldier called the battlefield “a terrible place for an engagement–a deep gorge, with a narrow wagon-track running along the bottom, the ground rising precipitously on each side.” The gorge prevented movement by either force. Federal artillery silenced the Confederate guns and helped repel five Confederate charges, killing or wounding all enemy field officers. The guns finally drove the Confederates back, but Texas sharpshooters repulsed a Federal countercharge. The outnumbered Federals slowly fell back, retreating to Pigeon’s Ranch around 5 p.m. and ending the engagement. Scurry later reported:
“Our brave soldiers, heedless of the storm, pressed on, determined if possible to take their battery. A heavy body of infantry, twice our number, interposed to save their guns. Here the conflict was terrible. Our men and officers, alike inspired with the unalterable determination to overcome every obstacle to the attainment of their object, dashed among them. The right and center had united on the left. The intrepid Ragnet and the cool, calm, courageous Pyron had pushed forward among the rocks until the muzzles of the guns of the opposing forces passed each other. Inch by inch was the ground disputed, until the artillery of the enemy had time to escape with a number of their wagons. The infantry also broke ranks and fled from the field.”
Scurry also withdrew, believing he had won a victory similar to that at Valverde in February. Both sides sustained high casualty percentages, with the Federals losing over 8 percent (31 killed, 50 wounded, and 30 missing out of 1,342 men) and the Confederates losing 11 percent (36 killed, 60 wounded, and 25 missing out of about 1,100). Both sides agreed to a truce to collect the dead and wounded. During this time, Scurry learned that Chivington’s men had attacked his wagon train at Johnson’s Ranch. The Coloradans destroyed all the wagons (which contained their food, clothing, and blankets), killed as many as 600 horses and mules, and took 17 prisoners. The cold, hungry Confederates had to sleep without shelter under a snowfall that night.
Without supplies, Scurry had “to gain Santa Fe by attacking the pass at the risk of our lives.” The Confederates advanced toward Apache Canyon, expecting to find the Federals blocking their path. But they were not, so Scurry continued on and returned to Santa Fe on the 30th. He submitted a report to Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, commanding the Confederate Army of New Mexico, proclaiming victory at La Glorieta and downplaying the loss of his supply train. Sibley, headquartered at Albuquerque, read that “another victory was added to the long list of Confederate triumphs.”
But the destruction of the supply train wiped out that list of Confederate triumphs. Not only was Scurry forced to return to Santa Fe, but Sibley had to abort his mission to conquer the territory. With no supplies in the unforgiving desert, Sibley’s helpless Confederates, now living off cornmeal only, had to return to Texas or starve. The engagement at La Glorieta Pass marked a major turning point in the New Mexico campaign and was later called the “Gettysburg of the West.”
Meanwhile, Slough was in trouble of his own. Having disobeyed Canby’s order not to leave Fort Union, his official report referred to the engagement at La Glorieta as merely a “reconnaissance.” He also bypassed the chain of command by submitting his report directly to Washington since Canby was allegedly “beyond the line of the enemy” at Fort Craig. Slough asserted that he had left Fort Union intent on “annoying and harassing the enemy,” not giving battle. He also stated that he had acted “under orders from Colonel Canby, commanding department.”
Canby was infuriated when he read the report on the engagement at Apache Canyon, having not yet even receiving word about the fight at La Glorieta. Canby resolved to lead his 1,100 Federals out of Fort Craig and march on Albuquerque, 100 miles north.
As Slough’s Federals returned to Fort Union, residents of Santa Fe tended to Federal prisoners and Confederate wounded. The residents included the wife of Colonel Canby, who treated the Confederates with such kindness that they took out an ad in the local Gazette thanking her and other ladies “for the delicate kindness which has been shown to many of us in suffering and sickness, and the attention and courtesy which has been extended to all.” A Texan noted that Mrs. Canby “captured more hearts of Confederate soldiers than the old general (Canby) ever captured Confederate bodies.”
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