The First Fort Union
By 1851 nearly 1,300 soldiers served in the New Mexico Territory. They were scattered throughout eleven small outposts, with the headquarters at Fort Marcy in Santa Fe. Unhappy with the performance of troops in New Mexico, Secretary of War C.M. Conrad, commanded Lt. Col. Edwin V. Sumner, 1st. Dragoons, to take control of the territory and "revise the whole system of defense." Conrad thought that "both economy and efficiency of the service would be promoted by removing the troops out of the towns...and stationing them more toward the frontier." Sumner's first action was to relocate the department headquarters and the main supply depot from Santa Fe, "that sink of vice and extravagance," to a location on the eastern frontier. The chosen site was strategically situated near the junction of the Mountain and Cimarron Branches of the Santa Fe Trail.
Usually, civilians employed by the Quartermaster Department built frontier posts, but Sumner discharged these men and assigned the work to his soldiers. The result was what one might expect from unskilled laborers. Assistant Surgeon Jonathon Letterman commented on the conditions in October 1856:
Did You Know?
In 1883 the Fort Union Dramatic Club, aided by the Twenty-Third Infantry band stationed at the post, performed in a two-night variety show in Las Vegas to raise funds for a post school. Tickets cost 75 cents for reserved seating and 50 cents for general admission.