Administrative History
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historic photo of Fort Union
Figure 4. Officers' Quarters, Post of Fort Union, in the 1870s.
Courtesy of New Mexico Magazine

With the acquisition of New Mexico in 1848, the United States began to carry the entire burden of protecting traders and travelers on the Santa Fe Trail and in the Southwest. For two and a half centuries Apaches and Navajos had raided the Rio Grande settlements, at the same time that Kiowas and Comanches were disrupting travelers on the Plains. The Indians were defending their homelands from the encroachment of Europeans. The federal government countered these raids by sending better than 10% of the army to the area. By 1851 almost 1,300 soldiers were stationed at eleven outposts in the Territory of New Mexico. [16] The post of Santa Fe served as the headquarters of the Ninth Military Department.

Although the number of soldiers in New Mexico was relatively high, their performance did not please military commanders. Military expenditures were greatly increased, yet there appeared to be little progress toward stopping the Indian raids. Secretary of War Charles M. Conrad asked Lt. Col. Edwin V. Sumner to consolidate military posts in the territory and to move the troops "more toward the frontier, near the Indians." [17] As soon as he arrived in Santa Fe and assumed command of the Department of New Mexico, Sumner issued Orders No. 21 to remove "the troops and public property" to a new location named Fort Union. [18] In his zeal to carry out the order, Colonel Sumner managed to transfer most of the properties in the department headquarters at Santa Fe to the site of the new post within twenty days. [19] He also consolidated troops from Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Socorro, El Paso, and other posts and stationed them at the new fort. [20]

As a frontier post, Fort Union was strategically situated near the junction of the Mountain and Cimarron branches of the Santa Fe Trail. Noticing the activities of Sumner's entourage, Alexander Barclay offered to sell his fort to the army. But the military refused his offer and chose to build its own post six miles north of Barclay's fort. At that time none of the commanders or the soldiers knew this "free" site was private property within the borders of the Mora Grant. These unchallenged squatters immediately started building the fort. By the end of the first year, more than thirty buildings had been erected at the base of West Mesa. In 1852, under Sumner's Special Orders No. 30, Fort Union's territory expanded to eight square miles. [21]

As a key military post, Fort Union quickly became the guardian for American traders and travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. But by the mid-1850s, the Jicarilla Apaches stepped up their raiding of outlying settlements as well as caravans on the Santa Fe Trail, northeast of Fort Union. To combat their raids, Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke sent out a force of 200 dragoons and infantry to fight Indian war parties in 1854. Guided by New Mexico's legendary frontiersman, Christopher [Kit] Carson, the army pursued the Apaches into the rugged mountains in an attempt to subdue them. [22] Many of the Apaches who eluded Cooke's soldiers took refuge with the Utes in southern Colorado. A few months later they united and attacked white settlers, killing 15 men. In 1855 the U.S. Army launched another extensive campaign that led to the Ute War of 1855. More than 500 soldiers, reinforced by the First Dragoons from Fort Union, fought the united Indian tribes, which sued for peace after several devastating battles. [23] With this temporary peace, the army shifted its attention to the Plains, where the elusive Kiowas and Comanches had been plundering settlers and travelers. During 1860-1861, the soldiers from Fort Union pushed these Indian tribes out of the territory. Hence, in its first ten years, Fort Union played a significant role in protecting the new American highway, the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1861 when the Civil War broke out, the majority of officers at Fort Union were from the South. They resigned from the U.S. Army and joined the Confederacy. As soon as they assumed their new allegiance, the rebels marched back to New Mexico and tried to seize all Union posts and the Colorado mines. The Confederates' invasion threatened Union control of the fort. The Union soldiers began to busy themselves constructing a massive earthen "fieldwork," later called the Star Fort, which was a mile east of the first fort and was designed to block the Santa Fe Trail against Confederate advance from the south. [24] In early 1862 the Confederates forced Union troops to evacuate Santa Fe and to take a defensive position at the Star Fort. At this crucial moment, the first Colorado Volunteer regiment, led by Col. John P. Slough, arrived in New Mexico. Between the Unionists and the Confederates lay Glorieta Pass, a rugged opening through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where on March 28, 1862, the two armies fought the decisive battle of the Civil War in the far western theater. In three days Union troops had achieved a victory, and the Confederates retreated to Texas.

After the battle at Glorieta Pass, Fort Union received no further threat from the Confederates. The new commander of the Department of New Mexico, Brig. Gen. James H. Carleton, gave orders to build a new fort adjacent to the earthwork. The sprawling installation contained three parts: the Post, the Quartermaster Depot, and the Ordinance Depot. It took several hundred civilians five years, from 1863 to 1868, to complete construction. The new buildings at Fort Union were constructed of adobe brick, the walls standing on stone foundations and coated with plaster. The main structures had tin roofs, except the hospital, which was shingled. The military installation was the largest in New Mexico, and according to Inspector Andrew W. Evans, the most luxurious. [25]

In addition to normal military functions, the new fort, today called the Third Fort, became the army's supply center in New Mexico. In order to consolidate a number of the older forts in the region after the reunion, the army proposed to expand Fort Union into one of the largest posts in the West. The Fort Union Quartermaster Depot soon assumed the responsibilities of supplying other posts with nearly everything needed for their existence. As a British traveler observed in 1867, "Fort Union is a bustling place; it is the largest military establishment to be found on the Plains, and is the supply center" for "the forty or fifty lesser posts scattered all over the country within a radius of 500 miles...." [26]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001