Administrative History
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historic photo of Fort Union
Figure 5. Fort Union Depot served as the Army supply center for the Department of New Mexico.
The Mechanic's Corral, Fort Union Depot, in 1866.
Courtesy of the National Archives.

In the quarter-century after the Civil War, Americans conquered their last frontier by settling on the Great Plains. The greatest barrier to American settlement was the Plains Indians such as the Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, and Apaches, who had resisted white encroachment. To confine them to a designated area required intensive military campaigns. During that period, Fort Union participated in several large operations against the Indians: the Mescalero Scout of 1867, the Campaign of 1868, and the Red River War of 1874. As the largest military post west of the Mississippi during the period from 1865 to 1875, Fort Union helped the nation to subdue the Indian war parties.

In September 1867, a Mescalero Apache war party ran off 150 head of stock near Mora. With several dozen soldiers from the Third Cavalry, Capt. Francis H. Wilson immediately rode out of Fort Union in pursuit. On October 18, the soldiers finally caught up with the raiders in western Texas. After a three-hour battle in Dog Canyon, the army destroyed a winter camp of 400 Mescaleros and drove the warriors into the mountains. Fort Union played a memorable role in the Mescalero Scout, in which the raiders received a severe blow. [27]

Replacing the Mescaleros, the Plains Indians once more drew the attention of Fort Union from the east. In the fall of 1868, Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan decided to launch a winter campaign against the Kiowas and Comanches. He planned to have four columns converge on the winter campground of the Indians. Participating in this unprecedented military operation, Fort Union sent its troops down the Canadian River as a western thrust to encircle the Indians. Led by Maj. Andrew W. Evans, the New Mexico column engaged in several battles in western Texas and broke the resistance of the Plains tribes. Some Indians yielded to government demands and accepted the hated reservation system. [28]

Beginning in the early 1870s, some recovered Kiowas and Comanches joined by a few Cheyennes and Arapahos increased their raids on settlements on the northern frontier of Texas. General Sheridan decided to repeat his strategy by fighting the tribes from different directions. One of the five converging columns came from New Mexico. Under the command of Maj. William E. Price, three troops of the Eighth Cavalry left Fort Union on August 20, 1874, and scoured the valleys of the Canadian and Washita rivers. At the end of the year, the Red River War resulted in victory; the defeated tribes of the southern Plains never again posed a threat to settlers. [29]

In its forty years (1851-1891) as a frontier post, Fort Union often had to defend itself in the courtroom as well as on the battlefield. When the U.S. Army built Fort Union in the Mora Valley in 1851, the soldiers were unaware that they had encroached on private property, which was part of the Mora Grant. The following year Colonel Sumner expanded the fort to an area of eight square miles by claiming the site as a military reservation. In 1868 President Andrew Johnson went even further to declare a timber reservation encompassing the entire range of the Turkey Mountains and comprising an area of fifty-three square miles, as part of the fort. [30]

The claimants of the Mora Grant immediately challenged the government squatters and took the case to court. By the mid-1850s the case reached Congress. In the next two decades the government did not give any favorable decision to the claimants, until 1876 when the Surveyor-General of New Mexico reported that Fort Union was "no doubt" located in the Mora Grant. But the army was unwilling to move to another place or to compensate the claimants because of the cost. Thus, the Secretary of War took "a prudential measure," protesting the decision of the acting commissioner of the General Land Office. He argued that the military had improved the area and should not give it up without compensation. [31] This stalling tactic worked; the army stayed at the fort until its demise in 1891, not paying a single penny to legitimate owners.

The transcontinental railroad symbolized the conquest of the frontier. On Independence Day 1879, the first locomotive of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad steamed into Las Vegas. The railroad opened a new era in the Southwest by replacing the old Santa Fe Trail as the main artery of commerce. During the 1880s Fort Union lost its military importance and commercial usefulness due to the defeat of the Indians and the arrival of the railroad. The number of soldiers stationed at the fort declined significantly. The fort no longer had any great military value. Once the superintendent of Indian schools proposed to acquire the vacant arsenal buildings for the establishment of an Indian manual labor school. Certainly, the heyday of Fort Union had passed. [32] In 1890, with the census reports' symbolic closing of the frontier, the War Department decided to abandon many of the old frontier posts, including Fort Union. As a result, a year later Fort Union was officially closed.

As a military post to protect travel and settlement for 40 years, 1851 to 1891, Fort Union played a key role in shaping the destiny of the Southwest. During the first decade of its existence the fort stood as the guardian of the Santa Fe Trail. The fort acted as a federal presence in the Territory of New Mexico. The Civil War added to the fort's fame at the battle of Glorieta Pass, where Union soldiers stopped the invading Southern columns. In the quarter-century after the reunion, Fort Union contrived to help American settlers and devoted the rest of its life to the conquest of American frontier. As historian Robert Utley praised, "The ruins of Fort Union graphically commemorate the achievements of the men who won the West." [33]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2001