Exactly 100 years ago the last soldiers who garrisoned Fort Union marched away never to return, ending the active history of what had once been the largest military establishment in the American Southwest. Established in 1851, its name reflected the times, for the North and South of the United States had nearly split the previous year and would divide a decade later. Troops from the post were destined to perform a significant part in that Civil War. But the name Fort Union also signified that it was situated at a point where it might help unite the American Southwest to the larger nation. In many ways the Santa Fe Trail was the thread which connected much of the Mexican Cession of 1848 to the rest of the states, and Fort Union was the knot on that thread by which the Southwest was tied to the larger nation. Along that trail and through Fort Union and the army which it represented, Anglo-American culture penetrated the Hispanic and Indian cultures of the region. The army at Fort Union and in the Southwest also demonstrate how important the role of the federal government was in the settlement of the American West.
What began as a small outpost in 1851 near the Santa Fe Trail, during a major economy move in the nation's history, was briefly the central point of supply for several military posts spread over a vast territory. Its garrison participated in a few Indian campaigns in the 1850s, helping to make the region safer for travelers and settlers. But there were few Indian troubles in the immediate vicinity of the post. Several times military commanders recommended that Fort Union be moved to a better location or that it be abandoned entirely, and plans were well underway to terminate the post and establish another in eastern New Mexico when the Civil War intervened and gave Fort Union an expanded mission. A second fort, a defensive fieldwork, was built approximately one mile from the original post early in the war in anticipation of a Confederate attempt to seize the position and its large supply of ordnance, commissary, and quartermaster stores. More than 1,500 troops, mostly volunteers from Colorado and New Mexico, were concentrated at this strategic point in preparation for a Rebel attack. After the Confederates captured Santa Fe in 1862, a large force from Fort Union moved out to engage the invaders before they could reach the post and forced the Confederates to fall back and, later, to depart from New Mexico. Although the Civil War battles in New Mexico are little-known outside the Southwest today, they were the turning point of the war in the Far West and Southwest, an important factor in the eventual failure of the Confederate States of America.
Before the Civil War was over, a third Fort Union was under construction near the fieldwork. There, in addition to a four-company (later six-company) post, was built a large quartermaster and commissary depot for the military district of New Mexico, and the site of the original fort served as the district arsenal. From the Civil War until the construction of the railroad, which reached the neighboring town of Watrous in 1879, Fort Union was the major distribution point for the needs of the army throughout New Mexico, and troops from its garrison participated in several campaigns to defeat the Indians and hold them on assigned reservations. Indian prisoners were held at the post, and a military prison housed convicts from the territory, many of whom were periodically transferred to the larger military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. By the 1880s the post had fulfilled the purposes for which it was built, but it was occupied until the spring of 1891. The numerous structures of the post were already in various states of decay, and they deteriorated at an increased pace after the site was abandoned.
Throughout its 40 years of active service, 1851-1891, Fort Union had been the scene of cultural exchange and development between three peoples, and thousands of individuals, including some famous, a few infamous, and a host of the unknown masses, from all three groups had passed through or near the post. The army had helped defeat the Indians and then helped to assure their survival on the reservations. The economic impact of the army at Fort Union and in New Mexico was of most benefit to Anglo-Americans, but Hispanos and Pueblo Indians also were affected. Throughout the years that Fort Union was an active post, the army was the most important component in the economic advancement of the Southwest. Although most contracts for supplies for the department were with Anglos, some were with Hispanos, and laborers, teamsters, and herders were hired from all segments of the complex New Mexican society. In most cases guides and spies were native New Mexicans, Indian and Hispano, and Indians from several Pueblos and from the less settled tribes, such as Utes, Navajos, and Apaches, served as scouts and, sometimes, auxiliaries in campaigns against tribesmen considered hostile. In all, the army and Fort Union, for good or ill, affected political, cultural, social, economic, and military history of the Southwest. Throughout the era, the frontier army was a prominent feature of western society.
The site of the old post reverted to the owners of the property from whom it had been leased, and the adobe remains of the once bustling complex eroded away under the forces of wind, rain, hail, snow, and the freezing and thawing of the seasons. Cattle grazed where soldiers had marched and wagons had rolled with cargoes which sustained them, and livestock wandered through the tumbling buildings. Ranchers and other settlers salvaged some of the materials, such as the metal roofing and timbers, leaving the remains exposed to greater deterioration. In time there remained a stark and eerie monument of what had been, mere traces of the frontier outpost that served its purposes and faded into the past like the romanticized era of the Old West.
By the 1930s some people were aware that the historic site was an important part of the heritage of the region and the nation, and efforts were begun to preserve what remained. Eventually enough interest developed and the site became a national landmark, the owners graciously contributed the land, and Congress established Fort Union National Monument under jurisdiction of the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. In 1954 the national monument was opened to the public, and each year more visitors enjoy this unique and impressive landmark and interpretive museum. Many wish to know more about the now remote location where history happened. This historic resources study, commissioned by the National Park Service, tells the story of Fort Union and the frontier army in the Southwest.
Leo E. Oliva
Last Updated: 09-Jul-2005