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Civil War Era National Cemeteries: Honoring Those Who Served
Santa Fe, New Mexico
At the close of the Civil War, the Federal Government established a small cemetery to hold the remains of Union troops who died in the battles over Santa Fe. During the Civil War, the Confederacy made unsuccessful attempts to control what was then the territory of New Mexico. Seeking to disrupt the Union presence in the western territories and expand westward to the Pacific, Confederate forces succeeded in briefly capturing Santa Fe in March 1862. A series of short yet intense battles uprooted Confederate troops, who left the city in April. In 1875, the cemetery expanded and was officially dedicated as a national cemetery. Today, the 34-acre cemetery is the final resting place of Civil War veterans, a U.S. Secretary of War, and veterans from World Wars I and II, as well as from more recent conflicts.
The Confederate States of America, amidst the early battles of the Civil War, sought to expand its reach across the continent. In December 1861, Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley led a command from Texas north toward Santa Fe to claim the New Mexico territory. With an early victory over Union forces at Valverde, New Mexico, in February 1862, Sibley and his 2,300-men force occupied Santa Fe on March 16 without opposition.
Sibley turned his sights to Glorieta Pass, a strategic path along the Santa Fe Trail leading through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains roughly 16 miles from Santa Fe. Control over the pass would allow Confederate troops to access the high plains and attack Fort Union, 60 miles northeast of Santa Fe. Union forces encountered Sibley’s men at Apache Canyon near Glorieta on March 28, 1862. After a series of skirmishes, Confederate forces retreated to Santa Fe. Union troops destroyed the Confederate supply wagons, forcing Sibley to abandon Santa Fe and return defeated across the Texas border.
In 1870, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe donated a small parcel of land to the federal government to establish a cemetery. In 1875, the federal government purchased an adjoining two-acre tract from the archdiocese. The two parcels were joined and established as the Santa Fe National Cemetery on April 6, 1875.
Initially, the cemetery held only the remains of 265 Union soldiers who died in the Battle of Glorieta Pass and other military actions in New Mexico. Later, the government transferred the remains of soldiers from remote post cemeteries in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.
For a short period, between 1876 and 1892, the War Department downgraded the cemetery to a post cemetery for Santa Fe’s Fort Marcy. The government again conferred national cemetery status in 1892, and purchased an additional seven acres for expansion purposes. In 1953, the government acquired an additional 25 acres, bringing the cemetery to its current size of 34 acres.
Although of modern construction, the cemetery’s rostrum (speaking platform), committal shelter, maintenance building, and office are also in the Pueblo style. These buildings feature stucco exterior walls with rounded corners, and wooden bracket capitals and columns and vigas (roof beams visible on the building’s interior that in the case of the rostrum project through the exterior walls).
Santa Fe National Cemetery is the final resting place for Medal of Honor recipients, the nation’s highest military decoration, given for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Other notable interments include Charles Bent, the first American governor of the New Mexico territory; Patrick Hurley, former Secretary of War for President Hoover and ambassador to China; and Oliver LaFarge, the recipient of the 1930 Pulitzer Prize in Literature for the book Laughing Boy.
A few private headstones are in the cemetery. The most unique marker is a sandstone statue over the grave of Private Dennis O’Leary. O’Leary died on April 1, 1901, at the remote Fort Wingate in northwest New Mexico. Originally interred at the fort’s post cemetery, his remains and marker were transferred to Santa Fe National Cemetery in 1911. Local legend claims that the bored O’Leary carved the statue with the date of his death. On April 1, he committed suicide, leaving a note directing that the marker be placed over his grave. Military records contradict the story, citing tuberculosis as the cause of death, thus leaving the statue and the private’s death a mystery today.