Fort Union Arsenal

cluster of about 16 large buildings in broad, grassy valley
The Fort Union Arsenal in 1882. The Fort Union military post is about a mile away, the cluster of buildings toward the top of the photo.

Fort Union National Monument

 
Captain William Shoemaker standing, wearing open frock coat and vest.
Captain William Shoemaker, longtime commander of the Fort Union Arsenal.

New Mexico Highlands University--Arrott Collection

The Fort Union Arsenal was a critical part of the military establishment in New Mexico. As the hub of army operations in the Southwest, weapons, ammunition and gunpowder flowed through the arsenal to dozens of surrounding forts. The 1850s and 1860s were an era of rapidly advancing weapons technology, and the Fort Union Arsenal was often a test site for new technology.

The arsenal was very much the work of Captain William Shoemaker. When Fort Union first opened in 1851, Shoemaker disliked the site, claiming it was too remote to serve as a centralized supply base. Over time, Shoemaker changed his tune. He served his remaining 31 years of military service as commander of the Fort Union Arsenal, and retired as the unofficial caretaker of the closed arsenal while residing in his longtime house at the arsenal.

New Firearms

In the early 1850s, Christian Sharps pioneered a new firearms technology in his Connecticut factory. His breech-loading rifle was much faster to load than the traditional muzzle-loading musket. The muzzle-loader required a time-consuming drill involving manipulation of the cumbersome ramrod. The breech-loader did away with the ramrod and could be loaded quickly at the breech (just above the trigger). At the time, the only active Army action was in the western United States, where the army had begun its campaigns against the American Indians.

So the new weapons were sent to Fort Union for testing. The troops liked them, and a small number of the new weapons were shipped to the dragoons at Fort Union. (The dragoons were precursors of the cavalry). Even though the dragoons favored the Sharps, when the Civil War erupted a few years later, the Army continued to order the slow, cumbersome muzzle-loaders.

Civil War Years

As Civil War approached, divided sympathies reached all the way to New Mexico. Some of the top-ranking Army officers serving in New Mexico showed faltering loyalty to the North (and ultimately defected to the Confederacy). Shoemaker, a Pennsylvanian by birth, was outspoken in his defense of the Union. "Captain Shoemaker stood forward and denounced [Col. William] Loring and his coadjutors as traitors, and told them he would never surrender his arsenal, that he would defend it to the last extremity and then blow it up," wrote Major A.J. Alexander, former Fort Union commander.

When the Confederates invaded New Mexico from Texas, they were aiming for the arsenal and its large supply of armaments. An 1862 inspection report of the arsenal listed 21 cannon of various calibers, some 5,600 rounds of artillery ammunition, almost 7,100 small arms (muskets, rifles and revolvers), and 2.8 million small arms cartridges.

The Union repulsed the Confederate invasion, and the army decided to rebuild Fort Union.
 
line drawing identifying different buildings at fort union arsenal
A diagram showing the different buildings at the Fort Union Arsenal.

Fort Union National Monument

Arming the Southwest


Even though the military post was moving, Shoemaker kept the arsenal at its original location. Shoemaker had closely supervised the construction of the arsenal buildings, and unlike many of the fort structures, they were sound and the roofs did not leak. Shoemaker even had a duck pond at his residence.

Shoemaker ran a tight ship. He worked steadily over the years to improve the quality of the arsenal buildings. The arsenal was laid out so that visitors approaching the entrance through the east wall arrived at Shoemaker's quarters and office, giving him control over access to the site.

The arsenal employed a relatively small number of workers (20 or so), but they were highly skilled. It was difficult for Shoemaker to find the necessary skills locally, so he often imported skilled workers from the eastern United States. The arsenal was not a manufacturing facility. Weapons, gunpowder and projectiles were manufactured at factories in the States. But the arsenal made repairs to weapons, packaged the gunpowder into ammunition and made repairs to tack and other leather gear for the horses.

Even though the garrison at Fort Union was often modest, numbering only a few dozen soldiers in some months, the supply of armaments at the arsenal was enormous. The arsenal was a major supplier of weapons and ammunition for campaigns against the Navajos (1863-1864), Comanches and Kiowas (1868-1875), and the Apaches in southern New Mexico and Arizona (1876 -1882).

Final Years


The arrival of the railroad in 1879 revolutionized logistics for the army, and greatly eased the movement of heavy weapons and ammunition. The Fort Union Arsenal, no longer an essential distribution center, closed in 1882. But Shoemaker couldn't bear to leave. The army agreed to let him stay on at his arsenal residence and duck pond while looking after the old arsenal buildings.

After many years in the area, Shoemaker had become a well-known personality, recognized for his love of hunting and horses. He and his wife lived with seven children at Fort Union, marrying off two of them in ceremonies at the fort. His son Edward served with the Union Army at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

Genevieve La Tourette, daughter of a Fort Union chaplain, remembered Shoemaker in his later years: "He was constantly in the saddle, a wonderful horseman, even though in his 80s. [He was actually in his 70s.] His ecccentricity, perhaps, was due to his extreme deafness, which was a great detriment, yet he could not be persuaded to use remedies. Rather [he] preferred to have the ladies put their arms around his neck in order to make him hear..."

When Shoemaker died in 1886, he was buried in the family cemetery next to his wife Julia, who pre-deceased him by 23 years. When Fort Union closed in 1891, the bodies in the Fort Union cemetery were re-interred at Fort Leavenworth in eastern Kansas, except for Captain and Mrs. Shoemaker. They remain in their original graves on what is now the Fort Union Ranch, not far from Captain Shoemaker's beloved arsenal.
 
Two headstones, each with a garland and cross
The graves of Mrs. Shoemaker and Captain Shoemaker still remain just a short distance from the ruins of the Fort Union Arsenal.

Fort Union National Monument

Last updated: January 21, 2021

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