Of the Gettysburg of the West
By Maggie Magoffin
Six weeks after Colorado became a territory, the Civil war began. The majority of Denver’s citizens, who had emigrated west from northern states, were loyal to the Union.However, Denver’s Mayor, John C. Moore, was a Confederate sympathizer from Pulaski, Tennessee, and when war began, he hightailed it back to where he’d come from.
President Abraham Lincoln had appointed William Gilpin, as Colorado’s first territorial governor, and Gilpin was a strong defender of the Union. Fearful that Confederate sympathizers in Colorado could attack the territory and Confederate Texans would take over the rich Rocky Mountain goldfields, Gilpin set about raising Union volunteers from Denver and the mining camps in the mountains. For several months, Gilpin’s First Regiment of the Colorado Volunteer Infantry trained at Fort Weld on the outskirts of Denver.
A brigade of the Confederate Army, led by General Henry Hopkins Sibley, had advanced across the Southwest and was heading toward Denver. The ragtag group of mounted, Texas rifleman took the city of Santa Fe, and launched the Confederate’s New Mexico Campaign. Sibley set out to attack Fort Union, a Union Army depot on the Santa Fe Trail. With the supplies and weaponry kept there, the Confederacy could continue their march north to Denver and prevent any Colorado troops from harassing them as they set up an overland route through New Mexico and Arizona, linking them with Confederate sympathizers in California. If they captured Denver and the gold fields, with its mineral wealth to finance their army, they could defeat the Union and rule the country.
Armed and ready for action in March of 1862, in a blinding snowstorm, Gilpin’s First Regiment of the Colorado Volunteer Army through deepening snow, and climbed into the mountains to begin a 400-mile trek to Fort Union. Though exhausted and freezing, those courageous men knew the fate of the Union rested on their shoulders, and they could not stop marching until they reached Fort Union.
Thirteen days after leaving Denver, the scrappy volunteer army, under the command of Colonel John P. Slough, reached their destination. While they rested and resupplied, troops from the United States Army and New Mexico volunteers joined them. The combined troops then left Fort Union and followed the Santa Fe Trail to meet the Confederate Army at Glorietta Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
After three days of fierce fighting, the Confederates controlled the front line, and their leaders believed they had won the battle. However, during the skirmishes of those three days, Major John M. Chivington of the Colorado First Regiment had left the combat zone to find and attack a Confederate supply train. Chivington and his troops drove off the Confederate guards, killed horses and mules, destroyed artillery, and took prisoners. They burned wagons containing ammunition, food, and clothing. Lacking supplies, the rebels could no longer continue their march on Fort Union, and therefore retreated to Santa Fe, thus ending their New Mexico Campaign.
With Colorado’s First Regiment’s clever attack on the Confederate supply train, Major Chivington was hailed as the hero of the battle of Glorietta Pass, a battle Historians have dubbed “The Gettysburg of the West.” That victory was the turning point that confirmed Denver’s goldfields would remain with the Union, and put an end to the Confederacy’s dreams of taking over the West. A Texan is quoted as stating, “If it had not been for those devils from Pikes Peak, this country would have been ours.”