Sunday, May 26, 2019

Fort Union

I just bought a new car, a BMW 330xi and I wanted to drive it out of town. We did not have days for an extended road trip, so we decided to tour near Santa Fe, staying for two nights in Las Vegas, NM. I remember being so excited when we first bought a house and I learned we were a little more than an hour from Las Vegas. I thought of Las Vegas, Nevada, where I had never been there at the time but I learned New Mexico has its very own Las Vegas.  It is the antithesis of the famous one in Nevada and is older too. Next week I will write more about our stay.

We made a day trip from there to Fort Union National Monument, one of the 12 National Monuments in New Mexico, and that is not counting the State Historic Sites.  I had heard of it as a place to see, but it took us thirty years of coming to this part of the world to make the effort.  All I can say is that I wish we had done it earlier.  It is an amazing property and possibly more exciting because most of it is a ruin with only parts of buildings still extant.  Somehow, it allows one to use one’s imagination like at Stonehenge and come up with your own interpretation.  

That is not necessary, however, because there is plenty of literature available and a small educational museum illustrates the story of the fort with artifacts and weapons of the period.  I enjoyed particularly seeing the Colt 45, known as the Peacemaker made between 1873 and 1892.  After you have walked through the museum you can go outside to see the Howitzer, which is a cannon with a short barrel that needs relatively small charges to propel projectiles over relatively high trajectories, with a steep angle of descent.

Then you walk a straight line, up through the ruins of adobe, brick and stone walls of what was actually the third Fort Union, not a military stronghold but rather a complex of buildings that functioned as a supply depot for the 46 forts out west.  The first Fort Union (1851-61) had been built up against the mountains to protect from marauding Indians. Then they found that, set up against the bluffs would not be defensible against the armaments of the Confederate Army.

The outpost came into its own during the Civil War when a second fort (1861-62) was built to defend against the Confederate troops who came up from Texas.  It was an earthworks construction created by digging trenches in a star shape. This fort had 28 cannon platforms and could contain 1,000 troops. It did not last long because the Howitzer could fire rounds high up that would come down into the trenches.  However, one important event occurred there in 1861: when the U.S. Dragoons (mounted troops) were organized as a cavalry Fort Union became the home of the first regiments of the newly formed First U.S. Cavalry!

The fort was not located in the middle of nowhere without reason.   This was where two ecosystems met, the mountains and the plains.  I had not realized that the plains went this far west.  This is where the two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail met.  The Santa Fe Trail was not just a passage West for settlers but rather a continuing commercial supply route. The starting point was in what is today St. Louis, Missouri. Our house is right on the Trail just a short distance from where it ends at the Santa Fe Plaza.

 The language of the army was English but most of the troops were local volunteers who spoke Spanish, so it was preferable to have officers who spoke both languages. One of those who trained the New Mexican volunteers was Lieutenant Kit Carson.  He not only spoke Spanish but also several Indian languages.  By July 1861 New Mexico was in Confederate hands.  In March of 1862, however, at the Battle of the Glorieta Pass, the Union took New Mexico back.

Kit Carson

Though it must have been very difficult living on the frontier with no town nearby the third Fort Union which lasted the longest (1863 to 1891), formed its own community.  There were barracks for the troops, different corrals for the mechanics and transportation, store houses, a commissary, officers’ quarters, a quartermaster depot, guard house and stockade.  The soldiers in this period were there to protect travelers from Indian attack, escorting the wagon trains and accompany stagecoaches after the Civil War that carried mail and money as well as passengers.

Fort Walls

The Stockade

With the Indian Wars dying down, and the use of the Santa Fe Trail fading out before the advance of the railroad, Fort Union was no longer a vital link between East and West.  The remnants of the fort were established as a National Monument in 1954 to make it possible for visitors like us to experience the vast spaces and better understand the history of the United States’ push west. 

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