The Gettysburg of the West

The plan was to march up the Rio Grande, capture the city of Santa Fe and seize the thousands of rifles, dozens of cannons and other supplies at Fort Union for a campaign that would expand the Confederacy's borders all the way to the California Coast.

But Union soldiers stood their ground at a pinch along the Santa Fe Trail known as Glorieta Pass, resulting in a battle that historians often refer to as "the Gettysburg of the West."

Until recently, public access to the Civil War battlefield was limited. But earlier this year, the National Park Service opened a new trail that allows visitors to explore the area.

The Glorieta Battlefield Trail - more than 2 miles through the wooded and rocky hills southeast of Santa Fe - has been in the planning stages for several years. It's aimed at educating people about the decisive 1862 battle.

"In many ways the Civil War was a defining moment for this country but very few people know much about this campaign," said Jim Houghton, a Civil War buff and president of the Glorieta Battlefield Coalition. "Had it been successful, the outcome of the war could have been significantly changed."

Unlike states in the East, New Mexico isn't known for its Civil War battlefields, of which there are less than a handful. Still, preservation of such sites is a priority for the Park Service, said Christine Beekman, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Pecos National Historical Park, which oversees the Glorieta Battlefield.

The park acquired much of the land necessary for preserving the battlefield in 1990. But it wasn't until it acquired a key piece of property at Pigeon's Ranch - which was used during the battle as a hospital for both Union and Confederate troops - that planning for the trail began in earnest.

After two years of work by the park and several volunteer groups, the trail is lined with metal signs that recount what happened during those last few days of March 1862.

The Confederate soldiers, which had mobilized in Texas for the mission westward, were out for supplies, weapons, sympathetic recruits, gold and silver in Colorado and California's blockade free ports.

By late March, they had already taken Fort Fillmore near Mesilla and Albuquerque and were camped at the west entrance to Glorieta Pass. On the other side was the Union.

After two days of exchanging volleys and another day of burying the dead, the Confederate troops took Sharpshooters Ridge, gained the upper hand and forced the Union colonel to order his troops to fall back.

With their attention turned to the battlefield, the Confederate troops had no idea that another group of Union forces had circled around and destroyed their supply train. With that, the Confederates had to retreat without food or supplies, ending their plans to take the West.

Houghton said the challenge at Glorieta has always been that a state highway bisects the battlefield.

"By placing this trail on the ridge, it gives visitors an opportunity to actually hike through parts of the battlefield in a safe manner and it also gives them a panoramic view where they can look down on portions of the battlefield," he said.

The new trail was dedicated in June.

Beekman said it's also important for visitors to see the topography and other obstacles at Glorieta Pass that would have hampered the troops during battle.

Glorieta has been listed in years past as one of the most endangered and at-risk Civil War sites in the nation by the Civil War Preservation Trust in Washington, D.C. Trust spokeswoman Mary Koik said preservation and interpretation of such sites is becoming more important as development increases.

"Every day about 30 acres of Civil War battlefield get paved over," she said. "It's certainly something that's going at an alarming rate."

Part of the problem, she said, is people are unaware that such historic sites can exist in their communities.

"It's sad but true," she said. "Often folks will have this history quite literally in their backyard. You may drive by it every day but you'll never really connect to what's there. That's why having these trails and signs, interpretation of the battlefield, is really important."

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