Just When All Seemed Lost: The Battle of Glorieta Pass

March 28, 1862 (Friday)

Pecos Ruins, near Union camp.

It was not only the Confederates in Apache Canyon, New Mexico who were chomping at the bit to attack. The Federals, too, were devising their next steps. Union Commander, Col. John Slough, far removed from his previous job as a lawyer in Denver, learned that the Rebels, under Major Charles Pyron, had been reinforced by roughly 1,000 men, led by Col. William Scurry. If Slough’s math was correct, this nearly evened things up. The Rebel strength was around 1,100, while the Federals could field but 200 more.

Believing that Scurry’s Confederates would remain at Johnson’s Ranch, near the western mouth of Apache Canyon, Slough concocted a two-pronged plan of attack. He would later call this attack a “reconnaissance,” as he was specifically ordered by Col. Edward Canby, overall Union commander in New Mexico, not to attack until the Union force from Fort Craig, 250 miles south, could join him.

Ignoring Canby’s orders, Slough determined that the main column, roughly 800-strong, would march down the Santa Fe Trail towards the Rebels, while the other column, numbering 400-500, under Major John Chivington, a veteran of the Battle of Apache Canyon, would move south of the trail and fall upon the enemy rear.1

Col. Scurry

Around 8am, both Union columns left their camp near the Pecos ruins, following the Santa Fe Trail. An hour later, Major Chivington and his column left the main body, heading south atop the Glorieta Mesa. Slough’s column reached Pigeon Ranch (named after its owner, who apparently danced the fandango like a pigeon), just east of the summit, around 10:30, and stopped to rest.2

Meanwhile, Col. Scurry, commanding the Rebels at Johnson’s Ranch, was tired of waiting for the Yankees to attack. He had no idea that he wouldn’t have too long to wait, and so resolved to launch his attack. Due to illness and the detachment he left to guard the supply wagons left in camp, his force was probably around 700.

Scurry’s command, cavalry to the front, marched six miles to the summit, where their scouts could peer down onto Pigeon Ranch and Glorieta Canyon.3

Battle of Glorieta Pass by Roy Anderson

As the Union infantry rested at Pigeon Ranch, firing was heard in the timbers before them. Their pickets fell back and informed them that the Rebels were about to attack. Slough immediately formed his troops in lines of battle on either side of the road, deployed his artillery on a rise in the Trail and advanced towards the enemy, concealed among the trees.4

Before either the Federal infantry or artillery could be arrayed, the Rebels opened upon them with their three howitzers. Scurry had deployed his infantry in a line across the canyon, stretching from a fence on their left to a pine forest on their right.

As the Union infantry had divided their line, each group fell upon the Rebel flanks. On the Confederate left, the Federal troops had scurried up a gulch, mostly hidden from sight, and launched their attack as their comrades on the right launched theirs. Before it was too late, Col. Scurry ordered Major Pyron to hold the right. Leaving a force to hold the center, he took the rest of his men over the fence to fend off the Federals on the left. Both Rebel forces desperately fell upon their foes with bullets and fists, as the melee became hand-to-hand. While the Rebel flanks were being assailed, the troops in the center charged the Federals, pinning them down, disallowing any reinforcements to be sent to either flank attack.5

Map of the 26th and 28th Battles

Before long, the attacks were driven back and the entire Union command fell back a short distance to Pigeon Ranch. While Scurry regrouped, the Union artillery was able to take out one of the howitzers and blow up a limber chest, wounding the battery’s commander. It took Scurry nearly an hour to ready his men, and by the time he did, the Union forces were so well hidden that none could be seen.6

Pigeon Ranch - probably 1920s, when it was part of the original Route 66.

After his men were assembled, Scurry advanced, sending forces out on his right, center and left. He sent out his flanking parties first, telling them when he heard their guns, he would advance the center.7 Scurry’s right discovered about ninety Federals, commanded by Lt. Col. Samuel Tappan, atop a hill. Col. Slough had ordered Tappan to hold the hill “at all hazards,” and he did just that, killing a Rebel officer and sending the rest of the force back.8

As this was happening, the main Union column was attacked. In his report, Scurry poetically recalls:

Our brave soldiers, heedless of the storm, pressed on, determined if possible to take their battery. A heavy body of infantry, twice our number, interposed to save their guns. Here the conflict was terrible. Our men and officers, alike inspired with the unalterable determination to overcome every obstacle to the attainment of their object, dashed among them. The right and center had united on the left. The intrepid Ragnet and the cool, calm, courageous Pyron had pushed forward among the rocks until the muzzles of the guns of the opposing forces passed each other. Inch by inch was the ground disputed, until the artillery of the enemy had time to escape with a number of their wagons. The infantry also broke ranks and fled from the field.9

Pigeon Ranch postcard.

The Confederates were victorious. The defeated and demoralized Yankees had fled all the way back to their original camp near Pecos. Counting the dead and wounded, the Rebels sustained 42 killed, 61 wounded, and 14 taken prisoner. The Federals faired roughly the same, losing 47 killed, 78 wounded, with 11 taken prisoner and two additional taken to desertion. These were heavy, ten percent, losses for a mere “reconnaissance.”10

However, this was not the end of the story. The Federal detachment of 300-400 men under Major Chivington was still on the loose. By around 1:30pm, the time when Scurry was assaulting Pigeon Ranch, Chivington was looking down upon the Confederate camp and eighty Confederate wagons, protected by 200 or so Rebels with a piece of field artillery.

Major Chivington

Deploying first as sharpshooters, the Federals made quick work of the Rebel artillerymen, who fired several times to no effect. Chivington then surrounded the camp and closed in, killing a few Rebels and wounding a few more. Soon, the eighty wagons, the cannon, and seventeen Rebels were taken captive. The wagons contained nearly all of the Army of New Mexico’s supplies of ammunition, clothing and food. Unable to remove them from the canyon, Chivington put them to the torch before returning to the main Union camp, which he reached well after dark.11

That night, the Rebels remained near Pigeon Ranch, five miles from their burned out camp. Snow fell in the darkness, covering the dead and freezing to death the wounded. There would be no rations on this night, and it would be a long time before rations were issued again.12

  1. The Battle of Glorieta Pass by Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p534. Slough’s second report. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p543. Scurry’s second report. His first report is vague. In the post script, he explains: “I do not know if I write intelligently. I have not slept for three nights, and can scarcely hold my eyes open.” []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p536. Tappan’s report. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p543. Scurry’s second report. []
  6. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p543. Scurry’s second report. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p537. Tappan’s report. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p544. Scurry’s second report. []
  10. The Battle of Glorieta Pass by Thomas S. Edrington and John Taylor. []
  11. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p538-539. Chivington’s report. []
  12. Blood & Treasure by Donald S. Frazier. []
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Just When All Seemed Lost: The Battle of Glorieta Pass by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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4 thoughts on “Just When All Seemed Lost: The Battle of Glorieta Pass

    1. Thanks! I was really hoping to get there for the 150th (since it’s the closest battlefield to Seattle), but alas… I hope to read some after action reports.

  1. One other significant event on this date: Jefferson Davis proposed a conscription law, the first in American history. It was the lesser of two evils: the Confederate government was now proposing a power over the states that the Union government had never wielded, but McClellan’s colossal Army of the Potomac made it clear that the South needed more troops if it was to survive.

    1. Quite true. Thanks! I delve into that a bit on the 30th.

      Was the conscription law really the first? I thought they had one during the Rev war (at least on a state-by-state basis). I’m pretty sure Virginia had one.

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