FORT UNION & SANTA FE TRAIL

Yesterday we went to Fort Union National Monument, it is about 25 miles north east of Las Vegas. In order to talk about the fort you have to talk about the Santa Fe trail. It ran for about 1200 miles from Franklin Missouri to Santa Fe New Mexico, where other trails were. Just like the Oregon trail, it was fraught with danger from Indians, bandits, the heat, lack of water, you name it. A journey of three months or so, by wagon train, pulled by oxen. There were many stops, and Las Vegas at the bottom of the Rockies, became one that grew into a thriving town in the 1820’s. After the Mexican war was over, the U. S. decided it needed a military presence in the area, and Fort Union was born. Built in 1851, mostly of wood, and only about twelve acres in size, it was built at a split in the Santa Fe trail, as it came down to Las Vegas. The first fort helped protect immigrants, wagon trains and the like from attack. Nothing of this fort is left.

What the 1st old fort looked like and also the post commanders quarters

In 1860 with the civil war looming it was decided to build a bigger fort. In August of 1861, A star shaped earthen fort is built on about twenty three acres, over a thousand men worked 24 hours a day in four hour shifts. In February 1862, the fort was completed. It has 28 cannon on it’s parapets, officer’s quarters, enlisted barracks, storerooms, powder magazine dotting it’s interior. Even a tunnel leading out to the creek, so fresh water could be brought in. Even as the fort was being built those in charge thought it was being built in the wrong area. A high bluff was only about a mile and a half away, thoughts were that cannon atop the bluffs could hit the fort. The new commander decided to test it out. Cannon were placed atop the bluff and fired down to the fort area, sure enough the cannon shot could reach the interior of the fort and beyond. Cannon fired from the fort however could not reach the heights on the bluff. The fort was a sitting duck if attached. The confederates at this time took Santa Fe ,and were on the march toward the fort, however troops from the fort intercepted them at Glorieta pass, near Santa Fe and attached and burned all the wagon trains loaded with supplies. The fort never fired a shot or was attacked.

What the 2nd fort looked like

In 1863, not even two years old it was decided to build a larger stronger fort. The third Fort Union, was massive at least a half mile, by half mile and bigger. Built better with adobe, fire brick, lumber, tin, this fort would replace the earthen fort and become the largest military outpost west of the Mississippi. It was a little city and grew and grew. It was the hub of the west. Wagon trains, military goods, people all had to pass through Fort Union before heading west. For almost 27 years until 1891 the fort was the guardian of the trail and territory. then the railroad came and it was all over. Ordered closed in February of 1891, it is then abandoned. Soon after the fort falls prey to relic hunters , salvagers, and even the army helps demolish parts of the fort. In 1938 Marian Sloan Russel, visit’s the fort, she is dismayed at the decay and destruction. Now in her early sixties, she was born in Fort Union, at the peak of it’s time. She starts a movement to save the fort. Even though she only lives for two more years, the movement gains strength and in 1954 the Fort is declared a national monument. Even though much of it is gone this was an impressive sight to see, and learn about.

Visitor Center

We began our walk outside on Fort Union’s Grounds

We headed out where the first & second forts were.

A cannon was placed right where the 2nd fort would have been.

You are looking at the largest United States military base to be found for 500 miles in any direction during the late 1800s. There was nothing bigger from Kansas to California. For 25 years, this frontier-era Army post was a federal government-run small town. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians lived and worked here. Every year thousands of travelers and traders passed through Fort Union on the Santa Fe Trail.

Military custom and doctrine fractured this isolated community into three separate — and often competing — commands. Regular Army infantry and cavalry officers ran the Post. Quartermaster officers commanded inside the Depot. Ordnance officers operated the Arsenal, found about a mile west of the sprawling complex you are about to explore.

Army officers assigned to the garrison here at Fort Union lived with their families in the row of nine houses you see along this side of the parade ground. Each building held two apartments and shared a common kitchen and dining room at the rear.

Quarters on the post were assigned by rank. Senior officers got first choice, and junior officers made do with what was left. There was frequent shifting from duplex to duplex as new officers arrived and “ranked out” those below them in grade to avoid leaky roofs, falling ceiling plaster, or chimneys that smoked. Except for the post commander and the chaplain, most military families did not stay in one place long.

What it looked like once upon a time . . . sitting on their porches

For 24 years the officer in command of the cavalry and infantry troops at Fort Union lived here. The post commandant issued the orders that determined the daily duties and routines for hundreds of enlisted men, non-commissioned officers, officers, and civilian employees. He made the decisions about who would patrol the Santa Fe Trail — and for how long.

From 1867-1891 over 100 Regular Army officers held this command. Some served as little as one week in this position. Some stayed in charge as long as 36 months. Some captains, majors, and colonels only held command once. Other commandants returned to duty at Fort Union as many as 14 times.

Out of sight, this is where and how the Arsenal looked. In the distance you can still see the adobe remnants of the Fort Union Arsenal. This ordnance depot stored and issued the weapons and ammunition needed for all Army operations throughout the Southwest for 30 years. Longstanding Army practice was to keep these large quantities of gunpowder and bullets safeguarded far from the troops and heavy traffic found here on the Post was overwhelming.

Buttons, Bowling, Billiards and Beer! They had everything. Another building that has vanished in time. You would have seen a military general store. This was one place at Fort Union where people were always coming and going, every day. Soldiers from the Post, the Depot, and the Arsenal — as well as civilian travelers, Army wives, and Indians — all bought goods here. Think of this as the frontier-era equivalent of stores found on military bases today. A licensed civilian merchant, called a sutler, stocked wares for sale — items, plain and fancy, that the Army did not issue to the troops.

Men also came here in their off-duty hours to hear the news, to pass time with friends and to be entertained. Officers and enlisted men could eat a meal in the sutler’s restaurant, bowl a game in his bowling alley, or try their hand at billiards in his parlor. Army sutlers also sold beer, whiskey, and at times even champagne for those customers who came in these doors with a thirst.

They have an accurate sun dial that was built here in 1871

For many of the years between 1851 and 1891, Fort Union was the greatest economic powerhouse in the New Mexico Territory. The single Army officer who controlled the huge complex that made up the Fort Union Depot — some 400 acres of storehouses, granaries, offices, shops, corrals, stables, haystacks, and woodpiles — did his work from the Quartermaster Office, a four-room building that once stood here. Here the post commander also had his office. Three civilians and five soldier clerks worked their way through the ocean of invoices, vouchers, returns, letters, receipts, bills of lading, and inventories that the Army considered essential to control the constant arrival and dispersal of a mountain of supplies.

Looked a little different back when.

The cistern now and before

To us today, Fort Union looks like a single, very large Army base. Soldiers who served here from 1863-1891 saw things in a completely different way. For them, the Post of Fort Union and the Fort Union Quartermaster Depot were like two small towns that just happened to be side by side. The Post and the Depot each had a different commander and each had a distinctive mission to fulfill.

Calvary solider & his horse in Mechanics Corral and depot office and quarters

Store houses and mechanics corral, rear view

Imagine 2,000 to 3,000 freight wagons a year being off-loaded into these enormous buildings. In these five warehouses, the United States Army stored, inventoried, organized, and redistributed thousands of tons of food and equipment to support the troops operating in the Southwest.

Here you would have seen both civilian storekeepers and enlisted personnel bustling and toting an endless stream of crates, boxes, and barrels of salted meat and fish, hardtack, coffee, tea, sugar, salt, vinegar, hominy, corn meal, onions, potatoes, canned foods, bottled foods, flour, clothing, bedding, tents, cooking gear, paper and ink, heating stoves, furniture, lamps, lanterns, tools, and building materials. In 1870 there were 100 civilian employees here at Fort Union. About 40 were teamsters driving wagons to deliver the supplies from these warehouses to distant outlying posts.

 What you see here as the forerunner of today’s busy truck stops on the interstates. Now, freight rides cross-country safe inside boxes of steel and aluminum, rolling on rubber tires. In the mid-1800s, cargo rode under canvas on iron-shod wagon wheels. In the place of the rowdy clatter of diesel engines today, imagine hundreds of mules braying — and thousands of oxen bellowing. Forget the shriek of air brakes. Hear the creak of leather harness and the jingle of wagon trace chains. Replace the smells of today’s oil-based exhaust with the mountains of manure dropped by horses, mules, and oxen inside this corral. Refueling here in the late 1800s required hundreds of tons of hay and grain feeds.

This yard was once full of men hard at work. The Santa Fe Trail and the rough, unpaved roads of New Mexico Territory in the 1800s were tough on freight wagons — and the livestock that hauled them.

Inside this Mechanics’ Corral over 70 civilian employees repaired broken wheels, damaged wagons, and worn-out harness. On most work days the sounds of carpenters, smiths hammering at the forge, and oxen and mules being shoed filled the air.
Mechanics’ Corral Illustration

This section had a “privy” to put their unwanted items, and the military band had their quarters here

We couldn’t go further on the Santa Fe Trail so Dave hitched hiked
 to look at the low wagon wheel ruts of the Santa Fe Trail — just ahead of you and grasp how many tens of thousands of lives this road turned upside down. Comanche, Kiowa, Jicarilla Apache, Mountain Ute, and other American Indian groups lived in this part of the West in the 1850s-1890s. For them, the changes in their world happened unbelievably fast… over a single lifetime. The United States Army was sent here in 1851 — to keep a lid on a pot that everyone back East expected to boil over. With Fort Union’s firepower, food, and materiel firmly fixed in this part of New Mexico, American Indians suddenly faced hard choices: make war, make peace, or make great changes in their cultures.

The Bakery – I know this building always had a great smell coming form it!

Here you get one night in bed… tonight you are on Guard, tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock you get relieved… one hour after coming off Guard You have to Saddle up and go on Herd. Come in with the Herd at 4 p.m., spend one hour grooming your horse, then get your supper. At sundown the Bugle calls you to Retreat to answer your name, and hear who are detailed for Guard on the morrow… from Retreat till Tattoo (2 hours) you have to shine your belts, clean your gun and brasses so they shine like a gold piece in the dark. Next morning at break of day you fall in ranks for Reveille, answer your name, and then march to the stables, spend half hour on the… horses, come back, swallow your Breakfast, and then put on all your good clothes, comb your hair… put on all your Belts, shoulder your Carbine, and then you are ready for Guard Mount… At the first sound of the Bugle, you rush in ranks to be inspected first by your First Sergeant … [then by] the Sergeant Major… [who] opens your shirt collar to see if that bit of apparel has been to the Laundresses in the course of a couple of months… the Band strikes up those patriotic tunes… You are then marched to. William Walton Private Company F, 10th U.S. Infantry

23rd US Infantry in their barracks.
One of the many Inspections taking place

1887the Guardhouse. During the day you escort prisoners around camp, emptying swill barrels &c. At night you… guard over a stable, lots of wagons &c with these orders ‘take charge of this Post, and all Government property in view’… That is soldiering, in a nut shell.”
—Eddie Matthews, private, 8th U.S. Cavalry, 1870

For over 20 years, two buildings on the right side of this company street helped military — and civilian — authorities uphold law and order in New Mexico Territory. Inside the guard house that once stood on the corner just ahead, and inside the prison you see here, deserters, drunkards, burglars, brawlers, assassins, rustlers, horse thieves, and Comancheros were punished for their crimes. A frontier Army post like Fort Union, with its hundreds of soldiers, military families, and civilian employees was — in effect — a small town under martial law. The provost marshal and the daily guard patrols kept the peace and handled problems in this volatile community, like a town marshal with deputies might do elsewhere.

We cannot sit down and have such a set of [horse] thieves run off with our stock with impunity. The Civil authorities seem to be powerless to cope with them.
—James H. Carleton, lieutenant colonel commanding Fort Union, March 1867

Oh no! Look who’s in jail!

There were few chances for family life for any enlisted man in the United States Army on the frontier. Regulations did not allow new recruits to have a wife or child. No soldier could marry without the permission of his commanding officer. That permission was seldom given — unless the future wife was willing to work for the Army as a laundress.

Between Fort Riley, Kansas and California you would have found no bigger or better medical facility than the one that once stood here. In 1864 it cost $45,000 to build. This six-ward hospital had from 10 beds to 126 beds over its life. Here a hardworking staff of two Army doctors, two stewards, a cook, two nurses, and three hospital matrons treated and nursed both soldiers and civilians. Untrained enlisted men also helped tend the sick.

front and back of hospital

hospital courtyard and lecture room.

Their caseload was overwhelming: blisters, boils, burns, cuts, colds, coughs, childbirth, fevers, flu, pneumonia, ulcers, gonorrhea, syphilis, scurvy, scarlet fever, typhoid, small-pox, diarrhea, delirium, opium overdose, alcoholism, rheumatism, broken bones, and gunshot and arrow wounds. In December 1876 — a typical month — Fort Union’s medical staff treated 425 patients, of whom 166 were hospitalized. About 40 percent of the people who lay in these hospital beds were civilians — who had to pay 50¢ a day for treatment.

The Chaplin’s quarters, he had a nice place.

They even had a baseball team

As Dave mentioned, this was definitely an impressive place to visit. I know we learned a lot about being here, as well as were in awe of just how much went on in the fort, even on one particular day, and how much everyone needed the fort for their survival. It was their whole lives, most of them worked there, ate there as well as slept and even played here, they even had a baseball team. Heck, It served the whole South West area for a long while.

2 thoughts on “FORT UNION & SANTA FE TRAIL

Leave a Reply to mbb6005 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s