150 Years Ago This Week: How the West was lost

March 1862

Responding to orders from Richmond to keep Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley and prevent a possible advance on Richmond, Gen. Stonewall Jackson moved his Valley army north from between Mt. Jackson and Strasburg towards Winchester. Outside of Kernstown, just south of Winchester, on March 22, Confederate cavalry under Col. Turner Ashby skirmished with Federal troops there.

Maj. Gen. James Shields, the Union commander at Kernstown, was wounded by shell fragments. In his report to Gen. Jackson that night, Col. Ashby underestimated the strength of the Union forces, a mistake that would lead Gen. Jackson to attack at Kernstown, just south of Winchester, the next day. It would be the start of Jackson’s Valley Campaign.

On Sunday, March 23, Gen. Jackson attacked the superior numbers of Federal troops at what would become the First Battle of Kernstown. Jackson, under the impression that the Federals numbered around 3,000 troops, launched the attack. He quickly learned that his command was facing an entire Federal division of more than 8,500 men.

“Say nothing about it,” Gen. Jackson told an aide. “We are in for it.” The Federals stopped Jackson and his men at Kernstown in deadly combat and then launched a furious counterattack. At the height of the battle, with his men running out of ammunition, Brig. Gen. Richard Garnett ordered the Stonewall Brigade to withdraw.

An incensed Gen. Jackson subsequently had Gen. Garnett placed under arrest and charged with neglect of duty. As night fell, Jackson’s command withdrew. Kernstown would be the only defeat that Jackson suffered in his military career. Despite the tactical defeat, the engagement at Kernstown was a strategic Southern victory in that it prevented Union troops in the Valley from joining McClellan’s army on the march towards Richmond, and forced the Federals to send reinforcements to protect the national capital at Washington.

In the far West, on Wednesday, March 26, Gen. Sibley’s Confederate Army of New Mexico left Santa Fe and marched southeast on the Santa Fe Trail. A column of Colorado volunteers from Fort Union, marching out to oppose the Southern advance, converged on the Confederates at Apache Canyon in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Maj. Charles Pyron, with some 300 Texans encamped at Johnson’s Ranch, was waiting at the west end of the pass for the rest of the Confederate Army to arrive.

Maj. John Chivington and 400 Union troops moved out to attack them. In the ensuing fight, Col. Chivington learned that the main body of the Confederate troops were behind him. Chivington’s men advanced on the Confederates, but a withering Southern artillery fire drove them back. The Federals regrouped and attacked from both sides of the pass, catching the Confederates in a deadly crossfire. At the end of the day, Chivington’s men retired and went into camp at Kozlowski’s Ranch; Maj. Pyron’s decimated force withdrew to the east, and joined Col. William “Dirty Shirt” Scurry and his 900 men there.

There was no fighting there on March 27, as reinforcements for both sides arrived. Col. Scurry now had some 1100 Confederates, while Col. John Slough had swelled the Union ranks by another 900 men. At Glorieta Pass on the morning of March 28, the battle reopened when the Union troops struck the Confederate battle line. There were attacks and counterattacks all day long, and Col. Slough withdrew his battered troops first to Kozlowski’s Ranch and finally to Pigeon’s Ranch.

Col. Scurry and his men left the field, knowing they had won a tremendous engagement. But when they arrived at Johnson’s Ranch, on the west end of Glorieta Pass, they found that Col. Chivington and his 400 men had scrambled over the mountains and destroyed the Confederate supply wagons and animals there. With all of their supplies and livestock gone, the Confederates had no choice but to retreat to Santa Fe and then began the long road south, back to Texas.

In the fighting at Glorieta, Confederates had some 1,100 men, with 36 killed, 60 wounded and 25 missing or captured. The Federals, with 1,342 men, sustained losses of 31 killed, 50 wounded and 30 missing or captured. The Federals had stopped the Confederate incursion into New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California; Glorieta Pass was the turning point in the war in the Southwest, and the Confederate plans for the far west were lost.


Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 194 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.