Interpretation of a Decisive Civil War Battle Evolves

This painting depicts the burning of the Confederate wagon supply train near Apache Canyon. photo courtesy of Roy Andersen, NPS

By Robert Pahre

The Battle of Glorieta Pass, which took place from March 26 to 28, 1862, was the decisive battle of the Civil War in New Mexico. While the battlefield has had historical markers since 1939, the stories you learn on the field have changed since the National Park Service took over in 1993. The landscape of interpretation tells not only the story of a battlefield but the story of how we tell the story of a battlefield.

The battle marked the end of the Confederacy’s New Mexico campaign. Their plan for the campaign was pretty straightforward. Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley and his Texan volunteers would advance up the Rio Grande from El Paso to Albuquerque and Santa Fe. From there, they would move eastward along the Santa Fe Trail, crossing the mountains at Glorieta Pass, and then turn north. After seizing the supply base at Fort Union, Sibley would take the mines of Colorado while disrupting federal communications with California, Nevada, and Oregon.

The key to the campaign was logistics. The Confederates would have a long supply train stretching back to El Paso, and they needed Fort Union’s supplies to make the plan work. The Union commander, Colonel Edward R. S. Canby, lost every battle but won the campaign because he focused on the Confederate supply problem.

They fought various engagements up the Rio Grande before arriving at the Glorieta Pass region in March. On the third and decisive day, Canby split his forces. The larger part fought a delaying action near Pigeon’s Ranch. They gradually gave ground to Sibley’s Texans while remaining in good order astride the Santa Fe Trail.

Canby sent about two-fifths of his troops over Glorieta Mesa to the Confederate rear, where they found and destroyed the rebel supply train. Without supplies, the Confederates had to retreat to El Paso, using a difficult route through the mountains. Fewer than half found their way back.

Confederate Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley

When interpreting the battle, the National Park Service defines it as a tactical Confederate victory. After all, the rebels held the ground at the end of the day. The park also notes that “the Confederate victory was short-lived” because Sibley no longer had his supply train.

That perspective is understandable. It rests on the fight around Pigeon’s Ranch, Glorieta Pass, and the Santa Fe Trail. That fight features two opposing forces trying to take or defend ground. It feels like a battle should feel—and, of course, it was a genuine battle.

Not only do visitors expect a battlefield to involve military units moving around it, but many military historians would also tell the story exactly that way. We see that perspective in a lesson plan the park developed for students: “The Battle of Glorieta Pass represented the high-water mark for a bold Confederate offensive into Union Territory on the western frontier. Here, volunteers from Colorado clashed with tough Texans intent on conquering New Mexico.” Tough soldiers fought bravely on both sides.

The Texas Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy raised the first monument on the battlefield itself in 1939. The thousands of years of rich history have been preserved at Pecos National Historical Park, which has served as scenery for Pueblo and Plains Indians, Spanish conquerors, Santa Fe trail settlers, railroad workers, and even Route 66 travelers. Discover more about this historic location in the book Pecos National Historical Park Ancestral Sites Trail Guide or purchase an official park product from the Western National Parks Association.

A focus on brave soldiers also produced the first interpretation on the site. In 1866, New Mexico recognized its soldiers on one side of an obelisk in downtown Santa Fe, honoring “the heros of the Federal Army who fell at the battles of Cañon del Apache and Pigeon’s Rancho (La Glorieta), fought with the Rebels March 28, 1862.”

Remembering battlefield bravery motivated park advocates. The Glorieta Battlefield Preservation Society, a group of regional Civil War reenactors, worked to preserve the site, which had remained in private hands. The Council of America’s Military Past, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), and other military heritage groups worked with them to convince Congress to establish the Glorieta Battlefield Unit of Pecos National Historical Park.

A marker honors the Texas mounted volunteers. photo courtesy of Robert Pahre

The NPS then began to update this landscape of memorialization it had inherited. In addition to leaving the stone memorials in place, the historical park installed a collection of modern interpretive signs on the Glorieta Battlefield Trail. The trail makes a lovely hike today.

Park advocates helped fund the new interpretive trail and most of the signs. Signs funded by Texan and Confederate groups highlight the bravery of Sibley’s troops, and the ones placed by the State of New Mexico highlight the role of Hispanos, New Mexican Volunteers, and U.S. Regulars. While they also discuss how the Union soldiers burned the Confederate wagons, those signs place greater weight on the fight around Pigeon’s Ranch at Glorieta Pass. Again, the action on a conventional battlefield seems more important.

Taken as a whole, those signs tell a richer version of the story than the stone markers, and a more accurate one. Still, one might go further and turn current interpretation on its head. By dividing his force in the face of the enemy, General Canby had clearly decided to make the wagon train central to his battle plan. The 750 troops near Pigeon’s Ranch needed only to protect Union lines of communication behind them while the other 500 men circled behind Confederate lines. In this alternative perspective, the ground of Glorieta Pass mattered much less than the supply train—making this a decisive Union victory.

A second feature of the campaign also contributed to the Union victory. Well before the battle itself, the Union had won the battle for the hearts and minds of New Mexico’s citizens. The Confederates supposed that the locals, having become involuntary subjects of the United States in 1846, might welcome “liberation.” The rebels hoped they could rely on those locals for some supplies along the way. As it turned out, New Mexicans liked Texans even less than they liked gringos, and were not inclined to help out.

The battle for hearts and minds also brought New Mexican volunteers to Canby’s side at Glorieta. Lt. Colonel Manuel Chavez, who led those volunteers, had the local knowledge to guide the Union forces over the mesa to the Texans’ wagons. The Confederates had no good local sources of supplies once the wagons were gone, dooming their assault.

Robert Pahre is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, where he teaches and researches the politics of national parks. This article is part of a current book project, titled Telling America’s Stories.

Cinder Cones, Capulin Volcano National Monument
Capulin Volcano National Monument. Courtesy of NPS

By Barbara “Bo” Jensen

It’s winter in northeastern New Mexico’s cattle country. Dark brown Herefords and a few black Angus graze the dry grasses found between scattered snowdrifts, waiting for a familiar truck and the ranch hand who will unload hay. Horses, too, linger beyond barbwire fences, their long manes and tails swaying in the gusts of a chilly wind, the sun bright but cold. Behind the slowly moving herds, greasewood and rabbitbrush speckle low volcanic hills, the only shelter for miles.

A half-hour’s drive east of Raton, Capulin Volcano comes into view. Capulin Volcano National Monument protects this near-perfect cinder cone that last erupted 60,000 years ago. Abruptly rising 1,000 feet from the plains to an altitude of 8,182 feet, this landmark caught the eye and captured the imagination of legendary cowboy George McJunkin.

McJunkin was born into slavery on John Sanders McJunkin’s ranch in central Texas in 1851. From an early age, George wanted to be a cowboy. He reportedly loved their stories of adventure—and freedom. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, many local men joined the fighting, leaving ranch hands in short supply. His father, called “Shoe Boy,” was a blacksmith, not a cowboy; allowed to hire out his services to other ranches, he had saved enough money to buy his freedom, and was saving to free his son, too. With that same resourcefulness, George sought out Mexican vaqueros, some working at nearby ranches, others passing by on cattle drives to Abilene and Dodge City, to teach him all they knew about horse wrangling.

George McJunkin, cowboy
Capulin Volcano National Monument is near where rancher George McJunkin discovered the “Folsom points,” stone projectiles used by prehistoric bison hunters. This incredible find revealed that humans lived in North America around 9000 BCE, almost 7,000 years earlier than previously known. Courtesy of NPS Archives

When the war ended in 1865, George was emancipated. Just a 14-year-old boy, however, he stayed on at the ranch another three years, working with livestock and helping his father with blacksmithing. By 17, young McJunkin was ready to follow his dream of becoming a true cowboy. He left home alone and found work outside Comanche, Texas, riding on cattle drives. Next, he trained horses for Gideon Roberds, a former slave owner from Georgia, to sell along the Santa Fe Trail. McJunkin helped Roberds set up his permanent spread east of Trinidad, Colorado. The story goes that McJunkin taught Roberds’ boys, Emmett and Coke, how to break horses and, in exchange, they taught him to read.

By all accounts, McJunkin was hungry to learn: how to wrangle horses, to read, to speak Spanish, to play the violin, to find constellations in the night sky. Fascinated by natural sciences, he collected petrified wood, minerals, and bones to study.

As his reputation for hard work and excellent horsemanship grew, McJunkin was hired by Dr. Thomas Owen, a former Confederate Army officer and the first mayor of Trinidad, to work his Hereford Park ranch on the Dry Cimarron River.

Cinder Cones, Capulin Volcano National Monument
Cinder cones can be seen from the rim trail on Capulin Volcano. Capulin Volcano is part of the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, which covers nearly 8,000 square miles from Colorado to New Mexico. The volcano erupted about 60,000 years ago, making it one of the most recent eruptions in this field. Courtesy of Barbara Jensen

McJunkin had fallen in love with the Dry Cimarron area when he passed through on cattle and horse drives. According to the Folsom Museum, McJunkin climbed Capulin Volcano, taking in commanding views of broad grasslands from its summit, with the snowy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the west. He declared the area “my promised land,” a Biblical reference to Moses leading the Israelites from captivity to a land of their own, and freedom.

Stories abound of his courage and character. How he intervened to save a cavalry lieutenant outnumbered by bandits seeking the military payroll, and how the grateful army officer gave him a telescope in return, which McJunkin carried on his saddle. How he notified the sheriff when he found members of the Ketchum Gang, who had just robbed a train, camped nearby; a search of the campsite yielded a torn note listing their next destination, where they were swiftly apprehended. How, during a 10-day blizzard, he led 20 cowboys and what was left of their herds to safety. How, when Dr. Owen died suddenly, McJunkin helped Owen’s widow and young sons, Ben and Tom, work their ranch until the boys were old enough to take over.

At the nearby Crowfoot Ranch, McJunkin was made ranch foreman, a rare position for a Black man in the 1890s. It was widely acknowledged that he was the best horseman and cowboy in the region. Black, white, and Hispanic cowboys all worked together under his direction.

McJunkin built himself a cabin on the Crowfoot Ranch, settling down at last. He hung shelves to display his collection of artifacts. With his telescope and a transom, he acted as local surveyor, establishing property lines and putting up fences. He bought his own herd of cattle. He played fiddle and guitar at local dances.

La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles
Four years after McJunkin’s death, museum archaeologists verified his find of skeletons of bison antiquus from the Late Pleistocene. Courtesy of Ed Bierman

In August of 1908, a heavy thunderstorm dropped 14 inches of rain on the headlands of the Dry Cimarron, and a flash flood swept through the area, killing 17 people in the nearby village of Folsom. As McJunkin rode out to assess the damage, he saw that floodwater had substantially eroded Wild Horse Arroyo. Sticking out of a newly exposed layer of rock 10 feet down, he spied what looked like bison bones, but they were much bigger. Buried at that depth, he knew they were much older, too.

It wasn’t until 1926, four years after McJunkin’s death, that museum archaeologists would verify McJunkin’s find: skeletons of bison antiquus from the Late Pleistocene. Lodged in rib bones still buried in the arroyo, they found stone points, weapons of people who would come to be known as Folsom Man, proving that humans had lived in North America thousands of years earlier than previously thought. It was arguably one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

In 2019, George McJunkin was inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Matt Doherty, the great-great-great-grandson of Dr. Owen, accepted the award on McJunkin’s behalf.


George McJunkin, cowboy
George McJunkin, captured here in 1907, was a cowboy from Leon County, east of Waco, and worked as the foreman of a ranch near Folsom, New Mexico.

You can take in some of the same views McJunkin did when you visit the national monument. An accessible nature trail outside the visitor center winds through an educational exhibit featuring the plants, animals, and geology of Capulin Volcano National Monument. A precipitous, narrow road offers long views across four states as it spirals up and around Capulin Volcano’s steep flanks to the summit. Hiking trails let you explore the extinct volcano’s vents and lava flow formations up close, and allow you to walk into the crater’s bowl.

The 793-acre site is still a landmark for those passing through the area: pronghorn, mule deer, black bear, and migrating elk all stop here, seeking food and shelter in the pinyon/juniper woodland. At night, you can pull out your telescope or binoculars to gaze at the stars for hours in this Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park, or attend a guided moonlight hike or the Dark Sky Festival.

More than ever, Capulin Volcano National Monument captures the imagination of those who travel off the beaten path. With less than 100,000 visitors each year, the monument offers a relatively pristine experience — clean air, clear skies, and an abiding, deep quiet. High above the wide prairies, you can walk a one-mile rim trail around the top of Capulin Volcano, looking out at a cowboy’s promised land where cattle, horses, and bison still roam, reflecting on the curiosity, grit, and resilience of George McJunkin.