The history of Fort Union is directly related to the territorial disputes, and wars, that defined New Mexico during the 1800’s, starting with the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821). The war started with a progressive priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla making a historic proclamation on September 16, 1810, urging his countrymen to take up arms against the Spanish government. Known as the “Grito de Dolores,” Hidalgo’s declaration launched a decade-long war for Independence, with Mexico successfully ending 300 years of colonial rule. He was instrumental in establishing an independent Mexico and cultivating a unique Mexican identity. The anniversary of his call to arms is celebrated as Mexico’s birthday.

Fort Union Panorama

After more than a decade of war, the newborn nation was in shambles. The economy, agriculture and industry had been devastated during the war. Over half a million Mexicans died. The country was deeply divided between the Liberals and the Conservatives, with each vying for the political power to pursue their agenda. The Conservatives wanted to follow the Spanish model to govern Mexico, essentially continuing the empire under a new flag. The Liberals wanted to implement a democratic system similar to the United States. Over the course of thirty years, fifty governments rotated through the capital, often rising to power via military coups. With Mexico City in perpetual turmoil, the outer reaches of the territory were ignored and left vulnerable. The disarray in the fledgling Mexican administration provided opportunity for an aggressive neighbor.

Mexican-American War

Texas ceded from Mexico in 1836. The United States initially declined to incorporate Texas into the Union, because northern politicians opposed the addition of a new slave state. The tension and suspicion that would lead to the Civil War was brewing in Washington. The Mexican government encouraged border raids and warned that any attempt at annexation would lead to war.

The tension set the stage for President James K. Polk. Polk believed it was “Manifest Destiny” that U.S. territory should spread across the continent to the Pacific. He sent U.S. troops into disputed territory along the Rio Grande in April, 1846, deliberately provoking an altercation with a Mexican cavalry unit. A dozen U.S. soldiers died in the battle., which provided Polk with an excuse to invade. Congress declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846 and dispatched troops into what is now New Mexico and Texas. With about 75,000 people living in the northern territory, there was nothing to stop the advancing U.S. troops. They quickly approached Mexico City, overwhelming Mexican troops. Mexico surrendered.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the conflict on February 2, 1848. The United States forced Mexico to sell all land north of the Rio Grande for 15 million dollars, less assessed damages of 3.25 million. They gave residents of the annexed areas, including New Mexico, the choice of relocating to within Mexico’s new boundaries or receiving American citizenship with full civil rights. Over 90% chose to become U.S. citizens.

Within less than thirty years of achieving independence, Mexico lost 1/3 of their territory, including nearly all of California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. In contrast, the United States doubled in size. A generation of people living in New Mexico, Arizona, California and the panhandle of Texas lived in three countries without moving.

Did You Know?

Gold was discovered in California just days before Mexico ceded the land to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

New challenges came with the new territory. Conflict with the nomadic tribes escalated. Settlers and ranchers dislocated tribes from their traditional homelands and hunting grounds. Americans captured natives and sold them as slaves. They restricted access to hunting grounds and impeded food gathering. Resentment and necessity spurred escalated raiding, with food seized from any available source. Attacks on wagon trains were common. In response, the U.S. Army launched campaigns against the Ute, Comanche, Apache, and Navajo Nations in New Mexico. Most were unsuccessful.

The U.S. Army quickly realized that maintaining control of the frontier required more responsiveness and mobility, which would require substantial troops at significant expense.

Fort Union adobe walls

Fort Union

Colonel Edwin V. Sumner established Fort Union several miles north of the junction of the two main branches of the Santa Fe Trail, on a tributary of the Mora river, in July, 1851. He chose the location for several reasons. 1) Sumner deemed Santa Fe as “morally degrading.” There were a lot of bars and brothels, which provided too many tempting distractions for soldiers. 2) Use soldiers to construct a fort and to farm was less expensive than leasing buildings, contracting to vendors, or purchasing provisions. 3) Problems with Comanche, Ute, and Jicarilla Apache along the southern route of the Santa Fe Trail jeopardized the primary supply line to the new territory. Troops could patrol and be more readily mobilized from the Plains than from the Sangre de Cristos.

Security & Supply Depot

Fort Union’s presence on the Santa Fe trail served two purposes: military support and supply depot. The massive amount of supplies needed to maintain the U.S. army in the Southwest came from eastern depots at Fort Leavenworth and St. Louis. Supplies were shipped across the plains on the Santa Fe Trail by contract, stored at the Fort Union depot and dispatched to others posts in the territory. Sumner stationed the district’s chief quartermaster and ordnance office at Fort Union. Other than a brief period in the mid-1850s, the fort facilitated supplies until the arrival of the railroad thirty years later.

Santa Fe trader and author William Davis in 1857:

“Fort Union, a hundred and ten miles from Santa Fé, is situated in the pleasant valley of the Moro (Mora River). It is an open post, without either stockades or breastworks of any kind, and, barring the officers and soldiers who are seen about, it has much more the appearance of a quiet frontier village than that of a military station. It is laid out with broad and straight streets crossing each other at right angles. The huts are built of pine logs, obtained from the neighboring mountains, and the quarters of both officers and men wore a neat and comfortable appearance.”

The U.S. Army constructed three forts over Fort Union’s forty year history. Unskilled troops built the first one. The structures were drafty and leaked, constantly in need of maintenance. The ordnance and quartermaster complained about inadequate shelter for supplies and soldiers preferred to sleep on the parade ground when weather allowed. The facilities required major renovations and upgrades by 1960. Fortuitous timing, because that coincided with escalating tension between the northern and southern states. Ultimately, the buildup to the Civil War facilitated funding and influenced design.

Civil War

When the Civil War broke out in April, 1861, the political debate and division extended west of the Mississippi. Officers at Fort Union discussed, debated, and were divided on the issue. Suspicion and mistrust undermined unit cohesiveness and morale. When southern sympathizers suggested turning Fort Union, its depot supplies, and troops over to the Confederacy, William R. Shoemaker, the Ordnance Depot commander, prepared charges in the storehouses. Shoemaker threatened to blow everything up to avoid having munitions seized by the rebels. Ultimately, the troops supporting the Confederacy left Fort Union and joined the Confederate militias in Texas.

The commanders of Fort Union knew the existing fort couldn’t withstand a Confederate onslaught. The shoddy conditions of the structures and the location rendered the fort indefensible. They relocated the fort to a position less vulnerable to rebel artillery. The new fort was innovative…not the standard frontier layout with buildings surrounding a parade ground. They incorporated earthen walls, gun positions, infantry positions, and bunkers that could be used for combat purposes, living quarters, or storage. New Mexico volunteers did most of the work in non-stop, four hour shifts. They anticipated the arrival of the rebels, but the rebels never arrived.

Fort Union canon

Glorieta Pass

When the Confederate troops from Texas advanced into New Mexico in February, 1862, they quickly occupied Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The Federal forces and the Territorial Capital withdrew to Fort Union. A force made up of Colorado troops, U.S. infantry and cavalry, and New Mexico volunteers departed Fort Union to confront the advancing Texans in March, 1862. A two-day battle around Glorieta Pass resulted in the destruction of the Confederate supply train, forcing them to abandon their campaign. The Civil War was over in New Mexico by the summer of 1862.

Security on the Santa Fe Trail

However, military activity in the southwest didn’t wane with the war. As the Confederacy collapsed, the conflict with Plains and Southwestern tribes escalated. The Apaches attacked the stage and mail routes south of Fort Union and, further west, Navajos attacked settlers encroaching on their land. The Comanches, Kiowas and southern Cheyenne shut down the Cimarron route of the Santa Fe trail, north of the fort. Military escort, or wagon trains with at least 100 armed men, were necessary to attempt passage on the shorter Cimarron route. Fort Union and Fort Larned, in Kansas, coordinated regular escort services during the height of the raiding.

The increased need for military support, and increased traffic on the Santa Fe trail increased Fort Union’s significance during western expansion. Up to three thousand wagonloads of military supplies were funneled through Fort Union annually by the mid-1860s. The Fort Union Depot serviced garrisons throughout New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. With increased prominence came additional need for expansion and permanent structures.

Engineers of the second fort obviously didn’t take input from the enlisted men. They built subterranean living quarters. Again, soldiers preferred to camp outside rather than sleep in a dank, dark hole in the ground.

Garrison commanders began work on the design and construction of the third fort in 1863. The new design encompassed three separate areas: the Garrison, the Quartermaster Depot and the Arsenal. Construction occurred over four years. Hundreds of civilian laborers quarried stone, hauled and cut lumber from the mountains nearby, and made thousands upon thousands of adobe bricks. The new fort, completed in 1867, was the largest of the three. The sprawling complex cost over $1,000,000 and provided housing and facilities for six full companies.

Apache Wars

Troops from Fort Union participated in military campaigns against the Plains tribes, Apache, Comanche, Ute, Cheyenne and Navajo throughout the 1860s. They consolidated tribes from the southern plains onto reservations by the mid-1870s, with soldiers from Fort Union monitoring the reservations. Apache raiding in southern New Mexico and Arizona intensified as the mining boom of the late-1800s attracted prospectors to the region, many of whom staked claims on Apache land.

The U.S. Army moved the 9th Cavalry from Texas to New Mexico. The 9th was one of four army regiments made up entirely of black enlisted men, the “Buffalo Soldiers.” The Army assigned several companies of the regiment to Fort Union. Troopers of the 9th Cavalry won nine medals of honor during the Apache campaigns, the only medals of honor awarded throughout Fort Union’s history.

When the “Victorio War” of 1880 ended with Victorio’s death, the companies of the 9th were reassigned to posts near the Apache reservations, like Fort Stanton. In addition to their role in the Apache Wars, the Buffalo Soldiers were instrumental in civil altercations. Fort Union dispatched troops to intercede in the violence associated with the “Colfax County War” that raged north of Fort Union in the late 1870s.

Railroad Expansion

The Kansas Pacific Railroad expanded west rapidly after the civil war, reaching Hays, Kansas by 1867. Each section of the railroad completed marked a new base the wagon traffic. The railroad reached Kit Carson, Colorado by 1869 and they loaded freight arriving via rail into wagons for the remainder of the trek to New Mexico. The wagons headed southwest over the eastern Colorado plains from Kit Carson, forging a new branch of the Santa Fe Trail.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad entered Colorado in 1873. The towns of Granada and West Las Animas became way-stations for supplies bound for the New Mexico territory. As the railroad continued to advance west, the Fort Union depot’s role waned. It was cheaper and easier for the army to send supplies directly from the railhead to their final destination. The railroad reached Raton in 1879, sealing Fort Union’s fate. To compound the blow, the railroad reached Lamy in February, 1880, eliminating the need for the Santa Fe Trail. Fort Union’s depot operations were terminated and the Arsenal was disbanded in 1883. The garrison remained to stand vigil over the reservations.

Fort Union supplymaster quarters


Troops lowered the flag for the final time and marched away on May 15, 1891. The Union Land and Grazing Company assumed control of the property. No one protected the fort for more than forty years. Locals scavenged the structures for viable building materials and the exposed adobe walls eroded rapidly. Little remained by the time the first effort was made to provide protection for the fort in 1930.

Congress established the Fort Union National Monument in 1954, ending sixty-four years of neglect. The 720-acre monument encompasses the site of the Second Fort (earthworks), as well as over sixty-five adobe buildings from the third fort. The ruins of the third fort constitute the largest number of 19th century adobe structures in North America. Wind and water eroded these structures to a shadow of their former glory, but the scope of the fort, and the immensity of the depot operations, is evident. Additionally, if you look for them, the wagon ruts from the Santa Fe Trail are visible, extending to the horizon in all directions.

Life at Fort Union

Life at Fort Union wasn’t easy. It provided little in the way of amenities, entertainment or companionship. Hard work, poor living conditions, lousy food and bad pay made it difficult to attract good recruits. Desertion was a huge issue for all of the frontier forts, with about one-third of the soldiers departing before the completion of their five-year enlistment. Only 20% opted to re-enlist at the end of their 5-year term. ¼ to ½ of the soldiers in any given regiment were completely inexperienced. There was constant turnover in enlisted personnel. Training was based on surviving long enough to gather experience until 1881. The fort lost 25% to 40% of the enlisted men yearly when all losses were combined.

Duane M. Greene, retired lieutenant, writing about the behavior of officers:

“Rank is the shield behind which they stand to heap tyranny upon insult and wrong. They do not regard inferiors has having rights which they should respect, and by the tyrannical exercise of authority, they extort a slavish obedience from those over whom they are placed. They look upon a private soldier as a machine—animate, yet without sense of justice or wrong; exacting of him the offices of a menial—a serf—degrading him even in his own estimation.”

Military protocol defined life at the fort from the Civil War until the post was closed in 1891. There was rigid stratification of personnel and a strict schedule of mandatory activities; roll call, guard mount, company drills, target practice, guard duty, and fatigue details.

Fatigue Details

Forts leveraged fatigue details to provide free labor for the army. Officers assigned fatigue details to construct buildings and corrals, build and maintain telegraph lines, construct and repair roads, renovate facilities, and almost every other task needed around the fort…the chores. Enlisted men were critical of the practice. They perceived the tasks, rightfully, as unrelated to soldiering. The general ambivalence among the enlisted men towards the practice of using them as a labor pool was cited as a contributing factor to the high desertion rate at Fort Union. Additionally, officers employed some enlisted men as servants (known as “strikers”). They paid them five to ten dollars per month.

Despite the rigors of guard duty, fatigue details and military campaigns, there was down time for the enlisted men. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of recreation available other than the library and the store. The community of Loma Parda, a few miles from Fort Union, was a hangout for soldiers, providing entertainment in the form of liquor, gambling and prostitution. Now it is a ghost town.

Lieutenant Henry B. Judd, Third Artillery, following his arrival for duty in New Mexico late in 1848:

“Having reached that region which lies far west of the setting sun, the Siberia of America, the Texas of Texas the Gomorrah of the modern world, where friends seem consigned to oblivion, horses to starvation and public morals to the Qr. Master’s department, my thoughts at times peep through the dense fog of vice composing the atmosphere of this Heaven forsaken spot, and revest those I’ve left behind.”

Fort Windy

Complaints about the wind and the dust were common at Fort Union. Some residents referred to it as “Fort Windy.” Absent rain, there was no foliage or grasses to hold the soil in place. When the wind blows, the soil is in motion, airborne. When there is water, it melts into a slog of mud. Either way the dirt on the Plains is perpetually on the move most seasons of the year and it gets into everything.

An officer’s wife, Lydia Spencer Lane, who lived at the fort before and after the Civil War, had clear sentiments about the wind:

“How they do howl! About ten o’clock every morning they woke up, and whistled and moaned, and rose to wild shrieks, doing everything wind ever does in the way of making a noise. The fine, impalpable dust worked its way into every crack and crevice, lodging round the windows and doors in little yellow mounds, so that we could sweep up a good-sized dustpan full after the wind lulled, which it usually did at sun-down. Sometimes it blew all night, beginning with fresh vigor at the usual time next morning. Another unpleasant trick the breezes had of darting playfully down the chimney, sending the fire and ashes half-way across the room, so that we had to be on guard to prevent a conflagration.”

Fort Union National Monument

3115 NM Highway 161
Watrous, NM 87753
(505) 425-8025

Monument grounds and Visitor Center: 8:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Labor Day – Memorial Day: 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day: CLOSED

There are no fees.

Fort Union National Monument is located in the Northeastern portion of the state of New Mexico. 8 miles off of Interstate I-25 on State Highway NM 161.

New Mexico: From Albuquerque (156 miles), Santa Fe (94 miles) or Las Vegas, NM (28 miles). Take I-25 North, exit 366 at Watrous, 8 miles on NM 161.

Colorado: From Denver (313 miles), Colorado Springs (243 miles) or Raton (95 miles). Take I-25 South, exit 366 at Watrous, 8 miles on NM 161.

Fort Union is 6,760 feet above sea level. Daytime temperatures between June and September may exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Winter temperatures often drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures may vary within 50 degrees in a 24-hour period. During the winter, it is not uncommon for the temperatures to drop below 0°F (-18°C.) During the summer, expect high temperatures, intense sunlight and extreme low humidity.

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