Painting honors overlooked Civil War battle

  • Published
  • By Air National Guard Master Sgt. Cheresa D. Theiral
  • Colorado National Guard Public Affairs
Standing tall and proud in front of the state capitol in Denver is a bronze figure of a Civil War Soldier facing southwest with a gun in his hand.

Built to honor Colorado's Civil War heroes and to promote civic pride, the design is the work of Capt. John D. Howland, who was called to fight for the Union in the winter of 1862.

In brisk conditions evocative of what Colorado's first Citizen-Soldiers might have faced during the Battle of Glorieta Pass 151 years ago, Colorado Lt. Gov.  Joe Garcia joined the Colorado National Guard March 26 to commemorate this turning point in the nation's history.

"I am so pleased that all of you are here to recognize not only Colorado's history -- its role in the war between the states -- and also the importance, the incredible significance, of the military men and women who serve and protect all of us today," said Garcia.

"As we stand under the historically majestic gilded capitol dome ... we are reminded of the necessary diligence and high cost each generation must pay for the maintenance and sustainment of liberty and the American way of life," said Colorado National Guard State Chaplain (Col.) Andrew Meverden, in his benediction.

The hallmark of the ceremony, held near the Civil War monument, featured the unveiling of "Action at Apache Canyon," a painting by artist Domenick D'Andrea.

Lt. Gov. Garcia received the painting on behalf of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. He noted the political situation in Denver during the Civil War era and the importance of history education to ensure civically engaged citizens.

Garcia discussed the turmoil in 1860s Denver -- the Union versus the Confederacy -- and said that many gold miners who had come from the Southern states brought their political leanings with them. He then noted the words of Pvt. Ben Ferris, a Soldier in the First Colorado: "Sentiment for the North and the South was just about equally divided; the North the most numerous, the south the most noisy."

"Theirs was a brave and foolhardy thing to do," said Pulitzer-nominated author and military historian Flint Whitlock of the men portrayed in National Guard Bureau Heritage Series painting. The canvas illustrates the initial charge between Union and Confederate Soldiers at Apache Canyon, the first day the three-day Battle of Glorieta Pass, which began March 26, 1862.

On that fateful day, the First Colorado Infantry Regiment, along with New Mexico volunteers and garrisoned Union Soldiers, first engaged Texas Confederate forces at what became the westernmost battleground of the Civil War.

"Many times we think that today, we're doing something new and something different," said Adjutant General of Colorado and commander of the Colorado National Guard Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards. He pointed to the 2012 wildfire season, during which the Colorado National Guard was credited for being the first state to instate a dual-status commander -- a Guardsman who is able to command both federal and state militaries -- during an emergency. "Well guess what, folks? In this battle, Col. John Slough, a Colorado Volunteer, actually commanded federal troops in addition to National Guardsmen, so dual-status command has been around as long as Colorado's been around."

Glorieta Pass, a strategic point on the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was the main entry point to the western half of the country -- and perhaps the fate of the United States.

When the Union and Confederate forces met, Colorado Maj. John Chivington ordered his infantry companies up the sides of the canyon to suppress the Texans, who had already established fire superiority with their artillery. Chivington then ordered Company F, a mounted infantry company led by Capt. Samuel H. Cook, to charge the Confederates west of the Glorieta summit in the snowy, narrow Apache canyon and capture their rear guard.

"Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between bravery and foolhardiness; but as men who had braved the wilderness, it was not unusual," said Whitlock. "After all, they had just completed a 300-mile march from Denver City to Fort Union, New Mexico Territory in 18 days in the dead of winter, attacking an enemy force that had cannons and outnumbered the Coloradoans was no more daunting than marching over Raton Pass in a blizzard, or working down in the hazardous gold and silver mines in Colorado Territory."

The charge marked the first day of the first hostile engagement for the First Colorado Infantry Regiment. While the Apache Canyon engagement ended in a draw, the entire battle of Glorieta Pass, which lasted three days, was a huge success for the Union. On the final day, Colorado troops intercepted and destroyed the Confederate's supply wagons, forcing the Texans to abandon their campaign.

However, had the Texans won the battle, the outcome of the Civil War could have been decidedly different.

Although not listed among the battles at the National Civil War Museum, the 1993 Congressionally appointed Civil War Sites Advisory Commission determined that the battle of Glorieta Pass -- what some historians deem the "Gettysburg of the West" -- had as much or more impact on the outcome of the Civil War as the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam. A Texan victory could have transformed the conflict into an East-West battle and would have potentially invited alliances with foreign countries had the Confederates achieved that level of legitimacy.

Whitlock's book, "Distant Bugles, Distant Drums," details the history of the decisive battle from the perspective of the Union, and further documents the recruitment and training of the Colorado Territory's townsmen, farmers, ranchers and miners -- Colorado's first Citizen-Soldiers and the ancestors of the modern-day Colorado National Guardsmen.

As witnessed by modern volunteers, members of the 169th Fires Brigade, who can trace their lineage to the 1st Colorado Infantry Regiment; the 101st Army National Guard Band, whose marching music set the tone for the day's commemoration; and the Colorado Army National Guard Honor Guard, who carried and presented the Colorado and U.S. flags to the ceremony; this spirit lives on.

"Paying our respects to those who came before us is always important," said Staff Sgt. Kyle Harden, noncommissioned officer in charge of the honor guard. "You don't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been."

Harden, an Airborne Soldier who jumped into Iraq six days into the war in 2003, knows combat.

"Lining up into columns to face your enemy the way they did during the Civil War is just as insane as jumping out of an aircraft to eventually face an enemy on the ground," Harden said. "It's something that has to be done -- how they fought, and now how we fight. It takes a professional Soldier. In the Civil War, that wasn't their job. It was their calling. It's the same today."

"Many important relationships were formed during this time -- particularly between the military and civic law enforcement," said Garcia. "Over the past 151 years, the relationship between the state of Colorado and its military has evolved into a superb team."

"We do have a tendency to maybe gloss over some of our history and forget what really was in place many, many years ago, and then we have to reinvent it," said Edwards. "That, to me, is one of the most significant lesson that you learn out of Glorieta Pass -- that there was great cooperation between the federal command and the National Guard."

Current Guardsmen fired a 1918 75-mm howitzer three times -- once for each day of the battle.

Also on hand for the event were members of the First Colorado Volunteer Infantry, dressed in full Union attire. The American Civil War living history group portrays Company D in reenactments and prides itself on its authenticity.

For more on the Colorado National Guard's history pertaining to the Civil War, an extended summary of the battle of Glorieta Pass can be found here.

The stone base of Colorado's Civil War monument is adorned with four tablets that list the battles and the names of the Soldiers who died in the Civil War era. Also chiseled into the base is the statement that Colorado boasted the highest average of volunteers per capita during the Civil War of any state or territory in the Union.

Colorado National Guardsmen have participated in every federal campaign from the Civil War to present.