What can the dead tell us about how they died?
Matthew Barbour, a state archaeologist, says the remains of Confederate soldiers discovered by a property owner in 1987 in a mass grave site in Glorieta speaks to the violence, loss and futility of war.
“It shows the very real consequence of war,” said Barbour, of the state Office of Archaeological Studies, during a presentation Sunday on the uncovered remains of soldiers killed during the Civil War Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862. The men died in pain and for nothing, he said during his talk at the New Mexico History Museum, titled, “Having Fought and Died Together: Examining the Battle of Glorieta Pass Confederate Mass Grave.”
“The battle pretty much ended up being pointless,” Barbour said.
The three-day conflict in March 1862 represented the Confederates’ last chance to seize control of the New Mexico territory. The Union Army put about 1,300 men, mostly Colorado volunteers, on the battlefield against about 1,100 Confederate soldiers from Texas. Both sides reported victory, with 38 Union soldiers killed, 36 Confederate soldiers killed and a nearly equal number of wounded and captured reported on both sides.
But a detachment led by Maj. John M. Chivington and guided by New Mexican trail scouts moved behind enemy lines to destroy the South’s supply camp, which effectively ended the war for the Confederates in the territory. They headed back to Texas, never to return.
“By the end of 1862, we have the end of the Civil War in New Mexico,” Barbour said.
For 125 years, efforts to find the burial sites of both the Confederate and Union forces failed. Then, in 1987, while digging a basement for a new house along N.M. 50 near the battlefield in Glorieta, Kip Siler unearthed a human skeleton about 3 feet below ground. He contacted the Office of Archaeological Studies, which sent out a cadre of volunteers to excavate the site.
They found two grave sites. One contained the remains of one man, identified as Confederate Maj. John Samuel Shropshire, who died in the engagement while trying to take the Union-held Artillery Hill. Shropshire, who was 28, suffered a head wound and possibly a body wound.
The other grave contained the remains of 30 skeletons in a mass burial. It was probably dug on either March 28, the final day of battle, or March 29 before the Confederates retreated. The soldiers had wounds to the head and chest, and some had shattered bones.
Those wounded in the stomach or pelvic area probably died slow deaths, Barbour said. At least one was soldier was killed by artillery shrapnel.
The remains of clothing worn by the dead also offered clues about the soldiers: Confederates who initially mustered in San Antonio, Texas, used clothing and supplies found at abandoned or captured federal supply depots, which means they were often dressed similarly to their enemy, causing confusion in the smoky hell of battle.
A Civil War re-enactor and historian who attended Barbour’s lecture said there is at least one reported incident of a Confederate soldier inadvertently entering Union lines and being mistaken for one of the enemy. He managed to escape by telling Union troops he was going to catch himself a Rebel.
Many of the dead were buried with personal effects and ammunition, which displayed a sense of respect and honor, Barbour said. But none were buried with their weapons, which were still useful to their living comrades.
No one has yet found the location of the Union’s dead on the battlefield. Barbour said he thinks they may now be on private land.
One Confederate who was captured and survived the Glorieta Pass carnage was Private C.S. Red. His great-great-grandson, James Red, president of the New Mexico Confederate Historical Society, attended Barbour’s talk clad in the period garb of a war profiteer.
Red said the Union gave his great-great-grandfather the option of swearing allegiance to the Union in return for his freedom and life. He took the oath at Fort Craig and then was told to head back to Texas by foot with just a canteen of water and a rifle. He later became a farmer but did not leave any journal or mementos of the Glorieta conflict.
Ralph Arellanes, who was also in attendance Sunday, said his great-great-grandparents — Innocencio Arellanes and Albino Garcia — served as trail guides for the Union forces and helped Chivington find the Confederates’ supply train.
“I feel very fortunate,” Arellanes said Sunday. “I feel like my family played an important role in ending the battle of Glorieta Pass.”
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.