Ask a resident what they know about the Civil War in New Mexico, and you might get a response referring to the state’s best-known conflict, the Battle of Glorieta Pass.
That three-day engagement in March 1862 wasn’t the only violent tussle between Union and Confederate troops eager to secure the New Mexico territory for their cause.
There was the First Battle of Mesilla, a victory for Confederates in 1861, and the 1862 Battle of Albuquerque — the “only battle to be fought within the city limits of Albuquerque,” according to a story in The New Mexican by historian Marc Simmons — as well as the Second Battle of Mesilla.
A virtual, interactive exhibit at the New Mexico Military Museum offers an opportunity for residents of all ages to learn more about the places, players, politics and battle plans of the struggle to take New Mexico in the early days of the Civil War — on one big screen.
Museum Director Samantha Tubbs said New Mexico’s Civil War, installed in mid-2021, has been a hit, especially among children participating in school field trips.
Recently, some high school students were “all over the screen,” she said, adding the virtual format appeals to younger people in a way that can draw them into history.
“We had to break them up [into smaller groups] because it got so crowded,” she said of the eager high schoolers.
The large screen allows the museum to “do a lot more with less space,” she said. “It also allows people to refine what they want to learn about.”
The touch-screen display allows viewers to call up text boxes full of history about the conflict in New Mexico, the military leaders involved with the New Mexico campaign, the forts of the period and the reasons behind the struggle in the state.
Each text box brings up an array of choices of more information on those people and places. There’s also a virtual tour of the Glorieta Pass battlefield — minus the combatants.
That well-known battle was 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 Confederates killed and nearly an equal number of wounded and captured reported on both sides.
But a detachment guided by New Mexico trail scouts moved behind enemy lines to destroy the South’s supply camp, which effectively ended the war for the Confederates in the territory.
Tubbs said a lot of people don’t seem to know New Mexico played a role in the war between the states, which lasted from the spring of 1861 until the spring of 1865.
“When you think Civil War, you don’t always think New Mexico,” she said. “There was actually quite a bit of action that happened here, and it stopped the Confederate movement westward. I think a lot of people don’t know that.”
The museum opened in the 1970s and has been in its location at the former New Mexico National Guard armory at 1050 Old Pecos Trail for at least 25 years. It was once called the Bataan Memorial Museum and later the New Mexico National Guard Museum.
The armory, which opened in 1938, was the processing facility for New Mexico soldiers who eventually fought in the Battle of Bataan in defense of the Philippines following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. For decades, the museum has been known for its collection of Bataan-related material, including uniforms, weapons, letters and other documents tied to that campaign.
The Civil War virtual display is the first of its kind in the museum, Tubbs said.
Adjutant Gen. Kenneth Nava — head of the New Mexico National Guard until his retirement takes effect Friday — said funds for the project, about $40,000, came from unused 2019 capital outlay secured by former state Rep. Jim Trujillo of Santa Fe.
The exhibition is designed for expansion and editing, should new information become available about the Civil War in New Mexico, he added.
“I think we will see future exhibits utilize that technology,” Nava said. “It’s a good way for us to tell the story of New Mexico’s military history.”
Laureta Huit, collections manager for the military museum, said one of the appeals of the Civil War exhibition is the virtual tour that “re-creates the battlefield as it was at that time. It’s like you are there.”