The significance of the Civil War in relation to the Santa Fe Trail was limited to military matters such as the increase in the numbers of soldiers, escorts, patrols and forts along the Trail. The Civil War brought about many changes in the regional political divisions of the emerging nation. In 1861, the Santa Fe Trail crossed portions of Missouri, Kansas, unorganized territory, Colorado Territory, and New Mexico Territory.
Differences between the North and the South culminated in the outbreak of Civil War in April 1861, and activities along the Santa Fe Trail can be shown to have contributed to the preservation of the Union. Two battles along the Santa Fe Trail dashed Confederate attempts at territorial expansion. In addition to territorial expansion, the Confederacy sought diplomatic recognition from other nations, allies and, through expansion, access to a Pacific seaport and to the wealth from western mining districts. To these ends, Confederate forces invaded New Mexico. The initial stage of the invasion was a success, with 3,500 officers and men under the command of General Henry Hopkins Sibley marching up the Rio Grande Valley in January 1862 and occupying Albuquerque on March 8 and Santa Fe on March 11, 1862.
The key to Confederate control of New Mexico was Fort Union located on the Santa Fe Trail near where the Cimarron and Mountain Routes converged, about 100 miles from Santa Fe. Fort Union would have reinforced Confederate supplies and equipment considerably. Under orders from Lieutenant Colonel Edward Richard Sprigg Canby, the defensive position of Fort Union was improved by moving the post from its original location near a mesa and rebuilding it a mile into the valley. The newly rebuilt Fort Union was a “square-bastioned fortification with earthen breastworks extending outward from the square to form the shape of an eight-pointed star.” Governor William Gilpin of Colorado sent the First Regiment of Colorado Volunteers, consisting of ten companies led by Colonel John P. Slough, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel F. Tappan, and Major John M. Chivington, to reinforce the garrison at Fort Union. Colonel Slough in command of 1,342 troops marched from Fort Union towards Santa Fe on March 22, 1862.
On March 26, Union forces, led by Major Chivington, and Confederate soldiers, under the command of Major Charles L. Pyron, clashed in the three-hour Battle of Apache Canyon. Union forces prevailed and dealt the Confederate invaders their first defeat since entering New Mexico. On March 28, 1862, these opposing forces met once again, a few miles east of Santa Fe, at Glorieta Pass — a defile of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains through which the Trail passed. The result of this meeting between the 1,100 Confederate soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel William R. Scurry and the Union forces, composed of a 1,300 infantry, cavalry, and artillery led by Colonel John B. Slough, was a stalemate. Union forces sent a detachment of seven companies of soldiers under the command of Major Chivington west to attack Confederate forces from the rear.
Chivington’s men, having done so, came upon and destroyed a poorly guarded Confederate supply train with 73 wagons and hundreds of horses and mules. Three Confederate soldiers were killed, several were wounded, and 17 were taken prisoner. Since the Confederates now lacked supplies, they were not fully prepared for combat and had little choice but to retreat southward into Texas. The Battle at Glorieta Pass (also known as the Battle of Pigeon’s Ranch) turned out to be only a minor skirmish by Civil War standards. Nevertheless, it proved to be a decisive blow to the Confederate invasion of New Mexico, and its significance in the prevention of Confederate expansion westward cannot be overlooked. Unsupported by the New Mexican populace, pursued by Union soldiers, and with the approach of the California Column under General James H. Carleton providing reinforcements for the Union forces, the Confederates were driven from New Mexico during the late spring and early summer of 1862.
At least three of the ten Civil War battles that took place in Kansas were in close proximity to the Santa Fe Trail. On September 7, 1862, a large force of William Quantrill’s proslavery raiders surrounded and staged a bold night attack on Olathe, a small community on the Santa Fe Trail in eastern Kansas. Male civilians and soldiers were rounded up, and many were killed; horses were stolen; large quantities of property were looted or destroyed, and the town was set on fire. The border ruffians escaped unharmed and stirred up panic along the Kansas border with Missouri. On October 17 of that year, the small community of Shawnee, located only a short distance southwest of Kansas City, was sacked and burned. Townspeople were held in the town square while raiders looted stores and set fire to buildings. Civilians blamed General James Blunt for failing to have troops in position to protect border communities. A third battle took place in May 1863 when Dick Yeager led 24 proslavery men in a raid on Diamond Spring, a Morris County town located more than 100 miles west of the Missouri border. The proslavery force made its way back to Missouri along the Santa Fe Trail, attacking and looting the communities of Rock Springs, Black Jack, Gardner, and Shawnee on the return trip. The Kansas militia pursued Yeager’s party but failed to stop them.
The Battle of Westport in October 1864 was one of the last and largest Civil War battles fought in the trans-Mississippi area. This confrontation ended in the defeat of General Sterling Price and his Confederate troops. Governor Thomas C. Fletcher announced the restoration of civil law in Missouri on March 7, 1865, even though hostilities did not cease until May of that year.
The Civil War itself did not leave significant changes along the Santa Fe Trail. It did not change patterns of settlement or result in major political changes; however, violence related to the war did result in the temporary shift of the eastern terminus. The rise in violence from 1861 to 1863 between the border ruffians in Missouri and Jayhawkers forced the eastern terminus to be moved from Kansas City north to Fort Leavenworth. The fort was far enough removed from the turmoil in and around Kansas City that it was safer for travelers and freighters to embark from here. Leaving from Fort Leavenworth also allowed US soldiers to escort the wagon trains to Council Grove in an attempt to prevent guerilla attacks. The importance of the Santa Fe Trail as a military highway persisted and intensified throughout the course of the war.
On the whole, the Civil War years witnessed a continuation of lingering Indian wars that lasted until the 1880s. Both the loss of formally trained soldiers to the war in the East and the continuing pressure caused by advancing settlement have been cited as causes of the continuing American Indian hostilities. Fears of hostilities were so great that false rumors ran rampant through Kansas during the war that the various Indian tribes, acting in collusion with the Confederates, were planning major uprisings. Rather, American Indian resistance intensified during the war in an effort to close the Santa Fe Trail as a means of protection from Euro-American encroachment. Attempts were foiled, though, by the military presence at Forts Larned, Wise, and Union.
At the beginning of the Civil War, not all of the Plains Indians were considered a threat to Santa Fe Trail trade and traffic. At Fort Wise in September 1861, American Indian agent Albert Boone succeeded in securing an agreement between the Kiowa and Comanche tribes and the United States. The tribes agreed to suspend all resistance, including the disruption of mail coaches, wagon trains, settlements, and trail travelers, in return for annuities issued by the US government. Furthermore, the parties agreed to negotiate a permanent treaty of friendship at the end of the year.
The intended permanent treaty did not materialize due to violation of the agreement by the United States. Hostilities between the tribes and the travelers, therefore, arose again. Adequate protection was afforded the mail coaches and supply trains by military escorts and patrols in 1861 and early 1862. However, along the stretch of the trail from Walnut Creek to Cow Creek in May 1862, attacks on caravans occurred by Kiowa, Apache, and Arapaho. Captain Julius Hayden, stationed at Fort Larned, brought this to the attention of Brigadier General James G. Blunt, commander of the Department of Kansas, and urged him to take “prompt action” to secure the route and avert a possible American Indian war. Reinforcements were sent to Fort Larned, increasing military numbers from 63 to 292, and the resulting patrols were effective in removing that threat. After Indian Agent S.G. Colley was successful in de-escalating the tension between Indians and travelers, Colonel J.H. Leavenworth announced the violence was sparked due to travelers camping on Indian land, hoping to buy Indian annuities for next to nothing.
The threat of American Indian attacks shifted farther west and emerged in late August 1862 in northeastern New Mexico when a wagon train was robbed of 115 mules en route to Fort Union. Steps were taken to protect the Cimarron Route, and minimal Indian opposition was evident during the winter of 1862-1863, likely because American Indians often suspended active opposition and warfare during the winter months. When spring arrived in 1863, the tribes began to assemble once again along the trail in pursuit of buffalo and to receive annuities promised in treaties.
By April 1864, the interaction between Indians and trail travelers had erupted once again into open warfare. Cheyenne warriors attacked ranches along the Platte River and stole stock. During the spring and summer of 1864, other Plains tribes also maintained their efforts to close the trail. They wounded or killed a number of soldiers and civilians, killed or stampeded livestock, and burned wagons and settlements. Colonel J.C. McFerran traveled from Kansas City to Santa Fe and reported the situation as he saw it in a letter, written in Santa Fe, to Brigadier General James H. Carleton, dated August 28, 1864:
“Both life and property on [the Cimarron Route] is almost at the mercy of the Indians. Every tribe that frequents the plains is engaged in daily depredations on trains, and immense losses to the Government and individuals have occurred, and many lives have already been lost. Several persons were killed and large numbers of animals run off during my trip of fourteen days from Kansas City to this place. Many contractors and private trains are now corralled and unable to move from their camps for fear of Indians, and other trains have had their entire stock run off, and cannot move until other animals can be had… This evil is on the increase, and the number of troops on the route is so small that they are unable to securely protect the public property at their respective stations. They have in several instances lost a large number of public horses and other animals, run off by these Indians, within a few hundred yards of their posts. Soldiers and citizens have been killed within sight of a large number of troops. You cannot imagine a worse state of things that exists now on this route. Women and children have been taken prisoners to suffer treatment worse than death.”
Indian resistance soon spread to other settlements and to traffic in different areas along the trail.
Perhaps as a result of the continuing warfare, additional military posts were established to provide escorts for wagon caravans. General Samuel R. Curtis established Fort Zarah in September 1864 on Walnut Creek, approximately one mile from its confluence with the Arkansas River, to guard commerce and travelers along the Santa Fe Trail. The post was situated near the point where the military road from Fort Riley met the trail. This site had been used for military camps since at least 1853. On July 18, 1864, a party of Kiowa had attacked two civilian freight trains within sight of the Fort Zarah site. Ten of the teamsters were killed and some of the animals were taken in the skirmish, which became known as the Walnut Creek Massacre. One of the survivors was Robert McGee, then a 14-year old in the employ of the freighting company, who was partially scalped. Fort Ellsworth was established on the Smoky Hill Trail in 1864, and in 1867 it was moved a short distance and renamed Fort Harker. While located north of the Santa Fe Trail, this military post was on the Kansas Stage route, which linked the Santa Fe and Smoky Hill Trails. A new system of escorting mail caravans was implemented whereby Fort Union troops escorted the mail trains halfway to the Arkansas River where Fort Larned troops took over the duties. During the Civil War and the continuing American Indian resistance, military authorities at Fort Larned ordered caravans to take the safer Mountain Route where a patrol system was in operation.
With the approach of the winter of 1864-65, and despite the American Indians’ reported willingness to enter into peace negotiations, US troops attacked a large Kiowa camp near the ruins of the fort at Adobe Walls, William Bent’s old trading post on the Canadian River in northern Texas, and also an Arapaho and Cheyenne encampment on Sand Creek in eastern Colorado Territory, destroying both settlements. The period surrounding the Adobe Walls and Sand Creek attacks witnessed some of the most serious American Indian opposition in Santa Fe Trail history. The winter of 1864-65 saw additional conflict between Indians, settlers, travelers, and the military. In January 1865, a large party of Cheyenne and Arapaho attacked a Santa Fe Trail wagon train at Nine Mile Ridge west of Fort Larned. On April 10, 1865, Fort Dodge was founded along the course of the trail. This was soon followed the same year by Camp Nichols in late May and Fort Aubrey in September. After spring and summer raids, the Cheyenne and Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, and Kiowa-Apache accepted US peace treaties in the autumn of 1865. The Treaties of the Little Arkansas, as they were known, encouraged these tribes to remain on reservations south of the Arkansas River and to not encamp within ten miles of towns, military posts, or the Santa Fe Trail in return for annuities for 40 years. Though these treaties served to calm tensions along the trail through 1866, they did not bring a lasting peace. The terms of the agreement were violated by the Americans when the “reservations to be established never materialized.”
By the end of the Civil War, more than 20,000 troops were stationed in the West, protecting settlers and trade routes from Indians and Confederates. Western development continued during the course of the war. The first transcontinental telegraph was completed in October 1861, and on July 1, 1862, a bill passed Congress calling for the construction of a transcontinental railroad. In 1865 the Santa Fe Trail had survived the Civil War, but the real threat to its survival had just begun. Over the next 15 years, steel rails to Santa Fe would replace wagons.