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.