Fort Union National Monument, on the Old Santa Fe Trail, about an hour and a half north or Santa Fe, makes a great day-trip for history buffs.
Sitting on a bench at Fort Union National Monument, except for the occasional gusts of wind, it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop. What a difference time makes. One hundred and fifty years ago, in the middle of the Civil War, the fort, on the Santa Fe Trail, was a bustling hive or humans and animals, comings and goings. As a reminder of the past, there’s periodic bugling, (through the PA system, now, as there would have been when the fort was more than an adobe skeleton on the prairie.
The fort, built in 1851, sat at the junction of the Mountain and Cimarron Branches of the Santa Fe Trail. In its heyday, Fort Union was a Territorial-style oasis on the long and dusty trail that started in Missouri and terminated in Santa Fe. Traders brought the every-day needs of settlers in the new territory; food, fabric, pots and pans and other goods not available in New Mexico. Going east, they carried furs, gold bullion and mules. It was also a step to securing access to Pacific ports.
The Fort Union Depot was charged with supplying the forts around the southwest and military encampments along the Santa Fe Trail and near reservations.
During the Civil War, Fort Union sent out patrols and provided escorts for wagon trains heading south. Confederate troops based in Texas ,wanting access to Colorado gold and to the Pacific, were a real threat.
Enlisted men weren’t generally allowed to marry, but there was an exception. An army creates a lot of dirty laundry. If their prospective wives were willing to be laundresses, they were granted permission to wed. Enlisted couples were given a single room heated by a fireplace, extremely cold in winter and blisteringly hot in summer. Single men lived in communal barracks.
Officers were allowed to marry and bring their wives and children to live in this barren outpost. One of the most poignant photos at the Fort is of a family in their “parlor” with a piano. That piano had to journey from Missouri on a wagon. Things we take for granted were extreme luxuries at Fort Union.
With the expansion of the railroads and more peaceful times out west, Fort Union became obsolete. It was closed in 1891, forty years after it opened.
Today, the skeletons of the adobe buildings stand silhouetted against the big sky with the Sangre de Christo Mountains rising to the west and the prairie to the east a silent testament to the wild west and the Santa Fe Trail.
If you go
Fort Union is on State Highway NM 161 eight miles west of I-25 . The site is open daily (except Thanksgiving Christmas and New Year’s Day); admission is free. Winter hours, which run from from Labor Day to Memorial Day are 8am to 4pm and summer hours from Memorial Day to Labor Day are 8am to 5pm.