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Putting to rest New Mexico's Civil War past : Confederate soldiers are reinterred. They died for a dream of seizing the Denver Mint's gold.

AMERICAN ALBUM

May 17, 1993|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ALBUQUERQUE — As he put the finishing touches on the pair of old-fashioned coffins that he and his friends painstakingly crafted from native ponderosa pine, cabinetmaker Earl Mount mused about war and folly.

The coffins were for two young men who died 131 years ago in a little-known Civil War battle in New Mexico that shattered the Confederacy's hopes of seizing the Western frontier.

The remains of Pvt. J. S. Cotton, 20, and Pvt. Ebineezer (Abe) Hanna, 17, were among those of 31 Confederate soldiers that were discovered six years ago in shallow graves in Glorieta Pass, 20 miles east of Santa Fe.

Cotton, Hanna and 28 of their compatriots recently were reinterred with full honors at the Santa Fe National Cemetery as part of a round of activities marking one of the most poignant chapters of contemporary Civil War archeology.

"They were young, healthy people," said Mount, who belongs to a group that re-enacts Civil War battles, the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "What a waste. You look at this whole thing, and it's just nonsense."

The Battle of Glorieta ended Confederate Gen. Henry H. Sibley's dream of seizing Colorado's gold stores. "Compared to battles in the East, it was minuscule, but it meant that New Mexico and Colorado did not fall under Confederate dominion," said Thomas A. Livesay, director of the Museum of New Mexico.

Had Sibley captured the Denver Mint's bullion, "it would've given the South a great deal of flexibility in negotiating with their European counterparts," Livesay said. "It slammed that door forever."

In the fall of 1861, Sibley enlisted 3,700 volunteers from Texas and embarked on a 1,200-mile march from San Antonio to El Paso, then north along the Rio Grande.

The 4th, 5th and 7th Texas Mounted Volunteers defeated federal troops at Valverde before capturing Albuquerque and Santa Fe. But Sibley's luck ran out when 1,200 of his men met 850 federal soldiers from Ft. Union at Glorieta Pass on March 28, 1862.

The Confederates controlled the battlefield after six hours of fierce fighting, but a detachment of federal soldiers destroyed Sibley's supply train, forcing him to abandon his quest. The Confederates buried their dead under a flag of truce the next morning and began a long retreat down the Rio Grande.

The fallen soldiers lay in their unmarked graves until June, 1987, when a man digging a foundation for his house discovered a human jawbone and notified the museum.

Archeologists found the 30 blanket-wrapped skeletons side-by-side in two layers in a trench 20 feet long and three feet deep, according to Livesay. Nearby they found the body of an officer, later identified as Maj. John Shropshire.

The graves contained a trove of artifacts, including boots, belt buckles, coins and even rubber combs, Livesay says.

Shropshire was identified by his stature (he was more than six feet tall), his equipment and his head wound, which were described in Confederate accounts of the battle.

The archeologists confirmed Cotton's identity in part because he was wearing a ring inscribed with his name. Hanna, who chronicled the campaign in his diary, was identified by his telltale pouch of pencils and a gunshot wound through the left hip, which a fellow soldier had witnessed. The others were not identified.

Museum officials tried to track down relatives of the three to let them decide where the bodies should be reburied. In August, 1990, Shropshire was buried alongside his parents in Kentucky by a group called the International Society of Shropshires. Descendants of Hanna's brothers asked that he be buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery beside Cotton and their 28 still-unidentified comrades.

Hanna's and Cotton's remains were placed in the handcrafted pine coffins, while the others were placed in muslin bags and laid inside a single steel casket.

After lying in state at the Museum of New Mexico, the remains were carried to the cemetery on horse-drawn wagons in a stately procession. They were escorted by scores of re-enactors in Confederate gray and a contingent of black-clad women portraying mourners.

Last respects were paid and the remains were lowered into three graves in an older, tree-shaded section of the cemetery. As hundreds of spectators watched, the Confederate honor guard fired three volleys from their muskets, matched by one from a squadron of Union soldiers who had met them at the cemetery gate.

Then, cannon fire from three artillery pieces boomed across the cemetery.

Museum director Livesay, who escorted several of Hanna's relatives during the long walk from the museum to the cemetery, said he was pleased that the young men had finally been reinterred.

Working with the remains brought the Civil War to life for many of the scientists involved with the project, he said.

"It was something we could touch and see. It was something that touched our emotions as well."

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