FORT UNION
Historic Resource Study
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EPILOGUE:
RETREAT, TATTOO, AND TAPS: THE LAST DAYS AND AFTER

     For the last two decades of its occupation, as noted in chapter seven, Fort Union was a candidate for abandonment by the army. Periodically commanders of the department in which the District of New Mexico was located suggested that it was far removed from areas of conflict, while the defenders noted that the post protected the supply depot and arsenal. After the railroad reached New Mexico in 1879, the depot and the arsenal were phased out. The only argument for retaining the post after the early 1880s was that it was a comfortable place to house troops whose services were not immediately required in other places, and it was economical because it was already there and provided good grazing for livestock. In 1886 General Sheridan recommended that Forts Union and Lyon be closed, and declared "these posts have outlived the wants of the country surrounding them, and there is no necessity of keeping them except to furnish shelter for the troops." The troops, he concluded, could be quartered less expensively elsewhere. [1] There were undoubtedly citizens in the area, including contractors who supplied the post, who argued that the post should be retained because it contributed to the economy. There were still minor concerns that a possible Indian outbreak or civilian conflict would require swift action by the troops. Most soldiers and civilians who were aware of the post likely understood it was only a matter of time until Fort Union and most of the other frontier posts would be closed because, for the most part, the frontier no longer existed. None of the problems they were established to resolve remained, in part, because of the efforts of the soldiers assigned to them and, mostly, because the expansion and development of the Anglo-American economy and society had changed forever the unsettled world which required their presence.

     The commanding general of the army, John M. Schofield, notified the commanding general of the Division of the Pacific, Nelson A. Miles, in October 1889, that plans should be completed to abandon Fort Union "at this time, or in the near future." Miles was instructed to decide where the troops remaining at Fort Union should be sent. Miles recommended that "the post be garrisoned until next spring," and the three companies remaining at the post be distributed among Fort Huachuca, Arizona Territory, and Forts Stanton and Wingate, New Mexico Territory. Schofield approved the plan. [2] For some unknown reason there was a delay of another year before the final step was taken.

     In December 1890 Brigadier General Alexander McDowell McCook, commander of the Department of Arizona which included the former District of New Mexico, inspected the posts in his department and noted in his report on Fort Union that the post could be "abandoned as soon as the Apache prisoners are returned to their reservation." Major General Schofield added his endorsement: "The abandonment of Fort Union has already been authorized by the Secretary of War and is only suspended pending its occupation by Apache prisoners." The new secretary of war Stephen B. Elkins, approved the abandonment on January 6, 1891. Elkins also requested McCook to report as to whether Fort Marcy at Santa Fe might not be abandoned at the same time. On February 4 McCook reported that "the abandonment of Forts Marcy and Union can be made with the interests of the service fully subserved." He recommended that the two companies of Tenth Infantry at Fort Union and the Apache prisoners be transferred to Fort Wingate. Secretary Elkins approved. [3]

     On February 12, 1891, McCook issued the proper orders and telegraphed instructions to the commander of Fort Union, Major Whittemore, directing him to transfer the garrison and prisoners to Fort Wingate and to leave an officer and twenty enlisted men at Fort Union to ship the remaining government stores and other property to Fort Wingate as soon as possible. Whittemore responded the same day, stating that the two companies (C and H, Tenth Infantry) and Indian prisoners would be ready to leave on February 21. Lieutenant John H. Shollenberger, Sergeants George B. Adams and John W. Lambert, and Privates William L. Adams, Daniel Callaghan, Jerry Collins, Michael Curtis, August Fitting, Alexander Forsyth, Daniel Foster, Henry Herule, William Joyce, Franklin Marker, Frederick Mathys, Peter Meyer, Martin Miller, Edwin L. Miner, Mark Murphy, John W. Myers, James Riley, and Richard van Schranendyk were selected to comprise the final garrison and close the post. Ten of the enlisted men belonged to Company C and ten to Company H. [4]

     On February 21, as planned, the troops remaining at Fort Union (except the above twenty-one, Commissary Sergeant John Thomas Barratt, Ordnance Sergeant Michael Fetters, Chaplain Seibold, Surgeon Lippincott, Hospital Steward Frederick Schumacher, four enlisted men in the hospital corps, three enlisted men of the Sixth Cavalry, and three civilian employees) and the Apache prisoners marched to Watrous and took the train on their way to Fort Wingate. Fort Union was passing away in good company, for on that same day the funeral of General William T. Sherman, who had compiled admirable records during the Mexican and Civil wars and the Indian campaigns and had served as general in chief of the army, was conducted in St. Louis, Missouri. Although all military posts had been notified to honor the dead general by wearing badges of mourning, firing seventeen-gun salutes every half-hour, and performing no other duties on that day, the designated soldiers left Fort Union on schedule. [5]

     One of the soldiers, using the pen name "Philo," described the preparations and travel to a new station for a Las Vegas newspaper. On February 18 he wrote, "The last few days have told a terrible tale on Fort Union; four days ago, everything was in running order; now it's upside down and inside out." Everyone was busy packing and shipping virtually everything. The men had to sleep in barracks in which bunks and bedding had been removed. [6] A few days later he described the trip. At 11:30 a.m. on February 21 the two companies and Indian prisoners marched away from Fort Union to Watrous, where they boarded a train "with three special coaches attached." There was a coach for each company and one for the Indians.

     The soldiers sang favorite songs as they passed through the countryside, including "There's a Land that is Fairer than This." At Lamy the Tenth Infantry band, which had been stationed at Fort Marcy, boarded the train on their way to Fort Stanton. The troops and bandsmen traveled together as far as Albuquerque, where they arrived at midnight and the band gave a concert on the depot platform. Philo and his compatriots continued on their way at 2:00 a.m. and reached Wingate station the next day. The three-mile march to the post was made in deep mud and the soldiers dubbed it "Fort Mud, or Mud gate." They received a hearty welcome from the cavalry troopers already there. [7]

     Coincidentally, another sign of Fort Union's passing in good company occurred just four days before the troops left the third Fort Union. Frank Weber, a veteran who was among the soldiers who established and built the first post in 1851, was buried on February 17, 1891, near the village of Golondrinas in the Mora Valley a few miles away. Weber (1822-1891), native of Prussia, had served in the Third Infantry under Captain E. B. Alexander from 1849 to 1854. After his discharge he settled near the Mora River and, according to the friend who eulogized him (H. H. Green of the town of Mora, who used the pseudonym "Old Fogy" and was also present at the founding of Fort Union, having come to New Mexico with Colonel Sumner's command in 1851), "lived the quiet, but laborious, life of a farmer and gardener." Perhaps he had sold vegetables and other produce at the post through the years. Certainly he was close enough to the fort to be aware of all that happened during a period of four decades. "He was," his long-standing friend professed, "part and parcel of our history." Although not directly associated with the fort, except in its beginnings, Weber spent even more years in the vicinity than Captain Shoemaker and his life spanned, within a few days, the entire history of Fort Union as an active post. [8] The Old Fogy lasted even longer and realized the final closing of the fort. [9]

     The few troops left at Fort Union in February 1891 were engaged in packing and shipping the remaining supplies, equipment, and records of the post during the next few weeks. [10] In April a sale of condemned property (condemned by Major Adna R. Chaffee, Department of Arizona inspector general) was held at Fort Union. Dr. Lippincott and Hospital Steward Schumacher remained to provide medical care for the garrison and to pack and ship meteorological instruments, hospital equipment, and all medical supplies to Fort Stanton. Sometime during March the four men in the hospital corps were transferred to other places. The medical library was sent to the medical storekeeper at St. Louis. The medical and hospital records were forwarded to the surgeon general. Hospital Steward Schumacher left the post in April for temporary duty at Fort Grant, Arizona Territory. The post hospital was officially closed on April 20, 1891. Chaplain Seibold remained at the post awaiting assignment. On March 23, 1891, he was directed to go to Fort Logan, Colorado, and left Fort Union sometime after April 20. During April Sergeants Barratt and Fetters departed for new assignments, Barratt was transferred to Fort Bliss, Texas, and Fetters went to Fort Keogh, Montana. [11] The three civilian employees, an engineer, a blacksmith, and a teamster, were discharged on April 30. Sergeant Lambert and Private Foster departed Fort Union for Fort Wingate on May 12, 1891. The remaining garrison received orders to depart on May 15. [12]

     On May 9 Private van Schranendyk died of pneumonia and was buried in the post cemetery. The records do not indicate whether Surgeon Lippincott was still at the post or had already departed for his new assignment at Fort Adams, Rhode Island. Thus it is impossible to know if the dying soldier was attended by a physician during his final hours. His funeral was one of the last acts performed by the troops at the post. On May 15 Lieutenant Shollenberger and his remaining command abandoned Fort Union and took the train at Watrous for the trip to Fort Wingate. Samuel E. Shoemaker, son of the late Captain William R. Shoemaker, who resided about a mile up the valley of Wolf Creek from the site of the first post and arsenal (at the spring where Captain Shoemaker had irrigated his garden) was employed by the quartermaster department to watch over the buildings and prevent looting until the property could be transferred to the department of the interior. [13]

     It was soon discovered, again, that the post, military reservation, and timber reserve were not on public lands and, therefore, could not be assigned to the department of the interior. The property, in due course, would revert to the landowners. As soon as possible the quartermaster department wanted to be relieved of responsibility for the buildings and other government property. Samuel Shoemaker served as custodian at the abandoned post for about a month and was replaced by Sergeant Morgan Robinson, Company D, Tenth Infantry. He was assisted by two men who apparently volunteered their time in return for the privilege of living at the old post and herding a few cattle nearby. M. C. Needham was a veteran of the Twenty-Third Infantry, who had served at Fort Union. After he was discharged he was employed as a machinist at the post. A. E. Bowen had been employed at Fort Union as a teamster and wagon master. Sergeant Robinson reported that the two men were "of service to him in protecting the public property." [14]

     Soon Benjamin F. Butler, on behalf of the owners of the real estate (the Union Land and Grazing Company), requested that the government remove its property from the site and surrender possession to the owners. Also, questions were raised about how well Sam Shoemaker had protected the public property during the month he was custodian. Because of Butler's demands and the charges by a citizen, W. B. Brunton, that Shoemaker had sold some material and permitted the removal and destruction of other government property at the abandoned post, Captain William S. Patten, quartermaster department, was sent to investigate and to inspect the remaining buildings and other public possessions. He was also directed to recommend what might be done with the residual. As expected, he found the structures in various stages of decay but noted that considerable property, including doors, windows, flooring, lumber, roofing, and bricks, might be sold to residents in the vicinity. He recommended that everything removable be offered for sale after being advertised in newspapers and by posters placed in area stores and post offices for thirty days. Buyers, he advised, should have thirty days to remove their purchases, after which the remains and the reservations could be turned over to the owners of the property. [15]

     When Patten inspected the buildings at the former post, depot, and arsenal, he found that the water pipes had been torn out of most structures and that doors and windows had been removed from a few buildings at the post and depot and some of the sheds had been dismantled and the lumber removed. The buildings at the old arsenal had "been completely gutted of doors, windows, mantles, water-pipes, fixtures, &c." Patten investigated the alleged unlawful disposition of property, gathered testimony from various witnesses, and concluded that several residents in the area had in their possession materials from the post. Lumber from the cavalry stables had been used to build a fence at the residence of Mrs. J. T. Johnston at Cherry Valley. A closet removed from officer's quarters no. 4 was at the residence of Frank Carpenter at Cherry Valley. Carpenter also had downspouts and windows from buildings at the post. The fence which had stood in front of the hospital was at a residence in Tiptonville. A workbench and fire bricks from the blacksmith shop were at a shop in Watrous. Some 800 pounds of copper had been hauled to Watrous and shipped to Las Vegas. Sam Shoemaker and M. C. Needham had shipped a rail car load of scrap iron, lead, and copper to the Albuquerque Foundry and Manufacturing Co. on February 19, 1892. The two men claimed that Lieutenant Shollenberger gave them the material in return for fifteen days' labor for which he had no funds to pay them. [16]

     Patten was unable to determine when the pilfering had occurred but was convinced that some of it happened before the troops left in May 1891 and some thereafter. He was assured that "the dismantling of buildings at the arsenal has been going on for some years." Both Shoemaker and Needham testified that the water pipes had been removed from the buildings while Shollenberger was in command. They also informed Patten that some of the materials had been removed during the time of the sale of condemned property in April 1891. Patten concluded that the damage done to the buildings was "considerable were it contemplated to re-garrison the post; but if the buildings are to be sold as suggested, the loss to the United States is not great." He saw little cause for alarm but requested that his report be sent by the secretary of war to the attorney general to determine if any legal action should be taken. [17] No records were found to indicate that a sale, as recommended by Patten, was conducted or that any legal recourse was pursued.

     The inspector general's office also investigated the situation at the abandoned post with similar results. In addition to the specific items noted by Patten, Major Chaffee, who had inspected and condemned property at Fort Union prior to the sale in April 1891, reported that the flooring and floor joists had been removed from the storehouses at the arsenal. The thieves had been seen by Shoemaker, who reported to Sergeant Robinson, and the property was recovered. All in all, the inspector observed, regarding the charges that had been directed against Shoemaker, "I don't see that any great wrong was committed." [18] Apparently no formal charges were filed against anyone.

     The army continued to delay the transfer of Fort Union to the owners of the land. Ben Butler died on January 11, 1893, before his requests for the return were honored. In March 1894 the administrators of Butler's estate were informed by Quartermaster General R. N. Batchelder that the secretary of war had ordered the army to vacate the site of Fort Union and withdraw the custodian on April 1, 1894, on which date the land of the military reservation and timber reserve and the buildings would be turned over to an agent designated by the estate. The chief quartermaster of the Department of the Colorado was assigned responsibility for the transfer. He reported soon after the day designated for the relinquishment "that the Fort Union reservation, with the buildings, were entirely abandoned on the 1st instant, nobody appearing to receive the same. The custodian was discharged on the 1st instant." [19] The national government, which had never held title to the property, was finished with Fort Union, as it turned out, only temporarily. Sixty years later Congress designated it a national monument and the department of the interior acquired ownership of the site because of its historic value.

     During the interval the remains of Fort Union were partially demolished and the adobe structures, their roofs, doors, and windows gone, slowly melted back into the earth from which they had come. It required the efforts of many people to stimulate interest in preserving the vestiges of the historic fort and eventually to see that goal achieved. In 1934, when she was 89 years old, Marion Sloan Russell "made a pilgrimage" over the Santa Fe Trail and visited the sites of Camp Nichols and Fort Union, hoping she might find "one golden moment spilled from the hand of time." Her visit to the old post on Wolf Creek was like an extraterrestrial experience.

     "At Fort Union I found crumbling walls and tottering chimneys. Here and there a tottering adobe wall where once a mighty howitzer had stood. Great rooms stood roofless, their whitewashed wails open to the sky. Wild gourd vines grew inside the officers' quarters. Rabbits scurried before my questing feet. The little guard house [stone prison] alone stood intact, mute witness of the punishment inflicted there. The Stars and Stripes was gone. Among the heap of rubble I found the rums of the little chapel where I had stood—a demure, little bride in a velvet cape—and heard a preacher say, 'That which God hath joined together let no man put asunder.' I found the ruins of my little home where Colonel Carson once had stood beneath a hanging lamp. I heard or seemed to hear again his kindly voice, 'Little Maid Marian, you cannot go [to Camp Nichols]. I promised your mother to take good care of you.' The wind moaned among the crumbling ruins and brought with it the sound of marching feet. I saw with eyes that love to look backward, a wagon train coming along the old trail. I saw a child in a blue pinafore. It was little Maid Marian on the seat of an old covered wagon." [20]

     Mrs. Russell, in the wisdom of her old age and sharp memory of how her "own life story and the story of Fort Union have been strangely interwoven," paid as fine a tribute to the heritage of Fort Union as anyone could express. "Workmen were busy tearing down the old fortification. They tore my heart down with it. Why not let the old walls stand. Around each crumbling wall, each yawning cellar hole, are gathered precious memories of young America." [21] No soldier, no officer, no historian could have stated it more poignantly nor with more comprehension.

     Marion Russell would undoubtedly be pleased to see the preservation efforts of the National Park Service, Department of the Interior, at Fort Union National Monument and to know that she contributed to the understanding of its historical lore. There is no doubt that she possessed special insights and communicated effectively her inner feelings. The final paragraph of her Land of Enchantment, following the description of her "pilgrimage," revealed the significance of keeping history alive, if only in the remembering of people and events gone forever.

     "I live now in the little apple-green valley, and I walk there as one walks in a dream. The faces I love, I see only dimly. The voices I love come from afar, I cannot hear them clearly. . . . The inner chamber of my heart is open wide, its pearls of memory just inside. My thoughts move slowly now like motes behind a faded window blind. I stand listening for the sound of wheels that never come; stand waiting for the clasp of arms long crumbled into dust." [22]

     At some point every cognizant adult human being can identify with her attachment to the experiences of life which are collectively called history. Like her, they will hope for the preservation of records and artifacts that make it possible for the people of each generation to remember and understand their constantly receding progenitors.

officers' row
Remains of officers' row at Fort Union, with the walls of other structures visible in the background. Photo Collection, Fort Union National Monument.

     The protection of the remains of Fort Union came too late to save more than fragments of what had once been the largest and most important military post in the American Southwest. For many years after abandonment and reversion of the old military reservation to private landowners, the natural deterioration caused by the elements was accelerated by the looting of citizens who could make use of portions of the old buildings (tin roofs, floors, doors, windows, lumber, and hardware) and livestock. The increased exposure of the adobe walls hastened their erosion with each passing storm, be it wind, rain, sleet, snow, or hail. It was not amazing that so little of the three Fort Unions survived but that any portions of them remained in evidence a century after the post was closed by the army.

     The efforts to conserve whatever outlasted the ravages of the seasons and thieves was also part of the Fort Union story. By the time Marion Russell paid her last visit to the site in 1934 and lamented what was happening there, other voices were being raised to rescue the remnants and create a commemorative monument to the legacy of 40 years of military occupation of the post on Wolf Creek. In fact, the Freemasons began the long struggle to preserve the site where two Masonic lodges had been founded. On January 23, 1929, the members of Chapman Lodge No. 2 at Las Vegas (one of the lodges which had its origins at Fort Union in 1862) selected a committee to "have Fort Union declared a national monument." The Masons persuaded the New Mexico Legislature to petition the U.S. Congress, in 1929, to that end. New Mexico Congressman Albert G. Simms introduced legislation in 1930 which died in committee. [23]

     The National Park Service gathered information and investigated the site in the 1930s and pursued the possibility of obtaining the property for a national monument. Negotiations were opened with the Union Land and Grazing Company in 1939. Disagreement over terms of a transfer agreement delayed further action for another decade. When it was discovered the owners were planning to demolish the remains of the fort in 1949 a campaign of revitalized interest was sparked. Immediate leveling of the chimneys and walls was averted and serious negotiations were renewed. The government and the corporation were dead locked, however, until the State of New Mexico started procedures to condemn the land under the right of eminent domain in 1953. Within a short time terms were agreed upon by both sides and legislation was introduced in Congress to establish a national monument. It became law on June 28, 1954. A non-profit corporation, Fort Union, Inc., began raising the $20,000 necessary to compensate the Union Land and Grazing Company. The owners accepted $10,000 and donated the property in 1955. Fort Union National Monument was created on April 4, 1956. [24]

Fort Union National Monument
Fort Union National Monument, showing remnants of earthwork (upper right), third post (center), depot (lower left and center), hospital (upper left), and visitors' center and museum (upper center). Photo Collection, Fort Union National Monument.

invitation
Invitation sent for the commemoration of the centennial celebration of the closing of Fort Union. Author's copy.

     In 1954 while efforts were underway to have old Fort Union designated a national monument, Alexander Forsyth, a member of the last detail at the post in 1891, was living in New York City. It was believed he was the last survivor of the post garrison. Forsyth, age 84, wrote to the Las Vegas Optic after receiving an issue of the paper containing an article about Fort Union. He stated that he was the youngest soldier among the last to serve there, having enlisted in February 1890. The only recruit assigned to Fort Union after completing his basic training, he had arrived by railroad at Watrous and traveled to the post by wagon, where he joined Company H, Tenth Infantry. He recalled that the barracks were "in bad condition. The outer walls in places had large holes in them where the adobe bricks had fallen out." After nearly sixty-three years, he had fond memories of the place. "I will never forget Fort Union as long as I shall live. The country round about everywhere was indeed beautiful." [25]

     The land was, indeed, beautiful, but the remnants of the historic fort required herculean preservation efforts and an access road had to be constructed. The site was opened to visitors on June 8, 1956, and rehabilitation efforts continued for several years. The national monument was dedicated on June 14, 1959. Stabilization and maintenance of the relic were constant and ongoing. In time exhibits and interpretive programs were designed to reveal the story and significance of Fort Union to visitors from many cultures. Its public visibility was enhanced with the designation of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail in 1987, resulting in belated publicity of the fort and the trail. Visitation to the national monument, several miles off the major highway network, increased. In 1991 Fort Union National Monument received the coveted Lou Garrison Gold Award for the best interpretive program in the Southwest Region of the National Park Service. [26]

     On May 15, 1991, the National Park Service commemorated the centennial of the abandonment of Fort Union as an active military post with a special public ceremony and brief addresses by Fort Union National Monument Superintendent Harry C. Myers and New Mexico Highlands University Professor of History Michael Olsen. Fort Union National Monument Ranger-Historian T. J. Sperry and a group of historic reenactors replicated the last retreat flag ceremony of the official closing of the post. [27] With continued preservation efforts and enhanced interpretive techniques by the National Park Service, remnants of the physical fort and a sense of feeling for the spirit of the history of the once-active, bustling, sprawling, almost mystical ghost fort will be available for visitors to enjoy at the time of the bicentennial of the closing of what had been the preeminent military post, as well as the end of an era in the story of the frontier army, in the American Southwest.

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