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Sandians write book on Civil War in New Mexico

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During his many long work-related trips to Washington over the past several years, John Taylor, Manager of Nonproliferation Initiatives Dept. 5335, squeezed in time to pore through 135-year-old journals, letters, and military records at the National Archives.

The fruits of his labor are two books on Civil War battles fought in New Mexico – both published by University of New Mexico Press, the second issued just last month.

The Battle of Glorieta Pass, written jointly by John and retired Sandian Tom Edrington, a history buff and former deputy director of Surety Assessment Center 12301, hit local bookstores in May. It tells the story of a three-day battle in March 1862 at Glorieta Pass where 47 Confederate and 54 Union soldiers were killed. While the Confederates won the battle, the Union army remained strong and was able to deter the southerners from continuing to pursue their goal, the capture of Fort Union near Las Vegas, N.M.

"Some historians call the Battle of Glorieta Pass the ‘Gettysburg of the West,’ but we found that it was an unfortunate and bloody epilogue to a star-crossed campaign," John says.

John became interested in New Mexico’s Civil War history in the late 1970s, a few years after joining Sandia and following a move to Peralta. While writing a history of that area, he discovered that a minor Civil War skirmish had been fought nearby. That eventually lead him to research the Battle of Valverde, the largest land battle in the West, fought on Feb. 21, 1862, at the Valverde Ford south of Socorro. His book on this battle, Bloody Valverde, was published in 1995.

In doing his research on the Valverde book he spent a lot of time in the National Archives’ microfilm reading room looking at military records from the Civil War.

"I’d be holding a piece of parchment, wearing the white cotton gloves required to touch it, convinced that I was the first person to examine it since it was written," he recalls.

After his book on the Valverde battle was published, John talked to Tom about collaborating on a book on the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Tom, one of the leading experts on the Glorieta battle, had given John a lot of advice in writing his first book, and John felt it might be a good idea for them to work together on the project. The only other book on the battle had been written around the turn of the century by a historian who took a train ride through the area with a group of Civil War veterans recalling the event.

Tom already had a lot of material on the battle in his personal possession, and John had access to the National Archives. They settled on a rough table of contents, divided up the work, and soon had a manuscript.

The Battle of Glorieta Pass, primarily a conflict between Confederates from Texas and Federals from Colorado, started March 26, 1862, with a minor skirmish in Apache Canyon about four miles west of the present-day village of Glorieta. The armies spent the next day reinforcing and resting. On the night of March 27 Confederate reinforcements marched 15 miles north from Galisteo dragging artillery over steep hills in snow, and the two armies confronted each other the next day at Pigeon’s Ranch.

The fighting at Pigeon’s Ranch raged for more than five hours. When it was over, the Confederates controlled the battlefield, but the Union Army managed to retreat to Fort Union essentially intact.

In their research John and Tom encountered some interesting human stories.

"We found one story told in a diary by Sgt. Alfred Peticolas, a Confederate solder who earlier in the campaign acquired a Union overcoat," John says. "During the Pigeon Ranch battle he accidentally wandered into the Union lines and didn’t know where his own troops were. He asked a Union officer where the Confederates were. Thinking that he was a fellow Union soldier because of his coat, the officer pointed him in the direction of the Confederates and Peticolas slipped back to join his troops."

John says that he and Tom were well-matched to do the research and write the book. John’s great-grandfather, a Union soldier, fought in the Civil War with a regiment from Maine (John’s family still has his musket), whereas Tom’s ancestors fought for the South in units from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

"We both came in with different perspectives, so it worked out well," he says.