The Colorado Rangers

By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.


While stationed in Mississippi, my then grade school daughter and I got into civil war reenacting. When the Colonel was assigned to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, my daughter and I joined the 1st New Mexico Volunteers reenacting group and gloriously fought the Texans who came up the Rio Grand River in their attempt to capture the gold fields of the then, new Territory of Colorado.

Having taught Air Force Junior ROTC at a high school in Mississippi, which is basically U.S. history with a military flavor, I thought I had a good working knowledge of the Civil War. However, I knew very little about the far western campaign of that war, fought in New Mexico. Nobody makes movies about it; John Wayne never saved the Union by beating back the drunken, traitorous, General Henry Sibley and his brigade of mounted Texas riflemen from El Paso. Their mission was to ride north and steel the Yankee gold.

Most people in this country know next to nothing about a small battle in the mountains of New Mexico at a place called Glorieta Pass and the significance of that crucial defeat for the Confederates at the hands of the 1st Colorado Volunteers and the Colorado Rangers. “He who has the gold wins the war” and the U.S., in 1861 had a brand new territory in Colorado that held the gold fields which would finance their war. That is why there is a mint in Denver, not to print paper money but to produce gold coins.

The Texans pushed right up the Rio Grand, occupying Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The prize for the Confederates was the gold fields and with the perceived “easy" victories in New Mexico, General Sibley smugly headed into the mountains to take Denver.

The Colorado Rangers were fashioned after the the Texas Rangers. They were a group of hard living, hard drinking and hard fighting men who had been called on to defend the Colorado Territory against the increased agression of local Indian tribes, who saw this Civil War as an opportunity to attack their invaders. The Colorado Rangers fought on horseback with repeating revolvers, while the average Union soldier fought on foot with a muzzleloading rifle.

On March 26, 1862 a scouting party of Rangers lead by Major John Chivington made contact with the Texans. A running battle was on for the next two days with both sides disengaging on 28 March, the Confederates believing that they had won the fight.

General Sibley’s biggest mistake of the entire Civil War was his failure at the Battle of Glorieta Pass to guard his supply train. Major Chivington and the Rangers found and destroyed 80 wagons of ammunition, food and clothing. They spiked the Confederate artillery and took Sibley’s supply troops prisoner. To this day if you go out to “Johnson’s Ranch” where the Rangers burned the wagons, you can find metal pieces of those wagons. As the history of the Civil War was later assessed, it was determined that Glorieta Pass was the “Gettysburg of the West.”

The Rangers went back to Colorado, provided law enforcement for the new territory and continued to be called upon to keep the peace after Colorado became a state. The Colorado Rangers were disbanded in the 1920s for political reasons, but were then reestablished in 1941 at the personal direction of Governor Teller Ammons.

They currently serve to support the needs of the Governor and to provide augmentation and assistance to state, county and local law enforcement agencies. Since 9-11 their emphasis on emergency management has been increased. The Colorado Mounted Rangers are volunteers who have served their State in past times of crisis and stand ready to be there when called on yet again.

In the micro-sense, “what if” the US Army Rangers had not destroyed the German artillery at Normandy on June 8 1944. Might the D-Day invasion have failed and, if so, could WW II have been continued into 1946 or 1947? If the Colorado Rangers had not stopped the Confederate Army at Glorieta Pass in 1862, with the Confederate capture of the gold fields, might the suffering on both sides of the Civil War have gone on for years past 1865? The Colorado Rangers stood in the breach of history and yet few know of their service and their sacrifice. They are looking for new Rangers to serve and protect Colorado (www.coloradoranger.org).




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