ECW Weekender: Fort Garland, A Rare Colorado Civil War Site

While the Civil War is fundamental to Colorado’s history and development, very little fighting actually took place in the Centennial State. That makes Fort Garland one of the few Colorado Civil War sites you can easily visit.

For centuries, the Rio Grande River and the lands around it have been a center of trade, migration, wars and the mingling of cultures. In 1848, the United States took possession of most of present-day New Mexico and southern Colorado after signing the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The San Luis Valley lay at the northern edge of that newly conquered territory, a place where Native American, Hispano and White cultures met. 

To the United States Army, that made it a place that also required stationing troops to keep their idea of the peace. Fort Garland was built in 1858, near the present-day border between New Mexico and Colorado, replacing the smaller and short-lived Fort Massachusetts. During the Civil War, Fort Garland served as a mustering point for Union troops, and guarded some of the approaches out of Santa Fe into Colorado. Both during and after the war, it received less attention than the better-known Fort Union, about 100 miles to the southeast, but their roles weren’t entirely dissimilar.

Today, Fort Garland is maintained by History Colorado, which has done a fantastic job of preserving the site and curating it for visitors. It offers a close-up view of what garrison life would have been like in an 1860s frontier post, and presents a good overview of the 1862 New Mexico Campaign, with an unsurprising emphasis on the role of Colorado troops at both Valverde and Glorieta.

Fort Garland is home to two of the 12-pound mountain howitzers that Sibley’s Army of New Mexico invaded with. During their retreat after Glorieta, some of these guns were buried in Albuquerque. They were excavated after the war with the help of Sibley’s artillery chief, Major T.T. Teel.

While the Civil War is one big focus of Fort Garland, it also covers the Spanish and indigenous history of the region, the life of Kit Carson (who commanded the fort at one point), and Buffalo Soldiers who were stationed at the fort in the late 1800s. This was a region where borders were fluid, loyalties were complex, and violence often existed on a spectrum rather than as a binary. That can be difficult to convey, but Fort Garland is curated in a way that does an excellent job of communicating those nuances, while still being highly accessible. (Two recent and very different books also do an excellent job of portraying that: Three-Cornered War and Confederates and Comancheros.)

The museum is full of the small vignettes that leave you wanting to learn more. Can I find this diary from a soldier who fought at Glorieta? What is this breech loading artillery piece, which must be from units stationed at Fort Garland after the Civil War? Where can I read more about Generals Sherman and Kit Carson meeting here in 1866?

The site has enough depth and nuance to interest an avid historian, but is engaging and interactive enough to be very family-friendly – and the fact it was dog-friendly made it much easier to visit. You can find the fort at 29477 CO-159, Fort Garland, CO 81133, and learn more on their website before visiting

If you find yourself in the area, it’s absolutely worth a visit – and let me know if you’re headed out there and would like some food recommendations in the area.

4 Responses to ECW Weekender: Fort Garland, A Rare Colorado Civil War Site

  1. I agree. As a Colorado native, there are not that many locations to visit for Civil War sites here locally. Fort Garland is a great visit, and well worth the time.

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