Our National Cemeteries: Santa Fe’s Easily Forgotten Ties to the Civil War

Like so many sites in the Trans-Mississippi, the Santa Fe National Cemetery can be easily overlooked for its relevance to the Civil War. 

In the fall of 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley rode out of San Antonio with 3,000 Texans and a battery of small mountain howitzers. From Colorado’s gold fields to a California port on the Pacific Ocean, he aspired to secure the entire Southwest for the secessionist cause. His small army’s campaign covered thousands of miles, briefly capturing one of only two Union state or territorial capitals that ever fell to the Confederacy.

In the end, Sibley was bloodied at the battle of Valverde, and finally driven back at the battle of Glorieta Pass. He was defeated by a mix of regular U.S. army troops and volunteers raised from the Colorado and New Mexico territories.

Established shortly after the Civil War, Santa Fe National Cemetery was intended to serve as a final resting place for the Union soldiers who fell defending the West from Sibley. Today, it serves as a reminder to countless brave soldiers whose stories might otherwise be forgotten.

Ned Wynkoop was a close friend to Silas Soule, who refused direct orders to participate in the Sand Creek Massacre. (Photo by author)

Take Ned Wynkoop: buried in Santa Fe National Cemetery, most people have never heard of him. For the few who have, it’s probably because he has since lent his name to a street in Denver and also to a brewery on that street, which was opened by John Hickenlooper – the beginning of a business career that paved the way for him to become mayor of Denver, governor of Colorado, and now a U.S. senator.

But we should remember Wynkoop for more than being the namesake of a bit of real estate. When the Confederacy invaded New Mexico, he was among the 1,000 or so volunteers who rushed to enlist in Colorado’s first regiment of volunteers. At the climactic Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862, he joined a flank march that destroyed the Confederate supply train, turning the tide in that campaign.

In 1864, Wynkoop unsuccessfully attempted to broker a peace between Colorado and the Cheyenne and Arapaho. He was one of several Colorado officers to condemn the wholesale slaughter of women and children at the Sand Creek Massacre. 

Today, Wynkoop is buried in Santa Fe National Cemetery. He rests alongside other significant figures of the 1862 New Mexico Campaign. These include Capt. James “Paddy” Graydon, who attempted to defeat Sibley’s army with exploding mules, and Col. H.R. Selden, who rushed desperately needed reinforcements who staved off an even worse Union defeat at Valverde. They’re accompanied by dozens who fell at Valverde and Glorieta, including more than 30 Confederates whose remains were discovered and reinterred in the 1980s.

Captain James “Paddy” Graydon led one of the most creative, if unlikely to succeed, attacks of the Civil War. (Photo by author)

Today, the Santa Fe National Cemetery preserves the remains and memories of tens of thousands of veterans, most of whom served well after the Civil War. Their ranks include several Navajo Code Talkers, nine Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, and at least one major general. When I visited last fall, I stumbled upon the grave of a private in the famous 101st Airborne who died during Operation Overlord in 1944.

Santa Fe National Cemetery contains monuments and plaques recalling a number of speeches and works of art. One of these, written in the late 1840s by Theodore O’Hara, has particularly stuck with me since that visit:

Plaque to The Bivouac of the Dead at Santa Fe National Cemetery. (Photo by author)

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