It will be up to the New Mexico National Guard Museum in Santa Fe to tell the story of the Hispanic hero of the Civil War.
A bronze plaque commemorating Manuel A. Chaves for his role in turning back the Confederate invasion of New Mexico in 1862 was recently cast with the intention of placing it between existing monuments to Texas and Colorado soldiers who participated in the Battle of Glorieta Pass.
But the Pecos National Historical Park declined to put up the plaque because of its focus on a single individual. So it will go instead to the military museum on Old Pecos Trail, along with the remaining $47,000 of the $50,000 appropriated by the state Legislature for the marker, according to state Rep. Jim Trujillo, D-Santa Fe.
“We try to match the monuments that were already out there,” said park superintendent Karl Cordova. “We want to keep it generic and not make it specific to any one person, but to highlight the volunteers.”
No individual is cited on the monument to the Texas soldiers who died at Glorieta Pass, dedicated in 1939 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the one to the Colorado Volunteers, dedicated in 1993 by the Colorado General Assembly, the Museum of New Mexico and others. A vertical slab of flagstone was recently erected between the Texas and Colorado monuments along N.M. 50 near the Pecos National Historical Park.
Pecos National Historical Park, in a February news release, said the plaque that would be attached to the slab — and that was to be unveiled at a March 24 Civil War encampment at the park — would specifically commemorate Chaves by name, as well as more generally the New Mexico Volunteers who fought on the Union side in the crucial battle.
But that changed before last weekend’s event. The plaque itself was there and on display, but it won’t go up in the spot prepared between the Texas and Colorado memorials.
The February news was based on information from the Friends of Pecos National Historical Park, said park spokeswoman Beck Latanich. She said a plaque “more in keeping with” the two existing ones, without naming individuals, is going up instead.
Andres Romero, vice president of the Friends of the Pecos National Historical Park, which pushed for the plaque and wrote its inscription, believes the U.S. Park Service’s reluctance to commemorate Chaves is now connected to his reputation as an “Indian fighter.”
“They don’t want to draw demonstrations,” he said. “But you can’t revise history. There were atrocities on both sides. It’s not fair to take potshots from 2018.”
“He was an Indian fighter,” Trujillo said of Chaves. “But who wasn’t in those days?”
He said the state appropriation for the Pecos plaque went through about three years ago and much of it also was to be used for a parking lot near the N.M. 50 Civil War memorials.
Trujillo said the state money was also used for the replacement plaque honoring the New Mexico Volunteers without naming Chaves, but he intends to reauthorize what’s left for the National Guard Museum.
Gov. Susana Martinez recently vetoed another $50,000 appropriation sponsored by Trujillo for a bust of Chaves, saying only that the money would be better spent on schools and law enforcement.
Romero said the governor was influenced by a recent Associated Press article on Chaves that quoted New Mexico Highlands University history professor Peter Linder on Chaves’ slave-taking raids into Navajo country.
Marc Simmons’ 1973 biography, “The Little Lion of the Southwest: A Life of Manuel Antonio Chaves,” says raiding Native American settlements for slaves was common in New Mexico in the 1820s when Chaves’ family moved to Cebolleta in today’s Cibola County.
“Since this activity was strictly forbidden by Spanish law, the colonists carefully avoided designating their captives as slaves and referred to them euphemistically as criados or servants,” Simmons wrote. “In fairness, it should be noted that hostile Navajo, Ute, and Apache in a like manner seized Spanish captives for their own use.”
Chaves went on to become a professional soldier under the Mexican government, also pitting him against various Native American tribes.
He was a skilled warrior, despite his small stature, about 5 feet 7 inches and 140 pounds, Simmons said.
After the United States seized New Mexico and much of the Southwest in 1846, Chaves joined the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
But it was his trailblazing skills and his knowledge of the terrain, rather than military prowess, that made him the hero at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.
While the Confederates and Union squared off in late March 1862 at Glorieta Pass, about 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe, Chaves led Union soldiers through the mountains around enemy lines to attack the rebels’ lightly guarded supply wagons.
They set them on fire and killed or scattered the mules, so that, even though the battle was a virtual draw, the unsupplied Confederates were forced to retreat down the Rio Grande to Texas, ending their hope of capturing gold mines in Colorado and Pacific ports in California, and extending the Confederacy into Mexico.
Maj. John Chivington, a Methodist minister from Denver and the leader of the Colorado Volunteers at Glorieta Pass, is sometimes credited with the flanking action that defeated the Confederates.
But Simmons makes it clear that Chivington did not know the area or Spanish and relied on Chaves to negotiate with locals and lead the soldiers on trails through the mountains.
Upon reaching a point on a mesa above the wagons, Chaves announced to Chivington, “You are right on top of them, major.”
Unveiled but not installed
Last Saturday, Chaves’ supporters gathered in a tent set up on the Pecos National Historical Park’s portion of the old Forked Lightning Ranch during a commemoration of the 156th anniversary of the Battle of Glorieta Pass to unveil the plaque, even though it won’t be displayed there.
Chaves’ descendants Eileen Chave Yarborough from Grants and Phillip Marquez from San Mateo on the north slopes of Mount Taylor mingled with Romero and other New Mexico history buffs.
Trujillo said his intention is to make Chaves so well known that he will draw tourists to New Mexico.
“I don’t care what they say about it, it was very important battle … and we don’t get any credit,” he said later in the week.
Joseph Vigil, chief spokesman for the New Mexico National Guard, which runs the military museum at 1050 Old Pecos Trail, said the museum is an appropriate home for the Chaves plaque, since the New Mexico Volunteers were the origins of the state guard.
Andrew Leo Lovato, an associate professor at Santa Fe Community College and Santa Fe city historian for 2018, told the group at the park Saturday that New Mexico might have been a different place if it were not for Chaves.
“History is not always the result of what is recorded, but what is interpreted,” he said. “Why his name is not more recognizable nationally is something we will never understand.”