General Kearny's bloodless conquest of New Mexico in 1846 opened the era of military freighting on the Santa Fe Trail. Throughout the Mexican War, 1846 to 1848, the supply trains ate into the immense store of provisions on the wharf at Fort Leavenworth and, winter and summer, made their way across the plains to Santa Fe. Thereafter, with a sizable army retained in New Mexico to fight Indians, military freighting grew to impressive proportions.
The need for a depot on the eastern frontier of New Mexico to receive and distribute these goods among the scattered outposts seemed evident to the military authorities. Partly for this reason, Colonel Sumner chose a site near the junction of the two branches of the Santa Fe Trail to found the first fort in his program of revising the frontier defense system. His order of July 16, 1851, establishing Fort Union also designated it the principal supply depot for the department.
But the big campaigns of the 1850's, those that required elaborate logistical support, were conducted in the southern and western reaches of the territory. The Fort Union depot therefore proved less satisfactory than hoped, and throughout the 1850's the chief quartermaster kept busy shifting his headquarters and supply stores between Fort Union and Albuquerque.
Nevertheless, plans for the new fort begun by General Carleton in 1863 provided for a sprawling quartermaster depot, complete with commodious warehouses and well-stocked repair and maintenance facilities. Fort Union became and remained the supply center of the Army in New Mexico. Not until the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1879 did its supply functions begin to diminish.
A large force of civilian employees and quartermaster personnel staffed the installation. Indeed, they often outnumbered the garrison of the adjacent post of Fort Union, and the chief quartermaster often ranked the post commander. Friction between the two officers seems no have been a permanent condition of life at Fort Union.
Many items the quartermaster obtained locally, but the bulk of goodsfood, clothing, arms and ammunition, tools and building materialscame over the Santa Fe Trail. At the Fort Union depot, the wagons were unloaded and the freight repacked and assigned as needed to posts to the south and west. Sometimes, when wagons or entire trains contained shipments for one fort only, they continued directly to the destination without unloading at Fort Union.
The Army did little of its own hauling. Virtually all military freighting was performed under contract by civilian companies. Waste and inefficiency had characterized the Quartermaster Department's logistical support of Kearny's Army of the West, and in 1848 the Government turned to the contract system. For $11.75 per hundred, James Browne of Independence agreed to transport 200,000 pounds of supplies to New Mexico. The next year, in partnership with William H. Russell, he contracted to haul all government stores over the Santa Fe Trail for $9.88 per hundred. In 1850, 278 wagons laden with military freight passed over the trail.
In 1853 another freighter made his appearance. Alexander Majors made two round trips to New Mexico, one with a consignment of goods from Independence to Santa Fe, the other under government contract from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Union. In 1854 he sent 100 wagons in 4 trains from Leavenworth to Union.
In 1855 Majors went into partnership with Russell, and the following year the new firm had 350 wagons on the trail to Fort Union. The company prospered and in 1858 added a third partner, William B. Waddell. Thus was born the most famous freighting concern in the history of the West. In this year, the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell contracted to deliver all freight turned over to it by the Government and by 1860 and 1861 was the biggest company operating between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Union.
The trains left Fort Leavenworth early in the spring, in order to take advantage of the spring grasses. A typical train, according to Majors, consisted of 25 wagons, and the company ran as many trains as necessary to haul the amount of freight under contract. Each wagon carried 3 to 3-1/2 tons of merchandise. Although mules were occasionally used to draw the wagons, Russell, Majors, and Waddell preferred oxen. They were cheap, reliable, and, properly managed, could make the trip to New Mexico and back in one season. Four oxen were required for each wagon, but for a time in the 1850's eight were used and four left in New Mexico to furnish beef for the soldiers' rations. Skilled wagon masters, capable of maintaining discipline among the teamsters, were a necessity. Majors chose them carefully, paying particular attention to the candidate's reputation for sobriety and morality. To them, he attributed much of his success as a freighter.
Large-scale military freighting, dominated by Russell, Majors, and Waddell, continued until 1866, when the railroad moved west into Kansas. Each railhead town served briefly as the port of embarkation for freight wagons. After the rails reached Denver in 1870, wagons continued to move supplies over the Mountain Branch of the trail between Pueblo and Fort Union, but after 1879 the great freight wagons ceased to creep across the rutted plains to Fort Union, and military freight now arrived at Watrous in railroad boxcars.
Supervised by Captain Shoemaker, the Fort Union Arsenal took care of the ordnance needs of the department. The large arsenals in the East, such as Frankfort and Springfield, sent weapons, ammunition, and related accoutrements to the Fort Union arsenal for distribution no field units. Old or damaged weapons were returned to the arsenal for repair or condemnation and disposal.
During his long service at Fort Union, Captain Shoemaker saw a striking transition in the firearms serviced by his staff. When he first came to the fort in the 1850's the dragoons were armed with the Hall breech-loading percussion-cap carbine and were just replacing the old Asron single-shot "horse pistol" (so-called because in was carried in a holster slung on the saddle pommel) with the new Colt's revolving pistol. Infantrymen carried heavy, muzzle-loading rifled muskets. All these weapons fired a paper or cloth cartridge, usually .58 or .69 caliber for shoulder weapons and .44 or .38 caliber for pistols. When Captain Shoemaker retired in 1882, the ordnance had changed drastically. Now the troops carried breech-loading Springfield rifles and carbines, caliber .4570, and Colt's or Remington revolvers, caliber .45 or .44, all firing fixed metallic ammunition with greater accuracy, velocity, and speed.
As artillery often did good service in the Indian wars, the arsenal also serviced cannon. Light 6-pounder field guns and stubby 12-pounder howitzers, the latter with pack carriages for mountain use and high-wheeled "prairie carriages" for plains use, found great favor with Indian fighters throughout the period of Fort Union's active service. But, as a sign of progress, Captain Shoemaker on the eve of his retirement displayed to a delegation of Las Vegas citizens touring the arsenal two shiny new Gatling guns, forerunner of the modern machine gun.