FORT GARLAND — A town with deep history created by a pioneer fort will again remember its beginnings May 25 and 26.
This will be the 31st annual Memorial Day Encampment, re-enacting the time when the fort was in its heyday.
Troops from the fort were once commanded by the legendary Kit Carson and fought at Glorieta Pass, N.M., called the "Gettysburg of the West," ending a Confederate move toward the California gold fields.
Fort Garland was also home to the Buffalo Soldiers, colored troops who were sent to the frontier to help protect settlers.
The modern action, it began in 1988 when reenactor Virgil Hughes of Denver and Fort Garland’s site manager Josie Lobato invited the Artillery Company of New Mexico to put on a living history event to celebrate Memorial Day.
“Virgil Hughes is the person who ‘drafted’ several of my cohorts and I into living history,” Ken Dusenberry told History Colorado.
“I had been a lifelong student of history. I had watched Virgil at a reenactment, where he invited me to come and see him again at a living-history event at Fort Union National Monument in 1985. When I showed up, he put me in a uniform and told me to stand in the line.” Three years later, Hughes would invite Dusenberry and several others from multiple states to participate in the first Memorial Day Encampment at Fort Garland.
Life as a reenactor is an exciting one, full of a wide variety of experiences. The Fort Garland Memorial Regiment does not just organize the Memorial Day Encampment. They have also participated in Civil War and Indian Wars events in eight states, including Texas, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, and the Artillery Company of New Mexico has traveled “even more extensively than that.”
The artillery company has participated in many notable large-scale reenactments, including the 135th anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1998.
“There were about twenty-three thousand of us in uniform,” recalled Dusenberry. “I was chasing horse-drawn cannon about the field.”
Many reenactors, including members of the Fort Garland Memorial Regiment, also have an extensive list of movie credits.
The most notable of these was Steven Spielberg’s award-winning miniseries Into the West, much of which was filmed in New Mexico and featured multiple members of the memorial regiment. Members have also performed in films for the National Park Service and The History Channel.
All of this activity stems ultimately from a love of history and education. Most reenactors are introduced to the experience through their interest in the past, and direct connections to it that many people from many different walks of life can share. Both Current director Jack Rudder and Dusenberry expressed a love of history in general and military history in particular.
“I was stunned by how much history I learned by just stepping into period attire,” said Dusenberry, recounting his first experience with reenactment.
Even more important than a love of history, however, is sharing that history with others.
Reenactment is not just fun for everyone; it also is an incredibly educational experience both for participants and for attendants. The whole intent is almost always to give the visiting public an idea of what life in those time periods was truly like, through as immersive and accurate a representation as possible.
“In a small way, it’s my way of ensuring that the memories of the soldiers who served on the western frontier are not forgotten,” said Rudder.
Rudder, who has directed every Memorial Day Encampment since 1997, told History Colorado he agreed with this sentiment and highlighted its importance to the encampment.
“Our whole intent is to give the visiting public an idea of what it was like to be stationed at Fort Garland in the late 1860s and early 1870s,” he said.
When asked about the events at this year’s encampment, he explained in more detail: “We’ll have an infantry company drilling in the field; the artillery company will be demonstrating their three-inch ordnance rifle and mountain howitzers, and the cavalry will be conducting mounted drill and will have horses available for patrons to visit.”