By Civil War standards, the Battle of Glorieta Pass, which began on this day in 1862 and took place in what today is the state of New Mexico, was of only middling significance. A Union victory, the battle ended a Confederate invasion of the Rocky Mountain region and put to rest Confederate plans to control a vast swath of the Southwest. For this reason, some historians call Glorieta Pass the Gettysburg of the West. These historians, no offence to them or their loved ones, are begging to be mocked. Roughly 250 soldiers were killed or wounded at Glorieta Pass — compared to the approximately 24,000 casualties at Shiloh, less than a month later, or 46,000 at the Gettysburg of the East, the following summer. And the invasion was always something of a long shot.

Which isn’t to say that Glorieta Pass wasn’t important. It was. In part because Westerners needed a Gettysburg to call their own, a way of laying claim to some of the Civil War’s glory. But also because Glorieta Pass launched the career of John Milton Chivington, whose story pivots on the repercussions of reputation.

Chivington was born in Ohio and later moved to Kansas as a young adult. An ardent abolitionist, he rode the circuit as a Methodist minister there, trying to claim the territory as free soil. After a series of run-ins with pro-slavery settlers, Chivington moved first to Nebraska and then, on the eve of the Civil War, to Colorado Territory. In 1859, a gold strike in the foothills outside Denver had begun drawing tens of thousands of migrants to the region. And Chivington planned to preach his brand of muscular Christianity to those fast-arriving heathen goldseekers.

Chivington’s was a good plan: there would be no shortage of godless newcomers in Colorado for years to come. But then the war intervened. So he found in the conflict another opportunity. In battle, Chivington, like many men of his era, saw a chance for personal advancement: he could bathe himself in glory, advance quickly, and secure a reputation that would help him for the rest of his life. Chivington’s private letters suggest that he understood that the best way to be promoted was by serving with valor under fire. And so, when Colorado’s territorial governor offered him a position as a regimental chaplain, Chivington refused. He insisted on a combat commission. He mustered into the 1st Colorado Volunteer Regiment as a major.

At Glorieta Pass, Major Chivington commanded a force that first fought well at Apache Canyon and later captured a Confederate supply train, effectively ending the Rebel advance. Although some controversy swirled around his exploits — he had stumbled upon the supply train, a stroke of unalloyed good fortune, but seized the credit as though he had planned the attack carefully — the episode nonetheless elevated Chivington. Just as he had hoped, he received a quick promotion: to colonel. But he wasn’t done yet. In a letter to his sister, Chivington wrote: “Now I’m a colonel and should secure a brigadiership [a general’s rank] before too much time. What path has God chosen for me? I know not but will walk it without hesitating.”

Chivington, in sum, had achieved only part of his goal for the war. There was still work to be done, still miles to travel on the path he believed God had laid out for him. Still, Chivington was right about one thing: his reputation, secured at Glorieta Pass, would set him up for future exploits. We’ll pick up his story later this week.