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Phantoms of Fort Union, New Mexico

Fort Union canon near ruins
Fort Union canon near ruins
Photo by Debe Branning

Eerie adobe ruins and old Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts mark what was once known as the largest military post in the American Southwest. Fort Union was established in 1851 to protect the Santa Fe Trail. It developed into the major military depot in the Southwest. You will find the largest visible networks of Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts at this location. Visitors are invited to walk beside the ruins on a self-guided walking tour. If you are lucky, you may walk among the ghosts of soldiers and their families who served and protected this large military complex.

Feel the spirits in the wind at Fort Union
Photo by Debe Branning

A ghost story legend, sometimes referred as ‘the Death Waltz,’ has been associated with the fort and revolves around a beautiful woman named Celia. Celia was said to be the sister in law of the captain and became the most eligible ladies that graced the Fort Union society. All of the soldiers wished to court her and would do anything to be in her favor. Celia took advantage of her beauty and charmed many a soldier with her flirtatious ways.

One of these men was a soldier named Johnny. Celia agreed to be his partner at a dance given for one of the officers. In the middle of the celebration a messenger came into the room and reported a nearby Apache raid. Celia begged Johnny not to go. He proposed to her and vowed they would marry upon his return. Celia accepted his proposal and promised to wait for his safe arrival back to the fort.

Unfortunately, about a week later a small group of soldiers returned to Fort Union and Johnny was not among the survivors. Johnny was killed in the raid and his body had not been recovered. Celia was devastated—at least for a month or two. Soon a rich lieutenant arrived at Fort Union and Celia set her eyes on this new young man. Soon they were engaged and Celia began to plan an elaborate wedding ceremony.

Everyone at the fort was invited to the wedding. After the vows had been spoken, the wedding guests were invited to attend a celebration ball. Suddenly, the door burst open with a loud bang. A gust of freezing cold air blew in and encircled the guests. Standing in front of them an apparition of a man dressed in an officer’s uniform. It was Johnny.

The ghost of Johnny walked across room and snatched Celia from the arms of her new bridegroom. She was frozen in terror and did not resist. The musicians were playing a waltz. Johnny whirled Celia around and around the dance floor—faster and faster—as if they were being swept away in a windstorm. Her face grew pale and the frightened woman fell dead in his arms. Johnny dropped Celia’s lifeless body to the floor and he vanished into thin air.

Celia was buried in the Fort Union Cemetery, (which was later moved when the fort became abandoned in 1891.) Another search was made for Johnny’s body where he was found hidden in a rocky crevice. He was buried next to Celia. The ghost of Celia was often seen at dusk, weeping over Johnny’s grave. Others say that the wind at Fort Union and the wailing sounds it brings with it is just a reminder that Johnny and Celia are still dancing.

We asked the female ranger on duty at Fort Union National Monument if she had ever come in contact with the ghost of Celia. She told us no…but she had an encounter with a different ghost and was not the only witness to the specter.

Fort Union offers a program a couple times a year where visitors can join the Rangers for an evening of educational tours, demonstrations, and reenactments of historical events. Rangers and the guests are invited to camp in white canvas tents much like the soldiers on patrol once used in the early west. It was late at night and all of the re-enactors portraying the soldiers had left the encampment for the day. The female Ranger looked up to see a silhouette of an armed man attired in an officer's dress uniform walking around her tent. It startled her and she quickly threw open the flap of the tent to find nobody in sight.

Was it Johnny searching for a new dancing partner?

Read about other haunted forts suggested by the author below!

Fort Union National Monument
PO Box 127
Watrous, NM 87753
505-425-8025

Email: FOUN_interpretation@nps.gov
Website: www.nps.gov/foun