Why the Civil War West Mattered - and Still Does | HistoryNet MENU
General August Willich's quarters near Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.

Why the Civil War West Mattered – and Still Does

By Megan Kate Nelson
December 2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

In two recent columns for Civil War Times, historian Gary Gallagher has dismissed scholarly work on the Civil War West – a theater of the war that he defines quite broadly as extending from the Appalachians to the Pacific coast, and from North Carolina to Georgia.

Gallagher has been most derisive of scholars working on the Southwestern theater, the Pacific coast, and Native American studies, many of whom have recently published books, edited collections, and essays in a special issue of Journal of the Civil War Era.

To read Gary Gallagher’s columns about the Civil War in the West that have appeared in Civil War Times magazine follow this link: http://www.historynet.com/insight-gary-gallagher-war-west.htm

He argues that these military, political, and social studies are irrelevant to Civil War history, for the following reasons:

  • No one cared about events in the West
  • Soldiers didn’t want to be posted there and yearned for action in the East
  • The campaigns in the West were short-lived and did not affect the eastern theater in any way
  • Too few soldiers were involved in these campaigns to make them of interest
  • The war was not a turning point in the West, either politically or socially
  • The Union Army’s’ conflicts with Native Americans during the war were not Civil War actions

As a historian of the Civil War in the Southwest, I disagree with all of these assertions. Let me explain why.

Events in the West were widely reported across the nation, and those Americans who lived in the West, aspired to live in the West, or had loved ones who lived in the West, cared very much about the war there.

News items about developments in the Southwest appeared in newspapers across the nation. Unlike news published from the eastern theater, there was a time lag between events and reportage in the West: the lack of telegraph wires beyond the 100th meridian and the disruptions of railroad travel caused by wartime events meant that easterners typically heard about engagements in the West long after they were over. This does not mean they were not considered newsworthy. The New York Times, for example, ran a lengthy letter reporting on “Affairs in New Mexico” in the same issue (October 20, 1862) as the oft-referenced and quoted review of Mathew Brady’s exhibit of Antietam photographs.

Abraham Lincoln addressed military events, Indian Affairs, and exploitation of mineral resources in the West in his presidential addresses, and the Union Congress acted in several different ways (see below) to bring the West more firmly into the Union as a vast free territory.

Gallagher’s assertion that no one cared about the West also privileges the eastern viewpoint (as most Civil War histories do) and erases the fact that hundreds of thousands of people living in the West cared very much about wartime events there. Native Americans and Hispaños served in the Union Army in the West, and the war was a pivotal moment in their communities’ histories. Easterners are not the only Americans whose opinions and wartime experiences mattered.

Soldiers who served in the West saw their wartime actions as important and connected to Union and Confederate war efforts farther east.

For soldiers, especially the rank and file, it was a sense of duty to the Union or the Confederacy that drove them to enlist for service in the Southwest – the same feeling that inspired their eastern theater comrades.

Colorado gold miner Alonzo Ickis, for example, explained to his brother in 1861 that he had mustered into the Union Army in Cañon City, a small mining town in the Rockies, because “I do think it is the duty of every single man to enlist and do all in his power to end this war.” Ickis believed that the Sibley Brigade’s invasion of New Mexico threatened the Union, and that he and his comrades were responsible for defending the region in the name of the nation.

Facing him across the battlefield at Valverde a few months later was Bill Davidson, a lawyer from Texas who had joined the Sibley Brigade in San Antonio.  As he marched into New Mexico with his comrades in the fall of 1861, Davidson “was fully bent on doing all in [my] power to carry the Southern cross to victory, and to make the Confederate States a free sovereign and independent nation.”

These are just two of the thousands of enlisted men who served in the Union and Confederate armies in the Southwest and who were proud of their service in the region. The Confederates were especially angry that their efforts were not remembered in the same way as those of their eastern comrades. After all, they had done something no other Confederate army had managed to do: in March 1862, they accepted the surrender of and occupied a Union capital city (Santa Fe).

While the campaigns in the West were short-lived, they did indeed have consequences in the eastern theater.

Gallagher is particularly dismissive of the Confederates’ New Mexico campaign, calling Henry Sibley’s plan to invade New Mexico and blaze a trail to California as “a quixotic foray [that…] scarcely [rose] to the level of inconsequential.”

That Sibley’s 3,000 men failed to take the West in April 1862 had two important ramifications for Confederates:

  • Most importantly, they lost access to Pacific ports and to many supply routes through Mexico, which made them even more vulnerable to Union blockades.
  • From that point on in the war, the Confederacy would have to rely on its own forms of production and its own citizens to fund the war effort (rather than gold drawn from western mines). This would have several consequences for the Confederate military effort later in the war, as the government initiated tax-in-kind and southerners became increasingly restive in the face of privation.

True, there were fewer soldiers involved in these campaigns than in the East. But if you want to talk numbers, let’s talk numbers.

One of the goals of any army at war is to gain territory. Civil War military campaigns were designed to move soldiers across states and occupy them. So how did the soldiers of the eastern theater and the West compare in this respect? Here are the numbers.

In the East (for my purposes here, the “East” includes Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi) Union soldiers gained/retained 84.9 acres of territory per soldier over four years of marching, fighting, and occupation.

In the West, Union soldiers gained/retained 83,853 acres per soldier over one year of marching, fighting, and occupation, if we only count NM, AZ, and CA as “the West.” If we count the land mass west of the 100th meridian, they gained/retained 254,033 acres per soldier.

These are pretty significant numbers, in terms of both scale and time frame. They indicate that Union soldiers in the Southwest accomplished one of the major goals of warfare — territorial acquisition – far out of proportion to their smaller numbers.

The War was a significant political and social turning point in the West.

In his August column in Civil War Times, Gallagher does acknowledge that the Republican Party had an agenda for the West, exemplified in a series of Civil War legislative acts such as the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act. However, Gallagher thinks Congress would have achieved these without the war.

But Republicans in Congress had not been able to pass any of these acts before the war, while southerners still held their seats. They were only able to pass them after the South seceded and their representatives had resigned. Republicans then took advantage of their super-majorities to pass these acts to promote the conquest and colonization of the West, which they had been advocating since the late 1840s.

It is important to recognize as well that Republicans did not pass these acts and Lincoln did not sign them until after they had received news of the Sibley’s Brigade’s forced retreat from New Mexico in May and June 1862. They needed to be sure that the West was firmly in Union hands.

Civil War mobilization also brought many more Union soldiers into New Mexico and Arizona than had been garrisoned in forts there before. These soldiers re-opened the Butterfield mail route, reestablishing communications between the East and West overland. They built roads and protected mining operations throughout New Mexico and Arizona. All of this work established the infrastructure that made the Union’s conquest of the West possible in later years.

These Union soldiers also initiated military campaigns against Navajos and Apaches, aiming to eradicate or remove them in order to bring the West more securely into the Union.

The Union Army’s conflicts with Native Americans were Civil War actions.

These conflicts, which were ongoing during the Union and Confederate battle for the Southwest and then accelerated between 1863 and 1865, were fought by regiments that had been mustered into Civil War service.

The goals of these campaigns – territorial expansion and security – supported the Union cause and shaped Union nationalism. These battles were recorded, reported, and memorialized as part of each regiment’s Civil War service.

For example, the Civil War memorial that Santa Fe residents erected in the middle of the plaza in Santa Fe, honors “the heroes of the federal army” who fell in battles with the “rebels” at Valverde, Glorieta Pass, Apache Canyon, and Peralta; and those who fell in battles with “savage Indians” in the Territory of New Mexico. These may have been separate campaigns in the sense that the Union soldiers’ adversaries were different, but soldiers and civilians in New Mexico saw them as part of the same fight for the Union cause.

***

Americans fought the Civil War on multiple fronts, and all of these theaters mattered to the outcome of the war. I hope that students and scholars of Civil War history will agree that our work does best when it illuminates all aspects of the war.

The excellent research and writing that scholars of the Civil War West have published thus far – and will publish in the future – enriches our understanding of the past. Isn’t this, after all, the goal of scholarly endeavor?

 

Megan Kate Nelson is working on a book about the Civil War in the Southwest, which will be published by Scribner in 2019, and is a recipient of a 2017 NEH Public Scholar Award.

 



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