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Fighting Retreat: Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson (on horse, his right arm raised) saved his command from annihilation at the 1864 Battle of Adobe Walls with the judicious use of a mountain howitzer battery. The ploy allowed for a fighting retreat in the face of repeated charges from mounted Comanche and Kiowa warriors.

Desert Warriors: The Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands

By Andrew E. Masich
JULY 2017 • AMERICA'S CIVIL WAR MAGAZINE

The Southwest Borderlands is without question the Civil War’s least understood and appreciated theater. The sparsely populated region, extending from southern California to the Rio Grande, experienced not only clashes between Union and Confederate forces during the war, but also a struggle for survival and dominance among Indian and Hispanic populations on both sides of the Mexican border. Those conflicts were in fact interconnected civil wars that were spawned or exacerbated by the “war of the rebellion” in the United States.

Numbering only about 15,000 men—roughly a quarter of the total U.S. Postal workers at the time—the antebellum U.S. Army had a tall task guarding the nation against both domestic and external threats. Most of the Regular Army’s active regiments of dragoons, mounted rifles, cavalry, and infantry were stationed in the Far West, but those were typically fragmented, company-sized units incapable of conducting large-scale campaigns.

Operations generally were limited to occasional engagements with Indian raiders, the policing of well-traveled roads, and peace-keeping efforts between Indians and settlers, miners, mail carriers, and wagon freighters.

After Abraham Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and the secession of seven Southern states over the next few months, once-unthinkable civil war loomed. That put southern California and the New Mexico Territory, then comprising present-day Arizona, New Mexico and southern Nevada, in the crosshairs. Federal troops abandoned their far-flung Western forts and consolidated on the Pacific Coast and along the Rio Grande in anticipation of a Confederate invasion from Texas.

A Changing Nation: Johnson and Ward’s 1862 “New Military Map” depicted the nation’s forts and military posts and, though not shown here, provided enlarged looks at important Southern harbors. At the time, New Mexico Territory comprised modern Arizona and New Mexico as well as southern Nevada. (Library of Congress)

The retreating Federal presence and redirection of resources left a temporary power vacuum in the Southwest Borderlands, leading to widespread violence as local tribes, mainly Apaches, Comanches, and Navajos, embarked on opportunistic raids and conquests. Unguarded against raiders, the region’s forts, mines, settlements, herds, and villages were particularly vulnerable. “We are hemmed in on all sides by the unrelenting Apaches” wrote one Tucson-based newspaper editor. “Since the withdrawal of the Overland Mail and the garrison troops the chances of life have reached the maximum height. Within but six months nine-tenths of the whole male population have been killed off, and every ranch, farm and mine in the country have been abandoned in consequence.”

The Indians, however, were not the only ones to take advantage of the vacuum. Rebelling Confederates from Texas and New Mexico quickly followed suit. In July 1861, the federal government made an urgent call for volunteer troops from California and both the New Mexico and Colorado territories. On July 22, the day after the Union disaster at First Bull Run, Lincoln endorsed the Volunteer Employment Act, stipulating that volunteers could enlist for service of at least six months and up to three years.

In response to that call, 16,000 volunteers from California, 5,000 from New Mexico, and 3,000 from Colorado joined the Union Army, with California mustering two regiments of cavalry, five regiments of infantry, and two mountain-howitzer batteries. California volunteer regiments would serve as far north as Fort Colville, Washington Territory, and as far east as Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. They even forayed into French-occupied Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua.

Just a week after the Bull Run defeat, 700 Union Regulars under Major Isaac Lynde, based at Fort Fillmore, New Mexico, were embarrassingly overrun and captured by Lt. Col. John R. Baylor’s mounted riflemen. Lynde’s force had attempted a half-hearted demonstration of force against Baylor’s men at nearby Mesilla only days before on July 25. Though outnumbered, Baylor’s men aggressively responded with “Texas bravado.” The unnerved Federals returned to Fort Fillmore and then evacuated it after destroying most of its military, food, and medical stores.

Lynde’s force was ill-prepared for what was supposed to be a 20-mile retreat north to Fort Stanton and became disorganized in the punishing desert heat while heading along the San Augustin Pass. In fact, many dehydrated Federals simply dropped to the side of the road, unable to continue marching. By contrast, Baylor’s motley band of Texas volunteers were battle-hardened Comanche and Apache fighters and confident veterans of desert campaigns.

To the dismay of many of his men, Lynde conditionally surrendered his command without firing a shot, believing that “honor did not demand the sacrifice of blood.” Fort Fillmore’s post surgeon wrote that “old soldiers and strong men [wept] like children.” He blamed Lynde’s actions on cowardice, imbecility, and an inability to manage logistics, including allowing an inordinate number of camp followers and officers’ wives to impede the excursion. “The damned old scoundrel has surrendered us!” some of Lynde’s officers swore aloud, and members of the 7th Infantry torched their regimental colors rather than surrender them to Baylor.

In the wake of his victory, Baylor proclaimed a “Territory of Arizona” for the Confederacy. His proclamation, dated August 1, 1861, marked the first occasion the area (at the time considered southern New Mexico ), would be officially recognized by a government.

Among the claims in Baylor’s proclamation:

The social and political condition of Arizona being little short of general anarchy, and the people being literally destitute of law, order, and protection, the said Territory, from the date hereof, is hereby declared temporarily organized as a military government until such time as Congress may otherwise provide.

I, John R. Baylor, lieutenant-colonel, commanding the Confederate Army in the Territory of Arizona, hereby take possession of the said Territory in the name and behalf of the Confederate States of America…

All offices, both civil and military, heretofore existing in this Territory, either under the laws of the late United States or the Territory of New Mexico, are hereby declared vacant, and from the date hereof shall forever cease to exist.

That the people of this Territory may enjoy the full benefits of law, order, and protection, and, as far as possible, the blessings and advantages of a free government, it is hereby decreed that the laws and enactments existing in this Territory prior to the date of this proclamation, and consistent with the Constitution and laws of the Confederate States of America and the provisions of this decree, shall continue in full force and effect, without interruption, until such time as the Confederate Congress may otherwise provide.

In Richmond, Confederate President Jefferson Davis confirmed Baylor’s self-proclaimed governorship.

Baylor began offering protection against Apache attacks on area mines and settlements. And in February 1862, Captain Sherod Hunter arrived in Tucson with his 100-man Company A, 2nd Texas Mounted Volunteers, along with elements of other Confederate territorial companies. Most Anglo settlers welcomed protection of any kind, no matter the source. An effort was also made to gain recognition of the Confederacy from the Mexican government, which they hoped would secure desperately needed food supplies for Texas regiments pushing up the Rio Grande in New Mexico.

A Lethal Thorn: With hard tactics and trademark “Texas bravado,” Lt. Col. John Baylor overwhelmed his Union opponents in the Borderlands. (Arizona Historical Society)

Although Lincoln and the War Department’s primary focus was the fighting in the East, they didn’t completely ignore the situation out West. In August 1861, in fact, they began debating whether a force out of California could attack the Confederates in Texas by way of Mexico. Department of the Pacific commander Brig. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner received assurances from Mexican officials they could. The operation would involve landing Union troops at Guaymas or Mazatlán on the Gulf of California, and then marching across Sonora and Chihuahua to strike the Confederates along the border in western Texas if not in Mexico itself.

The first of the new California regiments, however, were diverted by civil unrest in southern California. Federal authorities were anxious, justifiably, that 20,000 or so Confederate sympathizers might team with disloyal Hispanos, still seething over the loss of California to the Americans in 1848, to instigate civil war in the southern counties. By December, the militant secessionists had been rounded up and the rebellion suppressed.

Colonel George Wright, commander of the 9th U.S. Infantry had assumed command of the Department of the Pacific from Sumner in October 1861, but fearful that a march through Mexico might incite an international incident he suggested a more practical approach: A force of California troops would invade the territories by crossing the Colorado River at Yuma and then proceed along the Gila River on the old Butterfield Overland Mail Route. That plan was approved by Washington.

Wright selected 47-year-old James Henry Carleton, colonel of the 1st California, to lead the push. Wright wanted an attack to take place as soon as possible. Carleton, he knew, was a tough, efficient dragoon officer—a protégé of the hard-marching Stephen Watts Kearny—with many years of frontier experience. He had earned a reputation as both an uncompromising disciplinarian and a stickler for detail.

As Wright devised his plan for the Arizona mission, he was informed of the ominous international implications of war in the Borderlands. Lincoln’s beleaguered administration could no longer enforce the Monroe Doctrine, and French, Spanish, and British warships were heading to Veracruz to claim unpaid Mexican debts and, perhaps, reclaim empire in the Americas. At the beginning of the war, Carleton had been assigned command of a force responsible for guarding the central Overland Mail Route through the Nevada, Utah, and Dakota (Wyoming, after 1865) territories—a region he knew well from his service during the Mormon War of 1857-58. Mormon leader Brigham Young considered the reassignment of Federal troops from Utah as an opportunity to strengthen his independent state of Deseret and quickly made overtures to regional tribes such as the Utes to prepare for war against emigrating “Gentiles ” and U.S. Troops.

With the growing Confederate threat in the Borderlands, however, Carleton’s orders from Washington were rescinded. Authorities reasoned that a thrust from southern California across Arizona and New Mexico to the Rio Grande would serve several strategic purposes: It would block a junction of Texas and California secessionists; reopen the southern Overland Mail Route; provide garrisons for abandoned posts; and furnish protection to the citizens of the territories and the northern states of Mexico. The Californians would also be in a position to fall upon the flank and rear of Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley’s Army of New Mexico as it pushed past Union forts while marching up the Rio Grande toward Santa Fe and the Colorado goldfields.

Carleton’s force included 10 companies of his own regiment, the 1st California Infantry; five companies of the 1st California Cavalry under Lt. Col. Edward E. Eyre; and Light Battery A, 3rd U.S. Artillery. First Lieutenant John B. Shinn commanded the battery, which consisted of four bronze field pieces (6-pounder guns and 12-pounder field howitzers) manned by Regulars. Wright assigned Captain John C. Cremony’s Company B, 2nd California Cavalry, to Carleton’s contingent before the column set out across the desert. Colonel George W. Bowie’s 5th California Infantry (10 companies) and two mountain howitzer batteries later joined Carleton’s command, bringing the total force to 2,350 men. Before the war’s end, some 6,000 additional California soldiers would follow this advance column.

Experienced Regular Army officers raised and trained the regiments bound for Arizona. Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin F. Davis, formerly captain of Company K, 1st U.S. Dragoons, drilled the 1st California Cavalry into a well-trained and disciplined battalion. But by the time the Californians marched for the territory in late 1861, Davis and many of the other Regular officers had gone east to fight, and civilian appointees led the volunteers. The men benefited greatly from the training provided by their original cadre of officers.

The first men to answer the call were Anglo-Americans recruited from every part of California. More than half the state’s Anglo population was of military age, and these men flocked to enlist at forts and camps. These volunteer soldiers represented a true cross section of California’s Anglo male population. They were a hardy lot, used to working outdoors in the harshest conditions imaginable. Most of them were laboring in the mines and goldfields of northern California when the war broke out. About 1 in 4 had been born outside the United States.

An 1864 recruiting poster for volunteers to fight Plains Indians in the Colorado Territory’s goldfields. (MPI/Getty Images)

They also tended to be bigger and stronger than their Eastern brethren. Army quartermasters soon discovered that the Western soldiers needed coats, trousers, hats, and shoes considerably larger than those required by their counterparts back East. As was the case with most voluntary migrations, the Westerners exhibited not only a stature above Union soldiers’ 5-foot-8 average height but intelligence and self-reliance as well. The men ranged in age from 18 to 45, though most were in their early 20s, and had at least some formal education.

The Californians enlisted for a variety of reasons, from a patriotic desire to preserve the Union to the lure of three meals a day. Others found the pay of $11 a month compelling. In the ranks slavery was rarely a discussion topic, but tempers did occasionally flare between proslavery and antislavery men. Whether or not they approved of slavery, the majority of Californians agreed that the Union must be preserved. Californios (i.e., native Californians descended from Spanish and Mexican pioneers) adopted a wait-and-see attitude as the sectional strife between North and South escalated, but most of the Hispanos felt that this was not yet their war.

In many ways the California Volunteers proved to be superior to the Regular Army soldiers who preceded them in the Borderlands. Although well officered, the Regular ranks were filled with recent immigrants and Americans from the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. They had little or no formal education and most were illiterate. Alcoholism, a 33 percent desertion rate, malingering, and a host of social diseases crippled the strength and effectiveness of the standing Army. The Regulars lacked the diverse talents of the Volunteers, most of whom viewed military service as a temporary break from their civilian occupations. The Volunteers were literate, even literary, and quickly adapted to new people, environments, and challenges, while the Regulars looked to their officers and the security of military routine. All things considered, the independent Californians seemed ideally suited for the arduous service they would face in the border territories.

California Governor John G. Downey confirmed commissions for a number of outstanding officer candidates who had served as enlisted men in the Regular Army before the war. William McCleave had served as Carleton’s first sergeant in Company K, 1st U.S. Dragoons, during the decade preceding the Civil War, and Carleton pushed for his old friend’s appointment to command Company A, 1st California Cavalry. McCleave left the service in 1860 to oversee the Army’s experimental camel herd at Fort Tejon, Calif., but now he jumped at the chance to serve as an officer under Carleton. Cavalry commands were the most sought after in the patriotic rush that followed the opening of hostilities. Carleton made certain that these plum commissions went to men of proven ability.

Although the governor had to approve commissions in the volunteer service, a military board established in the early months of the war reviewed all officer candidates as a safeguard against unqualified appointments. At first the enlisted men of the California companies elected their officers, as was common practice in militia companies. The men usually chose competent officers and practically considered such factors as fairness and general likeability. The Anglo frontiersmen looked for a leader with a “military bearing” who could command respect. In the rush to recruit and organize units, the amateur soldiers chose volunteer officers as much for their imposing appearance as their military competency. Consequently, the elected officers were often physically impressive and well above average height.

The California troops skirmished with Hunter’s Confederate rangers at Picacho Pass in Arizona in April 1862 as the Rebels retreated to the Rio Grande to link up with Sibley. As they followed the old Butterfield Trail eastward, both Union and Confederate troops were attacked by Apaches at strategic passes and water holes. At the same time, Sibley’s army straggled down the Rio Grande and back to Texas, defeated by their own poor logistics, a hostile New Mexican population, and the unforgiving desert.

The Confederates had claimed victories in July 1861 at Fort Fillmore and in February 1862 at Valverde, the river crossing near Fort Craig, but were fought to a standstill on March 26-28, 1862, in Glorieta Pass on the Santa Fe Trail while marching to capture desperately needed supplies at strategic Fort Union, northeast of Santa Fe. Colorado Volunteers under the command of Colonel John P. Slough had joined up with Regulars to stop the Confederate advance and in the process destroyed the Rebel’s entire wagon train carrying the half-starved expedition’s food, blankets, and ammunition. Union troops in New Mexico united under the command of Maj. Gen. E.R.S. Canby and cautiously maneuvered Sibley’s wounded but still dangerous army down the Rio Grande.

As Carleton’s California Column marched across the desert, skirmishing with Apaches and picking up Confederate stragglers and wounded men in southern New Mexico and Texas, Carleton, promoted brigadier general of volunteers during the Column’s march, along with famed frontiersman Kit Carson launched relentless attacks against Apaches, Comanches, and Navajos, crippling those nations’ ability to wage offensive war and confining them to government reservations. (For more, see “Reviews,” p. 58.)

The Southwest Borderlands saw multiple civil wars and struggles for survival and dominance between 1861 and 1867, when the last of the U.S. Volunteer troops were mustered out of service. The Borderlands’ Indian populace probably suffered the most from the tidal wave of U.S. military might that flooded the territories and brought a new power hierarchy to the region.

Andrew E. Masich is president & CEO of the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. This article was adapted from his 2017 book Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861–1867 (University of Oklahoma Press).

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