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Rebels in the Rockies: Confederate Irregulars in the Western Territories
 Walter Pittman

Tony Horowitz may indeed have discovered Confederates in the attic, but Walter Pittman claims to have found Rebels in the Rockies, or at least irregular fighters scattered throughout the mountain Southwest who favored the Southern cause. Pittman concedes that he has “no intention…to claim that the events described here significantly influenced the outcome of the larger war.” Nevertheless, he posits that his research into the mostly undocumented wartime activities of this eclectic group of sagebrush adventurers, gamblers, cowboys and rugged mountain miners “led to the discovery of an entire shadowy world of Southern resistance in the West.”

How much a reader enjoys this book will depend on how much he or she shares Pittman’s enthusiasm for the local lore he has uncovered. He’s a natural yarn spinner, and some of the characters he comes across would make Ned Buntline envious. With an antiquarian’s passion for detail, Pittman presents mountains of information, much of it probably gleaned from a close reading of the region’s newspapers, which thrived on stories about cattle rustling, Indian raids, murder and mayhem. Most of the men who formed the irregular bands of scouts and spies, with colorful names like the San Elizario Spies, Frazer’s Rangers, the Arizona Scouts and the Brigands, were gleaned from the ranks of adventurers and freebooters who rolled around the sparsely populated territory like tumbleweeds.

The Confederacy’s eyes were on the northernmost Mexican states and gold-laden California from the war’s earliest days. That led the region’s Southern sympathizers to form a variety of underground movements and rag-tag bands of irregulars to harass isolated Union military units and civilians, steal horses and provisions and interdict commerce between California and the Northern states. All the while, they kept a wary eye on the region’s only really dangerous foe, bands of marauding Apache Indians. The irregulars did participate in a few pitched battles, mostly fought in what is now New Mexico, during the ill-conceived and star-crossed 1861-62 expedition of Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley and his mounted Texans. Pittman includes workmanlike syntheses of these engagements, but the richest nuggets he uncovers can be found nearly halfway through the book, in gold-rush Colorado.

Although Southerners made up a small percentage of Colorado’s rapidly growing Anglo population, Pittman concludes that “they were the most important single group,” including leading mine owners, businessmen and federal office holders. As the population split into Northern and Southern factions, Pittman contends that “Cells of secret Southern sympathizers were scattered throughout the mining camps…and attempts were made to organize, equip, and train them as soldiers.” Led by men like gambler and gunfighter Charley Harrison and former brigand George Harrison, these paramilitary bands plied their own type of warfare far from Richmond’s command and control.

Later in the war, many Southern sympathizers joined the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi and fought in the 1864 Red River Campaign. When evaluating the overall effectiveness of the Confederate Western irregulars, Pittman ruefully concludes, “The almost total success of the Union in keeping the large and potentially hostile Southerner populations in the West under sufficient control meant that they never were able to constitute a major threat.” But they left behind some great stories.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.