The Bleeding Southwest: A Review of ‘The Civil War in the Western Territories’ by Ray C. Colton

Civil War historiography is saturated with biographies, retellings of grandiose military campaigns, and the political struggles to end the moral scourge of slavery in the United States. Civil War historians produce mountains of research on the causes, role of slavery, political debates in the high echelons of Washington D.C., military technology, evolving societal roles, and much more. Entire libraries can be filled with only Civil War publications. The most common knowledge of the Civil War is focused on what happened in the Eastern United States; great battles like Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Atlanta dominate the narrative. People imagine long battle lines filled with muskets, powder smoke, and huge colorful flags as soldiers shoot and melee each other until they capitulate. Smaller battles like Pea Ridge, Wilson’s Creek, and Prairie Grove are enshrined as well, mostly through the regional and local histories that preserve them so well. But what about the battles further west? The ones beyond the Great Plains and into the rugged territories of the American West? As pioneers moved west in search of new opportunities, federal laws were loosely enforced, making the territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah scenes of sporadic, but intense violence. Armies numbered in the hundreds, not thousands. Here in the West were untapped resources and a connection to the Pacific Ocean. Federal outposts and troops stationed there were more for protecting settlers from local Indian tribes; ill-equipped to halt an invasion of regular troops. The leaders of the Confederacy believed that if they could conquer and incorporate the western territories, they would have access to enormous wealth and be one step closer of having a nation stretch between the two oceans.

Map of the Arizona and New Mexico Territories, circa 1867. Two pivotal battles occurred here during the American Civil War. Battles with local Ute, Apache, and Paiute Indian tribes were also a focal point for Union troops stationed in the western territories.

Ray Colton’s ‘The Civil War in the Western Territories‘ chronicles the events of the New Mexico Campaign led by C.S.A. Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, battles against Indian nations, and how the war shaped the western territories. Colton shines in delivering a detailed narrative filled with primary sources of military leaders, government dispatches, and personal diaries of enlisted men and pioneers. Where Colton lacks however is placing the conflict within the larger context of the American Civil War. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and C.S.A President Jefferson Davis were both heavily invested in the outcome of their army’s campaigns, but expanding on these implications of a successful Confederate invasion could have enriched the understanding of the reader’s idea of the West’s criticality. Despite this, Colton breaks down the narrative into specific stages of how the western conflict unraveled:

  1. Battles between the Union and Confederate armies.
  2. Skirmishes and attacks between the U.S. Army and local Indians
  3. The political and social impacts of the New Mexico Campaign

To provide some background on why the Confederacy endorsed an invasion into the U.S. territories, the plan had the potential to tip the balance of power on the continent. Jefferson Davis, his cabinet, and generals argued that the vast mineral wealth (particularly gold and silver in Colorado and New Mexico), access to the Pacific Ocean, and military pressure to divert Union troops away from the Eastern Theater were the major benefits. Confederate leaders also hoped that the Apaches and Paiutes would indirectly assist them in occupying Union troops while their own troops captured towns, forts, and supply lines.

Lt. Col. Edward Canby, Union commander of the Department of New Mexico, got wind of the coming invasion and on July 23rd, 1861 (two days after the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the Civil War) Lt. Col. John Baylor and the Texas 2nd Mounted Rifles entered the New Mexico Territory. From here, Colton does a phenomenal job of writing a line-by-line description of the two sides chasing and slashing at one another. The writing sometimes takes on a commentary feel as Colton infuses the action with personal writings from the commanders and soldiers. The Confederates from the beginning had the advantage. Union troops scattered between Fort Craig and Fort Fillmore struggled against the larger column of Southern troops. Baylor seized the town of Mesilla and following a successful repulsion of Union attacks, Baylor proclaimed the Confederate Arizona Territory on August 1, 1861. While Union commanders struggled to regroup from the loss at Bull Run, Confederate commanders were expanding the boundaries of the Confederacy.

Mesilla served as the capital for the Confederate Arizona Territory. The first step in the conquest of the American West and the goal of stretching the Confederacy to the Pacific.

Between August 1861 and February 1862, Baylor’s Texans skirmished with Union forces in the surrounding lands outside Mesilla. Small Confederate victories (small in numbers of casualties) inched the Southerners further west. Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Canby was hastily assembling his army to push the Confederates out of Arizona and New Mexico when in February 1862, Gen. Sibley’s column entered the territory. Their forces came to ahead first at the Battle of Valverde where Sibley was victorious, but Union cavalry broke Confederate supply lines and captured many of the wagons and pack animals. Rather than engage Canby again, Sibley kept moving north to Santa Fe and Mesilla were supplies were waiting. On March 26, 1862 the two armies met again in the Battle of Glorieta Pass. For two days the armies savaged one another in a back-and-forth melee and sporadic fighting in numerous spots made it difficult to determine the frontline. Sibley needed a victory here; Union control of the West and the Rocky Mountains could be broken and the Confederacy would stretch unobstructed to the Pacific coast. Despite their desperate situation, Union troops defeated the southerners, forcing them back to Santa Fe. This loss, coupled with the approaching California Column (a volunteer outfit of infantry and cavalry regiments) proved too much for the Confederate Army of New Mexico. By August 1862, the last of Gen. Sibley’s outfit staggered back across the Rio Grande into Texas and the Confederate flags were torn down and replaced with the Star Spangled Banner.

Colton doesn’t overlook what happened next in the story of the Western Territories. Even though the Confederates were purged from Arizona and New Mexico, Union forces in the region took to the next task; protecting settlers and subduing local Native American tribes. Almost half of the book’s text is dedicated to this subject since for the remainder of the Civil War and beyond, whites constantly clashed with Indians and it was the Army’s primary duty to intervene. The gravity of the invasion was not lost on many of the Native American warriors. The two armies attacking each other was an opportunity to strike back. Apaches, Kiowas, Comanches, and more increased the regularity of their raids on white settlements. Kit Carson was tasked to lead a detachment of Union cavalry to retaliate against Indians throughout New Mexico and from these fights came more stories to add to his almost legendary status. Volunteers from the California Column also engaged various tribes and white civilians contributed as much as was possible to stop the raids.

Colorado saw the majority of the Indian fighting. Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Utes attacked settlements across Colorado and inflicted substantial damage on the local economies. Calls for more troops and peace talks abounded between Colorado and Washington D.C. The violence climaxed on November 29, 1864. Despite repeated warnings to not engage the Cheyenne however, Col. John Chivington of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry swooped down on an encampment near the Big Sandy Creek and proceeded to kill everyone [Chivington fought at the Battle of Glorieta Pass and spent another two months attacking Confederates in New Mexico]. The chief, Black Kettle, had flown a U.S. and white flag from his lodge showing that he was following the terms of peace and to deter any more U.S. soldiers from attacking. Chivington ignored this display, resulting in the Sand Creek Massacre. Colton pulls no punches in outlining the lead-up and fallout from the massacre. While overshadowed by the greater specter of civil war, unforgettable atrocities against Native Americans were committed during the years of unchecked violence.

Casualty estimates between 50 to 500 Cheyenne were killed at Sand Creek. The majority of these victims were women and children. Soldiers later testified of the grotesque manner of how they killed or maimed many of the victims (scalping, beheading, and removal of fetuses)

The third section of Colton’s book examines how western territories adapted politically during the Civil War, such as Arizona and New Mexico coping with secessionists and re-incorporation into the Union. Loyalty and allegiance oaths are the over-arching theme since a majority of settlers were seen as anti-government and susceptible to causing havoc. For one group, their relationship with the U.S. government, but opposition to slavery, made their role in the Civil War more critical than historians initially give them credit. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its president Brigham Young built their new Zion near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. A vital mail route, the Overland Trail, ran through the territory and throughout the war’s duration, Union troops remained stationed near Salt Lake with the mission of protecting the route. Brigham Young and the church were not wholly convinced of their altruistic mission, given their checkered history with state and federal governments. However, the church’s condemnation of slavery was crucial as many Union supporters thought that they would also join the Confederacy; on the assumption that Utah would want to safeguard the institution of polygamy. New territorial governors and political appointees to the Utah territory were constantly at odds with Brigham Young and their Mormon constituents. This exacerbated an already volatile situation with Union troops camped not far from Salt Lake City. Governor John Dawson vetoed a bill authorizing delegates to a constitutional convention (which would have led to statehood) was just one of the many political conflicts unfolding in Utah. One accusation made against Brigham Young was the depreciation of the national currency and using a new metals standard. These political tensions almost came to a head when federal troops drilled for a potential occupation of Utah. By 1864, General Irvin McDowell ordered all federal troops to leave the Salt Lake area and remove themselves from interfering in any legislation or economic ventures in Utah. Protecting the Overland Mail Route was their first and only duty. A serious armed conflict with the potential of creating another internal split in the West was averted and the Church looked forward to more years of peace.

Patrick Edward Connor, Union commander of the District of Utah. Conner clashed repeatedly with Brigham Young and other church leaders during the Civil War. His troops were always precariously positioned on the Overland Route, making many residents uneasy.

The Civil War in the Western Territories‘ was a strong, well-researched manuscript, but lacked in some greater contextual research. Colton makes no exception when evaluating the importance of the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Despite that, there are only a few references in establishing connections between the Eastern and Western Theaters. If there is documentation that generals like U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, James Longstreet, or Albert Sidney Johnston, were actively watching and taking events in New Mexico into account, that would have increased the geographical importance of the Western Territories. When researching the American Civil War, we must remember to take all theaters and battles into account with their role, position, and relevance in the wider conflict. What if Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah elected to join the Confederacy? What if Gen. Sibley punched a hole through to the Pacific? These questions were being asking in 1861 and so we ought to ask them today.

2 thoughts on “The Bleeding Southwest: A Review of ‘The Civil War in the Western Territories’ by Ray C. Colton

  1. Pingback: The Prophet’s Bodyguard: A Look at the Life of Orrin Porter Rockwell (Part 2 of 2) | Thomas Richardson: History Here and now

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