There have been thousands of books, movies and articles written about America’s Civil War. The vast majority of these chronicle the conflicts that occurred from the deep South all the way north to Gettysburg. This of course was for good reason because the most large and decisive battles took place in this eastern area of our country. Events of the Civil War that haven’t been publicized near as much were the battles and skirmishes that occurred as far west as the Arizona Territory border with California.
The Remote Southwest
At the time of the Civil War, the Arizona region represented the southern part of the New Mexico Territory which was acquired from the Mexican government in 1848 at the end of the Mexican-American War. Because of it’s geographic location in the southwest, the New Mexico Territory was a bit cut off from the Union states to the east as well as from Washington D.C. where most of the decisions were made. In addition to being remote the New Mexico Territory had a majority of it’s population emigrating from southern states, ex-Texans being one of the largest groups.
The Fight For Succession and the Southwest
There were several key events of the Civil War in the far west during the Civil War years. In Texas which was aligned with the Confederacy, Union forts which were established along the line of settlement were under attack by southern sympathizers. In most cases the outnumbered Union troops simply surrendered the fort.
The Comanche Indians who roamed throughout central and west Texas were able to take advantage of the Civil War turmoil to step up attacks on settlers. The Texas Confederate sympathizers were no more close to the Comanches than the Union troops were and for decades these Texans also had battled the Comanches. The absence of Union troops to guard the settlements during the war just made things more dangerous for non-combatants on the southern plains.
Another situation at the same time was playing out in Arizona, then the southern part of the New Mexico Territory. Because of the vast size of the territory and it’s capitol being in the far north, Santa Fe, many of the southern territory occupants felt ignored by both Santa Fe and by the federal government in Washington D.C. This was the official reason however it was only part of the story. The other part that influenced events of the Civil War in the west was that the Confederacy was quite interested in establishing a route to the Pacific. If for no other reason it would be a new supply route which was needed badly.
The Confederate John Baylor
A man by the name of John Baylor decided to take action. Baylor who was born in Kentucky spent time as a Texas politician and when the war broke out organized the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles. This occurred in 1861. Their purpose was to drive the Union forces out of the southwest.
Moving westward, Baylor prevailed in several battles and eventually made his way to Arizona and declared it part of the Confederacy. When word of Baylor’s southwest success reached Jefferson Davis he wholeheartedly endorsed the idea. The Confederacy and Baylor went ahead and proclaimed Arizona as being a Confederate state. John Baylor was thereby named governor of this new territory. He designated Tucson as it’s capitol.
It was during this time that what historians call the westernmost battle of the Civil War occurred. The site was a small distance northwest of Picacho Peak in southern Arizona between Tucson and Fort Yuma near the Butterfield Stagecoach route. The conflict was called the Battle of Picacho Pass involving the 1st California Cavalry led by a Lieutenant Barrett riding east from Fort Yuma California and a group of Arizona Confederates led by a Sergeant Henry Holmes.
Another decisive battle took place at Glorietta Pass in New Mexico about 30 miles east of Santa Fe.
This battle was between Southern troops and the Colorado Militia. The southerners wanted to move north and engage Union forces in the western great plains. The Colorado militia prevailed and the Confederate attempt was thwarted. This battle ended the advance of Confederate General Henry Hopkins Sibley and his hoped for conquest of New Mexico. The events of the Civil War in the southwest were at first a breakthrough for the South but ended in defeat.
The Divisions in the Southwest
It’s interesting to note that the southwest was not the only area with divided loyalties. An example would be the mining camps spread throughout the west all the way from Montana down to Arizona including California.
All of these camps had people from all parts of the Union. Divisiveness was found in almost all camps. It usually just depended on where someone was from. Divisiveness was also very heavy in the states of Missouri and Kansas which during the 1860’s could be considered the west in some respects. The 1860’s saw much bloodshed in both states by opposing bands of militia who carried on an extremely violent campaign. The most publicized was the Massacre at Lawrence Kansas on August 21, 1863. Upwards of 200 men and boys were killed in this attack carried out by a group led by William Quantrill. The guerrilla group was referred to as Quantrill’s Raiders and were aligned with the Confederacy.
Significance of the Western Theater of the Civil War
Obviously the reason that so much more has been chronicled about the Civil War battles east of the Mississippi River is that more battles involving more soldiers took place there. The east is where the major battles were fought. The capitol’s of both sides were in the east and the population centers were in the east.
The far west was still a developing region with exception to California which gained statehood in 1850. All else were territories with limited troops spread over vast areas. Regardless, both sides understood that there were benefits to whoever gained control. The Confederacy looked at it as a kind of rearguard action. If possible they wanted to gain access to the Pacific Ocean through San Diego. They also tried to use the west as a way to attack the Union from the other direction.
The Creation of the Arizona Territory
The Union on the other hand simply wanted to hold on to what they gained from the Mexican-American War and at the same time drive the southern forces out. The conflicts in the southwest during the war expedited the Union’s decision to carve out two territories in the region after the war ended. Creating the Arizona Territory alongside the Territory of New Mexico allowed the Union to govern the area much better. Becoming a territory was the first step to statehood. The Civil War was just the catalyst needed for the Union to organize the southwest territories more efficiently .
Links to additional articles you’ll enjoy include:
Historic Civil War Sites and Museums to Add to your Trip Planner
Arizona Military Museum
The Arizona Military Museum is operated by the Arizona National Guard Historical Society, a private non-profit corporation. The officers and directors serve as docents, and they perform other necessary functions in conjunction with National Guard support to operate and maintain the museum. The museum is located at the Papago Park Military Reservation, 5636 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix, Arizona.
New Mexico History Museum / Palace of the Governors
Located in Santa Fe New Mexico, the 96,000 square foot museum behind the Palace of the Governors on the historic Santa Fe Plaza, presents six time periods key to the development of New Mexico and the American West. From the Civil War through the Lincoln County War and the Railroad Wars, New Mexico was a violent, vibrant place during its 63 years as a U.S. Territory.
Arizona History Museum
Located at 49 E. 2nd Street, Tucson Arizona, this museum’s focus is southern Arizona history from Spanish colonial through territorial eras. Included among the many exhibits are Geronimo’s and Wyatt Earp’s personal possessions.
Picacho Peak State Park
Lots of Civil War history at this site of a key Civil War Battle. Among the events held at Picacho Peak State Park are re-enactments of an Arizona Civil War skirmish and the New Mexico battles of Glorieta and Val Verde. The park is closed from late May through the summer. The 2013 reopening will be on September 14th. The park is located about 75 miles east of Phoenix Arizona just south of Interstate 10.
Two very interesting books I would recommend for a more detailed account of the Civil War in the southwest include The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865 by author Andrew E. Masich and Civil War in Apacheland: Sergeant George Hand’s Diary, 1861-1864 by author Neil B. Carmony.
(Photos and images of Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, John R. Baylor and Henry Sibley from the public domain. Remaining photos from author’s collection)