When people think of the American Civil War, specific images spring to mind—Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Scarlett O’Hara escaping a burning Atlanta in a hoop skirt, and blue and grey uniforms clashing on bloodied battlefields. The war is well researched, but there is still the little-known, yet still vastly important, history of the Civil War in the American West.
I’m talking today with Megan Kate Nelson, author of The Three Cornered-War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West. Both the Union and Confederacy had their eyes on the prize that was the American West, making up more than 40 percent of the United States landmass. The territory would give whoever controlled it access to gold and Pacific ports. For the North, it was also imperative to protect its interests in New Mexico in particular, since that territory was not only the gateway to Southern California, but it also shared a border with the Confederacy, making it vulnerable to invasion by pro-slavery forces. As Nelson explains, the battles that took place in the region “illuminate the ways that the Southwest became a pivotal theater of the Civil War and the center of a larger struggle for the future of the nation, of Native peoples, and the West.”
The Western Theatre saw the complex interplay between the Civil War, the Indian Wars, and western expansion, reframing this struggle as a truly national conflict. Today’s political conflicts over immigration have created chaos along the Southwest’s border with Mexico. This region has long been a site of contention. However—a place in which struggles for power have sparked armed conflict and determined federal policies regarding who, exactly, is an American.
Below is an AI-generated transcript complete with timecodes. This transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the podcast episode.
Megan Kate Nelson 2:51
Thanks for having me, Scott.
Scott Rank 2:52
I am very excited to discuss this. I’ve had a lot of episodes focused on the Civil War, but never this aspect of the Civil War. This aspect of its legacy. But before I begin, I would remiss if I didn’t jump into this conversation because many of my listeners have gone through my back catalog and listened to episode number one where I talked about the US camel core, and the experiment to bring camels to the American Southwest as a freight hauling test to see all right, well, what’s the best animal to haul things in a desert camels? Okay, let’s bring over some camels from the Middle East. So I have to ask so we don’t get distracted later in the episode. How much of a legacy did the camel core have? Why did it fail and didn’t have much of a legacy or was it more of a folk thing as far as you can see,
Megan Kate Nelson 3:38
I think it’s its legacy has mainly been its Mitnick legacy because everybody loves camels and everyone loves this camel story because it’s it seems so insane. Today, this whole project and it was the brainchild of Jefferson Davis when he was the Secretary of War. And that’s important to remember because he saw the camel experiments as, you know, an experiment in transportation. Still, he also had this vision of using camels as cavalry mounts, and that they would use these mounts to fight Apaches and Comanches, in particular, in the southwest, because the men of those tribes were such excellent horsemen. The US Army was having trouble catching; it always had trouble catching up with them. And so they thought that maybe camels would be the answer to that. And, you know, they brought over 80 or 90 camels from the Middle East, in the 1850s, and they all landed in Texas. And then, of course, some of them ended up in California. But the experiment didn’t go so well, mostly because the camels didn’t take to the environment of the Southwest in the same way that they did to their home environment. So they were having trouble procreating, and Congress didn’t refund that project. But the reason that it’s important and the reason that I kind of looked at it as part of the research for the three-cornered war is that this was part of Jefferson Davis’s whole view of the West that already in the 1840s and 50s, in the wake of the US Mexico war, he was thinking of ways to conquer that region. How would they do it? How would they do it most efficiently, and he was thinking of the environment, which I think is interesting, you know because camels are very good at crossing rocky landscapes and, of course, carrying water in their own bodies for weeks at a time. They eat, scrub brush, and all kinds of other desert vegetation. And so he was already thinking, and I think a lot of other southerners who became Confederates were already thinking of the Southwest as a place to conquer as a place where They could see a center or crossroads of their empire is slavery evolving. And at that moment, camels were part of the plan. And when the war broke out, then the Sibley campaign was part of that plan.
Scott Rank 6:17
Well, thank you for detailing that out. And as one final addendum, I’ll say it wasn’t as cockamamie as some people would think camels were imported to Australia, which did work. So there’s an Afghani population that’s a result of that. But let’s get to the thesis of your book, which you mentioned as visions of westward expansion, and control that were there in the 1840s much earlier as well. I’ve done a lot of civil war research, but the American West is always a footnote. It just mentions there were plans or might have been light skirmishes, but that’s it. You grew up in the West. Why do you think that this aspect of the Civil War isn’t discussed? Is it because it truly was peripheral to the war or something But the reason
Megan Kate Nelson 7:00
why I think there are a couple of reasons. One is that most histories of the war up until kind of the 1980s and 90s were focused on the Military History of the war. And if you’re going to focus only on battlefields and large armies, then you’re focused necessarily going to be on the eastern theater, and to some extent, the trans-Mississippi, right. But what that means is that most Civil War histories then and as they evolved, even to embrace more kind of social and cultural history, has still focused on those theaters to the extent that most maps have the conflict. And if you even if your listeners Google, any maps of you know, the Civil War, the seed of the war or something like that, it will cut the nation in half. So the map will only go kind of as far west as maybe the 100th Meridian, you know, sort of halfway West Texas. And it’s like, the West doesn’t even exist. And so when you have maps like that, and when you have a focus on these really large armies, you know, in the eastern theater, then, of course, you’re going to think that nothing happened in the West and that nobody cared about that region. Despite the fact that we talk about the West all the time in the run-up to the war, right. I mean, we talk about how sectionalism is driven by this dispute over what to do with the Western territories that the US has gotten by war and purchase from Mexico and that this is the main driving reason that creates the Republican Party. It divides the north and the south on this question of the expansion of slavery. And yet everyone kind of then says, Oh, well, then Fort Sumter happens, and suddenly everyone forgets about the West. Suddenly it just disappears, right? Like, nobody is interested in anymore, which is it’s peculiar. And I think part of it is because of that, that kind of military focus, and then also once social and cultural history and started getting into the game and started talking about civilian activities, and started talking about emancipation, and black full during all of that, you know, excellent work that needs to be done, and we need to be talking about it. Still, all of that also takes place in the eastern theater in the trans-Mississippi, right. So, I think part of it is historia graphical in the sort of the way that we think about the war, and this has shaped a popular understanding of the word also, you know so that all the movies are about most of these, there are some in the transmissivity but, you know, most kind of focus on these Eastern complex or Eastern political decisions, or civilian experiences. And so all of that kind of combines to erase the far west from what we think of like a Civil War history. And I should say from the western side. Also, that narrative just doesn’t appear in the landscape. And I can say this. I grew up in Colorado. I grew up learning about, you know, the pioneers and their conflicts with Indians and silver mining. But I never learned that there were Colorado gold miners who were involved in Civil War actions. In New Mexico. I never learned about the native peoples who engage with Union troops, sometimes helping them and allying with them, sometimes fighting them directly.
never learned about any of that. And I think part of that is that in western history, and you know, in the kind of popular imagination of the West, the Civil War just doesn’t touch it there either. I mean, a good example of this. If any of your listeners are, you have ever been to Santa Fe. Plaza is this very famous place, right? It’s probably the number one tourist attraction in the town. And it’s flanked by the Palace of the Governors, which is, you know, a very important building for the history of the Southwest. And in the middle of it is an obelisk. And if you go to Santa Fe, and you just kind of wander around and observe people, they just ignore the obelisk. And they just kind of, you know, they walk around it, because the paths kind of lead to it, but then work around it and go the other direction. And nobody knows but that that is a monument to Civil War soldiers, to Union soldiers who fought both Confederate and native peoples during the Civil War. readers of the book will encounter the sort of fundraising for this monument, which occurs in the late 1860s. And actually, Union soldiers built the plaza itself as we know it today because the union officer needed their soldiers that have, you know, kind of something to do when they weren’t out on Indian campaigns. And so they built it as, as it looks today in the 18th, in from like 1862 to 63. So, in western history, too, there’s all the very much a focus on indigenous histories and Spanish and Mexican histories of the region, and the war gets ignored. So it’s coming from sort of both sides. So there’s this sort of blank spot. And when I figured that out, I started thinking about this when I first was, was researching for my previous book ruined nation, and I was teaching Civil War classes. And I found out about these battles in New Mexico, and I thought, why have I never known about this before? Why doesn’t anyone talk about this? And so part of the purpose of the book was to answer that question,
Scott Rank 12:48
right. And I think I have a perfect avatar for someone who knows about military history, but nothing else. I did a big podcast series on this with a guest on civil war battles. And one example of The standard narrative is the Confederacy was interested in the West in as much as they could get around union blockades. So that’s why the siege of Vicksburg is so significant because then they’re cut off west of the Mississippi, and they can’t get supplies from Texas and Mexico. And then this leads to the resource crunch, which is true, but it misses the big picture. So How were the Union, the Confederacy interested in controlling the West when their armies are fighting to the east? And what are their visions here?
Megan Kate Nelson 13:27
It was important for three reasons. One you just pointed to, which is this access to Pacific ports. Already pretty early in the war, the blockade was underway. And so the Confederacy was looking for ways out of that, and the deepwater ports of Southern California seemed ideal. And it’s important to remember that at this moment, the Confederacy extends to the Rio Grande because of Texas, this gigantic Confederate state of Texas and between the Rio Grande And California is just one territory, which is gigantic in this moment, which is New Mexico Territory, Arizona didn’t exist yet. So from their point of view, all they needed to do was to march an army from their own kind of far western border, all the way through New Mexico Territory to Southern California. And they thought they had reliable information that there were enough pro secessionists in Southern California, that they would just be able to kind of take it over and then take control of those ports. And that was important. And the reason that they believe that is that the migration to Western towns and mining camps earlier in the 19th century had been had, you know, taken place with a population of both Northerners and southerners. So a lot of these mining towns were divided. There were a lot of fistfights; there was a lot of gumbo. Battles fighting over the flagpole and a lot of these towns and camps with Northerners and seminars after the war broke out. And so Confederates thought they had a good chance. If they could invade the Southwest, they actually could have a foothold, not only to invade the rest of the West but also to move south into Mexico. And that was partly economic, and then partially part of this kind of national vision. And I think a couple of civil war historians like and Rubin have talked about Confederate nationalism. And you know, people always are talking about unionism and patriotism on both sides, and to what extent are soldiers and civilians motivated by these things. But it seems pretty clear that the West was an important part of that vision for Confederates, that when they thought about themselves in the future, you know, winning the war against the union and then establishing this empire of slavery. They saw it as having expanding borders. And they saw it as being an empire coast to coast and Atlantic and the Pacific. So that it was about ports, it was about a kind of sense of the Confederate national future. And it was also about access to gold, which is, you know, part of the port question, access to mining camps access to that money. Because, as you know, like the funding of wars, extraordinarily expensive. And this was one of the Confederacy’s, you know, big problems. They had good armies in the field. They were on the defensive a lot of times of the time. So they had some advantages, but one of their real disadvantages was a lack of money. And so to have those ports and to have access to gold mines was something that if they had succeeded would have been very important for them and sort of evading the blockade and also being able to fund the war efforts of the larger armies in the trans-Mississippi and East.
Scott Rank 17:04
What are your challenges of waging war in the southwest desert? And this goes back to our discussion of camels in the beginning. Because the reason it makes sense is the Southwest has challenges that the East doesn’t. You’re used to transporting things with pack animals with horses with donkeys. You could take a barge down a river, none of those things exist in the desert, your animals can’t forage there. They’re the same river network. So that’s why people thought of like Campbell’s as a way to square the circle. So how do they accommodate this different terrain in warfare in the southwest,
Megan Kate Nelson 17:37
this is one thing because I am you know, I’m a cultural historian of the war, but I’m also an environmental historian of the war. And so this was of great interest to me sort of how both armies and then also native peoples dealt with this high desert environment which is just not conducive to kind of moving large armies and large groups of people on animals. Through. And I think that this is, this is one of the things you know, Henry Hopkins Sibley, who kind of spearheaded this campaign and pitched it to Davis and convinced him, you know, fairly easily that he could, he could take control of this invasion plan and be successful with it. He had been posted in the southwest for years. And so he knew the environment. And so one of the things that he knew is that he needed to manage water supplies because what the Confederates were doing, they were mustering in San Antonio. And so their first, the first phase of their campaign was to march all of their men from San Antonio to El Paso, which is about 600 miles, which is a very long way to go. When you have to bring pretty much all of your supplies with you and rely on exactly as you’re saying there’s the only kind of one major river in between the Pecos and the rest of the time. It’s small springs and well Which are easily depleted when you have 3000 men who are trying to get water for themselves and water for their horses and you have a 3000 cow herd that you’ve brought along with you feed your men. So there are challenges to moving that large group of people on animals through a high desert. So one component of it is water resources and also food resources. And so we thought that he could sustain his men on the campaign by bringing food with them on this first phase, and then kind of living off the land in the second phase. And we can talk in a minute about why that didn’t work very well for him but the other thing that I think they didn’t anticipate is that when you’re moving from San Antonio to El Paso, you are moving from a kind of low humid area to a high dry area and so They were seeing their wagons which had been made in eastern Texas just fall apart on the road. Because if you know if you were any of your listeners that have been to this area of the Southwest, the aridity in the elevation shrinks, it sucks all the moisture out of everything. So it It literally shrank the wagons and they just spit out nails and they just collapse on the road. And then bodies also respond to elevation gain. I mean, they were moving slowly enough to acclimate, but they still felt it when they went on marches that had any sort of serious elevation gain in one day’s March. So they were dehydrated. They weren’t eating a lot. They weren’t half rations most of the time and what they were eating was very salty. So by the time the Sibley brigade got to El Paso, they were in really bad shape. And this is one of the things I mean, I think we’ve learned a lot from the people doing soldier studies recently in Civil War history, how people’s bodies sort of behave in a wartime context, right? And then how their bodies are traumatized in a wartime context. And in this particular environment. These soldiers are just exhausted before they even get there. And this was one of the advantages that the Union Army in the region had because that army was made up of Hispanic New Mexicans who had grown up in this area all over kind of 4000 feet of elevation. And then Colorado gold miners who had been spending the past couple of years up in the mountains, so they were up over 12,000 feet of elevation. So for them, if you’ve ever done you know, people are familiar with this, I think more in terms of sports, where you go do elevation training. And so you go up and you like Ron, or you play football or you play soccer, up in Denver or up in the mountains. So that when you come back to sea level, you Have this like a huge oxygen advantage. And the Union armies had that they were not depleted. By the time the two armies engaged about their day. But the Sibley brigade because of the nature of the desert, and because they were having to actually, you know, they were on horseback, they’re still kind of moving through this landscape over months at a time to all kinds of weather. By the time they got there, they were just in, in terrible shape and at a real disadvantage.
Scott Rank 22:30
Well, one aspect of the fighting that I had no idea about was very surprised, as you mentioned, the first multiracial armies are seen out here in the West. And I think my listeners know about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first black soldiers that fight for the union side. Oddly enough, there’s also some at the very end the fight for the Confederacy, although they’re more a decamps if we’re being very generous if I had that right. Not really sure if you’re being married. There was an article or book called Confederate soldiers or competitive emancipation, something like that. And I thought, Well, hey, that’s a very catchy title, nothing else. But yeah, all that to say, tell me about these armies. I had no idea about these.
Megan Kate Nelson 23:12
This was another interesting component of the war in the theater that you kind of learn different things about the war, from approaching it from a different place, right and unexpected place. And so the Union Army was made up of this really diverse array of soldiers, it was Hispanic volunteers, who were, you know, had been living in New Mexico all of their lives, when even you know, before New Mexico was in the United States, right. So they were new American citizens. And they volunteered for the war, but most of them served in the first New Mexico, which Carson was commanding, and one of the reasons he was given command of that recommend his because he could speak Spanish fluently as could most of them White officers who were then appointed to serve. And so they also had, Kate Carson was also quite used to working with native scouts and guides. So there were some of those men kind of sprinkled around in first Mexico and other parts of the army. There were also these Anglo gold miners from Colorado in this first phase of Elbert a, and then more of them came or called first Colorado, the pike speakers to fight at Glorietta. And they’re coming from, you know, all over the US with a lot of different ethnic groups, but mostly Anglo. And then there are army regulars who had been posted there and had not left had not resigned to join the Confederacy, but had been posted at frontier Garrison’s you know, in 1861, and it just never left. So there was this. And there also have been those who were recruited into militias, which were sort of you A little bit differently than the first New Mexico. So here is this kind of multiracial, multiple language speaking, Army, coalescing along the Rio Grande to fight for the union in the summer and the fall of 1861. And then they actually did fight in February of 1862, at Valverde. And that had some interesting results in the Battle of the other day because the Texans who were all Anglo, although they had a German company or two from Texas, they had heard that and the term that all of these Anglos used for the Hispanic soldiers was Mexicans. So whenever they described them, they would say that they were Mexicans, even though they’re Hispanic Americans, so but they were describing them sort of ethnically with that national term and So, the Texans at one point because the Colorado gold miners were kind of wearing some haphazard uniforms. The Texans thought that they were, as they called it Mexicans. And so in the viewpoint of those Colorado gold miners, Alonzo it is one of the people in the book who sort of represents that that group and voices their experiences. He thinks that they underestimated them in that part of the battle. And so the union was actually winning. The first part is out there today. And to his mind, it was because the Texans had kind of recognized that they were facing this multiracial army and then had underestimated them because of it.
Scott Rank 26:44
Okay, from what you saw studying this, what were interesting things that stuck out from this multiracial army that wouldn’t be present in a typical Civil War army.
Megan Kate Nelson 26:56
I’m not sure if this is necessarily so different because You know, armies are big groups of men who are under great stress and are doing things they don’t normally do right in their lives. And so there’s a lot of there can be a lot of infighting, there can be a lot of disagreements. And there can also be a lot of blame. Put on other, you know, if you’re in a battle with another couple of companies, and you believe that they don’t perform up to expectation, you know, there’s a lot of reviling that goes on. And that happened in this multi-racial army of the unions in New Mexico, but it then had a racial Valence. So there was a lot of blame heaped upon, particularly the Hispanics who are serving in the militias. After the Battle of Valverde, a lot of the Anglo soldiers blamed them for running in the face of the Confederate charge against the union line which happened at the end of the day, and which was successful. Of course, they neglected to say that there were there was also another company of Anglo soldiers who also fled in the face of that oncoming charge. And so, but the critique of their criticism of those men and their fighting skills was based almost solely on their race and not on, you know, there was no kind of understanding given that, that these men had literally just been mustered into the Union Army like four or five days before, and no one who was here except, and not even the army regulars who were serving and, you know, before in frontier Garrison’s had ever been in this kind of engagement before no one had ever fought in this kind of battle, even though you know, it was kind of roughly 3500 3800, maybe on the union side and about 3000 on the Confederate side, which, you know, seems like incredibly small numbers when you compare it to the eastern theater, but no one had ever fought in a battle with that many people in that way before in their lives. So, but there was this kind of racialized criticism, in this specific context because of the multiracial nature of the first in Mexico.
Scott Rank 29:28
Right. And if there’s any war, that’s all about giving a gun to someone who has absolutely no experience, it’s a civil war, or, yeah, kill an officer or commission who was a before and Episcopalian Bishop or a professor of philosophy. It’s happening all over the place, right? Yes. Well, when I was reading the blurb of this book, it mentioned this multiracial aspect. And the first thing that pops into my mind was the assumption that maybe American Indians are somehow involved and because I don’t know why my mind was going to the French Indian War, where they’re heavily involved in the British siding the French side. And that’s a completely different time in place. But that’s where my mind went. But then, later on, you mentioned that the aims for both the Union and the Confederacy are the defeat and removal of natives from their homelands. And for the union side, they have this belief as they are working for the emancipation of slaves in the east. So what’s happening here, this wire they both set on this goal of the war?
Megan Kate Nelson 30:27
Sure, yeah. So yeah, I mentioned before this kind of Confederate vision of empire slavery, well, that did not include natives. This whole idea of this whole vision rests on southerners’ ability to conquer the Southwest, take these lands, convert them into plantations, and work them within slaves, men and women. And that vision did not include native peoples at all. And so what we see on the Confederate side, the first move is actually made by one of these guys who were just talking about who was, you know, a lawyer and a politician and a rancher in Texas, this guy named john Baylor readers of the three corners or we’ll meet him in the first chapter of the book, and he’s kind of the first. He’s the vanguard of Confederate Manifest Destiny. He is the one who brings the first group of kind of 300 mounted Texas volunteers and brings them across the line into New Mexico Territory. And he forces the surrender of Fort Fillmore and occupies the town of Mercia. And then he is the one who creates just solely on his own authority. The Confederate Territory of Arizona and lays out its boundaries a little differently than Arizona we know today. Kind of stopping at the 34th parallel about halfway up New Mexico and then extending all the way to the Colorado River to the California border and Baylor had a history of Indian sighting he had gone out several times in the past to attack Comanche settlements and to murder men and women. And so and he was actually wearing when he rode into mithya, a belt buckle with the CFA stamped on it that was made out of melted silver that he took off the body of a Comanche man he killed. So he part of his kind of leadership quality and part of his argument for being an officer was that he was this great Indian fighter. And so after he established himself, he really turned his attention, particularly to the chair Kala Apaches, who are whose homelands are kind of right west of the Rio Grande and extend all the way to Tucson. And they were going to be a problem for the Confederacy right for expanding all the way to California because they were going to have to move through a patch area and the turbo Apaches, we’re going to not have any truck with that. They were going to resist that because this was You know, front to their sovereignty and directly challenged them in their ownership of this territory. And so, Baylor did a couple of things. One, he launched his own invasion into Mexico, which almost created this international incident. purportedly in pursuit of Apaches, he murdered several Apaches in the tunnel Carlitos in the in right about the time that the rest of the Confederate Army was fighting and moving on from Bell their day. And then he also right before he left the West, he signed what was called the Apache extermination order in March of 1862, where he basically gave local militias permission to lure Apaches into peace parlays using whiskey, he said, and once they did that, Then the militias had the right to, and that they should they were ordered to kill all of the men and then enslave the women and the children.
So this was part of his plan, at least. I don’t think that most competitor truly thought about enslaving native peoples, although there was a very long history of that form of enslavement to both Hispanics and native peoples in the southwest, I think they still had a vision of black slavery being kind of transplanted into the West. But this was part of the plan, they really did see that in order for their vision to be accomplished in the West, that they were going to have to exterminate, or remove or possibly enslave native peoples. So that was a confederate vision and then the union vision, you know, the 1816 Republican platform said that the natural state of the territories, the western territories is freedom. Right. And this is usually seen as an anti-slavery assertion. And it is. But it’s also an anti native assertion. Because part of what is required to kind of create this nation of white, you know, this is how they were saying it then white free farmers and laborers and miners and business people. Part of what was required was the extermination or removal of indigenous peoples across the region. And so the union was very interested in making that happen, either politically or militarily or both. You know, the first thing they had to do was retain control of the region, though, in their fight against the Confederates and so the Union Army didn’t really put that plan in the Republican Congress didn’t put that plan in motion for the union really until after the Confederates had been defeated and had retreated back to Texas in the spring and summer of 1862. I think
Scott Rank 36:14
this gets to the big question you’re addressing in the book is, why did things end up the way that they did with native peoples and the US government? And I’d really love you to dive into this and bring the savor into it. But what I’m thinking about this question is, it didn’t have to turn out this way, or there’s a good reason to think it didn’t. I recently wrapped up a series on the Revolutionary War with a host and we talked about what if so, what if the United States had remained part of the British Empire, and some argue that relations would have been much better with native peoples as in the case of Canada, whereas Western expansion takes place, the government security goes out ahead of settlers, so there’s not a wild west in the same way lands are given to the native peoples were there already There’s not a trail of tears in the same situation. So all that to say many argue it could have been more peaceful like Canada. So I wonder, how do you look at things? Why was there this conflict and this push for removal? Was it something that was organic that more or less happened as it? It couldn’t have happened any other way? Was their population densities there wasn’t Canada, so there were more conflict and friction was an ideological project. And so that’s my big question. Why and how did the Civil War kick all this off?
Megan Kate Nelson 37:32
Yeah, well, it’s a great question. And I you know, I think it’s, as with anything in history, it is complicated, and probably a combination of all of those things that you mentioned. Because from the very first moment that Europeans set foot in North America, their engagement with native peoples was about removal and land taking. I wanted to shove them off because, of course, native peoples were tending To the land and hunting and fishing and planting on really good land. And so that first kind of statement is made by either just taking it outright and fencing it in or establishing a kind of treaty relationship and securing a kind of sale of homelands, right. But what that means is that that necessarily requires removal and that whole kind of tradition of white engagement with indigenous peoples across the United States. It was very uneven. Obviously, I think it’s important to recognize the diversity of various engagements between European newcomers and indigenous peoples over time. I mean, we never want to say that that the history of this is all about conflict or all about Alliance or all about defamation, or all about survival. It’s all of those things at different moments at different inflection points. But I think the really important point moment for shaping everything that came after was 1830. And the Indian Removal Act, because what that did is it’s kind of solidified this idea of removal as an absolutely requisite kind of component of Indian policy that the government was going to take up from this point forward. That they would either meet with native peoples and hammer out a treaty that provided for their removal or they would make war upon them and force their removal. And leading up and reservations became part of that increasingly, in the 1840s and 50s. And again, this is where we get the kind of blank most histories of us Indian policy sort of leap over The Civil War like we go from, you know, Indian conflicts with the US government in the 1840s and 50s. And we leap over that and go straight to the plains wars and the Indian Wars of the 1870s. Like, it’s like the Civil War didn’t even have,
Scott Rank 40:15
yeah, and then Wounded Knee and then that’s it.
Megan Kate Nelson 40:17
Yeah, so, but my contention in the three corners war is that the Civil War is actually a very important moment in this whole evolution of Indian policy and in the southwest. It’s really James Carlton who has brought this you know, 2,000% army from California, and it’s too late to get it. The Confederates are already back in Texas by the time he arrives. But he takes over the Department of New Mexico and he’s the one who’s really articulating the Lincoln administration’s and the Republican Party’s kind of view here and the union more department, where he just basically says there will be no more trees. We’re not going to make any treaties. What we’re going to do is wage a series of hard war campaigns against indigenous peoples in this region in order to force their surrender, then we will remove them to a reservation to get them into space where we can that first of all, no one wants to know why people want to be right. Because part of the point was that Jericho was Apaches and Navajos, in particular, were in the way that their lands were potentially quite valuable for future white settlers. So you had to remove them to a place where they would be out of the way they would not be tempted to attack migrants. White migrants coming from the east into the West during the war and after and where they could be monitored and surveilled. And then hopefully, you know they’re Carlton’s vision. And he was pretty deeply Christian. And he believed in the part of Indian policy which promoted native civilization, where they would be sort of civilized, and then possibly assimilated into American life, possibly as citizens, if they converted to Christianity if they became farmers, if they kind of basically abandoned all of their indigenous cultures, so a kind of form of cultural extermination. So this was the policy that Carlton put in place in New Mexico in the fall of 1863. And it really ramped up in the winter of 1864. And the whole kind of last third of the book is really focused on these union campaigns, which expressed this evolution. In, in Union Indian policy and was able to enact it because of civil war mobilization, right. I mean, there had never been this many soldiers in the southwest before. Like there, you know, there were thousands of them where there had been hundreds before. And so Carlton was able, with War Department funding and with, you know, this three-year commitment he had from his volunteers to send out all of these soldiers on these campaigns against Mescalero patches and chicawa patches and
Scott Rank 43:38
well, these are different schools of thought at the time you have people like Carlton the kill the Indian save the man type of idea that assimilation is the best way. Some were cynical, some truly believed it maybe had good intentions, but warped execution, and then others would focus on treaties. One other thing on Carlton if someone else had been in his position who had a philosophy He of using treaties instead, rather than open warfare and open conflict as the first course of action, do you think this could have changed the trajectory of what happens in the decades later?
Megan Kate Nelson 44:10
I think it might have. I mean, it definitely would have changed the situation with the tear color patches because the mangas Colorados is one of the protagonists in the book. You know, he’s 70 years old. He’s the story or leader of the chair Kalas and he has survived so long and become such a great leader. Because he actually used a range of responses in defense of chicawa sovereignty. In a patriot, he sometimes made war on migrants and US Army posts. Sometimes he made alliances sometimes he just charged them sort of a fee to move through his territory. He was kind of quite flexible in his negotiations with all of these new people who suddenly appearing in his territory and in the fall of 1862, in the winter, you know, kind of moving into winter. He actually reached out to James Carlton and he wanted to make a treaty. He wanted to make a peace treaty and he wanted to because he wanted to go back home. He wanted to plant his fields, he wanted to get ready for winter, because winter is kind of a dire time in the high desert if you were, you know, just relying on hunting and some provisioning to survive. And so Carlton said, No, absolutely not. And this is what kind of set in motion, a series of events that led to mangas color and stuff and then, as a result of that, long term care of how Apache kind of resistance to the US Army, which was basically a 20-year war in the southwest. If Carlton if some, if it had been someone else, is Edward RS can be whose family called him Richard so I call him Richard throughout the book even though I think a lot of people who studied in this region will be like what? But since the chapters that involve him are mostly from the viewpoint of his wife Louisa, that’s why I chose that. But if Richard candy had stayed, he might have been more amenable to a treaty with the terracotta was and he may have also sent an Indian agent down there who could have negotiated some things and you know because I think Manga Manga Colorados knew that this was a shift. Like he had watched Carlton, you know, march through a battery with this huge army of 2000 men and he had fought some of them. So he knew that this was changing that this was an important moment and it’s a possibility that If someone else besides Carlton was in charge who had been more amenable to that kind of to Magnus, Colorado versus a more peaceful approach, that that could have changed that whole situation. Navajos though had a different kind of response to the US Army. They, you know, were 10,000 strong, they were kind of a larger tribe, and they were much more spread out over kind of Northern what was then kind of Northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona, and they had a very long history of some treaty-making with US Army personnel, including Richard candy in 1860 and 61. But also a very long history of attacking forts and wagon trains and asserting their sovereignty in their homelands. And I’m not sure that If someone else had been in command and they had actually managed to bring some of the Navajo leaders to the table again for a treaty, it would I think it would actually depend on what that treaty included. If it required them to give up their lands and move to Busca. Redondo, then that absolutely would not have worked. But if someone had been more willing, at that point before the whole bosky, Redondo nightmare had even started, had been willing to just say, okay, we’re gonna, you just stay where you are. But then we’re going to put all these, you know, other restrictions on you and kind of police you where you are. Basically what the terms of the 1868 Treaty ended up being, then that could have turned out differently, but I think there still would have been concerted resistance against the US Army encroachments on DNA, okay. Which is what they called their homeland?
Scott Rank 49:02
Well, this is one line that you draw from the Civil War to later events with struggles with the federal government and these indigenous nations. Another line that you draw is with the Civil War and the conflicts and the police scene on the US Mexican border, which I would guess during the Civil War was very porous. So how do those events connect together?
Megan Kate Nelson 49:28
Well, it’s really interesting to see how this increased presence, US Army presence in places along the border, kind of create some shifts in population flow. One of them and you’re right that you know, before this point, there where it was quite porous, there were people moving back and forth across the border all the time. In El Paso, you know, I just call it El Paso in the book. It was actually a little more complicated than that the town in the US was called Franklin The Mexican town was called El Paso del Norte an at that time, but sort of in general, it was more like a Metroplex. And Mexican merchants came over every day to sell goods to the US Army.
And went back and forth constantly. And then soldiers also went back and forth constantly. Although that could be a little bit tricky. As you know, as we saw with Baylor’s raid, they were not allowed to kind of invade in any sort of way even in hot pursuit. They were not allowed to per the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. But obviously, there was no wall. There were sort of monuments that had been put up by the Bartlet expedition that had created this other boundary. But in a lot of places, like the boundaries of Apache, Maria crossed that national border, so that was actually A space that was both Mexican and American and Native all at the same time. And we still have some of those spaces today the ton of autumn reservation in southern Arizona crosses the Mexican border. And the people living in that nation go across the border all the time. And it’s very fluid. But the border wall is being built right through and bifurcating their reservation as we speak. But one example of how this became interesting is that because of the Union army’s campaigns against the church was which did actually kind of push them from what we now know that southern Arizona part of that whole process had been to protect gold miners who were coming up. There’d been a discovery of gold in the mountains north of Tucson. That’s it Basically where Prescott is today, and miners were just pouring in, but it was Anglo miners and Mexican miners. And so Carlton dispatched soldiers, most of whom were Anglo, but some of whom were has been on the Mexicans to garrison for Whipple to sort of bring order to that mining camp. But very quickly it became segregated. The Anglo miners passed a bunch of laws saying that Mexican miners could not establish claims. And Carlton also passed a number of rules saying that when he first came into Tucson saying that, that Mexican merchants could not buy or sell any products because he needed all of those for the Union Army. So pretty quickly, there is a policing of Mexican migrants across the border. Not only by US Army personnel but by new Anglo migrants to the area. And it’s all a fight over resources. And who truly belongs in this place, right, who is a, who is a citizen who is able to take advantage of these natural resources that are there kind of for the taking. And this is I think, what we see, again and again, over time, you know, in the 150 years since the war in this region, that pattern gets established very early, and it’s a pattern we see today at the border, both in, you know, kind of this area of Arizona and also Texas in California.
Scott Rank 53:50
So I think to tie up these pieces together, the main argument you’re making is that the Civil War is a pivotal moment in the continental history of the US. States, not just military engagements on the eastern side east of the Mississippi. So how do you think all of this changes our understanding of it as a continental history?
Megan Kate Nelson 54:10
Well, what I’m hoping is that now, you know, people who think about the war will actually think about the map of the war as including 40% of the nation’s landmass that has been erased per maps up until now and that they’ll really see it as a conflict that included not just the north and the south, but also the West, and not just whites and African Americans, but angles and Hispanics and native peoples, that this was not, you know, just a war that was biracial in that respect. And that, you know, that this was the union’s wargames, in particular, were quite complicated. I mean, I think we often Think of the Union war as a just war. And when you look at the war from the southwest, that picture becomes more complex, as I think it was in reality. And so the book is intended to kind of unsettled our notions of what the Civil War was and where it took place and who fought in it, to give us the fullest possible sense of the conflict in our history.
Scott Rank 55:34
All right, well, there is a lot more to unpack them we were able to discuss here, and for people who want to learn more, your book is the three-cornered war, the Union, the Confederacy, and the native peoples in the fight for the west of Michigan. If people want to learn more about this book, and then also everything else you’re up to, what’s the best place to find you online.
Megan Kate Nelson 55:52
The best place to be my website, which is www dot Megan Kate Nelson calm, and when you go, there will be a couple of different pages. And I also have a blog called history Sta. And I’ve been introducing the protagonists in the book, once a week for the past month or so. So readers could go and be kind of introduced to all of these people when one thing that we didn’t get to talk about if I can interject this at this moment, you can edit it, whatever you would want, is that this is not your kind of typical history book we usually write about. And I have written books in the past and a more traditional academic sense, which is argument-driven, with an introduction and thematic chapters and then a conclusion. This book is meant to be a story that takes place from the summer of 1861 in the summer of 1868. Most of the action is taking place in Texas and New Mexico and Arizona and parts of Colorado in California. And it is structured around the experiences of nine different people, and I did it that way. Because I was trying to figure out how to convey all of the different communities that were involved in this fight. And I also wanted to give readers a real kind of nitty-gritty on a sense of the war on the ground. So it kind of reads more like a novel in that it is it has multi-perspective chapters so that if you look at the table of contents, and I wrote a post about this on history, also, all the chapters pretty much except for three are named after the person because, in that chapter, readers will follow that person, kind of through space and time. And then, in the next chapter, we’ll move to someone else, and I was inspired weirdly by Game of Thrones, alright, which I was reading at the time that I was first starting to research this. I was thinking to myself, How in the world this is so complicated, this is such a complicated story. There are so many characters with similar names. How is it possible that George RR Martin is like keeping the turning pages instead of just throwing the book across the room and frustration. And it’s because he uses this technique of multi-perspective narration so that you’re with Aria and one chapter and then you, you know, you move on to tyrian. And also, it’s up. And I thought that is so genius. So I actively stole that narrative strategy. So that readers of the three-cornered war will get to know these nine people because they’ll each have multiple chapters. And then three chapters have different titles because they’re all battles. So there’s all their day and Glorietta and then say, which is the witch’s Canyon de chez in the Navajo homelands. So, in those battle chapters, readers will see those events from multiple people’s points of view, sometimes two people, sometimes three people. So what I’m hoping is that it’s a really good not only, you know, an interesting argument that People who are interested in history and interested in Civil War history will find compelling but that I hope they will also find the two corners or to be a really good read.
Scott Rank 59:09
All right, well, I like experimental formats with history writing. So it sounds very interesting. Yeah. Well, I’ll include the link to that in the show notes as well. In case people need a reminder so people can find it. But yeah, this is great. So, really appreciate you, Megan coming on.
Megan Kate Nelson 59:22
All right. Thanks for having me.
Cite This Article"The Civil War in the American West: When Multi-Racial Armies Fought Over Gold Mines and Indian Lands" History on the Net
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