MOST OF THE consequential battles of the American Civil War were fought in the 95-mile sphere that separated the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, and the Union capital of Washington, DC. Names like Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Bull Run have dominated American historical memory, but the scope of the conflict beyond these famous battlefields tends to get shoved to the back of the traditional analysis of how the North ground out its victory, and how the conflict remade the landscape.
Megan Kate Nelson has made an invaluable contribution to broadening our understanding of the Civil War in her riveting new book, The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West. She has looked far to the West to explore the undertold story of the war in the deserts and mountains of the New Mexico territory (modern-day Arizona and New Mexico). The evocative title of her book comes from a soldier’s observation that what was playing out in New Mexico was, in fact, a “three-cornered war” between Union, Confederacy, and Native peoples.
Nelson has discovered letters, diaries, and records in Southwestern archives — far away from the traditional repositories of Civil War materials — that tell the story of this period as it was experienced by the people who were there. She uses these primary records to vividly bring the reader into this “forbidding landscape, with rolling deserts breaking suddenly into volcanic ranges and mesas” where a soldier could feel the “effects of the elevation, and of the semi-aridity of the climate.”
The first reaction to Nelson’s narrative is likely surprise — the Civil War really reached the lands of chili peppers and cacti? And the answer is not just yes, but that fighting in the desert was quite important from a strategic perspective. The Southwest was a gateway to both ocean ports and gold mines and its exploitation could swing the balance of victory or defeat. The Confederacy’s eastern ports were under blockade and it saw an opportunity in the West: it shared a border with New Mexico territory, which was part of the Union. In 1861, a Texas legislator named John R. Baylor led 300 Confederate troops into the New Mexico territory. This was the first Confederate invasion of Union territory — two years before Gettysburg — and Confederate Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin saw it as “opening a pathway to the Pacific.”
In February 1862, Jefferson Davis proclaimed the establishment of the Confederate Arizona Territory in what is today southern New Mexico and southern Arizona. Though it was thousands of miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond, the leadership considered this conquest important for, as Nelson calls, “Confederate manifest destiny” and ultimately to grow their “empire of slavery.” In early 1862 — coinciding with Confederate victories in the East — Confederate troops commanded by Henry Hopkins Sibley went on to capture Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
The Union wanted to repulse the Confederate invasion of New Mexico. The task fell to Colonel Edward Canby, who took command of the Department of New Mexico after his commander resigned to support the Confederacy. He had under his command “weathered men with experience fighting in high desert conditions” as well as new recruits from New Mexico and from Colorado. The famed frontiersman Kit Carson organized a cavalry unit made up largely of Hispano militiamen.
Nelson chronicles the frontier battles that were fought between Union and Confederate forces, culminating with the Battle of Glorieta Pass along the Santa Fe Trail on March 26–28, 1862, a series of rolling skirmishes with neither side prevailing until the end. A group of Union soldiers pursued a flanking maneuver, marching along a narrow path until they were above the Confederate wagon train. Hundreds of Union soldiers
began to run down through the trees and rocks, following mule trails that were used to bring wood to Johnson’s Ranch. The Texan sergeant made it to the cannon but was only able to fire two rounds at the mesa before Union soldiers overran his position. The Texans guarding the wagon train scattered into the woods.
That moment marked the end of the Confederate campaign for New Mexico; the Union soldiers drove off the Confederates’ mules and horses and after picking through the Confederate wagons for souvenirs they lit the wagons ablaze and watched, in the words of one Coloradan, until every wagon was a “smoldering heap of ruins.”
In the arid landscape, this loss of supplies would doom the Confederate forces. They had “mismanaged time, supplies, and natural resources in an unforgiving theater of war,” and as they retreated through the desert, their vision of Confederate manifest destiny “had evaporated like a desert mirage.” As much as they had been defeated by Union forces, Nelson shows that the vast landscape had helped defeat them — there simply was no way for them to maintain a supply route and there was little out there to forage. As the Confederates were forced into a retreat, they “left behind soldiers who were too sick or weak or dehydrated to go on.” As one Texan wrote, they eagerly awaited finding a creek or stream, their “lips black and parched, and throats swelled and dry, and breath hot and voice husky.”
The beauty of northern New Mexico that later attracted poets, painters, and high-dollar haciendas had been inhospitable to the Confederates seeking to occupy it. Sibley wrote that his Confederate troops left with an “irreconcilable detestation of the country and the people.” By August 1862, Canby’s Union forces had effectively retaken Confederate Arizona.
In a way that few military history books do, Nelson pays careful attention to the story of civilians caught in this war. She tells the story of Edward Canby’s wife Louisa, a frontier nurse, who was in Santa Fe when Confederate troops marched in. Though her husband was battling the Confederates, she did not hesitate to care for their wounded.
The fighting had an unexpected political outcome. After the repulsion of the Confederate invasion, “Anglo settlement of the region was once again possible,” as Nelson notes. Abraham Lincoln wrote in December 1862 that he was interested in the “immense mineral resources of some of those Territories” which could be used to help pay for an expensive war. And this opened up the “three-cornered war” — the victorious Union troops turned their energies toward a vicious campaign against Native peoples. Kit Carson led the troops he had organized into battle against the Mescaleros. The orders he proceeded under were that “[a]ll Indian men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them.”
Nelson masterfully tells the story of this campaign from the vantage point of the Native peoples. She tells the story of Chiricahua Apache chief Mangas Coloradas, who fought off incursions from Confederate and Union forces into his territory. The story of his capture and execution is heart-wrenching. Nelson also tells the story of Juanita, a Navajo weaver who struggles to survive the incursions of the Union forces into the Navajo homeland, was captured and forcibly deported on the “Long Walk” from the Navajo homeland to a reservation in central New Mexico. In a lasting stain on his legacy and reputation, Kit Carson and his men pursued a brutal campaign against the Chiracahuas and Navajos “without mercy as part of his service to the Union.” They scoured the landscape looking for Navajo villages and then set them ablaze.
The Three-Cornered War is a major accomplishment in expanding our understanding of the scope of the Civil War, and linking it to the histories of Native peoples and the American West. This is a story about the Union emerging victorious — and paving the way for further development of the American West under the Homestead Act and the completion of a transcontinental railroad in 1869. But the Union victory does not have the same moral clarity that it has in the East. In New Mexico, the Union campaign “simultaneously embraced slave emancipation and Native extermination in order to secure an American empire of liberty.” The righteous campaign of morality that freed the slaves in the South was not the same in the West, where the Union forces emerged from an early victory against the Confederate forces to pursue a campaign of extermination of Native peoples.
Nelson’s book is also a timely reminder that the Civil War in the Southwest was not just an interesting tidbit in the history of the American West — it was part and parcel of the Confederate objective of creating an “empire of slavery” that expanded to the West. Though the Confederate presence in Arizona was short-lived, it cast a long shadow. In the early 1960s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy paid for a “Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops” placed on the grounds of the Arizona State Capitol. Today, the monument stands alongside monuments to Arizona’s heroes including the Navajo Codetalkers and the Granite Mountain Hotshots. It is past time to move this monument to a museum — as Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs asked this week. As Nelson shows, the Confederates came to Arizona to expand slavery. Nelson has preserved the history of that conflict so that future generations can understand the complexities of that conflict — but there is no historical need for a monument whose purpose was to cast glory on the Confederate legacy.
The story of the war across this vast landscape is breathtaking in its scale, and Nelson has told it with a careful eye for detail and intriguing characters. The narrative can, at times, be challenging to follow, with the lens moving back and forth between a wide cast and no less than nine key protagonists, but the richness of the story more than makes up for that. The book should be read not only by Civil War buffs and students of the American West, but by anyone who wishes to gain a deeper appreciation of American history that goes beyond the traditional lens. It is a masterful synthesis of military and social history in one of the overlooked chapters of the American Civil War.