books History

How The West Became “American”: Megan Kate Nelson’s “The Three-Cornered War”

If Americans have any awareness of the Civil War in the Arizona and New Mexico deserts, it is probably through Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. But during the early onset of the Civil War, the desert territories of New Mexico (Arizona was part of the New Mexico territory at the time) were critical to the plans of the Union and the aspirations of the nascent Confederacy. Moreover, indigenous tribes who had populated the area for thousands of years were still living there and now caught in the crossfire of cultural, political, and military plans.

Megan Kate Nelson, a popular historian and writer of the American West, has given a lively account of the Civil War in the western deserts by focusing on a cast of individual characters: Union, Confederate, and Native American as their lives tangled over the dry sands of New Mexico between 1861-1865. The writing is graceful. The narrative, gripping. The individuals, alive.

Some of the people we may have heard of: Kit Carson, for instance, the famous mountaineer and miner. Others, we haven’t: Mangas Coloradas (a Chiriachua Apacha chief and warrior), Juanita (a Navajo woman), Bill Davidson (a Confederate soldier), or Alonzo Ickis (an Iowan miner who fought for the Union). Others dot the historical narrative. But the lives of the great and small, white and indigenous, Union and Confederate, crossed paths during the fateful years of the Civil War to shape the New Mexico and Arizona territories into what they are today.

In 1861, the loyalties of the New Mexico Territory were very much in doubt. Many of its white settlers were southerners. Its proximity to Texas made it an easy target for Texan Confederates, like John Baylor, seeking glory and fame. It was the crossroad to California and the Pacific deep water ports which would also give the Confederacy access to the gold and silver mines and other rich minerals which had caused much of the pioneer rush into the region in the late 1840s and 1850s. Yet the territory was governed by abolitionist Republicans and pro-Union Democrats because of the foresight of Abraham Lincoln. He ensured, in the brief period of his election and inauguration before the guns of April sounded in 1861, to have loyalist politicians running the administration to keep the vital territory part of the Union.

The importance of the New Mexico Territory was seen by Union officers and recruiters. While California wasn’t the state it is today, and while Colorado was just a territory at the time, pro-Union politicians and military men hastily recruited citizens and miners to the Union cause. If the loyalties of the population were suspect, the Union would ensure the New Mexico Territory would remain part of the Union through force of arms.

The first half of the book details the Confederate campaign into New Mexico and Arizona, General Sibley’s campaign, were it met initial success much to the glee of the Confederacy but was turned back at Glorieta Pass at the end of March, 1862, not because the Union forces crushed the Confederate forces in battle but because a daring raid by miners and mountain men led by a Hispanic colonel part of the Union army had set fire to the Confederate munitions train and supply wagons forcing the Confederates to abandon their offensive campaign and retreat back to Texas despite battlefield success.

After detailing the chaos of the 1861-1862 fighting between Union and Confederates, the second half of the book details with the Union’s war effort against the indigenous populations in the region. The Confederacy wasn’t the only enemy the Union was dealing with. Wanting to secure the territory for American settlers and colonization, the Union began a scorched earth campaign to drive the Native American tribes into submission. Deceit, murder, and lies carried the Union to victory against their indigenous foes who were forced march into reservations or hunted down and exterminated in battle and military campaign.

Nelson has offered a short and readable history of how the New Mexico Territory, the future states of New Mexico and Arizona, became American and Americanized. The defeat of the Confederates can be seen as a great triumph for the Union. The Union’s subsequent campaign and dealing with the native peoples of the region a dark chapter in the Civil War’s often forgotten story of how the war wasn’t just between North and South but also between Unionist America and the Native Americans who were considered enemies of the Unionist/American cause.

In deciding to focus on individuals, Nelson’s history comes alive. Drawing on diaries and photographs to construct the narrative, Nelson’s work reads like a historical novel than a traditional history, filled with all the emotional power that novels have. It is fitting, perhaps, that the book opens with the optimistic aspiration of a white Confederate and ends with the sorrow and tragedy, but perseverance and implicit optimism, of a Navajo woman. It wasn’t just men who dot the story of the Civil War. It isn’t just whites and blacks either. Women, including Native-American women, were part of the story too. Nelson, therefore, gives us a small glimpse into what life was like for an indigenous woman during the maelstrom of the Civil War which forged a new nation out of that fire. How appropriate that out of the fire and tribulation Nelson can write, about Juanita who is both an individual and can be symbolic of the entire United States (including the indigenous peoples), “Returning to [their home] after four years of imprisonment and exile, the Navajos were trees blooming after a cold, dark, winter.”

We often forget that the Civil War was a defining moment in the formation of the western United States. We prefer, in popular media and print, the cowboys, ranchers, farmsteads, pioneers, intermixed with eulogies to the Sioux and other Great Plains tribes. Nelson concludes by looking back at all the lives she covered in her book, “Together, their stories reveal how the imagined future of the West shaped the Civil War, and how the Civil War became a defining moment in the West.”

The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and the Native Peoples in the Fight for the West
By Megan Kate Nelson
New York: Scribner, 2020; 331pp.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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