The Civil War in New Mexico: Tall tales and true
— Spencer Wilson and Robert A. Bieberman


The very mention of the Civil War, that most important event in American history, conjures up images of the great battlefields in the east. Names of the campaigns and individual battles, such as the Peninsula campaign, and the battle of Gettysburg, Antietam, "bloody Shi­loh" with casualty lists into the thousands, come easily to the most casual reader of the Civil War. The names of the battlefields are further remembered because of the practice of each side, North and South, to give separate names to the same battles; hence, the first Battle of Bull Run was named the first Battle of Manassas by the Southerners. All this seems quite distant from the far west of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California. The names of campaigns and battles may not be as familiar, but boys from north and south suffered and died of disease, exhaustion, and bullets for the same reasons as they did back east. Considering the number involved the casualty lists were comparable, their suffering just as intense.

The Confederate Government in Richmond, at a very early stage, looked upon the west with great interest. There were some very good reasons for launching a major campaign to try to extend Confederate control over the barren country of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and, especially, California. There was gold in those mountains of Colorado and California, and the South needed that gold to finance the war. That was probably the primary inducement for sending an army into the territories. There were other considerations, too. The matter of slavery in New Mexico territory, which at that time included Arizona, was left open by the Compromise of 1850, to be settled at a later date by the people and practices of the territory. Therefore the introduction of more slaves, there were already some, into New Mexico might eventually lead to the admission of another slave state. By the early 1850's, a projected railroad running across Texas to El Paso and ulti­mately on to California was to be the vehicle, literally, for pushing slaves into New Mexico. It did not really matter that the nature of that arid land practically precluded the success of the plantation system along with the "peculiar institution" of black slavery. With New Mexico conquered, the road was open to both Colorado and the gold of the Denver area, and to California and more gold. Not only was the gold an attraction but the ports of the west coast would give the South a secure outlet for trade and, equally, a safer base for imports. Some of the Southern leaders saw even more opportunities with the possible acquisition of Northern Mexico, the states of Chihuahua and Sonora, for expansion and, again, ports on the Pacific. So all in all, quite a lot rode on the success of a major effort to seize New Mexico (Hall, 1960).


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Recommended Citation:

  1. Wilson, Spencer; Bieberman, Robert A., 1983, The Civil War in New Mexico: Tall tales and true, in: Socorro region II, Chapin, C. E., New Mexico Geological Society, Guidebook, 34th Field Conference, pp. 85-88.

[see guidebook]