When most people think of the Civil War, they think of the huge battles that raged from Gettysburg to Atlanta. Few even realize that the Blue and the Gray also clashed in the arid Southwest, but they did because of a couple of Confederate schemers. Had their dreams come to pass, the outcome might have changed the war entirely.
One of those schemers was Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose fascination with the Southwest probably began during his tenure there as a lieutenant during the Mexican-American War. Like many men of the period, Davis believed in Manifest Destiny: that the future lay in the west.
While he was President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War, Davis advocated for the Gadsden Purchase, in which the United States bought nearly 30,000 square miles of barren sand in what is now southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico from Mexico. Davis pushed for this $10 purchase so the federal government could build a transcontinental railroad that would link the southern states to the deep-water ports of California. That railroad never materialized, in part because of the rancor the northern industrial states felt for the south after the Civil War.
Davis’ interest in the Southwest also prompted him to lobby Congress to purchase camels for a Camel Corps during his tenure as Secretary of War. The camels, purchased in the Middle East and brought by ship to Texas, worked as military pack animals because horses and mules had difficulty in the rocky and dry western territories that the U.S. acquired. Although they could carry a huge amount of baggage and travel for days without food or water, the fact that they spooked horses and mules and most soldiers disliked them doomed the Camel Corps.
Soon after he was chosen by acclamation to be the president of the Confederacy, Davis received a visit from another schemer, Henry Hopkins Sibley. A fellow graduate of West Point who had also served in the Mexican-American War, Sibley left his post fighting Navajos in New Mexico to travel to Richmond and talk Davis into supporting an invasion of New Mexico. Although there is no record of their meeting, apparently Davis needed little persuasion. Sibley walked in a Major and walked out a Brigadier General.
Sibley’s plan was to go to San Antonio, where he would organize a brigade of three regiments of Texans. Once he’d taken New Mexico, he’d proceed north and capture the gold mines of Colorado, then travel west and procure California’s gold and ports for the Confederacy. Had Sibley’s plan succeeded, the South might have had the economic means to better support its army. Further, Davis was convinced that winning the west would convince England and France to support the Southern cause.
Jennifer Bohnhoff teaches New Mexico History to 7th graders in Albuquerque. Her next book, Valverde, is a middle grade historical novel that follows two protagonists. One is a packer who travels with Sibley’s army into New Mexico. The other is a New Mexican boy determined to see all Americans, both Northerners and Southerners, out of his land.
Valverde will be available toward the end of this month. You can learn more about it and Jennifer's other books here.