Growing up, age five to 15, in and around Richmond, Virginia, I picked up a lot of lore about what the locals called the “War Between the States.” But the Civil War I learned about was all fought east of the Mississippi, on a lot of Virginia battlefields, by a lot of heroic Confederate commanders from Virginia.
Above all, the view taught in my Whites-only Tuckahoe elementary school was that the Confederate Army – outnumbered and out-gunned but never out-fought – was a defensive army whose job was to preserve the Confederacy and defend the homeland from Yankee invaders.
Nobody mentioned the Civil War in the Southwest. Not a word about Jefferson Davis’ obsession with building a Confederate Empire from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts. Nothing about the military expedition out of West Texas meant to add the New Mexico and Arizona territories to the Confederacy, and see about maybe pushing the stars-and-bars through southern California or old Mexico to the ocean.
Probably because, despite a promising start, the Confederate thrust into the Great Southwest ended badly and quickly. Viewed from Richmond, it was a minor embarrassment easy to hide and swiftly overtaken by so many worse things to come.
Viewed from New Mexico, the Confederate invasion and the Union Army response to it were consequential events. Even if the net-net of rebel advance and victory and advance and defeat and retreat and flight was mostly measured in lives lost, properties destroyed, and resources diverted and, like the lives and property, wasted.
But worse was what followed – the large, and now battle-tested U.S. military was launched on a campaign of genocide, or at least its close cousin ethnic cleansing, against Native Americans.
Megan Kate Nelson is a writer and historian living in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She has written about the Civil War, US western history, and American culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, Preservation Magazine, and Civil War Monitor. Nelson earned her BA in history and literature from Harvard University and her PhD in American Studies from the University of Iowa, and she has taught at Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard, and Brown. Nelson is the author of The Three-Cornered War, Ruin Nation, and Trembling Earth.