Hispanics in the western states and territories faced difficult choices in choosing sides when the Civil War broke out. The Mexican government had banned slavery and only “a few enslaved African Americans lived in the arid lands of west Texas and New Mexico. Many Hispanics opposed the idea of bringing the institution into their homeland and endorsed Union efforts to prevent it. Nevertheless, owners of crop lands in New Mexico – a group that included some wealthy Hispanics and Anglo Americans – often relied on the coerced labor of American Indians and shared some of the views of their slave-holding counterparts in the South. Other Hispanics harbored bitter feelings toward the U.S. government as a result of the Mexican War and demonstrated their disapproval by supporting the Confederacy. The political influence, trade connections, and geographic proximity of the South also drew many Hispanic ranchers and farmers closer to the movement to secede from the Union.
“The result was a scattering of loyalties. Texas became a stalwart supporter of the Confederate cause, but Hispanics – particularly those along the Rio Grande frontier with Mexico – divided in their support for the Union. In New Mexico, lucrative links to Missouri and the southern states via the Santa Fe and Butterfield trails encouraged some Hispanic residents to lean toward the Confederacy while others maintained Union ties. California was also split. Union sentiments prevailed in the northern reaches as stronger Confederate leanings developed in the predominately Hispanic southern part of the state. By the time the first shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter, Texas had joined the Confederacy. California remained, uneasily, a part of the Union.
“Between these two states, the vast New Mexico Territory became a point of contention. Confederate leaders who hoped to gain access to the gold and silver mines and the strategic ports of California needed control of New Mexico to do so. In midsummer 1861, Lt. Col. John R. Baylor led the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles into New Mexico, drove away Union defenders, and occupied the town of Mesilla. Establishing Mesilla as a capital, on August 1, 1861, Baylor declared that the southern portion of New Mexico had now become the Confederate Territory of Arizona. He later divided the territory and waited for Capt. Sherod Hunter and his Arizona Rangers to occupy Tucson, which would serve as the capital of a second judicial district, solidifying Confederate control of the area. Hunter’s troops faced limited resistance.”
With Union troops ordered east, Hispanic and Anglo Americans in the region were unprotected from bands of Apache raiders and local brigands. Fearing for their lives and property, these settlers had little choice but to accept protection from Confederate troops. On February 14, 1862, President Jefferson Davis officially proclaimed the Territory of Arizona as part of the Confederacy. A critical link between Texas and California had been established.
“The Union took measures to prevent Confederate expansion westward. President Abraham Lincoln had wisely selected territorial officials from within the local community, ensuring that leaders would remain loyal to the Union. In the New Mexico Territory, he appointed as governor Henry Connelly, who had married into a prominent Hispanic family. His wife, Delores Perea, was the widow of Don Mariano Chaves, one of the governors of New Mexico while it was under Mexican rule. In September 1861, Connelly called out the militia to defend the Union cause.”
Soon, “Nuevo Mexicanos” (Hispanic New Mexicans) filled the ranks of the New Mexico Volunteers. Most of the volunteers lacked formal military training, however, these descendants of Spanish pioneers “were excellent horsemen, knew the terrain, and had experience in combat against Apaches, Navajos, Utes, and Comanches, making them prized soldiers and scouts. A few, like Capt. Jose Sena, who had practiced law in Santa Fe prior to the war, and Capt. Rafael Chacon, a graduate of a Mexican military school, had professional skills that made them even more valuable to the Union cause. The New Mexico units were commanded primarily by Hispanic officers.” Indeed, Capt. Chacon led the New Mexico Volunteers in 22 engagements during the war.
“The fight for New Mexico escalated. In early 1862, Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley pushed northward with 2,500 troops from Fort Bliss, Texas. Sibley’s goal was to seize Fort Craig on the Rio Grande south of Socorro in order to strengthen the Confederate foothold in New Mexico. Col. Edward R.S. Canby, the Union commander of the fort, moved to halt his assault. On February 21, 1862, his 3,800 troops, including 2,500 Hispanic soldiers of the New Mexico Volunteers and militia, engaged the Confederates at Valverde. The Confederates won the day, but heavy casualties convinced them to abandon their advance on Fort Craig.” Although defeated, the New Mexico Volunteers under commanders Lt. Col J. Francisco Chaves and his Anglo colleague Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson fought admirably. Lt. Col. Chaves was elected to Congress in 1864.
Meanwhile, Confederates in Tucson found themselves threatened by Col. James H. Carleton’s “California Column,” a force of volunteers guided by Hispanic scouts familiar with the trails and water sources. On April 15, 1862, nine days after the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, these California troops skirmished with Confederates 45 miles northwest of Tucson at Picacho Pass. The Confederates prevailed in this westernmost engagement of the Civil War, but Carleton’s troops continued and soon occupied Tucson.
“The decisive battle of the New Mexico campaign, however, took place in the northern part of the territory. Following Valverde, Confederate Gen. Sibley continued northward along the Rio Grande with the goal of seizing Fort Union via Santa Fe. Upon reaching Albuquerque, he received news that 2,000 ‘Pikes Peakers’ or Colorado Volunteers under Col. John P. Slough were coming to bolster the Union cause. On March 28, Confederate and Union troops clashed on the rugged terrain of Glorieta Pass. The fierce battle swayed back and forth throughout the day with neither force gaining an advantage. The conclusive action of the clash took place at Apache Canyon near Johnson’s Ranch on the west side of the mountain pass. There, Union forces, guided by Lt. Col. Manuel Chavez, attacked and destroyed the Confederate supply train. The loss of food and ammunition obliged the Confederates to abandon the field and Glorieta belonged to the Union.
“The failure at Glorieta, often called the ‘Gettysburg of the West,’ spelled the end of Confederate designs on the West. Following an additional skirmish at Peralta, south of Albuquerque, the undersupplied, overextended, and outnumbered Confederates left New Mexico, ending their quest to create a gateway to California.
“Following the Confederate abandonment of the New Mexico and Arizona territories, the Union quickly occupied many strategic points in the newly founded Territory of Arizona. Little known is the important role ‘Californios” (Hispanic Californians) played in this effort. Highly skilled horsemen and accustomed to working in excruciating heat, they made excellent cavalrymen. Serving under both Hispanic and Anglo officers, hundreds of soldiers from the First Battalion of Native Cavalry of the California Volunteers, particularly formidable as one of the few lancer units in the U.S. Army, would prove their ability and loyalty by securing these vast lands for the Union, eliminating the intrusion of French imperialists who supported Maximilian’s rule in Mexico and other backers of the Confederacy.”
For President Lincoln’s administration, it was paramount to separate Texas, the breadbasket of the South, from the rest of the Confederacy; destroy remaining Confederate forces; and stop French Emperor Napoleon III from gaining a more solid foothold on the continent after seizing much of Mexico and casting designs on Texas.