American Civil War: The West

Back: The Blockade and the War at Sea

Texas and New Mexico
Pea Ridge and the march to the Mississippi
The Red River campaign
Kirby Smith

The area west of the Mississippi fell into three broad categories in 1861. On the west coast were the states of California and Oregon, isolated enclaves of American life. California had only recently been added to the Union, as a result of the Mexican War of the 1840s. Along the western bank of the Mississippi were a series of border states, from Minnesota in the north to Louisiana in the south, which with Texas contained the bulk of the trans-Mississippi population. Between them was a vast third area of unsettled land, stretching from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, which included vast areas conquered from Mexico and large areas of ‘Indian Country’, where the original inhabitants of North America still maintained a precarious independence. Dotted across the map were tiny areas of American settlement, most famous of which was the Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City.

The Civil War in this vast area also falls into three rough categories. The most important of these concerns the Union campaigns along the Mississippi herself. When these campaigns ended in success, the western Confederacy was cut off, and forced to survive on its own resources. These campaigns have been dealt with already. The second category contains Union attempts to invade the three Confederate states west of the Mississippi – Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. These campaigns were to have limited success. The western Confederacy was the last area to surrender in 1865. Finally, in the first years of the war the Confederacy cast its eyes west, into New Mexico, Arizona, southern California and northern Mexico.

Texas and New Mexico

Confederate ambitions in the far west were encouraged by Texans. The independent state of Texas had made several attempts to conquer western territory before joining the Union, and had retained ambitions in that direction after the Mexican War brought New Mexico into the Union.

The main Union garrison in the state surrendered on 16 February 1861. General David Twiggs, the commander of the garrison, was strongly and publicly pro-secession, so his move came as no surprise in the area. Texan secessions could now look west, secure in their own state.

The best invasion route into New Mexico was along the Rio Grande. The river formed the western border of Texas, before heading north through the middle of New Mexico, coming close to Santa Fe, the Federal headquarters in the territory.

The first attack came in July 1861. A 350 strong force of cavalry, raised and led by John Baylor, defeated the Federal garrison of Fort Fillmore at Mesilla on 26 July 1861. He then declared Mesilla to be the capitol of a new Confederate territory of Arizona, carved out of southern New Mexico (the Confederate Arizona was in a different area to the eventual state of Arizona).

A more serious threat came early the next year. On 8 July Brigadier-General Henry Sibley, a veteran of the area, had been appointed to command the Confederate south west. He raised an army 3,600 strong, and on 4 January 1862 set off up the Rio Grande in command of around 1,700 of them, with the aim of conquering New Mexico.

Opposing him was a Federal force of 4,000 under Colonel Edward Canby. Canby was badly outmanoeuvred early in the campaign, suffering a defeat at Valverde (21 February 1862). After the defeat Canby remained at Fort Craig, to the south of Valverde, where he could cut off Sibley’s supply line back to Texas. Meanwhile, another Union force was concentrating at Fort Union, in the north of New Mexico. Canby hoped to trap the Confederate invasion between the two forces.

Meanwhile, Sibley had decided to move north, hoping to capture sufficient supplies at Albuquerque and Santa Fe to maintain his invasion. He was disappointed at both places, and decided to move against Fort Union. Before he could reach the place, he was ambushed at Apache Pass (26 March 1862), suffering a minor defeat. Two days later he attacked a Federal position at La Glorieta Pass (28 March) and was repulsed with losses he could not afford.

The retreat back along the Rio Grande did not end at the Texan border. Threatened by a concentration of Union troops, Sibley eventually ended up at San Antonio in central Texas, having lost 1,200 of his 1,700 men. Confederate hopes in the far west were to be disappointed.

Pea Ridge and the march to the Mississippi

While the Confederates in Texas were looking west, Union forces in the area were concentrating on the Mississippi. The main area of activity in 1862 was to be along the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, but General Halleck wanted to secure his western flank before launching major expeditions. Accordingly, he appointed Brigadier-General Samuel Curtis to clear the Confederates out of south western Missouri, where they had remained since being forced out of the rest of the state in 1861.

Curtis’s biggest problem was logistical. The Confederate forces were based at Springfield in the south west corner of Missouri. The nearest place Curtis could get by railroad was Rolla, one hundred miles to the north east of Springfield. The two places were separated by the Ozark Plateau and barely connected even by road. Luckily for Curtis, his supply officer was Philip Sheridan, then a Captain but destined for high command. Sheridan managed to keep the 11,000 strong army supplied as it marched to Springfield and then beyond that into Arkansas.

On the Confederate side the biggest achievement was probably the creation of a potentially battle wining army. General Sterling Price had 7,000 Missourians at Springfield. General Ben McCulloch had another 8,000 troops, but he and Price loathed each other. Finally, another 1,000 Indian troops were available under Brigadier-General Albert Pike. The problem was getting the three forces to act together. Major-General Earl Van Dorn was given that job on 10 January 1862 when he was appointed to command the Trans-Mississippi department. His job was made somewhat easier by Curtis’s advance. Price was forced to retreat south, until he joined with McCulloch in northern Arkansas.

Van Dorn now had his 16,000 men. Curtis had been ordered to stop just inside Arkansas. He was now outnumbered, and when Van Dorn began an advance Curtis retreated to a strong defensive position on Pea Ridge. Van Dorn had ambitious plans for an offensive that would sweep through Missouri, capture St. Louis and threaten Union operations in Kentucky.

First, he had to defeat Curtis’s army. That army was camped on the edge of high ground on the Telegraph Road, the main road across the Ozark Plateau. Van Dorn decided to outflank that position by using a road called the Bentonville Detour that cut to the north of Pea Ridge. The plan was a partial success. Price’s division completed the journey along the Bentonville Detour by ten in the morning. However, McCulloch’s division was still much further west when Curtis discovered the Confederate troops to his rear.

Reacting quickly, Curtis turned his line around to face north. One part of his force was detached to attack McCulloch, while the rest lined up against Van Dorn and Price. The ensuing Battle of Pea Ridge (7-8 March 1862) was the biggest battle west of the Mississippi.

The first day saw two almost entirely separate battles. To the west, the Confederate attack ended in disaster. McCulloch was killed, his division collapsed, and Pike, who found himself in command, was unable to rally them. Later that night the remnants of the Confederate rear straggled into Van Dorn’s camp.

The main Confederate attack had gone better, pushing the Union forces back throughout the day. However, they had used up most of their ammunition. On the second day, a well executed Union artillery bombardment allowed Curtis to launch a successful counterattack, driving Van Dorn’s army from the field.

Pea Ridge protected Missouri from any serious Confederate invasion. Van Dorn and Price were soon pulled back across the Mississippi in an attempt to help defend Tennessee. Curtis meanwhile launched an attack towards Little Rock, hoping to capture the Arkansas state capitol. When it became clear that this would not be possible he made a daring decision that would be echoed later by Grant and Sherman.

In June 1862, Curtis was 300 miles from Rolla, at the end of an increasingly lengthy supply line, and 200 miles from the Union controlled Mississippi. The countryside was fertile and it was early summer, and so Curtis decided to abandon his supply line and march the 200 miles across Arkansas, living off the land. Over the next two weeks his army fifteen miles per day and easily fed itself from confiscated supplies. This was the first time a Union army had abandoned its supply lines and the first time a Union army had carried out a raid that hit the Confederate economy in an unconquered area. Grant at Vicksburg and Sherman in his march to the sea were to follow very similar paths.

The Red River campaign

The capture of New Orleans in April 1862 had not been followed up by much more progress in Louisiana. General Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union army that had played a part in the capture of the city, had not been a great success as governor of the city, and in November-December 1862 he was replaced by General Nathaniel P. Banks. His first priority was to cooperate in the clearance of the Mississippi. Despite making repeated attempts to bypass Port Hudson, the main Confederate strongpoint south of Vicksburg, the place only fell to him on 9 July 1863, after the defenders heard of the fall of Vicksburg.

With the Mississippi cleared, Banks now awaited new orders. One option was for him to move east to attack Mobile, Alabama, opening up the heart of the Confederacy. Another was for him to invade Texas. The Texan option won, partly because the French had invaded Mexico. On 7 June 1863 a French army occupied Mexico City. The French Emperor Napoleon III had always expressed a great deal of sympathy for the Southern cause, although he never went as far as officially recognising the Confederacy. The prospect of having 40,000 professional French troops just across the Mexican border did not appear in Washington.

Banks made four attempts to follow his orders. The first, an amphibious attack on the Texan coast in September 1863, ended in a spectacular failure at Sabina Pass. The second, in October, was intended to travel overland through Louisiana but was abandoned while still in the east of the state. A third expedition, this time to the mouth of the Rio Grande in November 1863 had more success, but was then abandoned under pressure from General Halleck, who had not authorised it. At the start of 1864 a fourth expedition was launched.

The Red River campaign involved a two pronged attack. The main attack was to come from Banks in Louisiana. His troops were to travel up the Red River to Shreveport, from where they could turn westwards into Texas. A second force was to move down from Little Rock, Arkansas, joining Banks at Shreveport. The combined expeditions contained 45,000 men, including 13,000 from Arkansas and 10,000 donated by Sherman, but this combined force never came together.

Banks never reached Shreveport. On 8 April his vanguard was attacked by General Richard Taylor’s Confederate army at Sabine Crossroads and pushed back in disarray. On the following day, at Pleasant Hill, the Confederates attacked again, but were repulsed with heavy losses. Despite this victory, Banks now decided to retreat back to the Red River, where he hoped to make another attempt to reach Shreveport. However, the water level in the Red River was now falling. Admiral Porter, the commander of the Federal fleet, now insisted on pulling back to the Mississippi before his ships became trapped. His instincts were correct. Only have some ingenious dams were built to raise the water level in the river was the fleet able to return to the safety of the Mississippi (18 May). This was the last Union attempt to conquer western Louisiana and Texas. Banks remained in charge at New Orleans, but lost his wider authority with the creation of a large Division of West Mississippi.

Kirby Smith

A key contribution to the survival of the trans-Mississippi Confederacy was the appointment of General Edmund Kirby Smith to command of the Trans-Mississippi department on 9 February 1863. Kirby Smith had only been a moderate success as a general, but after the fall of Vicksburg cut his department off from the rest of the Confederacy he demonstrated an impressive administrative ability.

The political leaders of the three western Confederate states showed an unusually clear grasp of their perilous situation. After the fall of Port Hudson in the summer of 1863 they agreed to grant Kirby Smith sweeping powers over all aspects of life in the trans-Mississippi. Using money earned from confiscated cotton, traded across the Mexican border, he created an independent and self sufficient outpost of the Confederacy, complete with its own arms industry.

One reason for his success was that the strong Union forces to the north of him were preoccupied with fighting the guerrilla war that ravaged Missouri and parts of Kansas. Under violent men such as William Quantrill, these guerrillas effectively prevented any concentration of the limited Union power in the area. His second advantage was that General Grant was generally opposed to expeditions across the Mississippi, which he saw as wasting resources that would be better used in the east.

Texas saw the last battle of the Civil War. In July 1864 the Federal garrison of Brownsville were pushed out of the town. They managed to retain a foothold on the coast near the mouth of the Rio Grande. A month and a day after Lee’s men marched into brief captivity at Appomattox Courthouse the Federal troops on the coast made an attempt to retake Brownsville. On 13 May 1865 a force of 300 Confederate cavalry won the last battle of the war at Palmito Hill.

On 26 May 1865 Kirby Smith finally surrendered his department. Some of his subordinates had urged him to fight on, but he could see just how pointless that would be.  One month later Stand Watie, one of the most able guerrilla leaders of the war, became the last Confederate general to surrender. Two months after Lee’s surrender, the rebellion was over.

Next: Conclusion

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Battle Cry of FreedomBattle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson, OUP, 1988, 944 pages. One of the best single volume accounts of the Civil War era, taking in the decade before the war before moving on to the conflict itself. McPherson covers the military events of the war well, while also including good sections on politics North and South. [see more]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 May 2006), American Civil War: The West ,

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