A chapter that's all but forgotten: When the Civil War came west

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Things hadn't gone according to plan — do they ever in war? — and now, Lt. James Barrett was going to make them right. The cavalry officer and his dozen or so men would rescue his colleague, Capt. William McCleave, from those nettlesome rebels hiding near Picacho Peak, and McCleave would be returned to his rightful place with the California Volunteers and regulars.

The honor of California, a state that contributed more than 15,000 troops to the Union war effort, was at stake. But more than that, if the Confederates won control of the Southwest, riches from the gold, silver and copper mines would go to President Jefferson Davis and his fledgling nation. The Confederates would have access to the ports of Los Angeles and San Francisco, facilitating trade and diverting Union resources. And perhaps most important, the gray coats would have room to expand their new nation, creating a vast land and possibly winning the support of European nations.

If the Confederacy succeeded in building the Southwest into an empire, the Union was finished.

Barrett, more than likely, was focused on freeing McCleave, but perhaps he also felt the weight of the nation's future. And perhaps this is why Barrett, an experienced officer, made the mistake that buoyed the sagging rebel forces in what many consider the westernmost battle of the war. His error was costly but not fatal to the Union. The same could not be said of him. He is still out here, buried, it's said, by Interstate 10, along with some of the most interesting and underappreciated history of the American Civil War.


From LAX, Southwest, United and American offer nonstop service to Tucson, and US Airways, Delta, United and Southwest offer connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $254.


Picacho Peak State Park, 15520 Picacho Peak Road, Picacho, Ariz.; (520) 466-3183. Regular admission to the park is $7 a car, $10 during the reenactment. Hiking and camping. Next year's reenactment is scheduled for March 10 and 11.

Ft. Bowie National Historic Site, 3203 S. Old Fort Bowie Road Bowie, Ariz.; (520) 847-2500, http://www.nps.gov/fobo. The visitor center and the ruins of the fort are about a 11/2-mile hike from a parking lot. Along the way are other ruins, re-creation of a cemetery and an Apache camp. Admission is free.

War in the West

In Northern Virginia, where I spent some of my growing-up years, the Civil War is so entwined with day-to-day life that you cannot escape it. If proximity to Manassas, Va., and Gettysburg, Pa., weren't reminder enough, there is always Abraham Lincoln's statue, 125 tons of sorrow, at his memorial in the District of Columbia.

The ghosts of conflicts past reminded me endlessly of the country's schism, but the absence of same in the West had left me feeling untethered. The Civil War defined a nation, but where was California's bond?

Not far away, I discovered. There were battles in these parts, important ones that "should be regarded as one of the decisive campaigns of the war," Brevet Brig. Gen. Latham Anderson, a colonel who was a commander of California Volunteers, wrote after his retirement some years later.

My curiosity took me last month to Picacho Peak State Park, about 45 miles northwest of Tucson, to see the site of that alleged westernmost battle. Some dispute the geographic distinction and point to a fight at Stanwix Station, about 80 miles east of Yuma, Ariz; others say that it was too small to count. Picacho wasn't much larger, they say, not a battle at all but a skirmish. I'll leave that to historians to argue.

What I can't argue is the shift in perspective that occurred after my Picacho (Spanish for "big peak") visit to see its Civil War reenactments, conducted annually and attracting about 3,200 visitors. Here I got a look, albeit a re-created one, at three of the West's important engagements — Valverde and Glorieta Pass, which are actually in New Mexico, and the Battle of Picacho Peak.

Looking at the brutal Sonoran Desert, I began to understand what those Californians and other troops faced here. Some things could be seen or felt — the outcroppings of rock that could hide the enemy, the menacing saguaro cactus, ready to inflict its spines on anyone who stumbled into their embrace, the dust from the parched earth and the unrelenting sun. Other elements could only be imagined (thank goodness): the snakes, the scorpions, the black widow spiders, the tarantulas and the coyotes that call this desolation home.

And there was one more thing, or, more accurately, one less thing: water. Surviving in these harsh lands meant carrying or finding water for the horses that slurped at least 5 gallons a day, and for the soldiers, who could easily overwhelm one of the infrequent desert wells when they needed to slake their thirst.

It was not yet monsoon season — that comes in the summer — so there were no instant minipools of water, no drop visible (but for the jugs of water along the sutlers' row) and nothing to fight the feeling that every drop of moisture had instantly been sucked from my body. And I was not wearing wool.

Who in their right mind would? The soldiers, both then and now, especially the Union troops. (The rebels were often a bit ragtag, so it was harder to classify their clothing.) With average daily highs in the triple digits in June, July and August and nary a shade tree to be found, soldiers in the wool blue uniform of the day — the sack coat, the pants and often the undergarments — faced a desert environment as hostile as their battlefield foes.

Ah, yes, the enemy. In this arena, the enemy wasn't just a soldier's philosophical counterpart in the War Between the States. It could mean Apaches, who fought everyone, including Pima and Maricopa tribes; it could be Texans, who marched into New Mexico Territory to secure the land for the South. If you were a Texan, it could be the Pima and Maricopa, who generally were allied with the federal government, growing crops and supplying those troops; and it might be Latinos, who often fought for the North, thus pitting them against the South, and who were despised by the Apaches.

"It's a Civil War because people are all fighting one another," said Andrew Masich, author of "The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865."

'It's a swirl of warfare'

The Civil War in the Southwest "is kind of separate from this other war" in the East, said Masich, formerly of Tucson and now president and chief executive of the John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

With a climate that could kill you and the hatred that simmered among those groups, this war was, Masich said, less about the evils of slavery and more about day-to-day survival.

The Californians may have been better equipped to handle the adversity, Masich said. They were "bigger, rougher and stronger," he said, so much so that their hat and shoe sizes were larger and trouser lengths longer than for troops in the East. Besides the physical differences, there was a mind-set too, especially in those Californians who were from elsewhere, as most were.

"You need a good deal of self-confidence to take on a jour-ney through 3,000 miles of dangerous territory, whether that's through the isthmus of Panama or overland," Masich said. "You need to be strong and fit and believe in your ability to accomplish things. You also might be more aggressive."

A handy trait in the bloodiest war in U.S. history and especially in the West, where the enemy came in many guises.

Bloody turning points

The reenactors were gearing up for the Battle of Valverde, played out on a roped-off field slightly larger than a gridiron. Artillery fire began, and viewers clapped their hands over their ears to muffle the sound. Guns fired, and one of the rebels shouted, "Welcome to Arizona!"

The Arizona he spoke of is not the Arizona we know today. In 1848, under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico gave the U.S. more than a half a million square miles of land, of which Arizona, New Mexico and California were parts. The Gadsden Purchase, which Congress ratified in 1854, added a far southern slice of land to the Arizona Territory.

One of the rebel reenactors, clearly unimpressed with the Union's effort, yelled, "Is that all you got, Billy?"

The Confederates may have been feeling cocky. History says — and the reenactors made it clear — that they were the victors at Valverde, which occurred Feb. 20 and 21, 1862, less than a week after Jefferson Davis claimed the Arizona Territory for the South.

A little more than a month later, the battle of Glorieta Pass was a different story. It was sometimes called the "Gettysburg of the West," not for the size of the encounter — the feds' 1,300 soldiers outnumbered the Confederates' by about 200 — but for the impact. More artillery fire on the reenactment field, louder this time, and more gunfire. Clouds of smoke (created by flour, a reenactor told me) billowed overhead in the Arizona sky. This time, the Union won. From March 26-28, 1862, the real battle of Glorieta Pass, with Coloradans and regulars, proved a psychological blow for the South, one that was only partly reversed with the action at Picacho.

Back on the makeshift battlefield, it was time to reenact it.

On April 15, 1862, Barrett and his men captured three Confederate pickets and tied them up. For reasons that are unclear, Barrett fired his weapon — perhaps to spur on his men — but succeeded only in making himself a target. Attacked by rebel troops, he was shot in the neck and was killed instantly, along with two other Union soldiers. The rebels lost no one, save the three captured soldiers, and the Union retreated.

That ended the reenactment action for the day but not, alas, the real war. After the Picacho fiasco, federal troops withdrew to the west, and though the South got a boost from its victory at Picacho, it wasn't long before those rebel troops were retreating to Texas.

The Union troops, meanwhile, confronted an unflinching new enemy even better at warfare. A battle was fought in July 1862, about 100 miles northeast of Tucson, but this time it was Union troops and the Apache who tangled. The Union so desperately needed the water at Apache Springs — a pleasant trickle when I hiked there last month — that it engaged in a two-day fight with the Chiricahua Apache of Cochise and Mangus Coloradus, both legendary warriors.

Using howitzers, the feds eventually repulsed them, although more Californians were lost in the engagement. But the victory opened the way for the establishment of Ft. Bowie nearby (now a national historic site), part of the federal government's initiative to make these lands safe for settlers. The discussion of Manifest Destiny — that the U.S. should expand coast to coast — is for another debate about who we were and who we have become and why.

Amid the ruins of the fort, on a small, dusty plateau, a stiff afternoon wind whipped an American flag to attention, snapping a song of angst for a war that would not end for almost three more years or — some would say — a war that still goes on.


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