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

Soldiers from the North and South battled each other — and Indians — in Arizona.

April 11, 2011|By Catharine Hamm | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Union soldiers attack Confederate cavalrymen during an reenactment of the Battle of Picacho Pass.
Union soldiers attack Confederate cavalrymen during an reenactment of… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

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, 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.

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