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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

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.

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