The four fiery years of the Civil War excite the minds of Americans unlike most historical topics. Indeed, the epic saga of the Civil War is one of the most written about and discussed events in American history. The field of literature on the era is vast, and the names of the great battlefields are carved into our collective memory. Simple names made famous by blood: the Hornet’s Nest at Shiloh, Sunken Road at Antietam, Devil’s Den and Little Round Top at Gettysburg, Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle. Undoubtedly, the Civil War carved a wide swath of destruction and metamorphosis across the nation.
Just how wide a swath, however, often goes unrealized. In the minds of many citizens and even some scholars, the Civil War rarely extends beyond the Mississippi River. Yet the ruinous tendrils of civil war had a long reach. The conflict stretched far beyond the Father of Waters into the western frontier of the 1850’s and ‘60’s. From the swampy bayous of Louisiana, north through the piney foothills of Arkansas and Missouri, westward through the wild plains of Indian Territory and Texas, even to the vast deserts of New Mexico Territory, the Civil War raged west of the Mississippi as well as east.
The Trans-Mississippi theater of the Civil War is often overlooked, dismissed, or forgotten. Yet the battles, leaders, triumphs and tragedies of these forlorn frontiers played a critical role in the epic that is the American Civil War, and to ignore the actions west of the Mississippi is to ignore part of that incredible story.
I grew up in Oklahoma and Arkansas. I now attend Centenary College of Louisiana in Shreveport, and my family resides in Texas. I am, in many respects, a Trans-Mississippi man, and the Civil War in my native region has long fascinated me. My contribution to this blog will largely focus on the war in the west, and I felt it fitting that my first post introduce some of the characters and actions within that area.
The war west of the Mississippi was the backdrop for campaigns with varying purposes and goals. The early contests of 1861-’62 at Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, and Prairie Grove determined the security of Missouri for the Union and threatened Confederate Arkansas. Constant guerilla war, fueled by the actions of such men as “Bloody Bill” Anderson and subsequent Union reprisals, kept these two states in misery throughout the conflict. While the nation tore itself apart, so too did the Native American tribes experience the bitterness of a brothers’ war. Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws and others all shot and mangled each other in their own terrible conflicts, turning modern-day Oklahoma into a wild, unsafe land. It was in the far west that the Confederacy launched perhaps its grandest and strangest campaign: an invasion of New Mexico Territory, aimed at securing the region for the Confederacy and slavery. Yet the deserts of the arid Southwest and the dogged determination of Union forces there (including regiments from Colorado and California) kept the Territory in Union hands.
The U.S. had its own designs, constantly eyeing, of course, the Mississippi itself (and nabbing New Orleans early in the war), but also the coasts of Texas and the cotton along Louisiana’s Red River. Their own offensives in 1863 and especially 1864 would come to naught, however. A last bold raid into Missouri and Kansas by a ragtag Confederate army in the fall of 1864 proved too late to change fate’s cast. It would be in the Trans-Mississippi were the Civil War would finally come to an end. The last shots of anger were fired at Palmetto Ranch in south Texas in May, 1865, and the last major Confederate force under Cherokee Brigadier General Stand Watie surrendered in Indian Territory in June, 1865.
The Trans-Mississippi theater was largely shaped by the wide and varied array of generals who served within it. Some of these men’s names will ring familiar to those better acquainted with the Western and Eastern theaters of the war. Earl Van Dorn, often known as a Rebel raider in the Western theater, led an ambitious invasion northward in hopes of securing Missouri for the Confederacy in early 1862. His hopes were dashed after a nimble showdown in the woods and hollows of a northwest Arkansan height dubbed Pea Ridge. Following a theatrical if eccentric performance on the Peninsula, the illustrious Confederate “Prince” John Magruder found himself organizing the defense of the Texas coast from late 1862 on, recapturing Galveston, Texas for the rebellion in 1863.
Others names, however, may be new. Certainly, many of these men, especially on the Confederate side, were natives of the states they found themselves defending, very literally fighting for hearth and home. Following Dorn’s disaster at Pea Ridge, it fell to adopted Arkansan T.C. Hindman, a dandy who wore white kid gloves, to manage the defenses of his state; the result was the bitter stalemate at Prairie Grove in December of 1862. For Sterling Price, the amateur general from Missouri, the entire war would be a fruitless quest to pull his state into the rebellion. From the opening shots of Wilson’s Creek in 1861 to his own infamous raid through Missouri and Kansas in 1864, Price would battle it out until the end.
Richard Taylor’s war certainly was a fierce defense of his home. Son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor and exceedingly well educated (Harvard and Yale), Richard Taylor started the war commanding a brigade of Louisianans (including the famous/infamous Tigers) under “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley. He spent the lion’s share of the war, however, defending Louisiana from repeated Union attempts to wrest control of the state and its cotton out of Confederate grasp. In the spring of 1864, Taylor unleashed a brilliant campaign along the Red River that decisively defeated Union forces under Nathaniel P. Banks, another general with previous service in the East. Taylor’s victory may have offered a late hope for stalling the Union war effort all together. By the end of the war, Richard Taylor was a lieutenant general, one of only three such generals without formal military training (the others being Wade Hampton and Nathan Bedford Forrest).
The Union had its own cast of characters. Leading U.S. forces to victory at Pea Ridge was Samuel Ryan Curtis, a dutiful and solid soldier who was too apolitical to promote his several successes through the war. Contrasting Curtis was proud Franz Sigel. A subordinate under Curtis during the Pea Ridge Campaign, Sigel was a German immigrant whose immense political pull would swing him various military commands throughout much of the war. William B. Franklin, tainted by politics following the disastrous Fredericksburg Campaign in Virginia, got several chances for redemption off the Louisiana coast. Efficient and business-like, Edward R. S. Canby led his troops skillfully during the New Mexico Campaign in 1862, checking Confederate designs not only on New Mexico, but also on the goldfields of Colorado and the coasts of California. In another grim tale of friend vs. friend, Canby would oppose the efforts of Confederate General Henry H. Sibley, to whom he had been the best man at Sibley’s wedding.
Ultimately, it is probably correct to assume that the war efforts west of the Mississippi were of less political, military, and economic importance than those east of the river. That does not mean, however, that they were of no importance at all. In fact, perhaps it could be argued that from a human standpoint, the stories and valor west of the Mississippi need to be told the most, since so far they have been told the least. The soldier who died in an unnamed Louisiana swamp or a barren stretch of New Mexican desert gave no less for his cause or country than the man who died in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg or in the fortifications of Atlanta. These men, their experiences and the ramifications of their actions, deserve to be remembered. Likewise, the war west of the Mississippi so deserves to be remembered.
I hope, as I explore this great conflict and its lesser-known theater, I can share some of my excitement, knowledge, and growth with you through this blog.
Zac Cowsert received his Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science from Centenary College of Louisiana, a small liberal-arts college in Shreveport. He is currently a graduate student at West Virginia University focusing in U.S. History and the American Civil War. His studies and research often explore the Trans-Mississippi Theater. ©