ECW welcomes guest author Patrick Kelly-Fischer
We’re currently experiencing a veritable renaissance of scholarship about the Civil War in the West — and one of the most recent, excellent entries is Kevin Waite’s West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire.
Published earlier this year by UNC Press, Waite’s work serves to place the war in the West in a wider context of slaveholders’ ambitions across the Southwest and Pacific Coast. He deftly connects the contemporary debates over the transcontinental railroad, the fundamental economics of the era, the emerging politics of newly American states and territories like California, and an overarching vision of Southern leaders who sought to expand slavery.
Waite starts by carefully laying out the ties between the South and a growing West that was up for grabs in the nation’s looming sectional divide, before expanding into how that played out in particular states and territories. He touches briefly on how Utah’s Mormons dabbled in chattel slavery, but one of the most interesting pieces for me was his examination of how debt peonage in New Mexico served as, functionally, a form of slavery well beyond the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
West of Slavery pays especially close attention to California’s politics. Much of the book revolves around slaveholders’ goal of establishing the transcontinental railroad across a Southern route, ending in southern California, in order to open an easier path between the Cotton Belt of the Deep South and ports in California, ultimately leading to markets in China.
As a Coloradan, a highlight of the book for me was the effort by slaveholding separatists in southern California to secede from the northern part of the state, in order to form what they called “Colorado Territory”. While ultimately unsuccessful, it was one of a number of Southern efforts to draw the West closer into their orbit. This effort pre-dated what we know today as Colorado.
For me, like so many others, the cornerstone of emerging literature on the war in the Southwest is Megan Kate Nelson’s Three-Cornered War. Viewed in the context of Nelson’s work, West of Slavery serves as a prologue, fleshing out the pre-war years and helping to inform the motivations behind Confederate leadership as they pushed westward early in the war.
Part of that motivation was, of course, that Jefferson Davis never seemed to meet a gamble or grandiose idea he didn’t like. And while that may be the nature of the war he was fighting, and some of those gambits were low-risk, the campaigns into Arizona and New Mexico occupied several thousand troops in 1862 who would surely have better served the Confederate cause in other Western campaigns that year.
Waite also offers a tantalizing what-if of a Southern vision of the United States that would have extended well beyond the borders of the Confederacy and Border South, in a direction that’s received considerably less attention than thankfully ill-fated Southern ventures into the Caribbean and Central America. He never strays too far into speculative history, but the “what could have been” questions were percolating in the back of my mind throughout this read.
Like any examination of slavery, the book can be a grim read, and Waite doesn’t pull any punches here. But like much of Western history, there’s a lighter side to it as well. If you aren’t familiar with Jefferson Davis’s pre-war experiments importing camels on behalf of the U.S. Army, Waite weaves that in as an entertaining aside, along with dozens of other anecdotes, colorful characters, and minor events, all of which serve to move the broader history along.
West of Slavery is, fundamentally, a broadening of horizons; he avoids the trap of treating the Civil War as a discrete, 4-year event, that only took place on well-known battlefields, instead stretching both the chronological and geographic considerations of the Civil War era. He recognizes forms of servitude in the region beyond the enslavement of African-Americans, while in no way diminishing the horrors of that experience.
If you’ve already read Three-Cornered War and are looking to flesh out your understanding of the context in which the Civil War was fought in the West, you can’t go wrong with adding West of Slavery to your reading list. And if you’re new to this chapter of the Civil War story, I can’t recommend West of Slavery highly enough as an entry point into, among other things, what drove the South to expend precious resources invading New Mexico and Arizona in 1862.
In terms of broader scholarship of the Civil War in the West, we’ve come a long way from when I was growing up in the 90’s and early 00’s, when there was just one go-to book if I wanted to learn about the war west of Texas: Donald Frazier’s Blood and Treasure. And unable to find a copy back then, I spent quite a few hours of my life poring over the two pages devoted to Sibley’s 1862 New Mexico campaign in my well-worn Time-Life Books Civil War Battle Atlas — good for what it is, but sparse on details or context.
Tell us in the comments: What are your favorite books on the Civil War era in the far West, and how do you think West of Slavery stacks up?
Patrick Kelly-Fischer lives in Colorado with his wife, dog and cat, where he works for a nonprofit. A lifelong student of the Civil War, when he isn’t reading or working, you can find him hiking or rooting for the Steelers.