Symposium Spotlight: Confederate Ambitions of a Southwestern Empire

Welcome back to our yearly spotlight series, highlighting speakers and topics for our upcoming symposium. Over the coming weeks, we will continue to feature previews of our speaker’s presentations for the 2022 Emerging Civil War Symposium. We’ll also be sharing suggested titles that you may want to read in preparation for these programs. This week we feature Phill Greenwalt.

General Henry H. Sibley

New Mexico. Arizona. Colorado. Names of territories that one usually does not associate with the Confederate States of America nor the American Civil War in general. In the late winter of 1861-1862 though, newly minted Confederate Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley had those territories in mind along with an even more ambitious plan. 

With a force of Texas soldiers, optimistically called the Army of New Mexico, but numbering approximately 2,500 men, Sibley would invade New Mexico, break the United States presence in the territory, live off captured supplies, and embark on an expedition to the Pacific Ocean. In the process, through envoys sent by Sibley, Mexican provincial representatives would be approached to discuss transportation of supplies, use of Pacific Ocean ports, and allowing Confederate soldiers to enter into Mexico for specific purposes. 

If all went well, Sibley hoped to create a Confederate version of “Manifest Destiny” and extend the Confederacy from “sea to shining sea.” Yet, dreams and ambitions do not compensate for a lack of logistics and organization. Sibley’s campaign entered New Mexico at the wrong time of the year, was unprepared for the arduous crossing of the Jornada del Muerto Desert and when Federal forces at Fort Craig defied them, the trouble for the Southerners had just begun. What would become a pyrrhic victory at Valverde (or Valverde Ford) on February 20-21, 1862, set the stage for further issues in New Mexico.  

Sibley’s dream, though, vanished completely before leaving the territory of New Mexico due to numerous factors, including a defeat of part of his forces at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, nicknamed the “Gettysburg of the West” fought on March 26-28, 1862. A long retreat to Texas ensued and the last serious effort for the Confederates in the southwest was over. 

Yet, what if he had been successful? The vibrations from the southwest could have been felt as far away as the streets of London, England or the avenues of Paris besides just Pennsylvania Avenue and within the walls of the White House. Confederate conquest in the New Mexico and/or Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and even California would have impacted multiple avenues of the war effort.  With the theme of “what if” for the 2022 Emerging Civil War Symposium, this topic, of if the Confederates had been successful in the southwest, will be discussed in depth.

8 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: Confederate Ambitions of a Southwestern Empire

  1. I’m not sure how much success could have reasonably been expected of an operation commanded by an officer known as the Walking Whiskey Keg.

  2. For the benefit of scholars of the Confederacy in the Southwest, below is my bio article on the “unknown” Confederate Congressman who was a large cog in the Confederate Territory of Arizona, M. H. MacWillie. I’ve finally got him pinned down:

    Marcus (or Malcolm) H. MacWillie (aka McWillie) was a politician who represented the Confederate Arizona Territory in the Congress of the Confederate States during the American Civil War.

    M. H. MacWillie was born circa 1836 in Inverness. Scotland. Little is known of his early life. One newspaper account has him a relative of Mississippi Governor William McWillie (1795–1869), but this seems unlikely. MacWillie passed his bar exam and established a legal practice in Texas. He later moved to La Mesilla in what is now New Mexico and resumed his legal career. In early 1861 served as district judge, then chief justice, in Dr. Lewis S. Owings short-lived provisional government of the Arizona Territory (which included modern day New Mexico and Arizona).

    Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Confederate army colonel John R. Baylor successfully invaded southern New Mexico and became the new Territorial governor. MacWillie became the Attorney General of the Confederate-claimed Arizona Territory in the newly designated capital of La Mesilla. Through the shrewd political efforts of his powerful friend John R. Baylor, MacWillie was selected December 30, 1861 to replace Baylor’s rival Granville Henderson Oury as the territory’s representative to the permanent Congress. Despite Arizona and New Mexico being taken over by the Union Army later in 1862, MacWillie continued to represent the territory throughout the First Confederate Congress (March 11, 1862 – February 17, 1864). He then served in the Second Confederate Congress until the end of the war.

    MacWillie’s activities following the war are uncertain. What we do know is that he lived in Chihuahua, Mexico, as an attorney, often handling mining claims. He was also involved in various southern Texas–northern Mexico railroad promotions, often visiting Texas, New Mexico, New Orleans and New York City. He died in Santa Barbara, California, March 5, 1875, during a trip to line up investors for a mine.

    1. Professor Allardice
      Thank you for providing the biography of Confederate politician and Territory Governor M. H. MacWillie. It has for too long been ignored, the importance of territory west and southwest of Texas to the Confederacy… even BEFORE there was a Confederacy. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis schemed to get approval of the Southern Route for the Transcontinental Railroad; and at least two filibusters were launched south (Baja California and Sonora: Gadsden’s Purchase came out of Sonora.) Representative Milton Latham arrived in Washington, D.C. early in 1860 with authority to push for separation of the six southern counties of California, which would be named “Territory of Colorado.” It appears this contrivance was designed to allow construction of a railroad across Texas, through today’s New Mexico and Arizona, and meet the Pacific Ocean at San Diego. It also appears that the ultimate goal was to designate ALL of these territories west of Texas as Slave territories. Finally, as regards Mesilla… as Bloody Kansas was winding down, many of the pro-slavery agents departed Kansas Territory for Mesilla in “New Mexico” Territory (where the NEXT attempt to promote slave territory was to take place.) Mesilla, near Las Cruces, is where the Confederate Territory Capital was established (not La Mesilla, north of Santa Fe… I believe one of your references (Current) has identified the wrong “Mesilla.”)
      Mike Maxwell

      1. The wiki program entered the “La” to Mesilla. It’s been fixed.

      2. In April 1856 Sheriff Samuel J. Jones was reported dead, “having been killed by an abolition mob.” This “killing” sparked the first raid on Lawrence, Kansas (21 May 1856.)
        About September 1858 Sheriff Jones removed himself to Mesilla (recently acquired and attached to “Arizonia” as result of Gadsden Purchase.) He was appointed Customs Inspector at nearby Paso del Norte. During the Civil War he was active on behalf of the CSA.

    2. My bad… above reference to M. H. MacWillie should read “Confederate politician and Territory Attorney General M. H. MacWillie.”
      Mike Maxwell

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!