Skip to content

The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West

in stock, ready to be shipped
Save 10% Save 10%
Original price $29.00
Original price $29.00 - Original price $29.00
Original price $29.00
Current price $25.99
$25.99 - $25.99
Current price $25.99
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History

A dramatic, riveting, and “fresh look at a region typically obscured in accounts of the Civil War. American history buffs will relish this entertaining and eye-opening portrait” (Publishers Weekly).

Megan Kate Nelson “expands our understanding of how the Civil War affected Indigenous peoples and helped to shape the nation” (Library Journal, starred review), reframing the era as one of national conflict—involving not just the North and South, but also the West.

Against the backdrop of this larger series of battles, Nelson introduces nine individuals: John R. Baylor, a Texas legislator who established the Confederate Territory of Arizona; Louisa Hawkins Canby, a Union Army wife who nursed Confederate soldiers back to health in Santa Fe; James Carleton, a professional soldier who engineered campaigns against Navajos and Apaches; Kit Carson, a famous frontiersman who led a regiment of volunteers against the Texans, Navajos, Kiowas, and Comanches; Juanita, a Navajo weaver who resisted Union campaigns against her people; Bill Davidson, a soldier who fought in all of the Confederacy’s major battles in New Mexico; Alonzo Ickis, an Iowa-born gold miner who fought on the side of the Union; John Clark, a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s who embraced the Republican vision for the West as New Mexico’s surveyor-general; and Mangas Coloradas, a revered Chiricahua Apache chief who worked to expand Apache territory in Arizona.

As we learn how these nine charismatic individuals fought for self-determination and control of the region, we also see the importance of individual actions in the midst of a larger military conflict. Based on letters and diaries, military records and oral histories, and photographs and maps from the time, “this history of invasions, battles, and forced migration shapes the United States to this day—and has never been told so well” (Pulitzer Prize–winning author T.J. Stiles).

ISBN-13: 9781501152542

Media Type: Hardcover(New Edition)

Publisher: Scribner

Publication Date: 02-11-2020

Pages: 352

Product Dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

Megan Kate Nelson is a writer and historian living in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She has written about the Civil War, US western history, and American culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Smithsonian Magazine. Nelson earned her BA in history and literature from Harvard University and her PhD in American studies from the University of Iowa. She is the author of Saving Yellowstone, The Three-Cornered War, Ruin Nation, and Trembling Earth.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Baylor
When Texas seceded from the Union in February 1861 and the Civil War began in earnest two months later, John Baylor had not thought he would end up in the deserts of southern New Mexico. He had first volunteered for the Confederate Army in May, hoping to defend Texas from invasion or to take the fight to the Yankees in Virginia. He had come to Texas from Kentucky as a teenager, part of a flood of migrants who poured into the newly established republic after it secured independence from Mexico in 1836. His family had been lured by its rich, loamy bottomlands, the promise of booming cotton crops, and the right to own slaves.1 By the 1850s Baylor and his wife, Emy, were living near the south-central town of LaGrange, with some acreage in crops and a growing herd of cattle.2

Baylor liked the work, but he was a man on the make, always interested in new ways to make money and to gain the respect of his peers.3 In 1851, he ran for the Texas legislature and was easily elected. He also began to read the law and was admitted to the state bar in 1853.4 He was proud of all he had achieved and saw his success as part of a family effort.

“Them Baylors,” he wrote to his sister Fanny in 1857, “may they never cease to have good luck until the poorest among them is worth millions.”5

Baylor saw his service in the Confederate Army as another opportunity to make his mark. He was ecstatic about his appointment as lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles, and about their orders to secure the Union’s abandoned military installations in West Texas.6 In June 1861, Baylor and his men had traveled quickly along the San Antonio–El Paso Road. Whenever they arrived at a fort, they left a company of soldiers behind to defend it before moving on.7 This process, along with a high rate of desertion, left Baylor with only about 350 soldiers when he finally arrived at Fort Bliss, on the far western edge of Texas, on July 5.8

According to his orders, Baylor was supposed to stay at Fort Bliss. But after he had rested his men for two weeks, the Texans received word that a detachment of Union troops had left Albuquerque and was moving south along the Rio Grande. Baylor was alarmed. It looked like the Yankees were planning to invade Texas, and his men were the only force positioned to defend it. He pondered his options. The road from San Antonio was not yet strung with telegraph wires, and he did not have time to send a letter to headquarters asking for orders. He did not know that at that moment, a dispatch was already on its way to Fort Bliss, instructing Baylor to make no attempt to move into New Mexico Territory until a senior officer arrived to take command.9 By the time that letter reached Fort Bliss, Baylor had already crossed the border. He had decided that moving forward was better than standing still. He would take responsibility for whatever resulted.10

Riding quietly through the desert on the night of July 24, 1861, John Baylor and three hundred men approached Fort Fillmore, the Union’s southernmost military installation in New Mexico Territory. The fort was full of medicine, weapons, and food that Baylor and the 2nd Texas would need for the invasion of the Territory. The plan was to surround the fort and then attack as the sun rose over the jagged peaks of the Organ Mountains. They crept close to the fort in the early-morning darkness, but then Baylor heard Fillmore’s buglers begin to play the long roll, summoning the Union soldiers within to take up their arms. He found out later that a deserter from his ranks had slipped away to warn the federals, and so the 2nd Texas had lost the advantage of surprise. Disgruntled, Baylor abandoned his original plan and ordered his men to march toward the small trading town of Mesilla.11

A few miles north of Fort Fillmore, Mesilla was at the crossroads of the Southwest’s two most well-trafficked thoroughfares: El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (“the Royal Road of the Interior Lands”), moving people north and south between Mexico and Santa Fe along the Rio Grande, and the Butterfield overland mail route, an east-west road linking Missouri and Los Angeles. Mesilla was also the gateway to the region’s silver, gold, and copper mines. Some had been worked for years by Hispano miners, while others, deep in Chiricahua Apache country, had just been discovered by Anglos. If John Baylor could occupy Mesilla, the Confederates could control access to these mines, as well as traffic in and out of southern New Mexico.

As the 2nd Texas rode northward, they passed lush fields of corn and wheat, a pleasing sight to soldiers who had spent the past month traveling through the dusty brown tablelands of western Texas. On the outskirts of Mesilla, the regiment turned onto the town’s main road, guiding their horses around deep holes dug out by Hispano artisans to make adobe bricks. News of their arrival spread ahead of them, and by the time the Texans reached Mesilla’s central plaza, a crowd had gathered. The Confederates halted.

“Viva!” someone shouted. And then a chorus: “Hurrah!”12

The 2nd Texas dismounted, pleased with all of the “manifestations of joy” that greeted them on the streets of Mesilla. Although the New Mexico legislature had declared for the Union, most of Mesilla’s Anglo residents had come from the states of the Confederacy, looking for their fortunes in the mines and finding other opportunities in frontier businesses.13 In November 1860, a handful of these citizens had held a mock election in the town plaza, voting overwhelmingly for Kentucky’s John C. Breckinridge rather than the Republican Abraham Lincoln or the northern Democrat Stephen Douglas. After the secession of Texas, Anglo miners, teamsters, and businessmen from southern New Mexico issued their own proclamation of secession. They wanted to create a newly independent territory they called “Arizona,” with Mesilla as its capital. The area was already so decidedly pro-Confederate by the time Baylor arrived that, as one Unionist reported, “this country is now as much in the possession of the enemy as Charleston is.”14

While the officers of the 2nd Texas sought out lodging and supplies for their men, John Baylor looked for a good place to establish his headquarters. In the center of Mesilla plaza, the U.S. flag came down and the Confederate flag went up. The crowd cheered again.

When he occupied Mesilla on July 25, 1861, John Baylor became the first Confederate to lead a successful invasion of Union territory in the Civil War. He did not have time to revel in this distinction, however. Rising dust clouds to the east told him that Union soldiers from Fort Fillmore were on the move. Baylor figured that even if the Texans were outnumbered, they had the advantage of a defensive position. He ordered most of the 2nd Texas to leave their horses and move on foot to the southern edge of town. He placed some of them along the road, others on the flat roofs of surrounding adobe houses, and the rest in corrals and cornfields. Then they waited.

In the late afternoon, two riders came into view, carrying a flag of truce. Baylor sent two of his most trusted officers to meet them, and soon they came galloping back.

“Major [Isaac] Lynde of the Union Army,” they informed him, “demands the unconditional and immediate surrender of the Texan forces.”

Baylor knew that his position was too strong to give in to such a demand.

“Tell Lynde,” he said to his officers, “that if he wants the town he must come and take it.” Turning to the soldiers gathered around him on the road, he added, “We will fight first, and surrender afterward.”15

Lynde’s couriers disappeared down the road. Within a matter of minutes, two cannon shots hurtled toward Baylor’s line. One exploded on the roof of a building and the other struck a tree, sending limbs and shards of bark flying. Then the Texans turned to see a regiment of Union cavalry pounding down the road toward them. Baylor waited until the federals were in range of his men’s shotguns and pistols before giving the order to fire. The bullets ripped through the Union ranks, and in the ensuing chaos the Yankees wheeled their horses and rode back toward their own lines.

Baylor’s men fired at the retreating soldiers and then waited for another charge. It did not come. The scouts Baylor sent out reported that Lynde had taken his soldiers and his artillery back to Fort Fillmore. Should the Texans follow? Baylor considered it, but then decided that the Union retreat might be a trap. Better to return to Mesilla and prepare for a Union assault, which he was sure would come the next day. When the Confederates marched back to the plaza, the townspeople once again emerged from their houses and stores to cheer them. As his men celebrated throughout the night, Baylor reviewed the events of the day with satisfaction. The Battle of Mesilla was not long, nor was it costly. But the Texans had won. The Confederate conquest of the West had begun.16

The day after the Battle of Mesilla, Baylor scanned the skies to the east, looking for a sign that the federals were marching toward him. There was no movement in that direction. He sent scouts out to see what the federals were up to, and they returned to report that Lynde’s soldiers were digging entrenchments around Fort Fillmore. Baylor saw a chance to put his original plan back into action and sent for his artillerists, who were still at Fort Bliss. The next day, the Texans would march again on Fillmore, and pound it into submission from the high sand hills between the fort and the Rio Grande.17

Once again, Baylor’s plans were frustrated. On July 27, his scouts woke him at daybreak, reporting dust rising up fifteen miles away. Baylor leapt out of bed, grabbed his field glasses, and climbed onto the flat dirt roof of his headquarters. What he saw confirmed the scouts’ account: a large column of soldiers was making its way slowly toward the Organ Mountains to the east. They were on a military road that led up and over the mountains and then north to Fort Stanton, another federal installation filled with valuable supplies. The federals had to cross twenty miles of desert and then summit San Augustin Pass, which towered almost two thousand feet above the valley floor. There was a silver-mining town called San Augustin Springs a few miles past the pass on the east side of the range; the troops would likely stop there to rest. Baylor climbed down from the roof and ordered his command to prepare their horses and fill their canteens. Instead of assaulting Fort Fillmore, they would chase down and intercept the enemy in the middle of the desert road. They would force the retreating Yankees to fight or surrender.18

The 2nd Texas pounded out of the town and splashed through the Rio Grande. A scout joined them on the eastern bank and informed Baylor that the federals had abandoned and partially burned Fort Fillmore, but its storehouse was still intact. Baylor was delighted. He sent a detachment of soldiers to occupy the fort and gather its supplies.19

Baylor led the 2nd Texas along the riverbank and then turned east onto the road to San Augustin Springs, lined with dark green creosote bushes. As the sun rose up over the dark edges of the mountaintops, the Texans gained on the federals. The sky was a nearly cloudless, vast expanse of blue and the temperature was climbing. By noon it would be nearly ninety degrees.20

When the road reached the foot of the mountains, it pitched upward into a more extreme grade. The federals’ wagon trains, at the rear of the column, slowed to a crawl, and Baylor passed them. Farther on, Baylor halted his lathered horse and looked down from the saddle on a group of Union soldiers who had collapsed along the road. Some were trying to crawl along a trail that led into a narrow cut in the mountains. When they saw Baylor, they called to him through parched lips.

“Water,” they begged. “Please. Water.”

It was hard to believe that these U.S. Army regulars, who were seasoned frontier soldiers, had succumbed to the most common of desert maladies: thirst. The federals had carried only small canteens with them, and their water wagons lagged far behind, their wheels mired in desert sand. They had been on the march for only ten hours, but they were already suffering from extreme dehydration. Baylor had no love for Yankees, but he and his men dismounted and gave the collapsed men all of the water they had. Then they declared them prisoners of war.21

Galloping to the top of the pass, Baylor and his men reined in as a breathtaking view opened up in front of them: miles of undulating foothills, dotted with brown and green desert scrub, easing down into the broad, bright white gypsum flats of the Tularosa Valley. The Confederates turned away from the view and toward San Augustin Springs, which lay a few miles down the winding road. What they saw here was just as astonishing as the valley vista. The road, Baylor reported, “was lined with the fainting, famishing soldiers, who threw down their arms as we passed.”22 Baylor could also see, in the distance, two hundred Union soldiers forming into a ragged line of battle on the edge of town. He gave the order to charge and the Texans dashed down the road. The federals scattered. Baylor pulled up, and as he did, he received a message that the Union commander wanted to meet with him.

Baylor walked into San Augustin Springs with a few of his officers and sat with Major Isaac Lynde. The Union officer was disoriented, his white hair and beard matted with sweat.

“[I was] so much exhausted from fatigue and excessive heat,” Lynde wrote later, “that I could sit on my horse no longer, and I had to stop and dismount.” The pain in his head was so intense that he could barely open his eyes. He had mismanaged the retreat from the start, ordering his soldiers to leave Fort Fillmore without preparing enough water supplies, and issuing a series of increasingly contradictory orders that resulted in chaos on the road. The choice to head into the mountains rather than retreat northward along El Camino Real to Albuquerque was the wrong one. Lynde had made all of the decisions. He was clearly the one to blame for this disaster. As he sat hunched in pain, it was Baylor who now demanded an unconditional surrender. Lynde, convinced that “it was worse than useless to resist; that honor did not demand the sacrifice of blood after the terrible suffering that our troops had already undergone,” agreed.23 The two men—one a professional U.S. Army soldier with years of experience in desert warfare, the other a Texas rancher in command of a regiment for the first time—signed the articles of capitulation.24

Baylor and his men were forced to stay in San Augustin Springs for two days, until their prisoners (around four hundred soldiers and several civilians, most of them the families of officers) recovered from their dehydration and exhaustion. Feeling magnanimous, Baylor offered the federals a chance to switch sides.

“All who take service with us in the C.S.A.,” he announced, “will be given $26 per month, a horse, saddle, and bridle, and all each can make besides.”25

A few of the Union soldiers took Baylor up on this offer, but most of them did not, and all of the officers refused. What to do with his prisoners, then? While he would have relished the cheers that would greet him as he marched into Mesilla with his captives, Baylor did not have enough men to guard them. And although the Texans now had Fort Fillmore’s salvaged supplies, the food and fodder would not last long. The Mesilla Valley was fertile, but its crops could not sustain both the 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles and the Union prisoners.

“Being desirous ... to afflict the enemy in every way,” Baylor took his prisoners to the Rio Grande and then let most of them go. “It was much better for [the Yankees] to bear the expense of feeding [them], than for me to do so.”26

Baylor confiscated the federals’ weapons and horses and ordered them to march to Fort Craig, a Union installation 125 miles north of Mesilla. From there they would head to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where they would muster out of the Union Army and never bear arms against the Confederates again, however long the Civil War should last.27 The Union parolees had two choices for their journey to Fort Craig: travel along the Rio Grande, which twisted in broad arcs through a narrow valley, or take the more direct route through the Jornada del Muerto (“Path of the Dead Man”), a ninety-mile stretch of scrubby desert with no springs, creeks, or sinks to sustain men or animals. The Yankees, still reeling from their experiences on the Fort Stanton Road, chose the Rio Grande route. It might be longer but at least they would have water. As the federals turned northward, Baylor and the 2nd Texas turned to the southwest, toward Mesilla, which was now the headquarters of the Confederate campaign for the West.28

Three days later, Baylor sat down at a wooden table in his headquarters, placed a piece of paper in front of him, and dipped his pen in ink.

“I, John Baylor, lieutenant-colonel, commanding the Confederate Army in the Territory of Arizona,” he wrote, “hereby take possession of the said Territory in the name and behalf of the Confederate States of America.”

Arizona’s northern border was the 34th parallel and its western border was the Colorado River. With this proclamation, the Confederacy now stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to California.

Baylor organized the new territorial government into executive and judicial departments and declared that the executive authority “shall be vested in the commandant of the Confederate Army in Arizona.” Baylor had contemplated running for governor of Texas in 1861 before the war broke out. Taking up this post in Arizona seemed an even better opportunity for fame and fortune. He would establish his government offices in Mesilla, which was now designated the territorial capital. From there, Baylor would be able to see both friends and enemies coming for miles.29

Baylor sent one copy of his proclamation to Richmond and another to the Mesilla Times, a local newspaper founded by pro-Confederate Anglos in 1860. He then penned a letter to General Earl Van Dorn, commander of the Confederate Department of Texas, describing the events of the previous week in New Mexico Territory.

“I have acted in all matters relating to the acquisition of Arizona entirely upon my own responsibility,” he wrote, “and can only refer the matter, through you, for the approval of the Government.”

Baylor assumed that President Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress would not object to his actions because, he noted, “the vast mineral resources of Arizona, in addition to its affording an outlet to the Pacific, make its acquisition a matter of some importance to our Government.”30 There was no question that Arizona Territory was essential to the Confederacy’s plans to reach California, and John Baylor had just cleared the way. He was the vanguard of Confederate manifest destiny.

Word of the Battle of Mesilla, the Union surrender at San Augustin Springs, and the creation of Arizona Territory reached Texas a week later, and then spread throughout the Confederacy in the summer and fall of 1861. Although he had acted without orders, Baylor’s victories pleased his superiors in San Antonio and Richmond. Van Dorn immediately notified the War Department about Baylor’s “complete success” in his expedition, boasting of the prisoners and supplies that the Texas officer had taken.31 Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin lauded Baylor’s success in his report to President Davis on the progress of the war in 1861.

“All the proceedings of Lieutenant-Colonel Baylor appear to have been marked by prudence, energy, and sagacity,” Benjamin wrote, “and to be deserving of high praise. The result of his action has been the securing to the Confederacy a portion of the territory formerly common to all the States but now forming a natural appendage to our Confederate States, opening a pathway to the Pacific.”32

It was glorious news for the South. Their empire of slavery appeared to be growing in the West, at the same moment that they had won the first major battle outside the town of Manassas, Virginia, in the East.

When John Baylor’s family heard about his victories, they were beside themselves.

“I can’t pretend to tell you all the compliments I have had on your brilliant success,” wrote his sister Fanny. Their mother, she reported, had been campaigning among the local families in San Antonio to have “a report of the Missilla [sic] Battle published.”33

The residents of Mesilla reacted similarly, complimenting Baylor at every opportunity. Robert P. Kelley, the editor of the Mesilla Times, wrote on the day of the San Augustin surrender that the 2nd Texas had “changed our position from one of fear and anxiety to wild enthusiasm—the dread of armed oppression and outrage give place to the brightest hopes and most confident security.” Baylor’s victories had liberated southern New Mexico from the “Abolition despot,” the editor crowed, “the transition from darkness to light has been sudden, skillful, and glorious.”34

Baylor basked in the praise. He worried, however, that his small force was not strong enough to occupy Confederate Arizona for very long.

“Now that I have taken possession of the Territory,” Baylor wrote to Van Dorn, “I trust a force sufficient to occupy and hold it will be sent by the Government, under some competent man.”35

While Baylor waited for an experienced soldier to take his place, he became fretful. Yes, he had captured southern New Mexico and declared it the Confederate Territory of Arizona without much difficulty. There were still innumerable threats to his position, however, from all directions.36 His scouts confirmed that thousands of Union Army troops were concentrating at Fort Craig. Mexicans from Sonora, hearing of the chaos in New Mexico and sensing weakness on their northern border, were threatening to retake Tucson, which they had lost to the United States in the Gadsden Purchase in 1854. Mescalero Apaches had attacked the small detachment of soldiers Baylor had sent to Fort Stanton, a former Union Army post nestled in the mountains in central New Mexico. And Chiricahua Apaches were raiding wagon trains and mining camps along the Butterfield mail route in western Arizona.

Baylor became desperate for men to help him fight what he was sure would become a multi-front Civil War against Yankees, Mexicans, and Apaches. Until these reinforcements arrived, the future of the Confederate West was uncertain. Shaking off visions of disaster, Baylor wrote to Confederate officials in San Antonio, promising that “I will do all in my power to hold the country, against all odds.”37 He could not do much about the Yankees or the Mexicans without more Texas soldiers. What he could do, however, was launch a successful campaign against Arizona’s Apaches. John Baylor was a farmer, lawyer, legislator, military commander, and now a governor. He had one other area of expertise: finding and killing Indians.

Table of Contents

Prologue xiii

Part 1 Those Whom the Gods Would Destroy

Chapter 1 Baylor 5

Chapter 2 Mangas Coloradas 15

Chapter 3 Canby 24

Chapter 4 Davidson 33

Chapter 5 Juanita 42

Chapter 6 Ickis 50

Chapter 7 Valverde 57

Part 2 Trail Men

Chapter 8 Baylor 79

Chapter 9 Clark 90

Chapter 10 Glorieta 99

Chapter 11 Davidson 115

Chapter 12 Carleton 124

Chapter 13 Mangas Coloradas 136

Chapter 14 Canby 144

Chapter 15 Ickis 152

Part 3 Land of Suffering

Chapter 16 Mangas Coloradas 165

Chapter 17 Clark 176

Chapter 18 Tséyi' 185

Chapter 19 Carleton 200

Chapter 20 Juanita 214

Chapter 21 Clark 224

Chapter 22 Juanita 232

Epilogue 247

Acknowledgments 253

Abbreviations 257

Notes 259

Bibliography 293

Index 315