Syllabus Hacker: The American West and the Civil War

by Adam Arenson


Civil War courses tend to start and end with the American West.

Whether the course starts from Native-newcomer encounters, the importation of African slaves or the U.S. War with Mexico, the western-expansion history of Euroamerican land hunger, forced labor, and American Indian defeats is the larger context in which the Civil War occurred.

Events in the American West interrupt a purely southern history of Reconstruction: the completion of the transcontinental railroad provides a different context for migrant labor and government oversight, and the panic over “coolie” labor and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act casts a pall over the successes of the Reconstruction Amendments and changes the chronology and geography of the retreat from Radical Reconstruction.

Hayward Company (California Volunteers)

Hayward Company (California Volunteers)

What if you make the American West central to how students understand expansion, freedom, military might, political power, and citizenship during the Civil War itself?

Here are a few recommendations:


Take familiar concepts west.

Slavery and freedom. Looking at western examples complicates these notions for students. Oregon, like many of the Old Northwest territories before it, banned all blacks, free or enslaved, from legally entering the territory. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped into the North and Canada—and thousands escaped into Mexico and into Indian nations as well. Before there was popular sovereignty in the Kansas Territory, there was popular sovereignty in the New Mexico and Utah territories—and, before the Civil War, both territories legalized slavery.

Need a western story that encapsulates the complexity of the war? Begin your description of George Pickett with his time in Washington Territory, married to a Haida wife, or catch up with future Union general Nathaniel Lyon as he led a massacre of Pomo Indians in California in 1850.

For the uncertain loyalties at the outbreak of the war, read Mark Twain’s “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed,” and follow him out to Nevada Territory, where his brother Orion was appointed governor of the new federal territory, created as a result of the Confederate secession.

Johnson's 1861 map of the Western territories, 1861

Johnson’s 1861 map of the Western territories, 1861

Broaden histories of (un)free labor, nativism, freedom, and citizenship.

In the Civil War West, there were American Indian slaves and Mexicans held in peonage. Nativists who railed against European Catholic immigrants in Cincinnati or Boston were matched by those out west working to disenfranchise Spanish-speaking Catholics who had been granted the option of citizenship under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Much as some proponents of colonization saw it as the best way to grant African Americans rights, the campaign for Chinese exclusion argued that Chinese laborers would be inherently unfree and hence prevent the full success of the 13th Amendment.

Battle flag of Colonel Stand Watie’s Confederate Cherokee Mounted Rifles

American Indians served as soldiers for both the Union and Confederacy, hoping that such service would bring citizenship rights; they sought representation in the Confederate Congress; emancipated their slaves; granted ex-slaves rights on the reservation—and yet both governments continued to see them as unfit for full citizenship.

All of these instances add up to a more complex but also more comprehensive picture of the state of labor, freedom, and citizenship opportunities in the United States during the Civil War.


If you are into counterfactuals, let me sell you a few.

What if Juan Cortina had been more successful?

Cortina, who is sometimes called the Mexican John Brown, had grown up between the Rio Grande and the Rio Nueces, and his family’s land was seized in the U.S. War with Mexico. Cortina invaded Texas in 1859; in May 1861, Cortina launched a second attack, aligning himself with the U.S. government against Confederate Texas. Many other Tejanos did find common cause with the Union – a Unionist story that is rarely told in Civil War histories of loyalty – and southernmost Texas was eventually occupied by the Union.

But what if Cortina had far more successful in 1861, invading Confederate Texas in the name of Mexico or in true alliance with the United States? The path and pace of the Civil War certainly would have changed—and the fight for emancipation might have played out very differently.


What if the Confederacy had gained a West Coast foothold?

Confederate General Henry H. Sibley, whose designs on the West ended in a failed campaign in the summer of 1862.

Confederate General Henry H. Sibley, whose designs on the West ended in a failed campaign in the summer of 1862.

You might already mention the invasion of New Mexico and the creation of Confederate Arizona, and how the battle at Glorieta Pass had been characterized as “the Gettysburg of the West”—and mocked for that name, given its small size. But Glorieta Pass was a turning point, and it meant the failure of the Confederate strategy to cross the southwestern deserts and create a Pacific outlet in the large San Diego harbor.

What if there had been a Confederate presence on the Pacific? Could Richmond have capitalized on it, or was it just too difficult to cross those deserts regularly?


Further Readings:

We are in the midst of a wave of new scholarship that illuminates the vital role of the American West in Civil War and Reconstruction history. These works include:

  • Adam Arenson and Andrew Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States and Virginia Scharff, ed., Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West (both University of California, 2015).
  • Stacey Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2013)
  • Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek (Harvard University Press, 2013)
  • T.J. Stiles, Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America (Knopf, 2015).


Adam Arenson is an associate professor of history and the director of the urban studies program at Manhattan College. He is the author of “The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War” (Harvard University Press, 2011; now in paperback from University of Missouri Press, 2015), as well as co-editor, with Andrew R. Graybill, of “Civil War Wests”. Learn more about his ongoing research on African North Americans and other subjects at