Taking sides

When they hear about the Civil War, many immediately think of the North versus the South.

But the American West, including New Mexico, played a crucial part in the strategies and outcome of the war. A new book, “The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and the Native Peoples in the Fight for the West,” by Megan Kate Nelson, explores the role of the New Mexico territory and the surrounding region in the conflict.

The Civil War in New Mexico, Nelson writes, played out not only between Union and Confederate soldiers but the Native people who lived in the area and were facing the threat of conquest, removal from their homelands and enslavement of their women and children.

“The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and the Native Peoples in the Fight for the West,” by Megan Kate Nelson.

Nelson’s book sheds light on New Mexico’s importance during the war. The territory was an important link between the East and West coasts of the country. Sharing a border with the Confederate state of Texas made it vulnerable to attack, so defending it became a priority for President Abraham Lincoln and his troops. The Confederacy wanted to gain control of the area so that it could began expansion of slavery west across America to the California coast.

Leaders on both sides were uncertain the political loyalties of New Mexico territory residents when the war started. In 1859, the territorial Legislature had passed a code that protected slave property. When the skirmishes began, William Loring – the man in charge of defending the New Mexico territory – resigned his post to join the Confederacy. In the end, the territory sided with the Union.

Nelson weaves her tale by highlighting the lives of some key figures in New Mexico during the Civil War, including two women. The book looks at the life of Juanita, a Navajo weaver who resisted Union Army campaigns against her people. She was married to Navajo leader Chief Manuelito, who was instrumental in getting the Union to recognize the sovereignty of the Navajo people.

She also discusses the life of Union Army wife Louisa Canby, whose husband, Richard, was put in charge of defending the New Mexico territory after Loring resigned to fight for the Confederacy. Canby was best known for treating wounded Texas Confederate soldiers in Santa Fe. Initially, her actions brought her under suspicion of treason, but she was eventually praised for her kindness. After they were healed, her husband commanded the soldiers to leave New Mexico. They stopped at a local newspaper on the way out of Santa Fe to submit a proclamation thanking Canby and others for the care they had received. Canby would come to be called the Angel of Santa Fe later in her life as people remembered her nursing duties during the Civil War.

Nelson’s book covers several other themes and topics, including why many people don’t know the role of the American West in the war, the challenges of the Southwestern landscape for the soldiers, multiracial armies, and the forceful removal and the incarceration of the Native people.

Nelson, a writer and historian, grew up in Colorado and now lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts. She has written two other historical books.

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