Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry may have taken down the Confederate flag from Old Town, but monuments to the Civil War – occasionally skewing toward a Southern version of events – are scattered around the state.
Interstate 10, for example, has an unofficial alias: Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway, honoring the president of the Confederacy. Markers at rest stops between Las Cruces and Lordsburg, and at a Lordsburg visitors center, memorialize Davis for motorists (although the state officially recognizes I-10 as Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway).
“People who see that are going to say, ‘What the dickens is this all about?’ ” said John P. Wilson, a retired archeologist who has studied Civil War monuments in New Mexico.
Many historical markers in New Mexico, including the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway designations, aren’t official signage put up by the state or U.S. government, but were rather sponsored by organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Sons of Confederate Veterans.
“The South, because it lost and because it paid such a price, they were more concerned with the memory of the war,” said Dwight Pitcaithley, former chief historian of the National Park Service and New Mexico State University history professor.
“The Daughters and Sons expended a lot more time and energy putting up markers than did the North to Union veterans. Here in New Mexico – which was pretty much left out of it, except for this incursion – life just went on. But the Daughters needed that memory and kept pushing it. There is a subliminal piece of neo-Confederacy in existing interpretative or informative markers.”
In Truth or Consequences, a Civil War plaque at the Veterans Park names “States’ rights, with respect to the Federal government; taxation and imbalance of trade” as “factors contributing to this war” – before saying “the most important factor was probably slavery.”
In Mesilla, a hotbed of pro-Southern sentiment in the early days of the war, a historical marker donated by the Sons honors the Battle of Mesilla, “one of the war’s early and surprising Confederate successes.”
It describes the “dashing actions” of Lt. Col. John R. Baylor, self-appointed governor of the short-lived “Confederate Territory of Arizona” that included a swath of southern New Mexico.
A monument to fallen Confederates at a Socorro cemetery stirred debate a few years ago. Things heated up after local re-enactors dressed as Southern soldiers took down the American flag in front of City Hall and raised the Confederate “Stars and Bars” in its place. The city stopped sponsoring the re-enactment event after that, Mayor Ravi Bhasker said.
At the Veterans Park in Las Cruces, a Civil War commemoration starts off by saying Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860 without a single electoral vote from a Southern state – a statement that suggests the South may have been justified in seceding, local scholars say, but neglects to include that Lincoln won popular votes in Virginia and in four slave-holding states that did not secede. In 10 other Confederate states, Lincoln wasn’t even on the ballot.
Neither of the Veterans Park plaques in TorC or Las Cruces mention New Mexico’s role in the Civil War, which was brief. The New Mexico territory sided with the North, although the territorial legislature in 1859 had permitted slavery, according to Pitcaithley. The Confederate incursion was over with by July 1862, while the Civil War would rage on farther east until April 1865.
“The importance of the New Mexico engagements shouldn’t be underestimated,” said Meredith Davidson, co-curator of an exhibit of Civil War memorabilia at Santa Fe’s New Mexico History Museum. “It was the farthest west (the Confederate troops) got. If they had gotten to California, it would have been a game-changer.”
Pushed back by Union troops from Colorado and New Mexico, the Confederacy became hemmed in at the Texas state line for the rest of the war.
“Except for a few Anglos in southern New Mexico, New Mexicans were very much pro-Union,” Wilson said.
Given Texas’ history of invading the New Mexico Territory, which in the mid-1800s stretched to California, he said, “the locals didn’t regard (Southern troops) as Confederates; they would have looked on them as Texans, and that was an extremely bad label to have attached to you.”
The obelisk on Santa Fe’s plaza is New Mexico’s oldest monument to the Civil War, dedicated in 1868. It, too, has generated controversy at times since the 1960s, especially for a reference on its original plaque to “savage Indians.” Government representatives did not respond to protests and, in 1974, a vandal chiseled away the word “savage.”
But in the years immediately following the war, the Santa Fe obelisk represented hope and unity, local scholars say. The plaque says that the dead “did not live or die in vain” and prays “that they might rest high and secure in the hearts of a grateful country.”