A brief history of the Civil War in Arizona


[ok, I’m a little embarrassed to admit how little I knew about the Civil War BEFORE I became a reenactor - let alone it’s effect in Arizona!]

To the true Civil War buff, the small part of that terrible war that was carried out in the West was just a short-lived sideshow. To the people who lived in Arizona it was real and often deadly, even though there were no major battles between North and South in Arizona.

To understand what happened in Arizona during the two key years of 1861 and 1862 we need to go back and review some important events of the preceding quarter-century.

First, Mexico lost Texas to a group of insurgent Americans in 1836. Nine years later, the breakaway Republic of Texas joined the United States. Then, following the Mexican-American War, the United States gained California, Nevada, Utah and  New Mexico, including most of the area that would become today's Arizona. 

By the time New Mexico formally became a United States territory, it contained all of what would become Arizona, plus part of today's Nevada. Of particular importance is the Gadsden Purchase that became a part of the United States in 1854. That area soon was being called "Arizona" by its residents in reference to a truly fabulous Spanish-era silver discovery southwest of Nogales.

Americans quickly began coming into this "Arizona," drawn by the lure of mineral riches and by the farming and ranching potential. Except along the Colorado River, the lands to the north of the Gila River remained the exclusive domain of various Indian tribes.

The first "Arizona" is created

The residents of the Gadsden Purchase quickly tired of dealing with the New Mexico Territorial government at far-distant Santa Fe and began petitioning Congress for separate territorial status for "Arizona." When Congress ignored that request, they formed a provisional government for "Arizona" which Congress also ignored.

By 1861 the Anglo-American influence was well established at Arizona City (Yuma), Tucson, Tubac, Pinos Altos and Mesilla - all in "Arizona." The fragile thread that held it all together was the Butterfield Overland mail and passenger service. Without that service, there would be little communication with the rest of the United States, leaving the area in almost complete isolation.

And that's what did happen in the summer of 1861 when the Butterfield Line ceased service and then the U.S. Army began pulling out. The Apache Indians took this as a sign of victory over the white invaders and began increasing their depredations against the settlers. The result was a mass exodus from the already sparsely populated area.

Some prominent settlers and how they fared

Charles Debrille Poston was running a large mining operation backed by Eastern money and headquartered at the one-time Spanish presidio of Tubac when the escalated Apache onslaught began. He withdrew to Washington, D.C., where he lobbied President Lincoln for the establishment of a separate Arizona Territory.

William and Missouri Ann Kirkland were forced to abandon their isolated ranch for the safety of California. By then, nearby Tubac had ceased to exist and the remaining citizens of Tucson lived under a continuing threat of Apache attack.

The only non-Indian establishment above the Gila was King S. Woolsey's Agua Caliente ranch and hot springs just above the river near the Stanwix Stage Station. With his well-deserved reputation as an effective Apache fighter, Woolsey chose to arm and to remain.

A prominent but isolated settlement was Ammi White's flourmill and store at the Pima Villages. Since he had protection from Apache raids provided by the friendly Pima and Maricopa tribes, White also stayed.

Pinos Altos, near today's Silver City, N.M., but then in "Arizona," was not only isolated, but was located near the home turf for Mangas Coloradas known as the deadliest of Apache leaders. The miners decided to stay and formed a militia they called the "Arizona Guards" to provide protection.

The South secedes from the Union

The secession of Southern states had started soon after Abraham Lincoln's election as president. The residents of provisional "Arizona" quickly changed their allegiance to the Southern cause.

The Civil War arrived in "Arizona" in July 1861 when Confederate Col. John R. Baylor led a force of mounted Texans to meet and defeat Union infantry under Major Isaac Lynde at the battle of Mesilla. Major Lynde had fallen heir to command of the entire Seventh Infantry Regiment, normally a full colonel's job, only because all his superiors had either defected to the Rebel cause or had left for Washington looking for more promising assignments.

Burdened with conflicting orders, Major Lynde had only two alternatives: Stay and fight, or withdraw and save his men and equipment for a later day. He chose to withdraw.

Unfortunately, he chose to withdraw his infantry regiment to the east and north over a steep and waterless mountain pass en route to Fort Stanton. Caught by the mounted Texans on the hot and dry trail before they reached water, the entire contingent from Fort Fillmore surrendered without a fight.

Col. Baylor now took charge of the political side of things. He divided New Mexico Territory along the 34th parallel and established the southern portion as the Confederate States Territory of Arizona.

The Arizona Guard militia immediately offered their services to the Confederate Army. This was over objections of some Union loyalists in the group who were allowed to resign. The guard then returned to Pinos Altos to continue their important role protecting the miners and merchants from Apache incursions.

It is well that they did because Mangas Coloradas joined with his son-in-law Cochise to lead a force of several hundred Apaches that attacked Pinos Altos with the intent of wiping it off the map. It was close, but the defenders prevailed. A turning point came when six plucky women, aided by one man, muscled a mountain howitzer out from storage, loaded it, and fired it at the Indians with demoralizing effect.

The Rebels move north Confederate General

H.H. Sibley arrived at Mesilla with a much larger force of Texans and soon moved his forces up the Rio Grande River to do battle with the Union army.

Sibley's expedition started well with a victory over Union forces at Valverde, but things fell apart at the Battle of Glorietta Pass when the loss of the Confederate supply train forced them to retreat in disorder back to the Mesilla Valley.

The Union forces, not wanting the responsibility for housing and feeding hundreds of hungry prisoners, just let them straggle by without interference.

Meanwhile, in "Arizona"

Before moving north, Gen. Sibley sent Confederate Captain Sherrod Hunter and his company (plus a detachment from the Arizona Guards) to the west to take control of "Arizona." Hunter occupied Tucson to the relief of its residents who were sick of raids by Apaches, Mexican bandits and other desperados, and he did succeed in destroying several caches of military stores that had been accumulated for the Union army, but finally he would be forced to withdraw to Mesilla in the face of the Union army's advance.

Unfortunately for Captain Hunter's tiny force, Union General James Carleton and his force of volunteers called the Column from California already were moving efficiently from the California coast across the Arizona desert.

There were a couple of minor brushes with the rebels before Hunter withdrew, the first occurring at Ammi White's flourmill and store. Captain Hunter captured the mill and its owner just before Union Captain James McCleave arrived with a small unit in advance of the main force.  Passing himself off as Mr. White, Hunter got the drop on McCleave, who was forced to surrender without a shot fired.

Hunter's troops later were involved in skirmishes at Stanwix (the westernmost incident of the Civil War) and more famously at Picacho Pass.

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Carleton's army was having no trouble with the rebels, but Mangas and Cochise popped up again with another large force of warriors, this time at Apache Pass. And once again, mountain howitzers made the difference in driving the Apache ambushers away.

Meanwhile, the remnants of Gen. Sibley's army, decimated after their disastrous campaign in northern New Mexico, were preparing to withdraw to south-central Texas. In order to supply their army for a 700-mile retreat to San Antonio, they attempted to buy provisions with locally printed Confederate scrip. The local residents rejected that idea, and resisted vigorously when the Southerners tried to take livestock by force.

Most of the Arizonans in the Rebel army either earned medical discharges at this time or deserted with the intention to return home. For many, that trip in small groups became fatal when Apaches ambushed them along the way. Apache Pass was a particularly deadly passageway.

The war in the West ends and recovery begins

With the U.S. Army back, the Kirklands and others who had fled "Arizona" began to return. Charles Poston returned as Territorial Indian Agent, and then served as Arizona Territory's first representative to the United States Congress. Poston's traveling party included Ammi White who had been in California arranging for new equipment for his establishment at the Pima Villages. In time, these original settlers were joined by newcomers, many of whom had first seen Arizona as soldiers with Carleton's Column from California.

A new Arizona now began to emerge. Six months after the withdrawal of the Texan troops from Arizona and New Mexico, President Lincoln signed the act creating Arizona Territory, splitting it from New Mexico vertically, thus leaving Mesilla and Pinos Altos behind. Surely more than one Arizonan was wondering what to do with all that unsettled area north of the Gila comprised of nothing but rocks and hostiles.

That question was answered quickly when Joseph R. Walker, with Jack Swilling as guide, led the first group of prospectors to seek gold north of the Gila River. Their findings on the Hassayampa River in the spring of 1863 started a gold rush that opened the central Arizona highlands to civilization and led to the founding of Prescott.

When Governor John N. Goodwin and his party of newly-appointed territorial officers arrived at Santa Fe, N.M., several months later he learned of the gold discovery and changed their intended destination from Tucson to Fort Whipple, then at Chino Valley, and a few months later to the newly minted town of Prescott.

For Arizonans the negative impacts of the Civil War were behind them. Unfortunately, some of the most turbulent years of the western Indian Wars were just beginning.


Al Bates is author of the biography "Jack Swilling, Forgotten Founder of Phoenix, Arizona.”

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