Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Pittman: "REBELS IN THE ROCKIES: Confederate Irregulars in the Western Territories"

[Rebels in the Rockies: Confederate Irregulars in the Western Territories by Walter Earl Pittman (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2014). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 260 pp. ISBN:978-0-7864-7820-0 $39.95]

Beyond its usefulness as a fine introduction to General Henry H. Sibley's 1861-62 Confederate campaign in New Mexico and Arizona, the most original feature of Walter Pittman's New Mexico and the Civil War (The History Press, 2011) was the emphasis placed on scout company operations. The author's new study Rebels in the Rockies: Confederate Irregulars in the Western Territories goes into far more depth on the subject, additionally extending its scope to Colorado and many other points west.

Rebels in the Rockies begins with a detailed recounting of the formation of the four primary Confederate irregular companies that participated in the New Mexico invasion -- the San Elizario Spy Company, Arizona Guards, Arizona Rangers, and the "Brigands." The biographical treatments of the leaders of these mounted bands are quite good, as is Pittman's framing of the frontier milieu from which the men in the ranks, who tended to be older and wealthier than the typical Confederate soldiers, were drawn. Unfortunately, once the campaigning begins the source material associated with these units tends to dry up. According to Pittman, record keeping was almost non-existent and official documents were either lost or destroyed by war's end. Knowledge of their actions and movements during the New Mexico Campaign mostly comes from other Confederates and their Union opponents. This makes the campaign's rather lengthy narrative more detached and non-specific to the irregulars than one might have hoped, but apparently this could not be helped. Despite their unruly nature, the companies did have an excellent battlefield reputation and were among the most reliable units in Sibley's expedition.

The other major theater of events examined in the book is Colorado Territory. Scholarship in the arena of pro-Confederate activities in Colorado remains fairly sparse, with Daniel Ellis Conner's A Confederate in the Colorado Gold Fields [an edited version of which was published decades ago by University of Oklahoma Press] being perhaps the best known primary source. Pittman cites a figure of 30-40% of the population originating from southern and border states, and he provides a fairly hefty amount of background information related to Colorado's most prominent citizens of pro-southern sympathies, including the individual reputed to be the richest man in the territory.

No solid evidence of insurgent activities or organized Confederate plots in Colorado exists, but many of these leading figures, who either left the territory on their own volition or were expelled by suspicious and increasingly repressive Union authorities, later returned as irregular fighters. The two missions with the highest profile, those of George Madison (1862) and the Reynolds Gang (1864), are well documented by Pittman in two lengthy chapters. With Union authorities possessing vastly superior intelligence and communications networks, both enterprises ended badly. Captain Madison, tasked in 1862 with Confederate recruitment and disruption of enemy communications in Colorado, had some early success but his base at Mace's Hole was discovered and soundly broken up by Union forces. The Reynolds Gang, subject to an intense and effective manhunt after a stagecoach robbery, was entirely dispersed or captured. In a notorious incident, five of the prisoners were murdered by their Union captors.

While the book's primary focus is on New Mexico-Arizona and Colorado, pro-Confederate activities in other western states and territories are summarized in brief. Pittman also follows at some length the continuing service of Brigands veterans attached to Texas cavalry units through the 1863-64 campaigns in Louisiana. In the end, the author arrives at the inevitable conclusion that pro-Confederate efforts in the Far West were a failure. With the disastrous conclusion of the New Mexico Campaign, they were never again able to seriously threaten federal control of the western territories. At best, Confederate irregulars were able to periodically distract local federal forces. An important related point raised by Pittman is just how effective Union authorities were in policing the vast open West. With limited resources, they squashed all threats and kept sizable civilian populations of uncertain loyalties well under control during the entire war. This effort is worth a book length study of its own. For all the above reasons, Rebels in the Rockies is recommended reading for those seeking a more detailed treatment of Confederate aspirations in the Far West.

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