Monday, December 14, 2015


[A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia by Jerry D. Thompson (University of New Mexico Press, 2015). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:442/950.  ISBN: 978-0-8263-5567-6. $95]

Given its geographical remoteness (even for the Trans-Mississippi theater) and comparatively small numbers involved, the 1861-62 Confederate invasion of New Mexico has been remarkably well covered in the Civil War literature. High quality biographies, edited firsthand accounts, battle studies and campaign overviews exist in abundance. A key missing element has been any kind of systematic study of the New Mexico volunteer soldiers raised from the territory's Spanish-speaking native population. That gap has now been filled by Jerry Thompson's A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia, a massive quarto tome approaching 1,000 pages in length that offers the first true history and appreciation of the over 6,000 New Mexicans (or nuevomexicanos, as Thompson prefers) that fought either in the Union army or in the ranks of the territorial militia. These men played a substantial role in both repelling the Confederate invasion and protecting the civilian population from incessant Indian raiding.

With a threatening Confederate military presence in the Mesilla Valley and the disgraceful surrender of a large body of Regulars at San Augustine Springs in late July 1861, it became clear to Union authorities that New Mexico Territory would need to raise its own troops for local defense. New Mexico Governor Henry Connelly issued a mass appeal for militia and volunteers and Colonel E.R.S. Canby moved quickly to incorporate the new recruits into his Department of New Mexico command and use them to protect towns and villages all over the territory and garrison key military installations like Forts Union and Craig.

Thompson’s organizational histories of the First, Second, Fourth and Fifth New Mexico Volunteer Infantry regiments and Third New Mexico Mounted Infantry are impressively detailed, as are his meticulously researched treatments of the many militia formations. The volunteer units most completely organized and recruited to strength by the time of the Confederate invasion were the first two infantry regiments, led respectively by Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson (after the First's initial commander resigned) and Colonel Miguel Pino. Both the First and Second regiments would figure prominently in the Battle of Valverde.

New Mexico volunteer officers were generally drawn from the landed gentry and merchant classes of the native population, although there were more than a few German-American Old Army veterans that settled in the area who would also become useful military leaders in the new formations. Thompson's biographical profiles of both volunteer and militia officers are extensive and packed with information new to the literature. The rank and file were generally illiterate in any language so exploring their general mood and motivating factors is problematic, though the author's supposition that many enlisted in order to escape the traditional peonage system of forced servitude that persisted in the Southwest seems more than reasonable.

The author makes full use of court-martial records to explore the many discipline problems that arose among the unruly volunteers, many of these common to Civil War citizen-soldiers in general and to some extent bored and lonely frontier Regulars. Thompson carefully documents countless incidences of insubordination, indiscipline, drunkenness, desertion, murder, and corruption among officers and men that served in the New Mexico volunteer and militia formations. Union civil and military authorities also directed a great deal of attention toward rooting out pro-Confederate elements in the civilian population and this is also covered well in the book.

Thompson’s thorough recounting of the activities of the New Mexico volunteers and militia during the 1861-62 Confederate invasion adds greatly to our existing body of knowledge of those military events. Thompson sifted through a vast array of published primary source materials, government records, newspapers, diaries, letters, and other manuscript resources. Much of the original information is related to scouting and garrison duties performed by the New Mexico militia and volunteers, who also were the primary protectors of civilians targeted by Navajo, Ute, and Apache raiders. Problems of discipline, desertion, and corruption were rife in New Mexico units of all types but severe shortages in funds, clothing, and equipment did not help the situation. Battlefield performances were uneven at best but Thompson cites ethnic prejudice and professional contempt for amateur soldiers as major factors behind the poor historical reputations attached to the nuevomexicanos. After the Confederate threat subsided, these units were discharged, with many members receiving no pay or benefits.

The book description implies that Thompson primarily focuses on the Confederate invasion but nearly half his narrative covers 1862-65 Indian troubles in and around the territory and the punitive military campaigns that followed. With Union authorities tied up with concerns over the possibility of renewed threats from Confederate Texas during the rest of 1862 and beyond, raids by Indian tribes increased in intensity over the same period. By this time, Canby was gone and the much more ruthless General James H. Carleton (of California Column fame) would be in charge of the department. Mounting civilian deaths and livestock losses numbering in the tens of thousands prompted a new call for New Mexico volunteers.

The First New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry (with Carson reluctantly returning to command) would be formed in 1862 from the ashes of the defunct First and Second Infantry regiments. Later, a new First New Mexico Volunteer Infantry would be organized and its officers appointed mainly from a pool of favored California Column veterans. Numerous expeditions to chastise the Apache are exhaustively documented in the book. Detailed accounts of the 1864 Navajo War and Carson’s campaign later that year against the Kiowa and Comanche (including the November 25, 1864 First Battle of Adobe Walls) are also presented in depth and with appropriate focus on the contributions of nuevomexicano soldiers.

The volume is well illustrated with numerous photographs and drawings of individuals, towns, military posts and landscapes. The cartography is hit and miss, with excellent area maps supplemented by a rather small collection of pedestrian battle maps. Many actions have no map coverage at all. The index appears also to be limited, with a key figure like Governor Connelly absent from it altogether. The set of appendices includes an extensive roster of volunteers and militiamen (formatted in a single master list organized alphabetically by name rather than by unit), county and Indian population tables, territorial militia and department strength tables, a casualty list, some Socorro County data, a gravesite register, and an 1890 Census listing of veterans. This huge mass of reference material comprising nearly half the book will be invaluable to the work of future researchers.

A Civil War History of the New Mexico Volunteers and Militia is the most notable book dealing with the Civil War in the Far West to appear in some time and one of the most important Civil War publications of 2015. It's also a fitting capstone to Jerry Thompson's prolific body of work associated with Civil War era Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Serious subject scholars and research institutions will definitely want to add this title to their history and reference collections. Highly recommended!

More CWBA reviews of UNMP titles:
* From Western Deserts to Carolina Swamps: A Civil War Soldier's Journals and Letters Home
* New Mexico Territory During the Civil War: Wallen and Evans Inspection Reports, 1862-1863
* Sibley's New Mexico Campaign (reprint)

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