Thursday, July 23, 2020

Review - "The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains" by Christopher Rein

[The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains by Christopher M. Rein (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020). Hardcover, 5 maps, photographs, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xiii,213/287. ISBN:978-0-8061-6481-6. $34.95]

Barring any possibility of slavery's establishment in the vast undeveloped territories of the American West was a founding principle of the Republican Party, yet the reluctance of Civil War historians to directly link Civil War actors and events to westward expansion is longstanding. Indeed, one of the field's foremost historians, Gary Gallagher, has been particularly vocal in regarding the entire Trans-Mississippi theater as inconsequential and continues to argue for strict separation between the Civil War and Indian Wars fought there. Nevertheless, a small but significant body of scholarship (most of it centered on the American Southwest) has drawn our attention to connections and continuities between the American Civil War and the nation's many conflicts with indigenous populations of the Far West, Mountain West, and Great Plains regions. As Gregory Michno reminded us in The Settlers' War, the 1860s was "the bloodiest decade of the western Indian Wars," and much of that blood was shed between 1861 and 1865. Persuasive in presenting the Civil War and Indian Wars as parts of a single narrative of western expansion, many proponents of this interpretation argue that the Civil War both exacerbated existing conflicts and created new ones, all the while greatly accelerating the American West's settlement and economic development. According to this scholarship's findings, shared vision of western promise and opportunity also proved to be an important element of post-Civil War sectional reconciliation.

A number of volunteer infantry and cavalry regiments raised for Union Army service can be regarded as "agents" instrumental to this integrated process of expansion, perhaps none more so than the Second Colorado Cavalry, which fought conventional and unconventional Confederate forces in New Mexico, Missouri, and Indian Territory and confronted a variety of Indian opponents (including Confederate-allied nations of Indian Territory and numerous unaffiliated bands of Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache) along the great western emigrant and trade routes between southeastern Colorado Territory and central Kansas. Their story is recounted in full for the first time in Christopher Rein's The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains.

Its results presented in both main text and in numerous tables collected in the appendix section, Rein's unit demographics research reveals that, though there was a strong international flavor in the ranks of the Second Colorado Cavalry, New York and Iowa were by far the two states that contributed the most men to the unit. In addition to being a transplanted northerner, the "average" Second Colorado soldier was a 27-year-old miner or farmer. Enlistment motivations were similar to those found in other Union regiments, with added economic incentives for the many disappointed miners who failed to profit from the 1859 gold rush that brought them to the territory in the first place.

As Rein meticulously recounts in the book, the formation of what would become the Second Colorado Cavalry followed a long and winding path. It began with the 1861 recruitment of two independent infantry companies (these would become companies A and B of the Second Colorado Infantry) to replace the Regular Army garrison of Fort Garland and protect the local population from hostile tribes and Confederate invasion threats. While the First Colorado Infantry's fame eclipsed that of any other territorial unit, the two newer companies also featured prominently in the 1862 New Mexico Campaign, where one company fought at Glorieta (joining in the First's celebrated destruction of the Confederate wagon train, perhaps the most popularly memorable event of the entire campaign) and the other suffered heavy casualties under the command of General E.R.S. Canby at Valverde.

Over the ensuing months, the Second Colorado was expanded to full strength (first with two mounted companies then later by six companies of infantry recruits from the Denver area). They defended the Santa Fe Trail and stage line against Indian raiders and suspected Confederate sympathizers, guerrillas, and recruitment officers. As Rein and others have shown, the raids, combined with news of the massacre of settlers in Minnesota that summer and constant rumors (unfounded as those were) of grand alliances between hostile tribal groups and the Confederacy, had by late 1862 created a climate of fear and insecurity that only increased as the war progressed. On a related note, Rein seems to give at least some credence to John Monnett's earlier claim that Sand Creek might not have occurred (and the 90-day Third Colorado not brought into existence) had repeated calls for the Second Colorado's return home been heeded by Union authorities who wanted to keep them along the Kansas-Missouri border. This is countered somewhat by Rein's findings of support for Governor Evans, Col. Chivington, and the actions of the Third Colorado in the Second's regimental newspaper, though the faraway writers would only have had very limited and very likely skewed secondhand knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the massacre at Sand Creek.

Though on paper the Second Colorado reached a full complement of companies by the end of 1862, they were (like many frontier-serving units) destined to remain scattered. With Colorado and New Mexico at least temporarily secure by early 1863, six companies of the Second were transferred east to General James Blunt's Army of the Frontier. Marching the breadth of Kansas from Fort Lyon using the Santa Fe Trail, the battalion reached Blunt in time to participate in the July 1863 Union victories at Cabin Creek and Honey Springs, the latter often credited as breaking the back of Confederate-Indian alliances in Indian Territory. Having helped turn the tide of the war in Indian Territory plainly to Union advantage, the battalion was ordered to Benton Barracks near St. Louis, where it was consolidated with the never-completed Third Colorado infantry regiment to form the new Second Colorado Cavalry.

Under Colonel James Ford, the Second Colorado Cavalry was soon relocated to the Burnt District of western Missouri, where it was felt that outsiders were needed to deescalate local antagonisms. There, the Coloradans received high praise all around for their neutral handling of relations between the Union Army's mutually hostile Kansas and Missouri forces in the area. Their aggressive and highly effective approach to combating irregulars also made the Second Colorado highly feared and respected opponents of Missouri's infamous bushwhackers. They did their job so well that, as referenced earlier, Union military authorities resisted all calls for their return to Colorado for home defense in 1864.

Also keeping the Second Cavalry in Missouri was the 'all hands on deck' response to Confederate general Sterling Price's powerful incursion into the state during the fall of 1864. The Second Cavalry provided needed veteran support to the patchwork of volunteer and militia units cobbled together to meet Price's advance toward Kansas City. The regiment occupied the center of the Union line at the Battle of the Little Blue, fought on the left flank during the Battle of Westport, and harried the enemy retreat through eastern Kansas and southwest Missouri. During an impetuous and ill-advised charge at Second Newtonia, the Second suffered its highest casualties of the war from a single battle. For their actions during the campaign and pursuit, Col. Ford and the Second were singled out for special recognition by both General Blunt and Department of Kansas commander Samuel Curtis.

As Rein details in the book, over the next year, as they had earlier done in western Missouri, the Second was once again divided up into garrison and patrol detachments. This time their opponents were not Missouri guerrillas but Plains Indian raiders, many of whom were incensed by news of Sand Creek and other events such as the Adobe Walls battle (where Kit Carson's command almost met disaster). According to the author, the counterinsurgency skills gained by the Coloradans in Missouri served them well in Kansas. In helping hold open a vital security corridor across the state that maintained the critical supply and communications link to the territories, the Second contributed greatly to the army forcing a series of agreements between the U.S. government and hostile bands that would collectively come to be known as the Treaty of the Little Arkansas.

In addition to documenting the military pacification efforts of the Second Cavalry in Kansas, Rein also clearly demonstrates that the Coloradans materially affected the pace of western settlement through their presence and actions there. Supplementing scholarship that began with studies of the notable effects of California Column soldiers on the economic and civic development of the American Southwest, Rein research finds, among other things, that the large lump salaries and bonuses that Second Colorado veterans received at discharge were a measurable boon to Kansas and Colorado settlement and commercial growth. Largely absent from the general literature is recognition that the survival skills mastered by Civil War soldiers, especially those who served on the frontier, comprised another major factor in the rapidity and success of western settlement in even the harshest natural environments. In pointing out to readers a number of aspects of the Second Colorado's Civil War experience in the areas of infiltration and intelligence gathering, counterinsurgency tactics, and mobility, Rein's book draws fruitful attention to areas where hard fought lessons learned from frontier Civil War operations were applied to later Indian Wars.

It is difficult to find anything that might be a source of serious complaint with Rein's research, writing, and analysis. According to the author, the reason the book lacks a suitable body of rank and file perspectives is that few members of the regiment left behind written records of their experiences. This also explains the text's seeming overabundance of references and quotes from Second Colorado bugler spouse Ellen Williams's 1885 memoir Three Years and a Half in the Army; Or, History of the Second Colorados.

Unfortunately pushed out of the limelight by the marching and fighting exploits of the First Colorado Infantry in New Mexico and the enduring infamy earned by the Third Colorado Cavalry at Sand Creek, the history of the Second Colorado Cavalry, though rather well represented in the Missouri literature, has been largely absent from the general narrative of Colorado Territory's Civil War contributions. In addition to finally bringing the neglected Second the attention it richly deserves, Christopher Rein's The Second Colorado Cavalry holds the added distinction of being the only full-length, modern history of a volunteer regiment raised in the territory. Thankfully, it is by every measure an exceedingly fine one.

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