Zander on Nelson, 'The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West'

Megan Kate Nelson
Cecily Zander

Megan Kate Nelson. The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West. New York: Scribner, 2020. xx + 331 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5011-5254-2

Reviewed by Cecily Zander (Penn State) Published on H-Nationalism (September, 2020) Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

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The introduction of the American West as an important region in the historiography of the US Civil War has brought many issues into sharper focus for historians—among them questions about race and unfree labor in the age of emancipation and the length and extent of Reconstruction. In the case of historian and writer Megan Kate Nelson’s Three-Cornered War, old debates about nationalism are revived and given redefined stakes in a work that presents a sweeping history of competing political and social visions for the future of the Southwest in the midst of civil war.

In many ways, The Three-Cornered War serves as an update to two important works on the history of the Civil War’s westernmost events—Alvin M. Josephy Jr.’s The Civil War in the American West (1991) and Donald S. Frazier’s Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest (1995).[1] Where Frazier and Josephy lent their focus to military and diplomatic events, however, Nelson combines a military narrative with analysis of the social, political, and environmental factors at play in the region encompassing what is today West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and much of southern Colorado. Nelson uses a diverse cast of characters, including army officers, their wives, volunteer soldiers, Native American leaders and Native American women, Hispanic borderlands residents, and territorial politicians to weave together a narrative of conquest and consolidation, where some participants emerge as winners, others gamble their reputations and lose big, and some have their ways of life permanently transformed, and often not for the better.

The Three-Cornered War makes a three-pronged argument. First, the monograph implicitly argues for the importance of the West as an ideological battleground between visions of a slaveholding empire in the West and one predicated on free soil and free labor (an empire for Anglo-Americans at the expense of all others). Second, the book argues that Civil War events primed the region for debates that would come to a head in the Reconstruction period, supporting historian Elliott West’s framework of a “Greater Reconstruction” that encompassed a longer chronology and wider geography than most traditional histories depict. Finally, Nelson demonstrates that regardless of its military importance, the West warranted significant attention from both the Union and Confederate national governments, whose political and legal maneuvering caught Native American nations and Mexican peoples in their crossfire.[2]

Historians of nationalism will be especially interested in how Nelson’s argument contributes to the field-defining debate over whether the Confederacy existed as an independent nation—and whether it existed as such solely in the minds of Confederates or as a political entity capable of making and enforcing laws. In her profiles of both Henry Hopkins Sibley and John Baylor—the two military officers who led the Confederate invasion of the Southwest—Nelson makes a case for the Confederacy’s territorial ambitions. Despite Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s pronouncement that “we seek no conquest, no aggrandizement ... all we ask is to be let alone” in his inaugural address, Nelson shows that the Confederate government made no attempt to stop Sibley and Baylor’s great land-grab in the Southwest.[3]

Nelson’s work thus joins a new wave of scholarship that affirms the legal and political ambitions of the Confederacy as a nation that simultaneously waged a war of independence and one of aggrandizement. Historian Adrian Brettle’s recent Colossal Ambitions: Confederate Planning for a Post–Civil War World (2020) offers an excellent corollary to Nelson’s work, investigating the ways in which Confederate leaders envisioned their postwar nation, which encompassed not only the American Southwest but also foreign territory. Collectively these activities represented a continuation of the antebellum Southern international ambitions that historian Matthew Karp detailed in This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016). Readers who approach the question of Confederate nationalism in 2020 cannot ignore the contributions of all three authors, as well as Paul Quigley’s excellent Shifting Grounds: Nationalism and the American South, 1848-1865 (2011), in assessing whether there was a Confederate nation. The answer in Nelson’s work on the Civil War West is an implicit yes.[4]

But what about the United States, whose national identity was fractured by secession? What did the Western arc of the Civil War mean for the Lincoln government and the ascendant Republican Party in the territories? Nelson contends that for the United States the Civil War in the West “exposed a hard and complicated truth about the Union government’s war aims: that they simultaneously embraced slave emancipation and Native extermination in order to secure an American empire of liberty” (p. 202). In her discussion of Union territorial official John Clark, Nelson gives readers a chance to see the interior politics of territorial expansion. While the Lincoln government could not commit military resources to the Southwest on a scale that compared to Virginia or Tennessee, the administration placed trusted political subordinates in key positions early in the war. Initially these appointments helped to prevent several territories from voting in favor of secession, but as the war wore on they worked to engender greater loyalty to the United States than had previously existed in the region.

Territorial officials also worked closely with military officers to approve and carry out one of the most brutal instances of Indian removal in the nation’s history. In 1864 Major General James H. Carleton (whose California Column represented the largest Union force in the far West) ordered Kit Carson to march as many as nine thousand members of the Navajo nation over four hundred miles from their lands in Arizona to the Bosque Redondo reservation in New Mexico. Carson adopted a strategy that Civil War Americans were increasingly becoming familiar with—razing much of the territory he crossed and destroying Navajo property to compel capitulation. Historian Mark E. Neeley Jr. has cautioned historians against comparing the strategy of Carson (or the infamous John Chivington, perpetrator of the Sand Creek massacre) too closely with that of Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, or Phillip H. Sheridan, because, he argues, those officers did not invent the strategy of “total war.” If anything, the Civil War version was an adaptation of tactics that had long been used against Native Americans.[5] Nelson’s narrative of the Bosque Redondo and several other postbellum Indian conflicts reveals further adaptation of the total war strategy and the way in which the Civil War empowered the military conquest in the American West. From the perspective of military historians, Nelson could have been clearer about the development of American military strategy in the Southwest; however, because the monograph is narratively driven, rather than historiographically, this is a small quibble.

One final area where Nelson’s monograph excels is in telling the environmental side of the story of the Civil War West. The Three-Cornered War’s attention to the unique conditions present in the Southwest allows Nelson to explain what set military campaigning in the Southwest apart from marching and fighting in other Civil War theaters. In New Mexico access to water mattered far more than any other condition, for example, and without consistent supplies coming over an established transportation network, territorial occupation quickly became untenable—as Henry Hopkins Sibley discovered when his supply train was destroyed after the battle of Glorietta Pass. Attention to the environment is critical to Nelson’s updated military narrative and puts her work in conversation with both Kathryn Shively (Nature’s Civil War: Common Soldiers and the Environment in 1862 Virginia, 2013) and Earl J. Hess, (The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, 2012), who detailed the effect of drought conditions on Confederate general Braxton Bragg’s 1862 Kentucky campaign, which ended similarly to Sibley’s New Mexico invasion.

Books about the US Civil War typically strive toward one goal—making sense of an event that threw the nation into chaos and touched the lives of millions of people. Though Megan Kate Nelson only deals with a handful of individuals, her tapestry of stories offers a compelling new format for writing about a conflict that often feels too large to fully grasp. Nelson’s characters help her to humanize the Civil War in the West and should point future historians to rich veins of testimony about the Civil War era that still have much to reveal about the conflict’s impact on a region that has not traditionally been part of the geographical narrative. The Three-Cornered War is an admirable effort to chart a new course on an old map and will no doubt help to form the foundation of a new field of historical inquiry into the causes, conduct, and consequences of the Civil War in the West.


[1]. Other recent works dealing with the Civil War West include: Christopher M. Rein, The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020); Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015); Virginia Scharff, ed., Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West (Oakland: The Autry National Center and the University of California Press, 2015; and Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[2]. Elliott West, “Reconstructing Race,” Western Historical Quarterly 3 (Spring 2003):6–26; Elliot West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). Richard White has taken up a similar argument in his contribution to Oxford’s History of the United States Series. See White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865–1896 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[3]. Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers, and Speeches, ed. Dunbar Roland, 10 vols. (New York: J. J. Little and Ives Company, 1923), 5:84.

[4]. Two main schools of thought dominate the historiographical question of Confederate nationalism, which in turn has been used a point of analysis for explaining Confederate defeat—loss of civilian morale and lack of national identity are often identified as two critical factors in the Confederacy’s defeat by the United States. Nelson’s work aligns more strongly with the school of thought that Confederates did sustain a national identity throughout the conflict and shows how geographically widespread a belief in Confederate independence was, encompassing not only the eleven seceded states but also substantial pockets of the Southwest. For the literature on Confederate nationalism see Gary W. Gallagher, The Confederate War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); William A. Blair, Virginia’s Private War: Feeding Body and Soul in the Confederacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998); Drew Gilpin Faust, The Creation of Confederate Nationalism: Ideology and Identity in the Civil War South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988); Anne S. Rubin, A Shattered Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Confederacy, 1861-1868 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); and Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[5]. Mark E. Neeley Jr., The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 165-66.

Citation: Cecily Zander. Review of Nelson, Megan Kate, The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020. URL:

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