Author Interview--Christopher Rein (Second Colorado Cavalry) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Christopher M. Rein to talk about his new book The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains, which came out in February 2020 with the University of Oklahoma Press.

Chris Rein is Managing Editor of Air University Press in Montgomery Alabama. Before that, he worked for over two years at the Army University Press and taught both at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Air Command and Staff College. He has also published The North African Air Campaign and edited Weaving the Tangled Web: Military Deception in Large-Scale Combat Operations.

We previously featured an interview with Chris Rein and his book Alabamians in Blue: Freedmen, Unionists, and the Civil War in the Cotton State.

Chris, how did you come to research the Second Colorado Cavalry (i.e. why not the First Colorado Cavalry) and what argument are you making in the book?

CMR: As I mention in the acknowledgments, wherever I've had the good fortune to live or work, I've always taken a strong interest in local history, especially the area's experiences during the Civil War. When I joined the faculty at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs in 2005, I had the opportunity to explore Colorado's history during the Civil War, which focused primarily on two bipolar events, the Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862 and the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. One event arguably saved Colorado from Confederate invasion, the other is one of the worst atrocities in the history of the conquest of the American West. This led to my principal question, and later argument: how could men who were ardent abolitionists and committed to the destruction of slavery also be avowed exterminationists in their dealings with Native Americans? The same commander, Col. John Chivington, led the US forces in both engagements and two regiments, the First and Third Colorado Cavalry, respectively, made up the bulk of his forces in both affairs. That naturally led to the question, where was the Second Colorado and what were they doing? I was working on a piece on religious motivations and the Sand Creek Massacre at the time (subsequently published in Great Plains Quarterly), around the 150th anniversary of that event, but Gary Roberts, whose dissertation has long been the authoritative work on Sand Creek, published Massacre at Sand Creek: How Methodists Were Involved in an American Tragedy shortly thereafter, which says everything that needs to be said on that subject. I finally picked up the loose end of the Second Colorado Cavalry and discovered they had a fascinating history, and operated at the nexus of the Civil War and the conquest of the American West. Though I frame the work as a unit history (in a sense, arguing in a closed context), I use the soldiers of the Second, their service, and their post-war activities to make my argument that the Civil War and Indian Wars morphed into a single conflict for the early settlers on the Great Plains, and that victory in one shaped, influenced. and facilitated the prosecution of the other. I realize this is not a completely novel argument, having been advanced by Elliott West, Heather Cox Richardson, Ari Kelman, and Scott Berg, among others, but I felt the literature lacked a good social, military, and environmental history of the settler colonists, and the soldiers this society produced, that tied the two conflicts together on the ground.

Before we look more closely at the Second Colorado Cavalry, I briefly want to talk about methodology. You have some interesting word choices here as well as in the book: conquest, colonists, or extermination. For too long, the narrative of the West was one that celebrated the victory of white civilization over native people. How important is a selective word choice in works like yours that tackle the conquest of the Plains?

CRM: I borrow the term "colonist" from settler colonial theory, which I think fairly accurately describes the process of the "re-peopling" of the Great Plains, as well as other parts of the world. But I tend to see the American process more as a military "conquest," relying on campaigns, battles, and warfare to decide the issue, rather than a natural process where one society more passively colonizes the other. As a military historian, I still think things like conflict, warfare, and empire matter and have broad explanatory power. The term "extermination" was in wide use during the time period, though it inaccurately describes the outcome, if not the goals of the settler colonial process, as native peoples were certainly not exterminated and many still live near and even in the region today. There were some men, such as John C. Chivington, who preferred literal extermination, while others were more interested in extinguishing indigenous titles to the land and physically removing them from the corridor between the Arkansas and Platte valleys, which could be more accurately termed ethnic cleansing. I am not an ethnohistorian and do not pretend to fully understand the indigenous perspectives on these events, though I am certainly sympathetic to the incredible injustices and cruelties they suffered during this time. I am most interested in exploring the underlying motivations of those who initiated and prosecuted the conflict, not to celebrate the results, but to understand how and why it happened. As I mention in the acknowledgments, I spent a fair amount of time on the plains over the past decade or so and do not understand why white settlers were so insistent upon removing indigenous peoples from much of it. In graduate school, I remember reading Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors, and, while I did not identify with her subjects at all, I appreciated her efforts to help us understand their thought processes and motivations, as they certainly became a significant force in the rise of the conservative movement and created electoral results we are all still living with today. Many of those who served in the Second Colorado expressed abhorrent racial views, which I document. Some of the latest enlistees had even participated in the Sand Creek Massacre, and others were strong advocates for lynch law dating to their days in the territory and experiences on miners' courts. Soldiers certainly expressed a belief in white supremacy and strong preference for "law and order," however they defined it. Anyone trying to comprehend the land and the people on it today would probably be well served to try to understand the thoughts, ideas, and motivations of those who came before them and, in many ways, became what Edgar Schein calls the "founders" of an organizational culture. That is not to say that all Plainsmen and women today are racists and anarchists, but it does help explain some of the resistance to diversification, such as the plot to attack Somali employees of a meat processing plant in Garden City several years ago. (See Link

People in the West are certainly odd people at times, especially in relation to non-white "others" and their relation to the government. You mentioned earlier that the Second Colorado Cavalry "had a fascinating history." Can you give our readers, who are not familiar with the book or unit yet, a very brief rundown of why you classify them as a "fire brigade"?

CRM: Sure, two companies (Dodd's and Ford's) of what was initially called the Second Colorado Infantry rushed to New Mexico in early 1862 to augment the substantial federal forces already in the territory, and successfully opposed the Texan/Confederate invasion of  New Mexico, fighting at both Valverde and Glorieta, the two most significant battles of the campaign. In 1863 additional companies recruited in Denver by Col. Jesse Henry Leavenworth filled out the regiment and supported a federal force liberating the Indian Territory from Confederate occupation, including fighting in the major engagements at Cabin Creek, Honey Springs, and Perryville alongside both African-American and Native American units. After consolidation with the Third Colorado Infantry (a partial unit recruited in Colorado which had garrisoned Pilot Knob, Missouri in 1863), the now twelve-company Second Colorado Cavalry took over responsibility for the "Burned District" along the Kansas-Missouri border, south of Kansas City, in the wake of the destruction of Lawrence, Kansas by Quantrill's guerrillas and the resulting Orders No. 11, which depopulated the district. The regiment became an effective counter-guerrilla force before serving in a more conventional role in opposing Price's Raid in the fall of 1864. That winter, the regiment moved back out onto the Plains, garrisoning Fort Riley and Fort Larned, Kansas, against Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes rightfully enraged after the Battle of Adobe Walls, Texas, and the Sand Creek Massacre. Here the unit applied what it had learned fighting guerrillas and attempted to keep open the Santa Fe Trail, the vital logistics corridor to federal forces in New Mexico, setting the stage for the Treaty of the Little Arkansas which helped open the floodgates of immigration to Kansas. In September, 1865, the regiment mustered out, with many men returning to Colorado while others scattered across the West. I termed the regiment the "fire brigade of the Trans-Mississippi" as they seemed to turn up at the most threatened points at the most pivotal times, playing a role in many of the campaigns Thomas Cutrer expertly details in his magisterial Theater of a Separate War (UNC, 2017). They fought in many of the most important military engagements in the theater, and provided protection and security during long periods of often dangerous garrison duty. Much has been written recently about Civil War guerrillas, especially in Missouri, but we know comparatively less about the guerrilla hunters that opposed them. 

The Second Colorado covered a significant amount of ground there. You mentioned the men fought alongside Native and USCT forces in future Oklahoma as well as likely alongside Hispanics in New Mexico. Did the men ever comment about the racially diverse armies they were part of? Or was there any weird feeling of having fought alongside some Native people and then fighting Native on the Plains?

CRM: Most of the conflicts came from efforts to protect wagon trains and outposts along the Santa Fe Trail. But, as I elaborate on in the conclusion, there was a strong dichotomy between the unit's experiences with black and Native American soldiers. Soldiers were largely sympathetic towards the First Kansas Colored Infantry, which they served alongside in the Indian Territory, and a number of troopers of the Second Colorado later sought and earned commissions in the USCT units (1st-4th Missouri, later the 62nd, 65th, 67th and  68th USCI) recruiting from the "contraband" (refugee) camps at Benton Barracks near St. Louis in the winter of 1863-4. At least one officer commented favorably on the First Kansas Colored's performance at Honey Springs, when a well-timed volley broke a Texan charge. But the unit seems to have held Indian and Hispano soldiers in contempt. Alonzo Ickis, whose diary is one of the best sources on the New Mexico campaign, dismissed nuevomexicano soldiers almost out of hand, and these soldiers' reputations suffered after Canby's flawed critique of their performance at Valverde, which was intended to mask his own errors. Opinions of Native American soldiers were heavily influenced by the Confederate Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws who fought alongside Texans in the Indian Territory, and Colorado's early settlers seemed to see Confederate agents and guerrillas behind every "Indian Uprising" on the Plains, including the 1862 Dakota War, despite the complete lack of evidence. (The revolt was actually sparked by unscrupulous traders and a delay in the delivery annuity goods caused, in part, by the demands of the war effort). In Race and Radicalism in the Union Army, Mark Lause argues that the white units in the Trans-Mississippi West, especially those from Kansas, tended to be more "radical" than the Union Army as a whole, and I think the Second Colorado's service bears that out.