Author Interview--Christopher Rein (Second Colorado Cavalry) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature part 2 of our interview with Christopher M. Rein. We are talking 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.

Part 1

Besides the western forces being more radical, you also have a different set of experiences. There are not Gettysburg-type battles and a significant amount of the Second Colorado's service involves fighting Confederate guerillas. How do the lessons from Civil War guerilla warfare influence the fighting against Native Americans?

CMR: Fighting in the West was much more mobile--the Second Colorado's service spanned from the Rockies to the Mississippi and back again, over two thousand miles, or roughly the same as marching and fighting from New York to New Orleans and back again, all without the benefit of railroads or steamships. (Despite this travel, they remained much healthier than units in eastern armies, as they generally avoided the most disease-ridden troop concentrations.) Many of the western units initially recruited as infantry quickly converted to cavalry, Including the First New Mexico, First Nebraska, and the First Colorado. Keeping up with well-mounted guerrillas or Indian raiders required mobile forces and very different tactics. As Dan Sutherland, Lee Ann Whites, Joe Beilein, Andrew Fialka, and others have pointed out, the communities that sustained bushwhackers were critical for their success. Separating the bands from their support systems was essential to defeating them, or at least forcing them away. The same was true for Native Americans. Both groups were very vulnerable in winter, when bushwhackers retreated to secure camps in Texas and Plains tribes dispersed in timbered valleys, to prevent placing excessive burdens on the resources that sustained them. In most counterinsurgencies, intelligence collection is critical, and methods again overlapped. Effective Union commanders, including Maj. Gen. Grenville Dodge, who commanded the Department of the Missouri in 1865, had established elaborate spy networks to collect intelligence on Confederates, and Dodge quickly built a new network from traders and scouts on the Plains, which permitted an economic force distribution. The Second Colorado gathered much intelligence on Quantrill's, Todd's, and Anderson's bands of guerrillas through active patrolling in the first half of 1864, and continued those activities on the Plains in 1865. When easterners came west shortly after the war, they initially struggled to adapt to warfare on the Plains leading to tactical defeats in Red Cloud's and Hancock's Wars, but eventually veterans of the multi-sided conflict in the Trans-Mississippi, including Forsyth's Scouts (which included at least one Second Colorado veteran, Lt. George W. Culver), Frank North's Pawnee Scouts, and even Confederate veterans in the Texas Rangers, served as mentors and tutors to the army in the years and conflicts that followed.

It feels like a missed opportunity when the Second Colorado disbanded and its accumulated knowledge got lost initially. I want to do something a little different next and give you a quote by Gary Gallagher: "the relocation of the Dakota Sioux from Minnesota after 1862, forced resettlement of the Navajo by U.S. forces under Kit Carson in 1864, and slaughter of approximately 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek in 1864 were not really Civil War events—though they occurred during the war. Ample testimony underscores the degree to which people at the time separated the war over secession from clashes with Indians." How does your book challenge or agree with such an assumption about the Civil War and the West?

CMR: I have tremendous respect for Gary and the work he has done over his career. But I think this question highlights the importance of the work Megan Kate Nelson and others are doing on the region and the period, because it totally depends on perspective. If you were to ask someone in Richmond or Philadelphia at the time, they would probably see the two events as completely unrelated. But to the citizens of Denver they were very closely intertwined, which also helps explain why westerners and easterners disagreed so much on Indian policy.
I would argue that westerners (and I include Minnesotans in 1862 in that term, as they lived at the far western limit of American settlement on the Plains) saw the two conflicts as interdependent. From his position at the Rocky Mountain News, editor William Byers railed against "idiot Democrats" and "murderous thieving Indians," the two principal threats to the territory's existence in his mind. Absent federal protection, and with their own volunteers sent "back east" for the war, westerners felt that they had been abandoned by the federal government and left to their own devices to respond to the multi-pronged threat to their homes and livelihoods, though they tended to overstate it a bit. The Indian Territory never would have come under the Confederacy's sway if federal authorities hadn't abandoned it at the outbreak of the conflict. Many Minnesotans were fighting in Tennessee and Virginia in the summer of 1862, leaving the frontier exposed and delaying both the arrival of annuity goods and the military response. As Megan's recent work, The Three-Cornered War demonstrates, both Navajos and Apaches were emboldened by the infighting among the Anglos and Hispanos and increased raids on both sides. At the same time, Kiowas and Comanches threatened the logistics corridor to the territory across the Plains, leading to a siege mentality in New Mexico that prompted Union commanders to take advantage of the wealth of troops the war provided to attempt to address the Navajo "problem" once and for all. And Colorado's territorial governor, John Evans, begged and pleaded with War Department officials for the return of the Second Colorado Cavalry in the summer of 1864, but the regiment could not be spared from its vital duties in the Burned District as Price's Raid materialized. Evans finally authorized the recruitment of a "100-days" regiment, the Third Colorado Cavalry, who were the primary perpetrators of the Sand Creek Massacre. It is worth mentioning that two companies of the First Colorado Cavalry at Sand Creek, under the command of Capt. Silas Soule, refused to fire on the camp, suggesting that relying on regulars or longer-service volunteers, such as the Second Colorado Cavalry, who better understood both the gravity and likely repercussions of their actions, might have prevented the tragedy.
So easterners, and those whose focus remains in the east, likely see the conflicts as separate and independent, while westerners, and those raised in the West, are more likely to understand that they are closely related, as settlers viewed both slaveowners and indigenous peoples as a twin threat to the homesteads and communities they sought to establish on the Plains. Violence over slavery first flared on the Kansas prairies in the 1850s, over who would control the rich agricultural land in the territory and what type of society the new immigrants would build there. And the settlement of the Plains, to include communities established by "exodusters" in places such as Nicodemus, Kansas, was arguably the final act of the Civil War and Reconstruction period. Though fought primarily in the East, and by easterners, the Civil War was a war of and for the West, and the conflicting images both sides held of the region.

To close, considering the importance of western vs eastern perspectives, let's zoom out to the national narrative. How does your book on the Second Colorado Cavalry help us craft a more nuanced national narrative of the Civil War era? Where should we focus? What should be highlighted?  

CMR: I think the national significance of the Second Colorado's service is to again highlight the Civil War as a war for resources, in this case the western lands and their mineral resources that first sparked Euro-American immigration into the region. In Alabamians in Blue, I felt the case was pretty strong for southern freedmen and Unionists to oppose the Confederacy by joining the army, both to escape brutal treatment and to secure access to life-sustaining resources in federal camps across the region. But the argument for the northern, mostly Midwestern, soldiers wasn't as clear. While men expressed strong ideological attachments to the Union, focusing exclusively on that motivation masks other inducements for service. By looking to the West, we see the vision of "free soil, free labor, and free men" that spurred soldiers from these same areas, primarily the Old Northwest, to seek their fortunes in the West. Secession posed a twin threat, both in the possibility that some of these lands could be absorbed into a slaveholders empire, and that the now-divided nation might be too weak or too poor to complete the conquest of the West and fend off any competitors, whether European rivals or indigenous empires. I think the service of the Second Colorado highlights the vision that many Union soldiers had for their country (as evidenced by the massive influx of veterans onto the Plains after the war) of a united land where they could seek their fortunes free from competition, whether from slaveholders or Native Americans.

With two books in the last few months, what are you up to next?

CMR: Both of my Civil War books came out fairly close together, but both were long-gestating projects--this one as far back as 2005. I finally got a sabbatical from teaching in the form of a research position with the Army and was able to devote more of my time to writing. I'm still interested in linking the environmental and military history of the war, and thought about a project exploring how Union troops in the Department of the Gulf, most of whom hailed from New England, adapted to Louisiana's "foreign" environment, and how the desire for cotton to keep New England's textile mills open influenced the operations of commanders such as Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks. I'm very excited to see Larry Lowenthal's A Yankee Regiment in Confederate Louisiana, just released from LSU Press (which I confess I haven't had the time to read yet) and how he covers these themes. I'm also working in the publishing field now, which doesn't have as much support for research and writing, in terms of time and resources, so it will definitely be a while before I can get anything else out, though.