Tag Archives: federal authority

Teaching the West in the Civil War Era

Most courses on the Civil War and Reconstruction venture only briefly into the American West. Textbooks and lectures often dispense quickly with the region. They make fleeting forays into the Kansas and Missouri border wars, or the military conflict over the Mississippi River, before returning to a familiar North/South narrative focused on eastern battlefields and the halls of Congress.

The articles in the December 2016 special issue of the Journal of the Civil War Era suggest that elevating the West to a place of importance alongside the North and the South can transform students’ understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction in some critical ways. Expanding our courses to encompass the American West does not merely add new people and new places to the story. Grappling with the West can change how we interpret the significance of the Confederate rebellion, the power of the federal state, and the success of postwar reconstruction. At the same time, incorporating the American West into a Civil War and Reconstruction course already dense with detail, and overflowing with complex themes, poses major conceptual and practical challenges. Below, I outline some strategies for getting the West into your Civil War and Reconstruction course and helping students wrestle with the region’s significance.

Avoid Treating the Confederate Rebellion in Isolation

Rather than focusing solely on the Confederate rebellion against the U.S. federal government, treat the Confederacy as one of many regional polities across the nation that contested federal power in the middle of the nineteenth century. One effective way to do this is to frame the Civil War as a two-front conflict for the United States. At the same time that the U.S. government waged war against a southern Confederacy that defied federal authority, it also prosecuted a western war against Native peoples who disputed federal sovereignty over their homelands. In this framework, the Confederate defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) and the massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahos at Sand Creek (1864) become part of the same story. Students can see them as similar turning points when U.S. military might began to crush regional rebellions against federal authority.

One particularly effective strategy for helping students see these connections is to shift focus to Indian Territory, the place where the southern and western warfronts converged with each other. Complex and shifting alliances among the United States, the Confederacy, and Indian nations—most of whom had a strained relationship with the U.S. government after removal—highlight the multiple, intersecting rebellions against federal authority that bound together the West and the South. Rather than being isolated from or tangential to the “real story” of the Civil War, Native peoples’ struggle to maintain sovereignty over their western homelands becomes vital to understanding the national conflict over the boundaries of federal power in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Focus on Moments of Federal Weakness, Not Just Federal Strength

While a standard Civil War and Reconstruction course might emphasize the rapid expansion and consolidation of federal power during and after the war, events in the American West illustrate the weak and ineffectual nature of the federal state at the borders and margins of the nation. Instructors might assign Kevin Waite’s or Megan Kate Nelson’s essays in the special issue to demonstrate the federal government’s limited power to suppress Native resistance, Confederate invasions, and proslavery imperial ambitions in the distant, isolated New Mexico and Arizona territories.[1] Similarly, Pekka Hämäläinen’s essay can help students think critically about the limited reach of the federal state in the heart of the continent where expanding Native empires often dictated the terms of diplomacy to would-be U.S. conquerors.[2]

Pushing into the postwar era, instructors can juxtapose western and southern moments when the federal government attempted to quell rebellious local polities with mixed results. One lecture might compare federal efforts to enforce the Thirteenth Amendment in the former Confederacy and New Mexico. The inability of the federal government to root out the traces of chattel slavery in the South, as well as its utter ineffectiveness in eradicating peonage in the Southwest, can lead students into a discussion about the limits of the federal state’s power to institute a regime of free wage labor across the entire nation. A comparison of failed land redistribution plans for the freedpeople with the allotment of Indian communal lands under the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 could prompt a very different class discussion. The federal state’s power (or lack thereof) to impose a liberal vision of citizenship, based on property accumulation and small landholding, varied tremendously in the former Confederacy and in Indian country.

The events of 1877 also make for a promising point of comparison. Students can consider how the end of Reconstruction in the former Confederacy, the Nez Perce War, and the Great Railroad Strike signaled fundamental geographic shifts in federal power. The decline of federal authority in the southern states coincided with the federal government’s swift reconfiguration and redeployment of state power to suppress Indian and working-class rebellions.

Depiction of battle between Nez Perce and the U.S. Army
“The Nez Perce War,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 3, 1877, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Use Biography to Connect North, South, and West

Finally, a powerful way to integrate the West into the familiar North/South story is to track the transcontinental journeys of familiar figures across the Civil War era. Remind students that nineteenth-century Americans did not live in sharply defined regional boxes. They traversed geographic boundaries in fluid ways that demonstrate the interconnectedness of regional histories. Instead of just examining William Tecumseh Sherman’s efforts to suppress rebellion against the federal government in the heart of the Confederacy during the early 1860s, place his Civil War military career into the context of his decades-long relationship with the American West. Sherman spent much of the 1850s in California. He worked as a gold rush banker and sought to incorporate the new Pacific territories into the U.S. commercial economy. He had his first experience suppressing civil rebellion when Gov. J. Neely Johnson appointed him as a major-general in the California militia and charged him with breaking up San Francisco’s 1856 Committee of Vigilance, which had overthrown the municipal government. After the war, Sherman took the lessons of his march through Georgia and the Carolinas back to the West. He advocated scorched earth warfare against resistant Native people of the Great Plains that was reminiscent of his policy toward Confederate civilians. Sherman’s wartime promise of forty acres and a mule to southern freedpeople also presaged the kind of property redistribution and emphasis on small-scale agrarianism that the federal government tried to install on Native lands with the Dawes Act. Sherman’s experiences in the West both transformed and were transformed by his experiences in the Confederate South.

Six Union officers sitting outside a wood frame building
Ely S. Parker (seated, second from the right) at Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters in City Point, Virginia, 1865, Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Seneca General Ely S. Parker provides students with an example of how Native people also lived lives that do not fit neatly into North/South narratives. Parker advocated for Seneca sovereignty and land rights in New York before becoming General Ulysses S. Grant’s personal military secretary during the Civil War. He recorded the terms of surrender for the Army of Northern Virginia in 1865 that ended the Confederate rebellion. In the postwar years, as the United States embarked on the project of southern reconstruction, Parker oversaw the reconstruction of Indian country. He served as the first indigenous U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs and worked to make treaties with western Indian peoples that would facilitate their incorporation and assimilation into the United States. In Parker, students can see the intersection of southern and western civil wars and reconstructions, and the ways that Native lives transcended binary North/South conceptions of nineteenth-century history.[3]

Embrace Gradual Experimentation

Incorporating the West into a Civil War and Reconstruction course will necessarily require some trial and error. Rather than attempting to overhaul an entire course in one semester or quarter, consider gradually reworking a handful of lectures to include more western material, or insert a few additional western readings into the mix at critical points. Repeat the process every time you teach the class. After just a few iterations, the West will become a robust and natural part of the class content. The familiar North/South axis that once stood at the heart of the course will gradually give way to a national, continental, narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

[1] Kevin Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6, no. 4 (2016): 536 – 65; Megan Kate Nelson, “The Civil War from Apache Pass,” in ibid., 510 – 35.

[2] Pekka Hämäläinen, “Reconstructing the Great Plains: The Long Struggle for Sovereignty and Dominance in the Heart of the Continent,” in ibid., 481 – 509.

[3] I recommend assigning C. Joseph-Genetin Pilawa, Crooked Paths to Allotment: The Fight Over Federal Indian Policy after the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), which analyzes Parker’s critical role in postwar Indian affairs.

Stacey L. Smith

Stacey L. Smith is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University. She is the author of Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation, and Reconstruction (UNC Press, 2013) which won the inaugural David Montgomery Prize from the Organization of American Historians and the Labor and Working-Class History Association. She is currently completing a book on African American civil rights activists who migrated to the Pacific Coast of North America in the middle of the nineteenth century.