The Civil War in the West

“Welcome to the Battle of Valverde,” boomed the disembodied voice of a park ranger to the 200 or so people sitting on the side of a hill at Picacho Peak State Park, north of Tucson, Arizona.

A Confederate sharpshooter, hiding behind a cactus in a cordoned-off area in front of those 200 people, looked up to the sky. “Was that God?”

If it was God, then God was on the Union side. Because not long after, with the Federal troops in formation nearby, the Voice told us:  “Look. Sharpshooters are hiding behind the cactus.”

The Confederate looked up to the sky again. “Hush!”

Among the 200 spectators was me and my frequent history touring companion, Patricia. If she thought that her Civil War reenactment- watching days were over once I’d moved out west, she was mistaken. Patricia had come to Tucson for a visit, escaping the March snowstorm in DC. What she hadn’t escaped: another Civil War reenactment.

In the mid-1800s, batches of Federal troops were stationed across the southwest, protecting settlers from the Apache. Those settlers weren’t the least grateful, however. The feeling was that the government back in Washington DC wasn’t doing enough for them (sound familiar?). So when the time came to choose between the Union or Confederates, first the New Mexico Territory, then the Arizona Territory, went with the Confederacy.

The Confederates sought to secure these votes of confidence by making themselves visible through the southwest. Starting in the summer of 1861, Confederate troops marched their way across New Mexico and Arizona, engaging in small battles and skirmishes against Federal troops. Along with securing the land for the Confederacy, their purpose was to clear a pathway for the Confederates to California and the Pacific.

Every third weekend in March, Picacho Peak State Park hosts a reenactment of one of those skirmishes: the Battle of Picacho Peak.  It took place on April 15, 1862, when 12 Union cavalry troops scouting the area of Picacho Peak, on their way to the Confederate stronghold of Tucson, happened upon 10 Confederates. They engaged and the fighting went on for an hour. In the end, both sides retreated, leaving three Union soldiers dead.  The Battle of Picacho Peak was the westernmost conflict of the Civil War.

Yes, they’re calling this 22 person skirmish a “battle.” It wasn’t exactly Gettysburg, but it’s all we got in Arizona. So someone decided that this “battle” would be worth a reenactment.

But how would they get reenactor and public interest in a 22 person battle? Get bigger and better battles.  So along with the Battle of Picacho Peak reenactment, the weekend agenda also includes reenactments of two New Mexico battles: the Battles of Valverde (Confederate win) and Glorieta Pass (Union win).

It was a lovely little event — well-organized and interesting — and, unlike east coast reenactments, not at all crowded. We spent some time talking with a Union reenactment group from California, several of whom were snowbirds who, during the summers, live and belong to reenactment groups in Pennsylvania and Maryland. “Back home, he’s a Confederate,” said one about his fellow Fed.

I have to give props to the park ranger who was the Voice of God. “You know they’re Confederates,” he said at one point, as the Rebs whooped their way down the field, “because they make all that noise.”



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3 Responses to The Civil War in the West

  1. Not crowded by spectators or participants it would seem! There are more people on opposing sides in a football match!

  2. Rick says:

    Tom Green, who was from my town of Lebanon, TN, commanded southern troops at Valverde. There is a county in TX names for him.

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