Confederates Take Tucson, Arizona! California Prepares for the Worst

February 28, 1862 (Friday)

The Confederate capture of Tucson, Arizona may seem like a strange footnote of a campaign that is itself often a strange footnote. But once taking a look into the details, it begins to make more sense in a big picture sort of way.

In the decade before the war started, the United States acquired a small chunk of land from Mexico (via the Gadsden Purchase). This included land south of the Gila River and west of the Rio Grande, much of modern southern Arizona, including Tucson. Most of the white people living there were Texans and Southerners. When the purchased land, known unofficially as “Arizona,” was added to the large New Mexico Territory [modern Arizona and New Mexico], they were less than thrilled.

For starters, their capital was all the way up in Santa Fe, a rough and difficult journey of nearly 600 Apache-filled miles. Due to the isolation, Tucson became a dangerous place, populated by fugitives and banditos. For another, adding the land to a previously-established territory that outlawed slavery was a slap in the face to Southerners in favor of slavery’s expansion into the west.

Southern sentiment in the west was, at least at first, more prevalent than is often remembered. While the fervor for war was heating up, it was estimated that southern California held 16,000 secessionists, while the Colorado area (not yet a territory) had 7,500, with many in Denver. Southwestern New Mexico Territory, including Tucson and Mesilla, was almost entirely pro-secession. They had been since entering the bosom of the United States nearly a decade before.

While most of “Arizona’s” population was Mexican, they were more or less indifferent, believing that one white government was just as bad as the next. The white population, mostly Southern, however, began to stir, flying flags of secession and even establishing companies of Arizona militia.

Due to Tucson’s location on the old Butterfield Overland Stage Route into Southern California, it was deemed a vitally important link in opening up the west for the Confederacy. Also due to Tucson’s location, it would have to wait a while before being officially occupied.

In July of 1861, the Confederates under Lt. Col. John Baylor invaded southeastern New Mexico Territory. The Confederate Territory of Arizona was established, and General Henry Hopkins Sibley was selected to conquer it for the South.

While Sibley was gathering his Army of New Mexico, John Baylor, by this time the territorial governor of Arizona, was raising an army of his own to head west towards Tucson and the Pacific. He believed that the population of southern California, combined with the lack of Union troops, would make his campaign a smashing success. However, by October, with rumors of Union troops landing in Mexico, as well as southern California’s support waning, Baylor gave up his plan. Again, the people of Tucson were on their own.

After a surprising number of months, in February of 1862, Sibley was moving north towards Albuquerque and Sante Fe. He did not, however, forget about Tucson. It was also February that General Sibley received word that no Union troops had landed on Mexican soil and that Mexico (well, a nearly autonomous state with little connection to the national government) had recognized the Confederate States of America as a legitimate nation.

While he began his campaign towards Albuquerque, he also dispatched Captain Sherod Hunter and sixty men to Tucson. From there, a diplomat would meet with Mexican authorities in hopes of establishing a Confederate harbor in Guaymas, 300 miles due south of Tucson, on the coast of Sonora.1

After a speedy, but stormy march from Mesilla, Capt. Hunter and his band arrived in Tucson, Arizona on this date. There, he found nearly the entire population (not quite 1,000 people) hailing him and his men as heroes. As the rumors of US troops landing in Mexico and Indians preparing to attack had frightened the residents, they finally felt protected.2

With the Rebels stirring and even conquering in New Mexico and Arizona, it was only a matter of time before the United States troops in California had something to say about it. As young men in the north flocked towards the colors of the Union, young men in California did the same. As the United States Regular Infantry troops were pulled out of the west to fight in the east, volunteer regiments were formed to cover all points west of the Rocky Mountains. Mostly, this was to guard against Indian attack, but in Arizona, they had to deal with the Rebels as well.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1861, the 1st California Cavalry Regiment, under Col. James Henry Carleton, was mustered into service in Oakland. By November, they were stationed in southern California, and their numbers swelled to nearly 1,000. Mostly, they were keeping a lid on the dwindling, but still formidable, secessionist sympathizers who were trying to make their way to Texas. Five companies of the 1st California had made it to Fort Yuma on the Colorado River [across from modern day Yuma, Arizona].3

Rumors had spread through January and February that Confederate Col. John Baylor and 1,000 Rebels were at Tucson, their eyes set upon Guayamas.4 Union officers in California petitioned Washington for an invasion of Sonora, aiming specifically for Guayamas, figuring that the Rebels would want it and that if it was taken, Southern California could be easily invaded.5

By the end of January, General-in-Chief George McClellan had approved the formation of the California Column. It would consist of the 1st California and a battery of artillery (later, the numbers would be augmented). The objectives of the mission were to “recapture of all our forts in Arizona and New Mexico, driving the rebel forces out of that country or capturing them, and opening the southern mail route.”6

Col. Carleton, not yet at Fort Yuma, ordered scouting parties to be sent from the fort in the direction of Tucson, to get a feel for the supposed 1,000 or so Rebel troops heading west. He specifically selected Captain William McCleave of the 1st California Cavalry, ordering him and thirty men to act as scouts. They would become the vanguard for the California Column.7

By the end of February, Col. Carleton was preparing to leave his headquarters in Los Angeles for Fort Yuma. He would be personally overseeing the California Column’s advance into Arizona. Also, Captain McCleave was preparing to leave Fort Yuma. The rumors of Col. Baylor’s 1,000 Confederate soldiers in Tucson were still held as fact when but sixty Rebels claimed the Arizona town for the South.

  1. Thus far, the background information has been provided by the wonderful book Blood & Treasure; Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald S. Frazier. I strongly recommend this one if today’s post is of even fleeting interest to you. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p707-708. []
  3. Records of California Men in the War, 1861-1867, published in 1890. This is an incredibly interesting work – mostly a compilation of reports, but drawn well together. I skipped around the book, but have used pages 324; 668-669. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 50, Part 1, p825. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 50, Part 1, p829-831. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 50, Part 1, p836. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 50, Part 1, p847-848; 851-852. The OR concerning the Department of the Pacific reads much differently than the other volumes. It was much more casual out in the far west. There seemed to be a feeling of independence not shared in the east. It’s also fun to see how both Carleton and Riggs, the commander at Fort Yuma, almost looked up to Captain McCleave, holding him as a hero of the wild west. I found a bit more about him here. []
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Confederates Take Tucson, Arizona! California Prepares for the Worst by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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