Scroll to the bottom for a list of The Immigrants’ Civil War articles.
Not all “immigrants” crossed oceans to become American citizens in 1848.
One group of Americans changed their citizenship in the years before the Civil War without moving from their homes: Latinos in New Mexico. When the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War, it transferred not just territory, but people, as well. The descendents of the Nuevomexicanos would later joke that their ancestors “hadn’t crossed the border, the border crossed them.” But the change wasn’t something to joke about in 1861 – they were becoming members of a nation with an official policy of white supremacy, a nation that had recently viewed them as mortal enemies. In particular, Latinos were worried about white Southerners.
The decade before the start of the Civil War were years of declared and undeclared war between Southern whites and Latinos. Southerners had launched the war detaching much of Mexico in 1848 over the objections of many Northerners who feared that Texas and the areas to the west would be new ground for the expansion of slavery. Southern ambitions were not limited to New Mexico and Arizona; they extended into Mexico, Cuba, and Central America where they hoped new slaveholding states could be created. They were successful in Nicaragua where William Walker’s filibustering expedition from New Orleans briefly seized power.1
The Civil War began because Abraham Lincoln had run on a platform pledging that slavery would not be extended beyond the states where it already existed. The Southern Confederacy was birthed in the hope that the weak Latin governments could be pushed aside and their most fertile lands be incorporated into the slaveholders’ republic. Expansion into Latino lands was necessary for slavery’s survival.2
Just months after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, with Union armies gathering to suppress the rebels, the Confederacy began planning its expansion west and south. The Confederate Constitution guaranteed that any conquered territory would be open to slavery. Texans clamored for an immediate invasion of New Mexico, which they had claimed since the 1840s, threatening violence against the Latino population there ever since.3
Texas convinced the Confederate government to move against New Mexico. The capture of Santa Fe would allow a Confederate army to strike north into the gold and silver mines of Colorado and across the West into Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. This would not only bring California’s gold mines under Confederate control, it would also give the new government two Pacific ports and break the Union blockade of Southern shipping.
Donald Frazier, a leading historian of the Texas invasion of New Mexico, wrote that the campaign “was not an aberration in Southern war aims nor a sideshow.” In many ways it was central to the purpose of secession, to expand slavery into new territories, and the Confederate campaign was “the heir of Manifest Destiny [and] filibustering.”4
Union officers expressed grave concerns about what New Mexicans would do when the Confederates moved west. The territory had a troubled history of Anglo-Americans abusing the native indigenous and Latino populations. New Mexico had only been occupied by the United States army for 15 years before the attack on Fort Sumter, and the area’s racial diversity made many Anglo-Americans think that it would never be able to incorporate into the United States as anything other than a conquered province.
While New Mexico was captured during the Mexican War without fighting, the subsequent occupation was anything but bloodless.
In January 1847, Latino Nuevomexicanos and Pueblo Indians united to launch the Taos Revolt. The rebels killed the new American governor as well as several New Mexicans who had accepted offices with the US government. Presciently, months before he was executed, Governor Charles Bent had warned army authorities that the abuse of the local population by American soldiers was alienating the New Mexicans.5
G.F. Ruxton, an English traveler, documented the mood during the lead-up to the rebellion: “I found over all New Mexico that the most bitter feeling and most determined hostility existed against the Americans who…have not been very anxious to conciliate the people, but by their bullying and overbearing demeanor towards them, have in great measure been the cause of this hatred.”6
American troops were moved into New Mexico to suppress the rebellion. They cornered the rebels in the Catholic Church in Taos Pueblo, north of Santa Fe, where they killed 150 of them and captured many others. Some rebels were summarily executed by the Americans the day after they were captured and a handful were executed after formal trials on charges including treason. American Lewis Hector Garrard watched the trial and wrote after the men were convicted, “It certainly did appear to be a great assumption of the part of the Americans to conquer a country and then arraign the revolting inhabitants for treason… Treason, indeed! What did the poor devil know about his new allegiance? … I left the room, sick at heart. Justice! Out upon the word when its distorted meaning is a warrant for murdering those who defended to the last their country and their homes…”7
The Catholic church in Taos Pueblo (Source: Wikipedia)
New Mexico’s population in 1861 was approximately 80,000, excluding Native Americans living outside of Nuevomexicano settlements or Native American pueblos.
The territory’s population was roughly divided between 60,000 Nuevomexicanos, 15,000 “Pueblo Indians,” and 5,000 “Anglos.” There were fewer than 100 persons of African descent living there at the time of the Civil War.8
The Nuevomexicanos, the largest group by far, were hardly monolithic in ancestry or class. Most had mixed Spanish and Native American heritage, although some were Native Americans who had adopted Catholicism and spoke Spanish. Anglo soldiers who traveled through the region observed that many of the Nuevomexicanos they met appeared to them to be of the same stock as the Native Americans in the pueblos. Many of the Anglos would have agreed with William Walker, a champion of English-language colonies in Latin America. Walker wrote in 1860 that the Latinos had had “too little slavery to maintain the social order. Instead of maintaining the purity of the races as the English did, the Spaniards had cursed their continental possessions with a mixed one.”9
Walker argued that if Southerners did not enslave the Latino “race” and give “it a white master to direct its energies” then the Latino race “must inevitably succumb.” In other words, Walker called upon Southerners to enslave Latinos in order to save them!10
William Walker was executed by British colonists in Honduras in 1860, just weeks before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, but his vision of slavery’s Manifest Destiny was shared by many Texas Confederates.
When the New Mexico territory was still part of Mexico, slavery was abolished, but bondage still existed there under two different forms. Wealthy New Mexicans sometimes “adopted” captured Apaches into their families. This was not a way of extending hospitality. Instead, it allowed the male head of the Nuevomexicano household to use the prisoner as a slave. One judge in the territory estimated that 1,500 to 3,000 Indians were held in slavery.11
A much more common form of indentured labor was peonage. This was a labor system in which poor men who fell into debt would lose their freedom to labor as they pleased, and instead they were forced to become the servants of the men to whom they were indebted. This form of quasi-slavery was used particularly against Hispanized Native Americans to control their labor. It did not have all the disabilities of slavery, but it was hardly freedom. Peonage grew less common in New Mexico after the passage of the 13th Amendment at the end of the Civil War, but it still persisted to some degree, as shown by the fact that Congress had to pass a post-war anti-peonage law that explicitly prohibited the practice and prescribed a five-year prison sentence for those guilty of violations. As late as 1868, 200 New Mexican landowners were arrested for holding men in peonage.12
Dancers at the Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico (Source: Magazine USA)
In the fall of 1861, the Confederates organized their invasion team. It was a group of men who could not have thrived in any other time or place. Their “diplomat” was Phil Herbert. While he was a Congressman in the 1850s, Herbert gained national approval when he shot an Irish waiter at the Willard Hotel in Washington for refusing to serve him breakfast after hours. Putting an insolent immigrant servant in his place – a grave – turned Herbert into a Southern hero. He was eventually acquitted of murder, a decision that was applauded in what would become the Confederacy.13
John Baylor was to be the governor of the new Confederate territory. He had been the editor of The White Man, a prominent white supremacist newspaper. When he was elevated by the Confederacy, he used his power to kill a newspaper editor who had the recklessness to criticize him. He was not the only member of his family who would use violence to settle personal scores. His brother, a Confederate officer, would kill his own commanding general.14
The military leader of the invasion force, Henry Hopkins Sibley, was a notorious drunkard.
Nuevomexicanos had every reason to fear the invasion’s leaders, but they didn’t trust the Union Army officers charged with defending their territory, either. Lincoln’s men wore the uniform of conquest. As the Confederates began to move west and Union commanders called for Latino volunteers, many Nuevomexicanos felt trapped between two volcanoes.
Feature image courtesy of victorfe places via Flickr.
1. Under the Big Stick: Nicaragua and the United States Since 1848 by Karl Berman, South End Press (1986) pp. 51-102 and see generally Agents of Manifest Destiny: The Lives and Times of the Filibusters by Charles H. Brown, University of North Carolina Press, 1980. * The word “filibuster” comes from the Spanish word for “pirate.” It was applied to the expeditions sent by Americans to take over Latin American territory.
William Walker’s memoir The War in Nicaragua, reprinted by the University of Arizona Press in 1985, makes no bones about his policies in that nation. Walker brags that he initiated a series of decrees around land ownership that “were intended to place a large proportion of the land of the country in the hands of the white race” by taking it away from poor Latino farmers through legal chicanery (pp. 253-254). Walker also reestablished slavery in Nicaragua which had been abolished in 1838. Walker wrote that the revival of slavery was the act by which the “Walker administration must be judged; for it is the key to its whole policy…[because] on the re-establishment of African slavery there depended the permanent presence of the white race in that region” (pp. 255-256). Walker also decreed that poor Nicaraguans could be declared “vagrants” and placed into a form of slavery, as well (pp. 254-255). During the 1980s, the US Ambassador to El Salvador, by coincidence, was also named William Walker.
2. Lincoln was opposed to slavery, but he did not call for its immediate abolition. Instead, he campaigned for president as an opponent of the expansion of slavery into areas where it was not already legal.
3. Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald Frazier, Texas A&M Press (1995) pp. 8-9, 18.
4. Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald Frazier, Texas A&M Press (1995) p. 5.
5. Bent’s Fort by David Lavender, Doubleday, 1954, p. 273.
6. Wild Life in the Rocky Mountains by G.F. Ruxton, p. 75, found in The American Occupation of New Mexico by Sister Mary Loyola Carnes, University of California (1921) unpublished master’s thesis.
7. Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail by Lewis H. Garrard, p. 228.
8. Hispanos and the Civil War in New Mexico: A Reconsideration by Darlis A. Miller, New Mexico Historical Review, April 1979, p. 105.
9. The War in Nicaragua by William Walker, University of Arizona Press (1985) p. 259.
10. The War in Nicaragua by William Walker, University of Arizona Press (1985) p. 273-274.
11. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest by James F. Brooks, University of North Carolina Press (2001) p. 464. When New Mexico began to agitate for statehood in 1850, it adoped a strongly anti-slavery constitution. The constitution was adopted by New Mexico’s government in a vote of 6771 to 39. See also, Off-White in an Age of White Supremacy: Mexican Elites and the Rights of Indians and Blacks in Nineteenth-Century New Mexico by Laura Gomez (unpublished, 2004).
12. The Peonage Cases by William Wist Howe, Columbia Law Review, Vol. 4, No. 4, April 1904, pp. 279-280. See also, , Off-White in an Age of White Supremacy: Mexican Elites and the Rights of Indians and Blacks in Nineteenth-Century New Mexico by Laura Gomez (unpublished, 2004).
13. Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald Frazier, Texas A&M Press (1995) p. 18-19.
14. Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest by Donald Frazier, Texas A&M Press (1995) p. 27-31.
The Immigrants’ Civil War is a series that examines the role of immigrants in our bloodiest war. Articles will appear twice monthly between 2011 and 2017. Here are the articles we have published so far:
1. Immigrant America on the Eve of the Civil War – Take a swing around the United States and see where immigrants were coming from and where they were living in 1861.
2. 1848: The Year that Created Immigrant America – Revolutions in Europe, famine and oppression in Ireland, and the end of the Mexican War made 1848 a key year in American immigration history.
3. Carl Schurz: From German Radical to American Abolitionist– A teenaged revolutionary of 1848, Carl Schurz brought his passion for equality with him to America.
5. …And the War Came to Immigrant America -The impact of the firing on Fort Sumter on America’s immigrants
10. Immigrant Day Laborers Help Build the First Fort to Protect Washington-The Fighting 69th use their construction skills.
12. Immigrants Rush to Join the Union Army-Why?– The reasons immigrants gave for enlisting early in the war.
17. Immigrant Regiments on Opposite Banks of Bull Run -The Fighting 69th and the Louisiana Tigers
39. A German Regiment Fights for “Freedom and Justice” at Shiloh-The 32nd Indiana under Col. August Willich.
40. The Know Nothing Colonel and the Irish Soldier Confronting slavery and bigotry.
43. Union Leader Ben Butler Seeks Support in New Orleans-When General Ben Butler took command in New Orleans in 1862, it was a Union outpost surrounded by Confederates. Butler drew on his experience as a pro-immigrant politician to win over the city’s Irish and Germans.
49. The Irish Brigade Moves Towards Richmond-The Irish brigade in the Peninsula Campaign from March 17 to June 2, 1862.
50. Peninsula Emancipation: Irish Soldiers Take Steps on the Road to Freedom-The Irish Brigade and Irish soldiers from Boston free slaves along the march to Richmond.
54. Making Immigrant Soldiers into Citizens-Congress changed the immigration laws to meet the needs of a nation at war.
60. Emancipation 150: “All men are created equal, black and white”– A German immigrant reacts to the Emancipation Proclamation
Immigration Vacation -Civil War Sites