A War for Settler Colonialism

A War for Settler Colonialism

Today on Muster we share the first post from our recent addition to the correspondent team, Paul Barba. Paul is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University who studies slaving violence in the Texas borderlands. He will be writing on the Civil War in the West. Welcome, Paul!

In a brief 2017 Civil War Times article on the West during the Civil War, esteemed Civil War historian Gary W. Gallagher argued that “the Trans-Mississippi Theater, which included noteworthy military and political action primarily in Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, lagged far behind the Western and Eastern theaters in significance.” This insignificance, he noted, was most evident when it came to wartime decisions regarding resource allocation, as “neither the United States nor the Confederacy made it [the Trans-Mississippian Theater] a priority.” The net result, he claimed, was that “events on the margins of the theater, such as Henry Hopkins Sibley’s quixotic foray into New Mexico in 1862, scarcely rise to the level of inconsequential.” As Professor Gallagher would have you believe, for the Civil War enthusiast there’s nothing worth seeing “out west.”[1]

Professor Gallagher’s views of this period are, like those of so many other Civil War historians, Anglo-centric. Although Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis may not have fixated on the outcomes of “quixotic forays” into New Mexico the way they obsessed over military victories in the Chesapeake or even along the Mississippi, the violence that reverberated back and forth across the West during the 1860s (and after) was no less profound – or consequential – for the Indigenous peoples of North America. Interpretive scope matters. If we isolate the Civil War as strictly a moment of disjuncture, a completely unique and extraordinary event, we fail to appreciate how the North-South affair simply escalated forces already in motion. A focus on the West, where Indigenous, Black, and Hispanic people contended with White American visionaries’ plots for their nation’s future, requires scholars to think capaciously about the Civil War’s significance. From this perspective, events out west were not simply “noteworthy”; they were emblematic.

Indigenous studies scholars have argued that the history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism, “whereby an imperial power seizes Native territory, eliminates the original people by force, and resettles the land with a foreign, invading population.” Settler colonialism, Nick Estes has argued, “calls for the annihilation of Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human kin”; it is a historical structure that demands Indigenous destruction, resource extraction, and settler colonial dominion.[2] The history of the Civil War does not exist outside of this longer history of U.S. colonialism. If we appreciate the Civil War as more than an “event” – but instead a pronounced moment of acute violence within a broader chain of structural violence – “the West” no longer appears marginal or “inconsequential.”[3] Rather, the West emerges as an equally important arena in the fight for settler colonialism’s future. We might, therefore, rethink the Civil War as the violent contest over visions of the implementation of conquest.

U.S. presidential election propaganda, 1856. The cartoon was an indictment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It also trafficked in anti-Indigenous stereotypes. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As generations of scholars have noted, the future of the West was at the heart of the sectional crisis. Rightfully, scholars have spotlighted the political, cultural, moral, and economic salience of slavery in explaining the sectional wedge that formed within White America during the mid-nineteenth century. Anti-Blackness – whether it be of the xenophobic variety of “Free Labor” advocates, who worked tirelessly to forge an all-White western utopia, or of the exploitative variety of slaveholders and their proxies, who wanted to extend their regime of violence and terror against enslaved people westward – drove mid-century White visions of the West. The political controversies of Texas and Mexican cession, the founding of California, and the Kansas crisis all exposed how diverging White assumptions about the West’s future fomented sectionalism in the United States. Of course, any frank (White) assessment of the West presumed the eventual – if not inevitable – conquest or displacement of Native peoples, as westward settler expansion (by slaveholders, Free Soilers, and others) necessitated the “emptying” or “freeing” of Native lands. And this is to say nothing of the “stars” of the Civil War who, like Robert E. Lee, earned their stripes in the violent gauntlets of the West.

Recent scholarship on the West during the Civil War (i.e., when westerners supposedly were not “made a priority”) has brought into stark relief the stakes of the Civil War’s reverberating violence. In Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands (2017), Andrew Masich has detailed the convergence of western and eastern, Indigenous, Hispanic, and Anglo, “martial credos” – a convergence that ultimately gave way to a distinctly Anglo penchant for “wars of extermination.” Megan Kate Nelson has situated the military concerns of Unionists and Confederates, who viewed the West as a thoroughfare for commerce, a key domain for resource extraction, and recruiting grounds for soldiers, within the broader context of Indigenous campaigns to defend their homelands. The political ramifications of the Civil War were especially important. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz points out, “In the midst of war, Lincoln did not forget his free-soiler settler constituency that had raised him to the presidency.” (The Homestead Act of 1862 is perhaps the greatest example of how White easterners, at the expense of Indigenous people, grafted onto the West the fate of their nation during the war.) And then there were the obvious episodes of U.S.-led genocide, with Colonel John Chivington’s 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people being the most notorious.[4] Although few authors have sought to emphasize explicitly the Civil War’s role in escalating settler colonial development, their studies make it abundantly clear that the Civil War did not represent a pause in the ongoing process of Indigenous genocide and dispossession in North America. Instead, it was, like virtually every other U.S. war prior, a jolt of energy for the next phase of anti-Indigenous devastation.[5]

War Bonnet, Standing in the Water, Lean Bear, Yellow Wolf, and others, at the White House Conservatory, March 27, 1863. Yellow Wolfe would be among those massacred by Colonel Chivington and his followers at Sand Creek in November 1864. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Studies that carry the narrative into the post-Civil War period only further highlight the historical connections between the western sphere and the North-South, Atlantic seaboard heartland.[6] Black liberation fighters during the war forced the emancipationist hands of White Northern politicians, but even the momentous Thirteenth Amendment would not remain solely an eastern-facing mechanism for abolition and social transformation. In the West, where various forms of bondage had thrived, legally and extra-legally, under multiple regimes of power for centuries, the fight for emancipation would appear no less contested or uncertain than it was in the East.[7] As William S. Kiser has demonstrated in Borderlands of Slavery (2017), the persistence of slavery in places like New Mexico frustrated White American reformers, who in response “effectively expanded the scope of the Thirteenth Amendment.”[8] Thus even federal government policy was not unilateral; rather, it emerged in dialogue with events and conversations originating in western contexts. Just as important, however, was the reality that expanded federal powers – whether through emancipationist policies or a beefed-up military apparatus – also expanded the capacity and speed of U.S. colonialism.[9]

If anything, scholarship on the West will continue to usher in the next wave of groundbreaking scholarship on the Civil War. Because “the West” has been, since the earliest days of European colonialism, a nebulous construct (part natural, part geographical, part political, and part imaginary), those who study it tend to be methodologically flexible. We search for connections that transcend conventional periodizations and geographical parameters and look beyond Anglo-centric narratives that assume all “meaningful” histories originate from White population centers.[10] Clearly, the Civil War need not be understood solely as a contest among easterners; its sinews and legacies extended far and wide. Indigenous voices, above all, are testament to that fact.


[1] Gary W. Gallagher, “Out West,” HistoryNet, August 2017, https://www.historynet.com/insight-gary-gallagher-war-west.htm. Megan Kate Nelson, Adam Arenson, and Andrew R. Graybill also have criticized Gallagher for his dismissive remarks about the West during the Civil War. See Megan Kate Nelson, “Why the Civil War West Mattered (and Still Does),” Historista, June 29, 2017, http://www.megankatenelson.com/why-the-civil-war-west-mattered-and-still-does/; Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill, eds., Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 8-9.

[2] Nick Estes, Our History if the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance (London: Verso, 2019), 16, 89-90; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 20), 2; Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387-93. Also see the posts of my fellow Muster correspondent, Dr. Michelle Cassidy, https://www.journalofthecivilwarera.org/author/michelle-cassidy/.

[3] Bruce B. Lawrence and Aisha Karim, eds., On Violence: A Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 14.

[4] Andrew Masich, Civil War in the Southwest Borderlands, 1861-1867 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), 13-17; Megan Kate Nelson, The Three Cornered-War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (New York: Scribner, 2020), xiii-xx; Dunbar-Ortiz, 140; Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

[5] For settler colonialism during previous U.S. wars, see Jeffrey Ostler, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[6] Todd W. Wahlstrom’s The Southern Exodus to Mexico: Migration across the Borderlands after the American Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015) has illuminated the West’s importance as a gateway to Confederate visions of post-war survival and resurgence.

[7] Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016); Kristen Epps, Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016).

[8] William S. Kiser, Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 15-16, 155-69.

[9] On the devastating, if complicated, ramifications of the Five Nations’ mixed participation in the Civil War, see, for instance, Christopher B. Bean, “Who Defines a Nation?: Reconstruction in Indian Territory,” in The Civil War and Reconstruction in Indian Territory, ed. Bradley R. Clampitt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 110-26; Fay A. Yarbrough, “‘Dis Land Which Jines Dat of Ole Master’s’: The Meaning of Citizenship for the Choctaw Freedpeople,” in Civil War Wests, 224-36.

[10] Methodological flexibility, I believe, is the hallmark of Borderlands literature. For a conceptual overview, see especially Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett, “On Borderlands,” Journal of American History 98, no. 2 (September 2011): 338-61. For a discussion of the methodological flexibility of Western scholars more broadly, see Stacey L. Smith, “Beyond North and South: Putting the West in the Civil War and Reconstruction,” The Journal of the Civil War Era, 6, no. 4 (December 2016): 566-91.

Paul Barba

Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. He graduated with a Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2016. His first book project, tentatively titled Country of the Cursed and the Driven: Slavery and the Texas Borderlands, tracks and analyzes the multiple forms of slaving violence that emerged, dominated, and intersected throughout Texas from the early eighteenth century into the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is currently under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. Prior to Bucknell, Dr. Barba served as a managing editor at the Journal of Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos.

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