The War and the Westward Movement

Image of book cover: Civil War Remembered

A shortened version of this article appears in The Civil War Remembered: Official National Park Service Handbook published by Eastern National Parks in 2011. To purchase this book online through eParks, click here.


The War and the Westward Movement

Gregory Paynter Shine, Fort Vancouver NHS & Portland State University

In February 1861, word of secession and the specter of civil war troubled a young U.S. Army captain. "I myself come from a Union loving State," George Pickett wrote his commander on February 13 from San Juan Island, a remote Washington Territory encampment isolated in the extreme northwestern corner of the United States, "but matters are taking such phase at present that she and the other border territory States . . . can not make their voices heard. . . . On the other hand, I do not like to be bullied nor dragged out of the Union by the precipitory [sic] and indecent haste of South Carolina. Write me what you think the best course to pursue in case of a break up. . . . What will we do with the public property and funds[?] In some cases there might be a general scramble."[1]

Two days later, Manuelito, Armijo, Ganado Mucho, and other Navajo chieftains ended a gathering with U.S. Army officers near Fort Fauntleroy in remote New Mexico Territory. Recognizing the "reduced and impoverished condition of the [Navajo] Nation" fueled by slave raids and starvation, Col. Edward R.S. Canby wrote of concluding a treaty that pledged support and protection but "required the Chiefs to collect their people and establish them in designated localities where they will be under the observation and control not only of the chiefs but of the troops." Canby eschewed the "most extensive conditions" directed by instructions with an eye "to place the affairs of this people in a condition that will lead as speedily as possible to the permanent settlement of all questions with them."[2]

That same month, Emanuel Leutze, an artist and German immigrant, labored in his New York City studio on the final stages of a mural study commissioned by the U.S. Congress [image attached below]. Entitled Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, his triumphant vision featured rugged, white, rifle-carrying pioneers guiding covered wagon trains of American settlers across a perilous mountain ridge, away from the dark and death of the East toward the heralding light of the West. Consciously, Leutze was crafting it to embody the popular perception of what he termed the "grand peaceful conquest of the great West."[3]

Emanuel Leutze painting: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way
Emanuel Leutze, Study for "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way," 1861

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Available online at:


Viewed independently, these concurrent, geographically disparate episodes provide a glimpse into the regional zeitgeist – the spirit of the time – on the eve of the outbreak of war. Viewed collectively, they speak to a broader, core concern of the era: the desire for protection and security. Exacerbated by the country's crumbling harmony, concern for safety and stability flooded all corners of the fledgling nation in early 1861. As war erupted, oft-conflicting interpretations of protection presented distinctive challenges to those living, working, or with interests in what was then known as the Far West. Spurred by a desire to retain the western states and territories within the Union, the federal government's responses to these perceptions helped redefine the Western Movement and shaped the area's future for decades to come.

UNTIL THE EVE OF WAR, the Westward Movement was Manifest Destiny incarnate; as such, it was consistently popularized as an East-to-West phenomenon. As unabashedly romanticized in Leutze's 1861 mural study, established routes –including the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail –siphoned settlers and miners westward from Mississippi Valley population centers. In response to calls for protection from the American Indians these emigrants were dispossessing, the federal government responded by establishing frontier and coastal forts garrisoned by Regular Army soldiers. By 1861, almost 75% of the Army's soldiers served at dozens of posts west of the Mississippi River, ranging from Pickett's post in Washington Territory to Fort Point in California's San Francisco Bay to forts hundreds of miles south of Canby's. The inevitability of civil war changed this. Shortly before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, U.S. Army responsibility for national protection and security set in motion an unprecedented eastward movement of soldiers and equipment. Originally meant to protect the interests of a minority of settlers and miners, these soldiers were ill-positioned for guaranteeing the wellbeing of nearly 97% of the U.S. population that resided east of the Mississippi River or in adjoining western states.[4] Thus, the majority were spirited east as quickly as possible. With more than 10,000 soldiers serving in the western posts, this eastward movement triggered concerns over security. President Abraham Lincoln soon authorized the raising of volunteers within the states and territories "to aid in enforcing the laws and protecting public property," and in the West, these volunteer units replaced many of the departing Regular Army soldiers and established additional forts to protect new interests.[5] California, for example, quickly raised an infantry regiment and five cavalry companies "for the protection of the Overland Mail Route between California and the Eastern States, by way of Salt Lake City."[6]

Such concern for security was warranted, particularly in areas of the West with populations sympathetic to the Confederacy or to forging an independent Pacific Republic. Caches of arms and ammunition in western arsenals attracted particular attention. In Oregon and Washington Territory, pro-Union citizens exposed a plot hatched by "conspiring traitors" to capture the arsenal at Fort Vancouver.[7]. "It is well known that much hostile feeling exists toward the general Government," noted Col. Carlos A. Waite from Texas in 1861, "and the Army, being the representative of its power, is viewed by a certain class with much dislike. It would require but slight cause to produce a collision, the ultimate results of which no man can calculate."[8] The Confederacy was quick to realize the value of the Southwest. On February 16, Waite's observation proved as prophetic as Pickett's concerns proved warranted; faced with a state militia, Gen. David Twiggs agreed to evacuate all federal troops from Texas, and surrendered federal buildings, the arsenal, and military stores valued at $1 million to the state. Confederate forces seized several other arsenals in the Mississippi Valley, including those in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Using Texas as a base, the Confederate plan focused on dislodging Union forces from the southwest and continuing north to the resource-rich mines of Colorado – and possibly on to the California gold fields.

Wending across Texas and then north along the Rio Grande, forces under the newly-minted Confederate Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley outmaneuvered Canby's Anglo and Native New Mexican volunteers at Valverde, occupying both Albequerque and Santa Fe. Only Fort Union in front and an isolated Fort Craig behind challenged Sibley's plan; that was, until the swift winter march of volunteers – known as Pike's Peakers – from rough-and-tumble Colorado Territory, commanded by Col. John P. Slough. Alarmed by word of Sibley's progress, Slough's men raced southward. At Fort Union, they gained additional strength from the garrison and followed the Santa Fe Trail toward the occupied cities. At the same time, Confederate forces under Col. William R. Scurry followed the trail east from Santa Fe, setting the two armies on a collision course. While the fighting in the subsequent battle – known as Glorieta Pass and heralded since as the "Gettysburg of the West" – was fierce but inconclusive, it was the actions of a detachment under Maj. John Chivington, guided by Lt. Col. Manuel Chaves and his native New Mexico Volunteers, that ended the threat of a Confederate West. Chaves led Chivington's troops west across mountainous terrain in an effort to flank the Confederates. Reaching a 200-foot cliff and finding the enemy supply train below lightly guarded, Chivington's men scrambled down and destroyed everything – more than 80 wagons and 500 mules and horses. The Confederate Army of New Mexico never recovered, retreating south and east to San Antonio. Weeks later, the California Column of Union troops moved eastward from the Pacific to Tucson along the overland stagecoach route, skirmishing with Confederates at Pichaco Pass, the war's westernmost battle. Other western campaigns, including bloody ones in Missouri and Arkansas that culminated in the battle of Pea Ridge in 1862, proved unsuccessful, and the Confederacy was never again to provide a viable risk to the southwest.[9]

Military action was but one tool of the federal government's wartime strategy in the West. Perceptions of protection – fostered by images such as Leutze's – drove national policy at an accelerated, partisan pace. Secession itself initiated much change; it eliminated many Congressional stumbling blocks to Republican -supported issues aimed at more tightly binding western states and territories to the Union. Although not primarily protection-based initiatives, perceptions of security underlay each. The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 allotted 30,000 acres of land for the establishment of land grant colleges to every sitting congressman from any state remaining in the Union. While focused on agriculture and mechanical arts, inclusion of the teaching of military tactics buttressed the final act. The Homestead Act of 1862 – designed, in part, to free eastern families like those represented in Leutze's painting from poverty and overcrowding – allowed any citizen or citizenship-seeker who had not borne arms against the government to lay claim to 160 acres of available public land, provided they lived on it for five years or paid $1.25 per acre after a six month residency. The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and subsequent amendments provided aid for construction of a transcontinental railroad and telegraph line – aid in the form of generous land grants (in some instances, up to ten miles for every mile of track laid) and government bonds to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad companies. "The proposition is a plain one," exclaimed John R. Barret, a U.S. representative from Missouri, "and any business man must see how, by this great measure, our brethren on the Pacific slope can be protected and accommodated, our nation furnished with a necessary defense; our commerce promoted, and the most economical means provided for transportation of mails, munitions of war, &c."[10]

The benefit of a supportive political atmosphere was not lost on President Lincoln; he played an active role in propagating an environment where the Union would be sustained, his supporters would be rewarded, and, where possible, Republican political views could be advanced. Territorial patronage was a vital tool for Lincoln. The ability to appoint men of his choice to key territorial roles –such as governors, secretaries, federal district judgeships, land office commissioners, and territorial marshals – served not only to recognize those who had lent support to him but also to institutionalize support for the issues he valued. With seven western territories ripe for patronage appointments in 1861, Lincoln predominantly named Republican supporters – known pejoratively as "The Tribe of Abraham" –to the territories' thirty-five prime positions and dozens of others. These included gubernatorial nominees William Gilpin of Colorado Territory and William Jayne of Dakota Territory, who both supported federal financing of the transcontinental railroad.[11]

ALTHOUGH ADVANCED under the mantle of protection, the nation's American Indian population in the West bore the cost of these military and political undertakings. More than just marginalizing in nature, these actions accelerated the dispossession of American Indians and threatened the security of their lands, property, culture, and core existence. Few actively sought war, but such actions were neither unrecognized nor unopposed, and concerns for safety often led to conflict. While some saw the war as an opportunity to protect or reclaim traditional lands and reassert sovereignty, American Indian tribal response was as complex as it was individualized. The Indian Territory's Five Civilized Nations, for example, raised over 5,000 soldiers who fought for the Confederacy at battles including Pea Ridge. Forced northward into Kansas after refusing to align with the Confederacy, other Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and Creeks fought Confederates – including their own tribal members – as the Union Indian Brigade.

With the enactment of political initiatives aimed at encouraging white settlement, the role of implementation often fell to the volunteer units who had replaced soldiers of the Regular Army. Although far from advocates, prior to the war Regular Army units had occasionally served a moderating role between settler and American Indian interests, leading at least one western officer – Gen. John E. Wool – to be reassigned following political pressure from territorial residents. The western volunteers filling in behind the Regular Army soldiers were of a distinctly different mettle, men "made of stern stuff. . . inured to mountain life. . . pioneers and miners; men self-reliant and enduring" but also prone to have "advocated the extermination of the Indians."[12] Although overwhelmingly white, reflecting the region's diverse population, many were Hispanic, some were African American, and some were American Indian. (Some – known as "galvanized Yankees" – were former Confederate soldiers who had sworn allegiance to the Union.) As residents of the west, they possessed a more vested interest in issues that encouraged settlement and internal improvements, and many took a more active, aggressive role in protecting these interests. Examples of the resulting aggressions are rife. In addition to the Bear River Massacre inflicted by California Volunteers on Shoshones in Washington Territory in 1863, the following year the same Col. Chivington responsible for thwarting the Confederates' New Mexico Campaign led Colorado and New Mexico Volunteers in "a foul and dastardly massacre" of Arapahos and Cheyennes, primarily women and children. Later investigators found that he had, "surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand Creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities, and then returned to Denver and boasted of the brave deed he and the men under his command had performed."[13] Other actions were more complex. Despite Canby's efforts in 1861, a "permanent peace" with the Navajo did not occur. Three years later, his replacement sent Kit Carson and his native New Mexico Volunteers on a scorched earth campaign against the Navajo that resulted in their relocation via the tragic Long Walk to Bosque Redondo.

BY WAR'S END, federal actions to encourage white settlement in the West and more tightly bind the western territories to the Union were institutionalized and gathering momentum. Sudden majority support for Republican initiatives –a by-product of secession – broke free from a perennial log-jam programs such as the Morrill Act, Homestead Act, and Pacific Railroad Act, aimed at fomenting and sustaining access to the West's vast acreage. President Lincoln's use of territorial appointments preserved the Union, and – in many cases – placed like-minded supporters in positions to uphold and continue these programs. Initially, the vacuum created by Regular Army troops relocating eastward lessened the government's ability to shield westward expansion, but volunteer units soon aggressively inflated the military's role and presence in the West.

This all came at an extraordinary cost – the dispossession of the West's American Indians. In the expansionist Civil War-era, American Indian protection meant Canby's "designated localities" and restricted self-determination, resulting in violated treaties, violence, and the end of access to traditional lands, trade and migratory routes, water, food sources, and cultural practices. Weeks before the war's end in 1865, word of the Sand Creek Massacre and other offenses against American Indians finally triggered broader indignation. "The dealings of this nation toward the Indians," editorialized the New York Times, "form one of the most disgraceful chapters in modern history."[14] This stimulated a congressional inquiry, led by Senator James R. Doolittle, who began a two-year investigation scrutinizing federal management of Indian affairs. It determined that "[t]he Indians everywhere. . . are rapidly decreasing in numbers from various causes: By disease; by intemperance; by wars, among themselves and with the whites; by the steady and resistless emigration of white men into the territories of the west, which, confining the Indians to still narrower limits, destroys that game which, in their normal state, constitutes their principal means of subsistence; and by the irrepressible conflict between a superior and an inferior race when brought in presence of each other."[15] Such observations came too late, though; mirroring Leutze's mural study, the federal government's perceptions of protection had already helped redefine and accelerate the Western Movement and shape the region's future for decades to come. By the end of the war, the foundation for a distinctly different West was laid.



[1]George Pickett to Benjamin Alvord, February 13, 1861, Benjamin Alvord Papers, MSS 719, Folder 1, Oregon Historical Society Research Library.

[2]Documents Relating to the Negotiation of an Unratified Treaty of February 15, 1861, with the Navajo Indians. Washington, DC.: National Archives, February 15, 1861. Available online:

[3]Susan Scheckel, The Insistence of the Indian: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998), 150.

[4] Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., The Civil War in the American West (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1991), 7.

[5] O.R., Series I, Vol. 50 (Part I), Ch. 62 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1897), 136.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Portland (OR) Morning Oregonian, 25 August 1866.

[8] O.R., Series I, Vol. 1, Ch. 7 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880), 522.

[9] The principal source for this passage is Josephy, 61-92.

[10] John R. Barret, "Pacific Railroad: Speech of Hon. J.R. Barrett, of Missouri, in the House of Representatives, May 29, 1860," Appendix to the Congressional Globe, House of Representatives, 36th Congress, 1st Session, (Washington D.C., Government Printing Office, 1860), 363. Available online:

[11] Deren Earl Kellogg, "Lincoln's New Mexico Patronage: Saving the Far Southwest for the Union," in Lincoln Looks West: From the Mississippi to the Pacific, ed. Richard W. Etulain(Carbondale, Il: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), 134-9.

[12] O.R., Series I, Vol. 1, Ch. 7 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1880), 136. Gray H. Whaley, Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee: U.S. Empire and the Transformation of an Indigenous World, 1792-1859 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 217.

[13] "Massacre of Cheyenne Indians," in Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War at the Second Session Thirty-eighth Congress (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1865), v.

[14] New York Times, 23 December 1865.

[15] Condition of the Indian Tribes: Report of the Joint Special Committee, Appointed under Joint Resolution of March 3, 1865 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1867), ii.

Last updated: February 28, 2015

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