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  • The Civil War from Apache Pass
  • Megan Kate Nelson (bio)

You are standing in an old wagon rut in Apache Pass, Arizona. The blue grama grasses undulate in the breeze and the grasshoppers whir around your feet. You are somewhat out of breath, as it is more than five thousand feet above sea level in the pass. The air is dry and the sky is a clear, vivid blue. You look around the broad valley, broken by gulches and ravines and surrounded by steep hillsides dotted with Arizona white oaks, mesquite trees, and chaparral. You are pretty sure you’re the only person out here.

The wagon rut is one of the last traces of the old Butterfield Overland Mail Route, a vital link between Arizona mines and ranches, and markets both east and west. Beside it are the ruins of the mail station, a 1858 stone structure that housed a stationmaster and a cook, and stored food and forage for the stage teams that came up and over the Pass twice a week. A short distance away, more ruins: Old Fort Bowie, built in 1862 by Union soldiers, and abandoned six years later for a more suitable site higher in the pass. Down the hill from the rut, headstones push out of the grama like teeth. Into one of them are carved these words: “In Memory of Col. Stone. Supposed to be.” In the midst of all of these vestiges of the past is Apache Spring. It is the reason that the ruts, the station, the fort, and the cemetery are here. The spring bubbles up out of a small cavern in the hillside, the only water source in a sixty-mile radius.

From where you are standing, beside a small trickle of a stream in the midst of the Chiricahua Mountains, the American Civil War seems very far away. These are not the verdant fields of Gettysburg, the dense and humid swamps of the Virginia Peninsula, the sandy beaches of the Sea Islands. There were no huge army camps here or massed charges at the enemy through the thick smoke of artillery fire. And therefore very few Civil War historians have examined this theater of the war, or even considered it part of the war’s master narrative, as Stacey Smith points out in her review essay for this special issue. But the West—an area of the continent stretching from the Pacific Coast to the 100th meridian—was a region [End Page 510] that provoked the sectional conflicts that brought on the American Civil War. And it is central to the military, political, and social histories of the war itself.

Apache Pass sits at the center of the Southwest (West Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, southern Colorado, and southern Utah), the region in which most of the Civil War battles in the West were fought. The Spanish called the summit Puerto del Dado: Pass of the Die, suggesting that people moving through here rolled the dice and gambled with their lives. It was both a barrier and a bridge, a crossroads of war. Union and Confederate troops moved through Apache Pass many times over the course of the war, attempting to establish some measure of control and authority over the West, to make their dreams of empire manifest. Chiricahua Apaches—especially bands led by Cochise and Mangas Coloradas—clashed with American soldiers and civilians here, asserting their own territorial claims and disrupting both Union and Confederate plans for the future. When you stand in Apache Pass and see the war from here, you reorient your vision.

You see the Civil War as a central part of the complex history of American expansion and empire building, and resistance to it—not a lull in that history.1 You see clearly, perhaps more clearly than any other theater of the war, the important role of natural resources in provoking struggles for power and in shaping the nature of warfare. You see the Civil War as not only a fight between white men over the right to own slaves, but also a series of conflicts between American Indians and Anglo Americans over the right to self-determination.2 These battles left...


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pp. 510-535
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