- Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West
Snatching odd moments during sentinel duty at Fort Fauntleroy in New Mexico, William Need penned an urgent message to Secretary of War Simon Cameron in September 1861. Thousands of miles from the killing fields of Manassas, Virginia, where the Union army had gone down in defeat several months earlier, an equally ominous development was unfolding along the borderlands of the American Southwest. “The Texas rebels and Arizona cut-throats, like the ancient Goths and Vandals, are at the very gates,” threatening the entire western half of the continent, Need warned. That threat was especially dire, he added, as the territory lacked both the means and the will to beat back the rebel invaders. Indeed, New Mexico had been in the hands of proslavery military and political forces for years, and now, with Confederate secession, a longstanding southern plot to capture the Southwest seemed nearly inevitable. To ascertain the nature of rebel ambitions in the Southwest, Need wrote, Cameron should look no further than the Confederate chief himself. For more than a decade, Jefferson Davis had coveted the region, especially Arizona, “his beau ideal of a railroad route to the Pacific.” The region, Need continued, “was to him the terra incognita of a grand scheme of intercommunication and territorial expansion more vast and complicated than was ever dreamed of by Napoleon Bonaparte in his palmiest days of pride and power.”1
Need’s fears were justifiable. And his assessment of Jefferson Davis’s western ambitions was hardly exaggerated. Beginning shortly after the U.S.-Mexico War, Davis directed his attention beyond the Mississippi and articulated a sweeping proslavery vision of empire in the West, a vision that would have grave consequences for the deepening political crisis between North and South. Perhaps no antebellum political figure had such a decisive impact on American development in the Far West. As a senator and secretary of war, Davis steered the antebellum debate on the transcontinental railroad, helped orchestrate the last American land-grab of the period, introduced a camel corps to the Southwestern desert, and [End Page 536] paved the way for the major overland mail route to the Pacific. Then, as the Confederate commander in chief, he channeled his political ambitions into military objectives, authorizing several invasions of the Southwest during the war.
Most biographies of Davis skate over his Trans-Mississippi ambitions, just as most histories of the sectional crisis overlook proslavery operations in the Far West. Davis’s role as Confederate president has served as something of a historiographical vortex, obscuring his contributions to the nation’s march westward before the war.2 More generally, there has been surprisingly little written on proslavery visions of empire in the Trans-Mississippi West. Although an excellent and growing body of literature—from the works of Robert May to Walter Johnson and now Matthew Karp—has enriched our understanding of antebellum southern imperialism, the focus of this scholarship is largely confined to the Atlantic Basin.3 Deservedly, the dramatic episodes in proslavery empire-building—such as the multiple attempts to seize Cuba and William Walker’s short-lived slaveholding republic in Nicaragua—have attracted their share of historical scrutiny. Yet such attention may distract from the less overtly violent, though ultimately more successful, proslavery push into the Far West.
With a limited perspective on proslavery expansionism, histories of the Civil War era generally suffer from geographic narrowness. Although historians frequently cite the westward expansion of slavery as the key issue that led to the war, only rarely do they look beyond Bleeding Kansas.4 With a few notable exceptions, the existing scholarship gives the misleading impression that California, for instance, ceased to attract sectional controversy after its admission as a free state in 1850. In these works, California makes only a fleeting appearance, receding from view upon the resolution of Henry Clay’s Omnibus Bill. Similarly, other parts of the Far Southwest—including New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah—rarely figure into the political accounts of this period.5
Taking Davis and his geopolitics as a starting point, this article suggests new ways of thinking about the sectional crisis and the...