If you think you know “the West” or if you think you know “the Civil War,” of you think you both, well then Megan Kate Nelson, a writer and historian has an eye-opening, illusion-shattering surprise for you.
Nelson’s The Three-Cornered War, the Union, the Confederacy, and Native People in the Fight for the West is an exceptional, well-told book through the eyes and voices of memorable men and women on the struggle she chronicles from 1861 to 1868. The “West” to Nelson means the vast “West” of mountains and deserts. It runs lengthwise from El Paso to the Colorado River and in depth from Colorado mining towns into Northern Mexico.
Of course, names, such as Kit Carson, Geronimo, and Cochise, are known in the literature, graphic art, dramatizations — stage, big screen, small screen, and probably phone screen, are known in the lore of this inland empire; but Nelson gives life to them in new light and so many more intriguing personalities.
Among the most interesting is Louisa Canby, the wife of a senior Union officer, who nursed wounded and ill Confederates and likely aided in their taking of blankets and other supplies that kept them alive in occupied Santa Fe.
As for Civil War combat, Valverde, Glorieta Pass, and Adobe Walls may not carry the resonance and certainly the scale of Antietam, Gettysburg, and Franklin, Tenn., but they were key battles in deciding whether that vast territory, much of it taken from Mexico less than 20 years before belonged to the Union or Confederacy.
Nelson’s descriptions of those days’ events is first-rate. But to me, the strength in Three-Cornered War on the military side of this book comes in detailing the impact of geographic reality of vast distances, varied terrain — high desert plain, canyons, passes, mountains, and, always, little water and shade this inland empire extracts on ambitious white commanders and their men.
The book is also rich with maps, illustrations, and pictures.
The story she weaves of the “native people” — particularly the Chiricahua Apaches and Navajo is as illuminating as its powerful. The force that was Mangas Colorados among the Apaches in that time gave me a far greater understanding of how relations between them, white miners and settlers, and soldiers ebbed, flowed and bled in brutish raids.
“Juanita,” the final chapter, is haunting. It starts with “a large group of Navajos” gathering on the doomed reservation they had been sent to “in search for a coyote, an intelligent and adaptive animal that the Dine [people] had knowledge beyond that” of humans. The middle is the hows, wherefores, therefores of the negotiations between the United States government here led by General William Tecumseh Sherman and the Navajos over where they could live in peace with their flocks as a distinct people.
The treaty wasn’t perfect — required education of their children in English, but …
Pluses far outweighed the minuses.
And in the end, “The Dine would go home,” to the lands they had long known before. “Returning to Dine Bikeyan after four years of imprisonment and exile, the Navajos were trees blooming after a cold, dark winter.”