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West of the Mississippi River, the Civil War was a struggle for territory and border states that lacked much of the bloodshed in the east, yet was still important to the war’s outcome.

This lesson will cover some of the key events of this theater of the war.

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Another Side of the Civil War

When most Americans think of the American Civil War, the names that immediately come to mind are places such as Gettysburg and Antietam, or states such as Virginia and Tennessee. The Civil War, however, was a huge event that spanned the North American continent.

At the time of the war, most of the settled United States was east of the Mississippi River. That did not mean that the war was only fought east of the Mississippi, however. There were numerous battles and campaigns west of the Mississippi as well. Let’s learn more about these little-known operations.

West of the Mississippi

In many ways, the territory west of the Mississippi River was the main reason that the Civil War came about. As the nation expanded during the 19th century, more and more western territories came under the control of the U.S.

government. With these added territories, a fight was ignited between Northern and Southern states over the potential westward spread of slavery. This fight led to the creation of the new Republican Party, which in turn led to the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860. Following this, the Southern states seceded to defend slavery and its westward spread, and the Civil War soon began.

The War Expands West

Initially, both sides focused on creating armies, believing the war would be won with one big battle. After the First Battle of Bull Run, however, both North and South realized that the war would not be a quick and easy affair, and both Union and Confederate forces began preparing for a larger struggle.For the Confederacy, part of that struggle was using their limited resources and manpower wisely.

They had hundreds of miles to defend, but also wanted to threaten Union forces where they were vulnerable. One of those areas was California and the Pacific Coast.In 1861, as Southern states were joining the Confederacy, some in southern California wanted either for California to secede from the Union, or for their part of California to secede from the rest of the state. As a result, a small number of Union and Confederate troops skirmished back and forth, with Federals ultimately maintaining control of southern California. Federal troops remained in California for the rest of the war, keeping the entire state in the Union.

Arizona and New Mexico

Of greater importance than the actions in California was what occurred in New Mexico and Arizona during the Civil War. These areas were still territories of the United States at that time.

Just west of Texas, a Confederate state, they posed an interesting potential of expansion for the Confederacy. After all, one of the main issues that led to the push for Southern independence was the concern over the western spread of slavery being limited by the Federal government. Thus, the Confederacy wanted influence and a presence in these territories.Soon after the war began, Confederates sent troops into the territories of New Mexico and Arizona. Over the next few years, Confederates tried to maintain a presence in Arizona, withdrawing in 1863 despite parts of the territory that expressed a willingness and desire to join the Confederacy.In March 1862, Union forces defeated Confederates at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, stopping the Confederate effort to maintain control over New Mexico.

While this battle was extremely small by the standards of the war’s eastern theater (there were just a few hundred casualties), it had a large influence on who maintained control of the New Mexico territory. With the defeat at Glorieta Pass, Confederates did not have a realistic hope of maintaining a presence in lands west of Texas.

The Trans-Mississippi Theater

The most important operations west of the Mississippi River occurred in what is generally known as the Trans-Mississippi Theater. The Trans-Mississippi included states such as Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and parts of the Indian Territory which is now Oklahoma. With important Confederate states, such as Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, all having territory west of the Mississippi, the South needed to maintain control of the river to protect their western states.Much of the initial battle just west of the Mississippi revolved around Missouri, a slave state that remained in the Union, thus being known as a ‘Border State.’ The Confederacy badly wanted Missouri to break away from the Union to strengthen the Southern cause.

Thus, both Union and Confederate troops tried to sway the state in the early years of the Civil War.In 1861, pro-Southern forces in Missouri banded together in an attempt to save the state for the South. Missouri Governor Claiborne Jackson led a group of Missouri state troops in linking up with Confederate General Ben McCulloch.

These forces defeated Union troops at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek in August 1861, one of the first major engagements of the American Civil War.Once a sizable Union force arrived, however, Confederates fell back into Arkansas, where they were defeated at the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862. Confederate Major General Earl Van Dorn had been attempting to reclaim parts of Missouri for the South, but Pea Ridge effectively stopped him, keeping Missouri for the Union.For the rest of the Civil War, Missouri was a scene of fierce and brutal guerrilla fighting, with local militia groups, known most commonly as ‘Bushwhackers,’ marauding through the state and attacking Union troops wherever possible. Pro-Union guerrilla groups added to the ferocity as well, and each side committed acts of aggression and terror against civilians throughout the state.

The guerrilla warfare fighting in Missouri stands as one of the darker occurrences of the Civil War.Elsewhere west of the Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas saw considerable attention from Union forces. Because the Mississippi River was so crucial for defeating the South, Union troops seized several key points on the river in 1862. Most notably, New Orleans was taken by Union forces in April 1862.

Of particular note was the blockade running that was done in this region. With the U.S. Navy keeping a tight watch on Southern shores, Texas and western Louisiana became key places for ships to attempt to sneak through and deliver goods to the South.

Lesson Summary

The fighting west of the Mississippi during the Civil War was very spread out and it reflected the growing needs of both the North and the South. Union and Confederate attempts to capitalize on seizing territories and allegiances in the less populated parts of the country is a part of the Civil War which few know today.The fighting in the Trans-Mississippi played a big role in keeping Missouri in the Union, as well as in determining who would be in control of crucial port cities such as New Orleans, as well as who would control the Mississippi River itself. Certainly, the fighting in this theater never approached battles such as Antietam and Gettysburg in ferocity or numbers of casualties, but because the Civil War was a broad event that affected every part of the nation, the battles and struggles west of the Mississippi were still important to the war’s outcome.

Learning Outcomes

After concluding this lesson, you might have the ability to:

  • Cite many of the major players in the Civil War west of the Mississippi
  • Realize the importance of control of the river itself
  • Hold a discussion about the Union successes in California, New Mexico and Arizona

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