Gettysburg in the Western Territories

By Hayden McDonald ’25

The role and importance of the State in the Civil War is one that cannot be exaggerated. The idea of Statehood was integral for community and individual identity amongst Civil War soldiers from both sides. As important to the common soldier as more abstract ideas like “Union” and “Confederacy” may have been, many also turned to the slightly more concrete institution of Statehood for inspiration. Many on both sides were as fiercely loyal to their state as to their national government. Many Virginians sought to protect the Old Dominion from supposed Northern depredation as much as they desired to support the newly forged Southern Confederacy. When Lee’s army crossed the Potomac in 1863 and marched north onto Union soil, Pennsylvanians understood the coming conflict to dictate the fate of their nation as well as their state. For native Pennsylvania soldiers, the Rebel invasion was an affront to home and hearth, as well as a threat to the Union, and a return to native soil to defend their state from the Rebels was both a source of “homecoming” joy and newfound determination to protect Pennsylvania at all costs.

At the outbreak of the secession crisis in 1861, only 34 of today’s 50 states were members of the Union. A 35th would be added in 1863 in the form of West Virginia, but still, the vast amount of land west of the Mississippi River was governed as territories, not states, throughout the Civil War. In a war that was fought over either the protection or disintegration of a national Union between the States, these territories occupied a nebulous position. For most of these western territories, the war was a distant echo in everyday affairs. However, these events were routinely covered by territorial newspapers, for many understood that the outcome of the war would dictate the future of these territories.

As reports of the battle of Gettysburg circulated throughout the nation and newspapers inundated their readers with conflicting, and sometimes entirely fabricated descriptions of the battle’s outcome, word of the conflict reached the isolated territories. In the New Mexico territory, the Santa Fe Gazette reported on the battle, and on August 1st of 1863 lauded the achievements of “that brave body of American soldiers” and their victory over the Southern invaders. In its reporting, the Gazette is staunchly loyal to the Union cause, and condemns further attempts by the Confederacy to escalate or continue the conflict. As the editor puts it, the South’s manpower had suffered so heavily that it will “make them consider long before they conclude to prosecute the rebellion to greater extremes.”

What is truly interesting about how the Santa Fe Gazette discusses Gettysburg and the Civil War as a whole is the relative detachment with which the paper reports on it: Gettysburg is a distant place caught up in a distant war. The pressing matters of the nation in Washington D.C. and Richmond are mere points of conversation for the majority of residents in Santa Fe. The massive armies of North and South are fighting each other on the other side of the continent. Far nearer at hand are the rampages of the Navajo on American settlers. As important as Lee’s losses at Gettysburg may be, it is the story of the ongoing war with the Native Americans of the region that is most pertinent. For the Santa Fe Gazette, the real strategic reverse did not happen on the fields of Gettysburg, but rather with the arrival of several hundred Native Americans of the Ute tribe who agreed to fight alongside American settlers against the Navajo.

Equally supportive of the Northern war effort is an account of the battle of Gettysburg published by the Washington Statesman of Walla Walla, then Washington territory. The Washington territory lay, at that time, at the westernmost fringes of the United States. In the extreme northwest of the nation, the people of Walla Walla were as far from the conflict as one might get within the nation. With this distance came also a skepticism of the newspaper reporters of the East. For too long had editors in the West been fed information that erred from reality, or were fed false hopes of quick victory over the rebels. In a July 18th, 1863 edition of the paper, the editor of the Washington Statesman surely found some issue with the reports of the South’s “Waterloo defeat” at Gettysburg. As the editor writes, “we have no great faith in this wholesale bagging business. All the braggadocio heretofore indulged in about capturing large bodies of troops has resulted in a good wide gap for the army so to be bagged, to escape through.” Clearly, news of a quick end to the war had been transmitted West one too many times. The natural distance from the eastern battlefields to the American territories in the far West bred a disconnect between those territories and the war itself. Newspapers depicted this disconnect in different ways, whether that be through the Washington Statesman’s skepticism or the Santa Fe Gazette’s bookmarking of Gettysburg so as to discuss the latest news in the geographically closer Navajo war. The war affected Americans in myriad ways, and the echoes of that conflict grew fainter the further they traveled from the fields of battle. These two papers provide an instructive example of how vastly different Americans’ experiences of the Civil War were: To those closer to the East, it was a time of up-close-and-personal bloody carnage, widespread destruction of landscapes and infrastructure, everyday threats to lives and livelihoods. While the war undoubtedly shaped the lives and futures of westerners in no small way, for them, distant rumors, suspect reporting, and often merely “footnoted” battles comprised the reality of their Civil War.

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