The Second Colorado Cavalry
A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains
Christopher M. Rein
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 2020, 288 pages
Book Review published on: May 1, 2020
The U.S. Civil War was fought along a far wider range than most casual readers are aware of. Those in the Civil War saw Confederate raids as far north as Vermont and witnessed attempts to subvert California for the rebels. Christopher M. Rein’s book The Second Colorado Cavalry: A Civil War Regiment on the Great Plains looks at the Second Colorado Cavalry, a unit that would range far and wide in the West.
The Second Colorado was initially an infantry regiment. Raised among the prospectors, miners, and workers of the territory, it saw its first action when the unit was sent south into New Mexico Territory, where a Confederate invasion was underway from Texas. This is one of the forgotten chapters of the Civil War, and one that saw the Confederates move up the Rio Grande Valley in an effort to reach the gold mines of Colorado, which would presumably help finance the rebel cause.
The 1862 invasion of New Mexico blooded the Second Colorado at Valverde, which was the biggest battle of the Civil War in the desert southwest and a victory for the Confederates. Rein contends that the rebel losses at Valverde and their failure to force the Union surrender at Fort Craig afterward doomed the Confederate expedition. This is borne out by the Battle of Glorieta Pass, another fight that the Second Colorado participated in, but this time the Confederates lost their supply wagons. The rebels began a long, arduous retreat to Fort Bliss, Texas.
Even as the rebels retreated from New Mexico, another threat began to develop; this one was from Indian Territory. Many of the tribes threw their lot in with the Confederacy and there was a fear that the tribes might launch their own invasion of Union territory.
The Second Colorado gave a solid account of itself in stand-up fights against Confederates and their Indian allies in 1863. Rein does well describing the complicated situation in Indian Territory, especially the loyalties of the different, recently relocated tribes (and conflicting loyalties from within the different tribes). Not only did the Second Colorado fight the rebels, but they also provided security within Kansas because so little Union manpower was committed to the frontier.
Recognizing the need for fast-moving units in the vast distances of the plains, the U.S. Army sent the Second Colorado Volunteer Infantry to Saint Louis to be refitted and trained as cavalry. This would prove to be an important development in the last phase of the Second Colorado’s war: fighting Missouri guerrillas.
Missouri, a slave state, was torn by strong southern interests. There was considerable prewar conflict with Kansas free-soilers, and the infamous civilian evacuation of some Missouri border counties (forced by the U.S. Army) did little to dampen the ardor of pro-slavery men in the state. As s a result, a merry guerrilla war broke out in Missouri, spilling into Kansas on occasion.
Rein likens the role of the Second Cavalry to that of modern peacekeepers in that the Second Colorado was placed between Missourians and Kansans in order to dampen the mutual animosity. The Second Colorado garrisoned several towns within the counties evacuated by general order.
In New Mexico and Indian Territory, Union commanders sought out Confederate supplies, without which the “bushwhackers” could not operate. Abandoned fodder and food kept the guerrillas in the field, so these supplies were burnt when found
Once again, the Second Colorado was fighting on the margins of the war. This chapter in the history of the unit brought it to the Fort Leavenworth area. The fight between the Second Colorado and the partisans was a nasty one, with civilians caught in the crossfire. The Second Colorado Cavalry earned the grudging respect of the Missouri bushwhackers as they conducted some “counter-bushwhacking” of their own.
Finally, the Second Colorado was sent to provide security in defense of the Plains Indians who had risen up to attack settlements. These tribes, distinct from the native American nations relocated to Indian Territory, had no interest in forming military units as the Cherokee and Comanche had. They were more interested in raiding settlements in Kansas and Colorado. This last phase kept the Coloradans in federal service well past the official end of the Civil War.
Units, like people, have collective characteristics based upon their leadership and their individual personalities and experiences. The Union army was fortunate to have the Second Colorado to serve in the role of “Fireman of the Frontier.” The Colorado mountain recruits were familiar with hardship because of the environment in which they sought claims and worked mines. They were used to adapting when circumstances dictated it and they were brave; otherwise, they would have given up long before they were recruited to serve.
Book Review written by: James D. Crabtree, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas