Marines.Together We Served

Monday, April 30, 2007

War Talk

This morning I was interviewed by a young man who needed to interview a Vietnam veteran for a school project. The purpose of the interview was to ask my opinion about the Vietnam War. To say the least, I was intrigued.

Since I know this young man’s parents, I was curious to see how he would conduct the interview. His father is a colonel in the Army Reserve and has served in the current war in Iraq.

The interview was great fun for me because I got to talk about some of my favorite subjects: History, and War. We allowed for an hour, but it lasted almost two, and we weren’t even done! I will plead guilty since I was going back into the history of our nation and how we wound up in Vietnam. I was on a roll! To his credit, this young man is very bright and has a firm grasp of American history. Let me say right now that if more Americans knew their history like this teenager does, we wouldn’t be having so much fuss over the current war in Iraq.

This all got me to thinking about the whys and wherefores of war. Let’s take the Civil War for example (a particular favorite of mine). Asked which of the battles was critical to the overall outcome, you might hear: Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, or Bull Run. Undoubtedly, all these and others were important. But in my personal opinion, the decisive battles were fought in New Mexico. You read this right – New Mexico.

You see, when President Lincoln assumed the presidency in February of 1861, the formulation of a Confederate government was already in the works. Lincoln was opposed to slavery, make no mistake. However, he was more concerned in keeping the Union intact. He knew that if he came into the presidency breathing threats against states that were planning to secede he would invite the apparently inevitable Civil War. The drumbeats of civil war had begun in earnest in the early 1830s.

Lincoln believed he could avoid the war by isolating the south. If slavery were maintained in the southern states alone, economic and social pressure would eventually force a change, bringing about the desired end of slavery. Only fifteen percent of southerners owned slaves, so there appeared to be no need to engage in a civil war. Unfortunately, southerners did not see it the same way. They felt their lifestyle and economic successes were being threatened. Here’s where New Mexico comes in.

Everyone in the United States in those days was enamored with the lands to the west. Many a family, as is well known, packed up all their belongings in Conestoga wagons and moved west. Southerners were no exception. The problem was they wanted to take their slaves with them. President Lincoln believed that if this was permitted, slavery would spread to these new western areas, thus encouraging and extending the existence of slavery in the United States.

In addition, the Union blockade of southern shipping ports was having a critical effect on the southern economy. If the south could open up a passage through New Mexico and Arizona to California, they could be resupplied from the west. This had already been tried through Mexico, but failed due to France’s own war in Mexico. Lincoln was very concerned that Napoleon III would succeed in Mexico, opening a way of providing supplies to the south, not to mention France’s violation of the Monroe Doctrine which prohibited other nations (Read: European) from gaining a foothold anywhere in the Americas. The French had their hands full with Mexico, so by the time France succeeded in defeating the Mexican forces, it was 1863 and there was no longer any incentive for France to support what appeared to be a losing cause for the Confederacy.

New Mexico battles in 1861 and 1862 were decisive for this very reason: It arrested the expansion of slavery into the western areas, and it shut off an avenue of supply that the Confederacy desperately needed.

The New Mexico Territory was originally controlled by Confederates forces, having been declared for the Southern Cause, or at least until Union forces showed up. This territory consisted of western New Mexico, most of Arizona, a small part of Colorado, and Nevada. The Battle of Glorieta Pass in April of 1862, known as the “Gettysburg of the West,” was the pivotal battle that changed the course of American history.

One amusing incident would send today’s animal rights activists into a state of apoplexy. Confederate Captain James Graydon of the New Mexican scouts and spies, concocted a rather ingenious plan. Unfortunately for the good captain, known as “Paddy,” the plan backfired – literally. Hoping to disrupt the Union forces, he took two mules that were quite old, strapped them with howitzer shells and a lighted fuse and sent them walking toward the supply of Union cattle grazing nearby. The mules instead, turned around and followed the Confederate forces back toward camp. Paddy and his boys took to flight, racing to safety. Far behind them, the shells exploded harmlessly – except for the unfortunate mules.

War, like the rest of life, indeed has its strange twists and turns.

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