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Not Gone with the Wind

Near Lordsburg, a plaque honoring Jefferson Davis recalls some Americans' lingering fondness for the Confederacy.

By Jeff Berg

 

If you are a New Mexico history buff, you are probably familiar with what is sometimes referred to as the New Mexico Campaign, which took place during the early part of the Civil War, mostly between the summer of 1861 and the spring of 1862. If not, you soon will be, so keep reading!

Evidently a Yankee mutt got to the Jefferson Davis marker before our photographer. (Photo by Bob Venners)

In the summer of 1861, Confederate Lt. Colonel John Baylor, with a group of Texas volunteers, perhaps around half the force of 800 he'd left central Texas with (the others apparently having second thoughts or finding better things to do along the way), arrived in Mesilla, which then became one of the hubs of Civil War activity in this area. After a brief skirmish, Baylor and his troops gave the Union commander of nearby Fort Fillmore, Major Isaac Lynde, pause to think. Lynde didn't think too long, abandoning the fort and heading east over the Organ Mountains. But Baylor was able to pursue and cut the Union troops off from the nearest water supply, at San Augustine Springs. Lynde surrendered his command, much to Baylor's apparent surprise.

Mesilla then became the "capital" of the Confederate Territory of Arizona.

While some of Baylor's men were dispatched to Tucson, Mesilla became a base of operation for the impending followup invasion by Confederate General H.H. Sibley. Sibley arrived in New Mexico in early 1862, proceeded up the west side of the Rio Grande and defeated the Union garrison at Val Verde, near Fort Craig, just south of Socorro. (That was the only battle in the Civil War to feature lancers–mounted men with long pikes–charging Union soldiers armed with rifles and artillery, thus displaying military intelligence at its best.) Sibley then marched to and captured Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

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But Sibley's men were defeated at a battle northeast of Santa Fe around Glorieta and Apache Pass. A full retreat down the Rio Grande back to Texas ended the South's hopes of a western territory.

There were minor scrapes that took place farther west between the blue and the gray, one that took place at a spot called Stanwix Station, on the Colorado River north of Yuma, Ariz., and another at Picacho Peak, north of Tucson. There is also evidence of another small clash between regular Union troops and Confederate guerrillas in southern Colorado.

After Baylor's short-lived victory at San Augustine Pass (currently, US 70 runs over the summit), political maneuverings followed. In February 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis declared the act to organize "the Territory of Arizona to be in full force and operation, and I have proceeded to appoint the officers therein provided to be appointed in and for said territory."

The elaborate if somewhat farfetched Confederate plan was for Sibley to continue to march north to take the booming Colorado goldfields. From there Sibley's troops would proceed farther north to Fort Laramie, Wyo., and then to California, where golden riches and Confederate sympathizers awaited. There was also talk of enlisting the help of the northern states of Mexico as allies.

All this grand planning came to an abrupt end when Sibley was defeated.

 

This is not to say, however, that the Civil War has ended in New Mexico and west Texas. A replica of one of the flags used by the Confederacy flies at the Texas official state visitor's center on I-10. Mesilla's Fountain Theatre notes in its history the days that the spot once served as a barracks for Confederate soldiers.

And also along I-10, if one stops in Lordsburg at the official State of New Mexico Visitors Center, one can read the plaque that now resides there, courtesy of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), which denotes the presence of the Jefferson Davis Highway.

Davis, a one-time officer in the US Army and US Senator, was also, as noted by a UDC pamphlet, "a great secretary of war, a great statesman, and a great American," among other things. Of course, "Jeff" Davis later became the somewhat reluctant president of the Confederate States of America.

The marker, which has been moved several times in recent years, has an interesting history. Leslie Tomerlin, who is the supervisor of the Lordsburg Visitors Information Center, says that at one time the marker sat closer to the border. The highway department later moved it closer to Hwy. 80 (the grandparent of I-10), near Road Forks. Later, the marker unceremoniously ended up in a garage, until it found its current home at the visitors' center 20 or so years ago.

Tomerlin notes that the visitor's center still gets comments from people who feel that the little marker is inappropriate.

 

The idea for the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway first arose at a Confederate Reunion in 1913 from UDC member Mrs. Alexander White and her cousin, T.W. Smith, a Confederate veteran from Mississippi. Her casual comment on a springlike day in May of that year, "I wish we could have a fine big highway going all through the South," was taken to heart by cousin Smith. He reportedly encouraged her to have the United Daughters of the Confederacy get busy on the project, and to call it the Jefferson Davis Highway, and to have it stretch from "ocean to ocean."

Later that year at the annual UDC convention, another Mississippian, Mrs. Robert Houston, encouraged Mrs. White (overly sensitive readers please note: as was typical for the times, the first names of the women in this piece are not noted in the research material I found) to forge ahead with the project. As grandly envisioned, the highway would begin in Washington State, continue to San Diego, and from there head eastward across the newly minted states of Arizona and New Mexico and on through the former states of the Confederacy.

"Lest We Forget" became the official moniker for the project. The Jefferson Davis National Highway became the only cross-country trail route sponsored by a women's organization.

The road also incorporated two auxiliary routes as it snaked across the country, one leading to Davis' birthplace in Fairview, Ky., the other to Irwinsville, Georgia, where, as the UDC notes, Davis was captured by Union Army forces in May 1865, and was given cause to bear "upon his frail shoulders all the scorn and calumny heaped upon a helpless people."

There is conflicting information about when the road, which originally was meant to be a rock highway, was completed, but around 1939 seems a fairly safe bet.

Although the road was part of a "named trail" project of the time, the identification with Davis was quite prominent in the early years of the highway. Groups sponsoring such projects, and there were many, were allowed to put up markers on trees or posts along the roadside, which the UDC did, a multi-colored affair with the letters "JDH" on the marker. Acceptance of the highway named after the head Rebel was generally favorable, as Davis' career prior to the war that is gently referred to as "the recent unpleasantness" was well documented and he was otherwise an upstanding citizen, who just happened to favor states rights.

Ironically, the highway extended all the way to Washington, DC, where a marker near a Potomac River bridge had to be moved in the 1940s when it became a traffic hazard.

For the most part, the trail system has pretty much faded away around the country, but the Jefferson Davis Highway is still quite noted in the South, where it strings through all but four of the former Confederacy's state capitals.

In Alabama, a section of the highway stretching between the cities of Selma and Montgomery is now officially known as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail. It is along this stretch of Confederate road that some black Americans continued to fight for their rights exactly a hundred years after the end of the "recent unpleasantness," when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the Voting Rights March between those two former stalwart cities of the Confederacy. This stretch is now, perhaps more appropriately, known as an "international symbol of freedom."

 

With thanks to Paula England, of Safford, Ariz., the second vice president of the General Joe Wheeler Chapter of the UDC, for her help in locating research materials.

Senior Writer Jeff Berg says he has seceded from the Union until at least 2008.

 

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