Sometimes The Civil War Wasn’t About Slavery (Well Sort Of)

In March 1861, Arizona Territory seceded from the Union. However, the Arizona that announced it was leaving the United States bore only a passing resemblance to the present-day state of Arizona. What is today Arizona and New Mexico at the beginning of the 1860s were part of New Mexico Territory, with its capital at Santa Fe. The Arizona Territory, created by secession in March 1861, compromised the southern half of New Mexico Territory (see map below), with two significant political centers, Mesilla in the east and Tucson in the west.

Map Source:

The Ordinance of Secession, creating the Arizona Territory and announcing its intention to join the Confederacy, passed in a convention in Mesilla on March 16, 1861, and a second convention at Tucson on March 28, 1861.

Unique among the secession justifications, slavery was not an explicit issue in this document. Despite a statement complaining of the rise of the Republican party in the North and how it “has disregarded the Constitution of the United States, violated the rights of the Southern States, and heaped wrongs and indignities upon their people,” the Arizona Ordinance of Secession never once mentioned the word “slave” or its variations and its specific reasons for secession instead reflect the problems of settlers in a region in which the American imprint was growing but still limited.

Since 1856, settlers in southern New Mexico Territory had sought to split off and organize their own territorial government. Their aspiration got caught up in the growing sectional tensions of the late 1850s and the belief in the U.S. Congress that the impetus to divide New Mexico Territory into two separate northern and southern territories was  that the settlers hoped to expand slavery into the southern portion.

Yet except for language expressing solidarity with the slave states, the specific grievances of the Arizona Ordinance of Secession instead reflected the complaints of frontier settlers–not slaveholders.  Congress recently had halted mail service along the stage line linking southern New Mexico territory with the rest of the country. The Arizona Ordinance stated, “That the recent enactment of the Federal Congress, removing the mail service from the Atlantic to the Pacific States from the Southern to the Central or Northern route, is another powerful reason for us to ask the Southern Confederate States of America for a continuation of the postal service over the Butterfield or El Paso route, at the earliest period.” The settlers also were angry at the failure of federal troops to halt Apache Indian raids directed at them. The Ordinance exclaimed, “the Government of the United States has heretofore failed to give us adequate protection against the savages within our midst and has denied us an administration of the laws, and that security for life, liberty, and property which is due from all governments to the people.”

So slavery at best was an implicit part of Arizona’s Ordinance of Secession. The conventions at Mesilla and Tucson certainly saw their future with the Confederacy, stating “That geographically and naturally we are bound to the South, and to her we look for protection; and as the Southern States have formed a Confederacy, it is our earnest desire to be attached to that Confederacy as a Territory.” But the specific complaints they described had little in common with the justifications clearly centered on slavery emerging from the established southern states. So in southern New Mexico Territory secession was less about slavery and more about anger over federal policies and actions there and the hope that Confederate authorities would be friendlier to their needs, especially as many of the settlers there were from the slave states.

Whether slavery could have taken root in a Confederate Arizona Territory is at best uncertain. In any case, the entity did not last long. While Texas troops drove federal forces from southern New Mexico Territory in the Summer 1861, defeats there in 1862, especially at Glorieta Pass, effectively ended Confederate control of the region. In 1863, the federal government finally split New Mexico territory in half, but on a line running north-south instead of east west, creating an Arizona Territory that in 1912 finally gained statehood. Interestingly, its Confederate origins were recognized by choosing February 14 as the date Arizona became a state–the same date Jefferson Davis in 1862 had recognized it as a territory of the Confederacy. But slavery was only indirectly behind its creation.

Source: and

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at
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5 Responses to Sometimes The Civil War Wasn’t About Slavery (Well Sort Of)

  1. Clarke Kallinen says:

    If the Civil War was about slavery, then a million white men lost their lives because of slavery. In other words: whites paid a bigger price than blacks for the institution of slavery. Talk about politically incorrect! Of course you’re not allowed to say any such thing — never mind that it’s true.

    • Hi Clarke. My point in this blog post was limited to the situation in New Mexico Territory (which includes present-day Arizona and New Mexico). Plus, a million white men didn’t die in the Civil War. The current accepted estimate is 620,000 deaths, although some scholars are now pushing for the figure to be revised higher (see the Disunion blog in the New York Times). Plus, whatever the figure, proportionately more African-American soldiers died in the Civil War. The vast majority of Civil War deaths were due to disease, and since conditions in the camps of black Union troops were worse than for white soldiers and the quality of medical care poorer, this fact shouldn’t be surprising. So proportionately black troops paid their share of the butcher’s bill for ending slavery and more.

  2. Think About It says:

    It would be impossible for whites to have paid a bigger price for slavery than African-Americans considering the centuries of enslavement, of being used as farm equipment and living in conditions one today wouldn’t want to see an animal living in, which no one can put a price on as well as the countless deaths on the infamous Middle Passage. Why do you think slave traders licked the skin of prospective slaves in Africa to see if they retained enough salt to survive the Middle Passage? Because it was that arduous of a journey and many, many died along the way.

    Secondly, though anyone with any understanding of American history realizes that slavery, specifically its extension into the western territories stolen from Mexico or its non-extension, was the underlying root cause of secession and civil war it is a virtual certainty that exceedingly few white Union soldiers fought and died to end the institution. The overriding goal was to reunite the country under the federal government, not to end slavery. The north was extremely racist itself. A huge amount of white northern workers were terrified of the prospect of free black men competing with them for scarce jobs. The “Free-Soilers” in the midwest abhorred slavery… because it would present unfair competition to their small family farms. If believing that slavery has to be abolished come Hell or high water was a requirement for serving in the Union army it would have been a very small army indeed. Don’t be deluded into thinking that the end result was the motivation for enlistment.

  3. Leonardo says:

    Pretty interesting ,if obscure part of southwest history. From what I know about this era in AZ history, confederate aligned militias (including the earliest incarnation of the Arizona rangers), were fighting apaches and bandits before the union California column drove the rebels out in the summer of ’62. From there, the bloody apache wars would expand and be waged until the surrender of Geronimo in 1886.It was a tragic and wild era of this region.

  4. Kenneth Kellogg says:

    There was one other hint about slavery in the Arizona Ordinance of Secession: “RESOLVED, That we will not recognize the present Black Republican Administration, and that we will resist any officers appointed to this Territory by said Administration with whatever means in our power.” The pro-Southerners used the epithet “Black Republicans” because of their opposition to slavery and their supposed sympathy to black people.

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