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The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West Paperback – February 16, 2021
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A dramatic, riveting, and “fresh look at a region typically obscured in accounts of the Civil War. American history buffs will relish this entertaining and eye-opening portrait” (Publishers Weekly).
Megan Kate Nelson “expands our understanding of how the Civil War affected Indigenous peoples and helped to shape the nation” (Library Journal, starred review), reframing the era as one of national conflict—involving not just the North and South, but also the West.
Against the backdrop of this larger series of battles, Nelson introduces nine individuals: John R. Baylor, a Texas legislator who established the Confederate Territory of Arizona; Louisa Hawkins Canby, a Union Army wife who nursed Confederate soldiers back to health in Santa Fe; James Carleton, a professional soldier who engineered campaigns against Navajos and Apaches; Kit Carson, a famous frontiersman who led a regiment of volunteers against the Texans, Navajos, Kiowas, and Comanches; Juanita, a Navajo weaver who resisted Union campaigns against her people; Bill Davidson, a soldier who fought in all of the Confederacy’s major battles in New Mexico; Alonzo Ickis, an Iowa-born gold miner who fought on the side of the Union; John Clark, a friend of Abraham Lincoln’s who embraced the Republican vision for the West as New Mexico’s surveyor-general; and Mangas Coloradas, a revered Chiricahua Apache chief who worked to expand Apache territory in Arizona.
As we learn how these nine charismatic individuals fought for self-determination and control of the region, we also see the importance of individual actions in the midst of a larger military conflict. Based on letters and diaries, military records and oral histories, and photographs and maps from the time, “this history of invasions, battles, and forced migration shapes the United States to this day—and has never been told so well” (Pulitzer Prize–winning author T.J. Stiles).
The Amazon Book Review
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"Megan Kate Nelson has made an invaluable contribution to broadening our understanding of the Civil War in her riveting new book... [It] is also a timely reminder that the Civil War in the Southwest was not just an interesting tidbit in the history of the American West -- it was part and parcel of the confederate objective of creating an 'empire of slavery' that expanded to the west... The book should be read not only by Civil War buffs and students of the American West, but by anyone who wishes to gain a deeper appreciation of American history that goes beyond the traditional lens. It is a masterful synthesis of military and social history in one of the overlooked chapters of the American Civil War."
—LA Review of Books
“Based on extensive archival research, Nelson’s work expands our understanding of how the Civil War affected Indigenous peoples and helped to shape the nation. Readers interested in the Civil War and Western history will enjoy this nuanced portrait of the era.”
—Library Journal, starred
“Brisk and well-sourced… Nelson effectively blends military history with a fresh look at a region typically obscured in accounts of the Civil War. American history buffs will relish this entertaining and eye-opening portrait.”
“[A] useful survey for readers interested in the Civil War in its short-lived southwestern theater.”
“Both engaging and unsparing… [Nelson] balances the stories of individuals from all four groups with deft discussion of the big-picture issues… The result is a gripping history that integrates the Southwest into broader histories of American expansion.”
"Nelson's book sheds light on New Mexico's importance during the war."
—Albuquerque Journal, review
"Subtly argued and richly documented."
—Civil War Times
"A terrific read... this is a very good telling of a story that is unknown to most Americans."
—The Reconstruction Era, blog review
“[A] useful survey for readers interested in the Civil War in its short-lived southwestern theater.”
"Of the several "western theaters" in the Civil War that stretched 1800 miles from Knoxville to Tucson, the events and significance of the once farthest west is least known or understood. Union forces in New Mexico and Arizona repulsed a Confederate attempt to conquer this region and subdued the Navajos and Apaches in a successful effort to "reconstruct" the region into the United States. Megan Kate Nelson's beautifully written account tells this important story."
—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
"In the 1860s New Mexico and the greater West experienced many civil wars. With lucid storytelling, using nine remarkable characters, Nelson reveals a chaotic, desperate struggle of Union against Confederate, Native peoples against other Native peoples, and Natives on both sides. This is the Civil War most Americans do not know and Nelson convinces us once again that the great conflict was about slavery and the winning the West with its land and resources. Rarely is a Civil War book so readable and so new to our understanding."
—David W. Blight, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
"A gripping tale of the Civil War in the West. Exploring the interaction of a fascinating cast of characters during a time of immense change, Nelson reveals an all too human struggle for territorial control. Shifting perspective between nine key characters — men, women, soldiers, and Native Americans — The Three-Cornered War brings this battle between peoples, armies, agendas, and the environment to living breathing life."
—Joanne B. Freeman, author of The Field of Blood and editor of Alexander Hamilton: Writings
"Far from the Civil War's famous battlefields, a handful of individuals decided the fate of a vast landscape. In The Three-Cornered War, Megan Kate Nelson vividly portrays a complex struggle between peoples and armies—Navajo, Apache, Confederate, and Federal—over the mountains and deserts of the Southwest. Fast-paced and suspenseful, Nelson's account shifts perspective from the Navajo leader Juanita to the civilian Louisa Canby, from the Chiricahua titan Mangas Coloradas to the Texan Bill Davidson, among many others, in a web of conflicting agendas and shared suffering. This history of invasions, battles, and forced migration shapes the United States to this day—and has never been told so well."
—T.J. Stiles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America
"Symphonic in scale, The Three-Cornered War blends masterfully the intimate and the epic, weaving the biographies of nine individuals into a story of peoples—Apaches, Texans, New Mexicans, Confederates, Navajos, Federals—whose tragedies and triumphs resonate in the West we know today."
—James F. Brooks, author of Captives and Cousins and Mesa of Sorrows
"The 'hree-Cornered War sheds a bright light on the forgotten intersection of America's westward expansion and its cataclysmic Civil War. Full of irony, sharp character sketches and fast-paced battle scenes, Megan Kate Nelson's book should be read by anyone who wants to understand the roots of modern America -- or just wants a gripping story, powerfully told."
—Clay Risen, author of The Crowded Hour
About the Author
- Publisher : Scribner (February 16, 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 352 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1501152556
- ISBN-13 : 978-1501152559
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 1 x 8.38 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #126,703 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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She also makes basic geographical errors that make the informed reader wince. Which way are the mountains? Dunno.
No worth the price.
A very interesting history of the attempts by the U S Government to exterminate the Native Americans in the Southwest. A tragedy that is largely ignored in our public schools.
Ms. Nelson does an excellent job in her descriptions of events that cover from the summer of 1861 to the summer of 1861. The battle scenes are vivid and absorbing reads. There are three parts to the 260-page book (paperback edition) and helpful black-and-white maps located at the beginning of each one. While the author is fair-minded in her presentation, I was more sympathetic towards the Native Americans’ dilemma because they were constantly dealing with ever-increasing intrusions into their homeland by Mexicans and Americans and eventually forced onto reservations. However, the various tribes were not simply noble stereotypes. The author does not shy away from explaining the various tribes’ and Hispanos’ long-held habits of advocating slavery of people not in their clan as well as killing, kidnapping, and stealing each other’s livestock, women, and children. The territory’s terrain and weather were challenging and demanding. Water was a valuable resource. The time period also included long brutal marches of suffering and death. Frontier justice was the norm. You sure won’t be reading this thing and thinking it sounds just like a fun trip to Disneyland’s Frontierland. The book includes eight pages of black-and-white photo portraits representing some of the main characters.
‘The Three-Cornered War’ is a respectable and serious historical work. Ms. Nelson gives a clear engrossing account of what occurred and why. It is not a dry academic read or preachy in its delivery. Potential gallantry during war was the predominant mindset of the Union and Confederate soldiers. The Native Americans were justifiably ticked off about the constant broken agreements and intrusions as well as destruction of their lifestyles. As is all violent engagements, it was much easier to murder, torture, and ignore basic human decency toward adversaries because the respective parties viewed the other side’s people as inferior human beings or simply evil. While there are examples of tenderness in the author’s book, ‘The Three-Cornered War’ is mostly about the less admirable aspects of the human condition. No side comes out of this thing looking peachy keen.
Top reviews from other countries
This amphitheatre of sparse populations amid a hostile landscape of mountain and scrub is the setting for Megan Kate Nelson’s interesting book. The third ‘corner’ of the title are the Apache and Navajo who found themselves in the way of the main contest. The Union, having abolished slavery, saw no irony in trying to herd Native Americans into reservations so that Anglos could open up the West to mining and railroads without hindrance. The Confederacy just wanted to add them to a slave empire stretching all the way to the Pacific.
How this triangular entanglement played out is brought to life by the author’s telling the story through the well-researched lives of individuals, of all backgrounds, walks of life and status, who were caught up in events. It’s an approach that works well, supplemented by photos of the protagonists, maps, full notes and an immense bibliography. The main narrative requires just 250 pages, which feels about right given the absence of much set-piece fighting, but leaves enough room for the Native American perspective. The Navajo, who just wanted to be left in peace, recognised early on that neither American ‘tribe’ was to be trusted, but of course lacked the leverage to turn back Manifest Destiny. A very readable account.