By Emil Franzi
TOM PREZELSKI. Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West 1863-1866. University of Oklahoma Press. Cloth, $32.95, oupress.com
The story of the Hispanic volunteers first conscripted into being Americans. A whole lot of folks from Texas to California found themselves in the USA without having to immigrate after the Mexican-American War. Many had been born subjects of the King of Spain as Mexico had only existed as a nation for a couple of decades, although the cultural and ethnicity stayed pretty much the same. What greatly differed was how that culture reacted to the events basically forced upon it in the ensuing decades in a variety of places – California differed from Texas and both from New Mexico.
While we were having our Civil War, Mexico was having one of theirs. Unlike Texans, Most California Hispanics favored the Union partly because the Confederacy was trying to make book with the French (and other European powers) who were attempting to place the Austrian Maximilian on the throne of Mexico.
Those libertarians retroactively cheering southern independence and secession and degrading Lincoln who write voluminously about issues transcending slavery should note that having two radically diverse foreign policies east of the Mississippi would eventually have led to a war between the FORMER states, but I digress.
One other reason for supporting the North was a liberal streak in many Mexicans which had made slavery, at least on the books, illegal in Mexico in the 1830’s. While some of today’s liberal historians have used that act to claim Mexico was further advanced in the cause of freedom than the US, they neglect to note that constant upheavals for a variety of reasons kept slavery in Mexico alive well into the 20th Century as the families of those Indian children cleaning toilets in a variety of ranchos and haciendas could attest to. Santa Anna was hardly a misunderstood abolitionist.
A major drought had left many vaqueros unemployed, which was an additional recruitment motivator. Superb horsemen who preceded and taught the great American Cowboys of movies and novels, they hardly used the lances Prezelski shows us were standardized earlier for the American cavalry by an officer named McClellan in the 1850’s. There’s a pic of one included.
The battalion of several hundred volunteers was basically ignored by Anglo commanders for two reasons – bigotry and the lack of suitable combat options for their specialized trade. They were assigned secondary roles such as chasing bandits and garrison duty.
Of special interest to Arizonans at the end of our Civil War in the last year of their three year hitch they were dispatched to Southern Arizona and served in a variety of primitive frontier posts including in the three corners area where Pima, Santa Cruz, and Cochise counties now define the geography. Names of almost forgotten places such as Fort Mason and Dragoon Springs mix with Forts Yuma and Buchanan. “Fort” was often an accumulation of a few shacks. Some combat did occur but never more than the skirmishing that typified actions against the Apache. The border was also as always a concern and the battalion patrolled it as described in a chapter on “Maximilian’s Border”.
Prezelski ably uses service records of both officers and men and even gives us a chapter on those who deserted, a common event among all civil war outfits but higher for his subjects.
He also includes a variety of illustrations that show us how primitive early Arizona conditions were.
Arizonans may note that Prezelski served three terms in the Arizona House of Representatives as a Democrat from Tucson which doesn’t stop this old right Republican from judging his first book to be a superb effort. That it was published by the University of Oklahoma Press says much. We look forward to further efforts from this fine local historian and author.
Emil Franzi is the Editor-in-Chief/Publisher of the Southern Arizona News-Examiner and the host of the Voices of the West radio program. Listen to the Voices of the West, a radio program about the Old West, Saturdays at 4pm MST on 1030 KVOI Radio in Tucson and streaming live at voicesofthewest.net. Article appeared at the Southern Arizona News-Examiner.