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Durham University

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The Continental South: Slavery and Civil War in the American West

A research project of the Department of History, part of the Modern research group.


This project rests on a relatively simple premise: America’s struggle over slavery played out on a continental stage. Although historians frequently cite the westward extension of slavery as the key issue that led to disunion in 1861, only rarely do they look beyond Bleeding Kansas. My work reconstructs two interrelated antebellum projects – the campaign for a Pacific railroad through the Deep South and the extension of a proslavery political order across the Far Southwest – to broaden our geographic optic on the Civil War era and to challenge the traditional understanding of slaveholding expansionism. 


Beginning in the 1840s and continuing to the eve of the Civil War, southern expansionists pushed aggressively for a railway that would run from slave country all the way to California. What one railroad booster called “the great slavery road” promised to draw the Far West and the slaveholding South into a political and commercial embrace, while simultaneously providing the plantation economy with direct access to the China trade.  The failure of American policymakers to construct a transcontinental railroad during the antebellum era has discouraged close scholarly scrutiny of this political movement. Yet through their efforts, southern railroaders triggered some of the fiercest sectional struggles of the era, and carried the contest over slavery far beyond the Atlantic world. And while they may have failed in their grand plans for a Pacific railway, slaveholders succeeded in achieving one of the road’s major objectives: to politically link the South and the Far West.

The second part of this project explores how they did so, by reconstructing local political battles in Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Never a majority in the region, southern-born leaders wielded an outsize influence within western legislatures, courtrooms, and newspaper offices to effectively transform the Southwest into a political appendage of the slave South. They succeeded in passing slave codes for both the territories of New Mexico and Utah, and by consistently securing California’s congressional seats for southern partisans. The most successful proslavery expansionists, this section argues, were those who faced west toward California rather than east to Cuba, and who sought the extension of proslavery political interests rather than the outright conquest of territory.

With the fracturing of the Union in 1861, the project of southern expansion moved to the battlefields of a continental civil war. While the Confederacy quickly abandoned any bid for Caribbean colonies, the government launched several western invasions in an effort to open a pathway to California’s ports. Even as the rebellion collapsed across the South, Confederate leaders continued to look west, authorizing yet another invasion of Arizona and New Mexico as late as the spring of 1865. The slaveholders’ dream of a western empire almost outlived slavery itself.


From the Department of History

Further information

For further information, please contact Dr Kevin Waite.