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Stolen Picacho plaque honoring Confederate cavalry was missing historical facts

Though I have written about the Civil War in Arizona, and my work is cited in a book called "The Civil War In Arizona," I am a little embarrassed to admit that I never actually read the Confederate memorial plaque at Picacho Peak State Park until the recent reports of its disappearance a month ago.

The text describes how CSA cavalrymen “successfully defended” the pass against advancing federal troops, delaying their entrance into Tucson by a month.

This is largely bunk.

The "Affair at Picacho," as it was called in contemporary reports, was an encounter between two advance pickets who ran into each other while scouting the approach to Tucson for their respective armies. Each party was sent forward with orders to observe and report rather than to engage the enemy.

There was no "defense" of the pass north of Tucson. There was no "delay" of the Union Army.

If anything, the skirmish gave the Union forces of the California Column an additional sense of urgency, Their advance was slow not because of the superiority of Confederate arms, but because of the logistical challenge of moving a force of over 2,000 men across a largely undeveloped desert.

The reality was that skirmish was a victory for nobody.

For the federals, it confirmed (false) rumors that a large Confederate force was entrenched in Tucson. For the rebels, it made it clear that substantial army from California was on its way, and they prudently prepared to abandon Arizona for the Río Grande, where they would join the retreating Confederate Army of New Mexico, which had suffered one of the worst humiliations of the war.

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The late historian L. Boyd Finch, who researched and wrote more about this era of Arizona’s history than nearly anybody, once pointed out that there was little serious research about the skirmish at Picacho Pass (not at the adjacent peak) until fairly recently.

“Arizonans,” he wrote, “have felt a need to link their past to the trauma of the great conflict,” but in the absence of scholarship, “tales of the incident arose, some based on pure fancy or misconception.”

Among these tales was the narrative on the plaque, a storyline which not only trumpeted the skirmish as a victory for Southern manhood, but also spun Arizona’s brief dalliance with the Confederacy into something much bigger than it was.

Few of the rebel soldiers who occupied Tucson returned to Arizona after the war, and the Territory as we know it was organized by anti-slavery Republicans only after Union control was restored.

Folks who talk about Arizona’s “Confederate heritage” are not really talking about actual history, rather they are furthering the long-standing project to vindicate the Southern cause and perpetuate a certain narrative about who we are as a country and a state. Though they accuse their detractors of “revisionism,” they have an agenda as well.

The disappearance of the plaque and the current discussion of monuments in general gives the state an opportunity to revisit the interpretation at the site in a way that reflects current scholarship and gives a more balanced view about Arizona’s role in the conflict rather than letting those with one very biased viewpoint claim ownership of our shared history.

Tom Prezelski, a former state representative, is the author of “Californio Lancers: the 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 1863-1866.”

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