When you think of the American Civil War, you think of Gettysburg, Virginia, the fall of Atlanta, Vicksburg, guerilla warfare in the border states like Missouri. But New Mexico?
Yes, New Mexico. The conflict wasn’t as sustained or intense as in the East, but a Confederate force did attempt to capture Santa Fe or at least disrupt the Santa Fe Trail. One of the federal forts established during the period was Fort Union, not too far from El Paso. It’s now a national monument.
Fort Union is also part of the setting for Death’s Confessor: A Civil War Mystery by P.J. Bryant.
Bryant has studied the Civil War for more than 25 years, and written several novels set during the war, including the Shiloh Series. His wife Jennifer Bryant has served as co-author and researcher (she's the J of P.J.).
Death’s Confessor is set in 1863. Peter Thomas Smith is an officer and the post chaplain at Fort Union, having been ordained a Methodist minister. The garrison at the fort keeps a close eye on the Confederates, but also watches the local Apache Indian tribes. Mostly the garrison tries to find ways to alleviate boredom; Smith often plays and loses chess games with his friend Captain Morgan.
An Indian scout finds and brings in a dying man, likely from the federal garrison at Socorro. The man, a Catholic, wants to make his confession. Smith reluctantly agrees to hear it; Methodists (and Protestants in general) don’t do confession to a priest or minister. And the dying man askes forgiveness for killing – and it’s clear that he’s speaking of murder and nor military combat.
Then it’s learned that two soldiers from Fort Union are missing; they supposedly went hunting but didn’t return. When the logs are checked, it turns out there’s no record of their having left the camp. But they and their horses are clearly gone.
Smith and Morgan travel to Socorro to see what can be learned about the dead man. They soon find themselves in the middle of legends about lost silver from 150 years earlier.
Bryant received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of New Mexico. He’s been active in Civil War reenactments in New Mexico and nationally. The sources for the research of his novels include diaries, autobiographies, historical monographs, and first-hand accounts from battle reports and War Department communications.
Death’s Confessor is solidly researched and a well-done mystery story. It’s part-Civil War and part Old West, but the fact is that for a time the two eras converged.
“Two Struck Images” – a Short Story
Bryant has also published a longish short story, entitled “Two Struck Images,” that imagines a s story based upon a Civil War photograph of two brothers. In the story, brothers Thomas and Levi are both members of the 15thWisconsin that is part of the Army of the Cumberland. Their photograph was taken by a photographer in Chattanooga after the city fell to federal forces. They’re on the march from Chattanooga, and the story is about what happens to both brothers.
It’s a poignant reminder of what war can cost, and what the Civil War particularly cost.
Top Illustration: The Fort Union National Monument in New Mexico.