NMSU historian plans presentation in Bloomfield on reasons behind Civil War secession
Dwight Pitcaithley served as chief historian for National Park Service
FARMINGTON — Author Dwight Pitcaithley chuckles with amusement when he describes the ignominious start to his college career as an undergraduate, and largely uninterested, music major at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.
"That didn't work so well," he said. "(They) asked me to leave and come back when I could maintain a higher grade point average."
While many people in that position would have bailed on the idea of taking a second crack at higher education, Pitcaithley regrouped and found another major — history — that was more to his liking. He wound up thriving in the academic environment.
After graduating from ENMU with bachelor's and master's degrees, Pitcaithley earned his doctorate from Texas Tech and promptly began a long career with the National Park Service as a historian, eventually rising to the post of chief historian for the agency. He long had been a fan of Western history, but it was while he was working for the Park Service in Washington, D.C., that he had the chance to indulge his other main area of interest, the Civil War.
Pitcaithley — who will deliver a presentation at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 17 at the Bloomfield Cultural Center, 333 S. 1st St. in Bloomfield — retired from the federal agency in 2005 and now serves as an adjunct professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.
He has devoted himself for the past several years to writing a series of books that digs deep into the historical record, examining the reasons why 11 Southern states seceded from the Union and convened under the banner of the Confederate States of America.
Pitcaithley said he will devote much of his presentation next week to that subject. He said his books will examine each state independently, as the first effort in the series was devoted to Tennessee and came out in December 2020. Others will follow, including books on border states such as Kentucky and Missouri that chose not to withdraw from the Union.
While the Civic War remains a subject of intense interest for many Americans, Pitcaithley acknowledged that is not so much the case in New Mexico, where he said other historical episodes may seem to resonate more. But the state does have a rich, albeit brief, Civil War history, culminating in the Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862, an event sometimes referred to as the Gettysburg of the West.
"My students, who are mostly from New Mexico, are very surprised to learn the Civil War was in their backyard," he said. "A lot of them who grew up in Albuquerque never knew that Albuquerque was taken over by the Confederacy. The Civil War was not the dominant narrative if you grew up here, not like it is if you grew up in Mississippi or Alabama, where the Civil War is everywhere. It's like it was yesterday."
Pitcaithley uses the extensive records left from the secession conventions of those states, and from subsequent books and other documents produced by Confederacy figures, including President Jefferson Davis and Vice President Andrew Stephens, to shoot holes in the popular narrative that the Civil War was fought over states' rights and federal government overreach.
He maintained there is an enormous gap between the folks who make that claim and the "rich" historical record, which details plainly that the war was fought to protect slavery and white supremacy. Pitcaithley went so far as to say that the biggest misconception people have about the war is that it was fought to defend states' rights, a claim that seems to have had new life breathed into it over the past few years.
That narrative was advanced largely as a face-saving measure after the war, Pitcaithley said, and took root because it soothed the psyche of the defeated South.
"It feels good," he said, describing the appeal of that argument in some quarters. "We don't want to think grandfather fought for slavery."
Pitcaithley will be delivering his presentation for the first time in San Juan County next week, but he has spoken many times around New Mexico on the subject. He said he rarely gets any argument on his presentation from audience members, somewhat to his disappointment.
"I would welcome a little more pushback because it allows us to dig deeper into the record," he said.
When he does encounter someone who tries to advance the states' rights argument, Pitcaithley said all he has to do is refer to his research.
"I say, 'Don't argue with me, argue with Jefferson Davis. I'm just telling you want he said,'" Pitcaithley said, referring to how Davis' own writings clearly outline the South's motivation for seceding.
Even so, the states' rights narrative continues to draw defenders all over America, perhaps even growing in popularity in recent years as the white supremacist movement has seen a resurgence.
"We can't seem to shake it," Pitcaithley said. "We can legislate against slavery, but we can't get rid of the white supremacist ideology that undergirded it. That should be very discouraging for all of us."
The power to finally bring a halt to that narrative lies in educating folks about what really transpired, he said.
"We haven't done very well at that in the last 150 years," he said. "But that's something I always talk to my students about. I hope they do better at this than we did."
Admission to Pitcaithley's presentation is free. Call the Bloomfield Public Library at 505-632-8315 for more information.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or email@example.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.