Monday, June 8, 2015

Arenson & Graybill, eds.: "CIVIL WAR WESTS: Testing the Limits of the United States"

[Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States edited by Adam Arenson and Andrew R. Graybill (University of California Press, 2015). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 330 pp. ISBN:978-0-520-28379-4 $29.95]

Just as Civil War and Reconstruction have been too often treated as distinct areas of historical specialization, westward expansion's own nexuses with those periods have until recent times been greatly underexplored by scholars of nineteenth century American history. This is ironic given that sectional strife over the settlement of the vast western territories was one of the conflict's primary causative factors. 

Issues surrounding citizenship and civil rights among freedmen in the Reconstruction South were similarly relevant to the American West, with its hundreds of thousands of Indians and Chinese immigrants numbering in the tens of thousands. Sovereignty, another Civil War and Reconstruction concern, had its own significance in the West, involving borders both national and domestic. Though conducted at a scale dwarfed by the campaigns to the east, military conflict was also widespread in the West between 1861 and 1865. Edited by Adam Arenson and Andrew Graybill, the twelve essays in Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States explore these boundaries and connections, offering "a newly integrated view of the Civil War and Reconstruction and the history of the western United States."

Civil War Wests is divided into three parts, with the four essays contained in each section having a common theme. Part One focuses the most on Civil War period military conflicts in the West and their political contexts. James Jewell's chapter briefly looks at U.S.-British diplomatic rows that militarized the national border in the Pacific Northwest and also pro-secessionist plots in the region. The Confederate invasion of New Mexico is the subject of Megan Kate Nelson's contribution. The failed grasp at southern empire is ably summarized but Nelson's environmental analysis of Confederate strategy suggests an alternative mode of warfare incompatible with strategic goals of invasion, occupation, and resource exploitation. Lance Blyth's excellent essay reviews Kit Carson's 1862-68 military campaigns in the Southwest in the context of the stabilizing effect of its ultimate destruction (through ethnic separation and submission to federal control) of the region's political economy, a centuries old system of reciprocal raids and reprisals over human trafficking and possession of the livestock wealth of the borderland Hispanic and Indian societies. Finally, Diane Burke interprets Union General Thomas Ewing's controversial Order No. 11 as a natural extension of a long history of forced population displacement along the western reaches of Missouri in the name of security, earlier precedents involving the removal of various Indian tribes as well as the Mormons.

Part Two discusses western projections of issues left unresolved by the end of the Civil War. Nicholas Guyatt traces a succession of Republican sponsored plans to establish freedmen colonies in Texas and/or along Mexico's Gulf Coast, all of which collapsed under political and practical concerns.  The largest military presence maintained in an ex-Confederate state was in Texas and Gregory Downs shows readers why this was deemed necessary as the federal government faced threats on three fronts — Imperial Mexico on the other side of the national border, hostile Indian tribes on the frontier, and ex-Confederates residing in both the Texas interior and in Mexico. The West was also a place frequently visited by individuals damaged by the war and William Deverell looks at the western journeys of famous writer Ambrose Bierce and accomplished surgeon Jonathan Letterman. While the natural beauty and opportunity of the West might have provided healing and a fresh start for many psychologically and physically scarred veterans, Deverell's essay finds the wounds of both men beyond the West's power to mend. In Martha Sandweiss's contribution, issues of Reconstruction in the vast "Indian Country" are expressed through the life stories of the six federal Peace Commissioners and young Lakota girl depicted in a 1868 Alexander Gardner photograph.

The four final essays comprising Part Three explore the boundaries of citizenship. Joshua Paddison emphasizes the West's role in the Reconstruction period citizenship debates. The initial concern in Congress was over the suffrage and civil rights of freedmen but questions over how this new expansion of citizenship would affect the West's large Indian and immigrant Chinese populations quickly arose. Paddison's analysis of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the 14th and 15th Amendments, and the Naturalization Act of 1870 traces how federal lawmakers used both race and religion as central factors in constructing arguments for and against expanded citizenship, ultimately rejecting citizenship and voting rights for Chinese immigrants and Indians. The establishment of women's suffrage in Wyoming Territory in 1869 is examined by Virginia Scharff. According to Scharff, while the reasons behind why the legislators of this rough and tumble frontier territory were the first to make history in this fashion are not explicit, the most common thread appears to involve a general desire to attract white women (and their civilizing influence) to Wyoming. The citizen rights of the Choctaw freedpeople is the subject of Fay Yarbrough's essay. Yarbrough makes the interesting observation that the Emancipation Proclamation did not extend to the Indian Territory (and federal officials later on weren't even sure if the 13th Amendment legally applied there) so the rights of ex-slaves of Indian masters were far from certain. While slave life in Indian Territory and in the South were similar and both Choctaws and white southerners were equally resistant to incorporating those of African descent in the body politic, a major post-emancipation difference was the granting of tribal land rights to slaves of Indian masters. However, Choctaw freedmen would have to wait until 1883 before being granted limited citizenship rights in the Choctaw Nation. The last essay in the book examines the adoption of "citizen's clothes" among the Indian tribes of the West. As Stephen Kantrowitz's study of the Ho-Chunk tribe demonstrates, the wearing of American clothing by Indians was regarded by government authorities as a powerful symbol of readiness to accept "civilizing" influences, but the Ho-Chunks themselves quickly learned to manipulate this assumption for their own purposes.

In many different ways, the essays in Civil War Wests skillfully prod general reader and specialist alike into expanding their limited perceptions of the geographical, social, political, military, ethnic, and economic boundaries of traditional Civil War and Reconstruction studies. In addition to source identification and evaluation, the chapter notes also offer readers very helpful suggestions for further reading, a useful feature of all introductory volumes. As Steven Hahn mentions in the book's epilogue, believing that the contents of these essays will (or even should) inspire a radical reappraisal of the dominant narrative of the era is going way too far but, at the same time, the subjects discussed do collectively demand a more meaningful place in the historiography.

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