[Riding for the Lone Star: Frontier Cavalry and the Texas Way of War, 1822-1865 by Nathan A. Jennings (University of North Texas Press, 2016). Cloth, 6 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:346/407. ISBN:978-1-57441-635-0. $32.95]
Riding for the Lone Star examines the forty year development of a distinctively Texan way of war beginning in 1822 with Anglo-American colonial militia in Spanish Tejas dealing with various native threats and ending with the collapse of the Confederacy in 1865. In this study, author Nathan Jennings argues that Texas frontier society, in dealing with evolving conflicts with both domestic and cross-border enemies, created an adaptive mode of warfare that operated simultaneously in both regular and irregular spheres and was defined by a polity militarized by constant fighting and that employed short-term volunteer mobilization of well-armed mounted forces to deal with those threats.
The colonial period between 1822 and 1835 witnessed the early creation of a localized Texas militia system that borrowed from the American ranger lineage and the mounted traditions of heavy Spanish cavalry and light Indian raiders. It was a binary system of relatively static militia home defense for scattered communities supplemented by small but hard hitting and proactive mounted ranging operations. Animal husbandry and horsemanship adapted to the environment were parts of the cattle ranching and cowboy culture of Spanish Texas that Texan fighters adopted for their benefit. Tactically, the early rangers would fight as dragoons, dismounting for precision firing using American rifles. With the administrative and protective neglect of Imperial Spanish and later Mexican government authority, the Anglo-American colonies in Tejas were entirely left to their own devices in terms of defense and largely allowed to self-govern. This fostered the development of a Texas nationalism, one heightened by having to collectively deal with constant internal and external threats to hearth and home.
For the Texas Revolution of 1835-36, the nascent nationalism mentioned above would allow the scattered militias to combine into a cohesive army of infantry, cavalry, and artillery that would win the San Jacinto Campaign and gain independence. The effectiveness of the mounted forces in a variety of roles, with light cavalry directly engaging Mexican forces and rangers scouting for the army and protecting settlements against opportunistic tribal raids, firmly established them as the present and future of Texas state security.
During the early years of the Texas Republic, a standing army was found to be both unpopular and ruinously expensive, but a compromise was found in the more formalized organization of Texas Ranger companies to meet the needs of the new nation. During the republic's middle period (1839-41), the population sharply increased through immigration and Rangers were the spear point of rapid territorial expansion in all directions at the expense of the Apache, Comanche, Cherokee, and others. With all sides targeting population centers, the conflicts were often brutal to combatant and non-combatant alike. Technological advancements in weaponry during the Republic period also proved critically useful, as the proliferation of Colt revolvers allowed the Rangers to remain on horseback during fighting and break their enemies with powerful mounted charges that poured great volumes of fire at close range into the disrupted foe. This brand of shock combat would characterize the Texan mode of fighting for decades to come. They would also create a hybrid breed of horse especially suited to their purposes and environment. A series of back and forth invasions between Texas and Mexico (culminating in the Woll Invasion of 1842, that briefly occupied San Antonio) further cemented the Rangers as the elite military arm of the state. However, the Woll Invasion in particular, which led many Tejano former rangers to switch sides, shattered the tenuous acceptability of a multi-ethnic Texas Rangers and led to increased suspicion of the loyalty of the Tejano population at large. In describing the Rangers's actions, Jennings also highlights instrumental leaders like Edward Burleson, John Coffee Hays, John S. Ford, Ben McCulloch, and others who became household names in Texas and famous beyond its borders. With Texas achieving statehood in 1845, the Rangers would defend Texas in cooperation with the U.S. Army and play a key role in the successful war against their frequent foe to the south.
True to their tradition, the Texas Rangers operated as light cavalry (supplementing the badly overstretched Regular Army dragoons) and irregular fighters in both the northern and central campaigns of the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48. They would be so effective at suppressing bandits and guerrillas and clearing lines of communication between Winfield Scott's main army and its base at far away Vera Cruz, that they earned the grudging respect of the usually volunteer-disdaining Regular Army. The effectiveness did have a dark component, too, with the kind of civilian and combatant abuses and killings committed in Mexico typical of the consequences of any large scale guerrilla insurgency but with Texas passions inflamed further by the preceding decade of off and on warfare with invading Mexican forces in Texas and lingering anger from the mass killing of surrendered Texians at Goliad and other places. The Rangers in Central Mexico became justifiably famous for their well-honed skills in counter-guerrilla operations and Jennings persuasively argues in the book that they deserve a great deal of credit for solidifying the occupation and allowing U.S. authorities to negotiate an end to the conflict from a position of great strength. After the war, the Rangers would again shift to combating omnipresent tribal raiders on the home front, cooperating with the Regular Army in establishing and manning a chain of frontier posts. It was a difficult relationship, though. While the federal government spent large sums representing a hefty proportion of the nation's limited military budget for their protection, Texans generally chafed under the inadequacy of the system and this resentment went some way toward making secession easier to accept.
The Civil War years contrasted sharply with earlier eras of limited, short-term mobilization. During 1861-65, Texas sent an astounding 61 cavalry regiments and 39 cavalry battalions into Confederate service, far more than any state on either side. By contrast, the state mobilized 28 infantry regiments and 13 infantry battalions. Oddly enough, it would be the infantry formations like Hood's Texas Brigade, not the cavalry, that would garner the widest fame. Unlike Hood's Texans in Virginia, most of the cavalry units (many of these later dismounted) would labor in comparative obscurity in the West and in the Trans-Mississippi theater. Rather than offering a general survey of this vast manpower contribution to the Confederate war effort, Jennings wisely chose in the book to select and focus upon only a handful of units representative of the continuance of Texas mounted martial traditions into the Civil War. Jennings uses the experiences of the 8th Texas Cavalry regiment (Terry's Texas Rangers) and Ross's Texas Cavalry Brigade to demonstrate the effectiveness of Texas-brand pistol and shotgun shock charges in the war's early stages, as well as the usefulness of their scouting and raiding skills. However, given the book's recurring theme of adaptation, the narrative misses an opportunity to substantially address what measures, if any, these Texas cavalry units took to cope with the middle and late war evolutions of the Civil War battlefield. In the Far West, the disastrous failure of the Sibley Brigade's campaign to seize New Mexico Territory and Arizona in 1861-62 showed the limitations of the Texas way of war, with mounted units unsuited to occupation and operating over great distances without robust logistical support. The Frontier Regiment had similarly mixed results during the Civil War, being ill supported and far too small to adequately protect Texas's vast Indian frontier stretching hundreds of miles along the northern and western borders of white settlement.
Riding for the Lone Star combines limited manuscript research with an able synthesis of the published literature to arrive at a remarkably well organized and convincing thematically-driven assessment of how militant Texas society managed the constant conflict marking the four decades of its existence preceding the end of the Civil War. Jennings perceptively traces this evolution through eight meaningful stages of development (Colonial, Revolutionary, Early Republic, Middle Republic, Late Republic, Mexican-American War, Antebellum conflict, and the Civil War) and skillfully matches discussion of the incremental changes described therein with numerous detailed examples supportive of his thesis. While acknowledging the more unsavory aspects of the Texas Rangers, Jennings also adopts a more measured tone and even-handed analysis than that found in some of the most aggressively corrective recent scholarship.
More CWBA reviews of UNTP titles:
* Civil War General and Indian Fighter James M. Williams: Leader of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry and the 8th U.S. Cavalry
* Antebellum Jefferson, Texas: Everyday Life in an East Texas Town
* Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners
* The Seventh Star of the Confederacy: Texas During the Civil War
* Texas Civil War Artifacts: A Photographic Guide to the Physical Culture of Texas Civil War Soldiers
* Spartan Band: Burnett’s 13th Texas Cavalry in the Civil War