Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of Thompson - "TEJANO TIGER: Jose de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823-1891"

[Tejano Tiger: Jose de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823-1891 by Jerry D. Thompson (Texas Christian University Press, 2017). Cloth, map, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:343/424. ISBN:9780875654072. $29.95]

Life in the Texas borderland sandwiched between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers often proved precarious during the nineteenth century. Tensions between rival local, state, and national governments were rife, and Indian raids and cross border banditry frequent and widespread. Laredo native Santos Benavides (1823-1891) was both witness and key participant to this decades-long period of domestic strife, open warfare, and transformative social and political change. Career Southwest history specialist Jerry Thompson's Tejano Tiger: Jose de los Santos Benavides and the Texas-Mexico Borderlands, 1823-1891 gives this important figure his proper historical due and is the first full biography of Benavides to appear in the scholarly literature.

Born into a prominent Laredo Tejano family in 1823, Santos Benavides greatly benefited, according to Thompson, from his uncle Basilio's guiding hand and long experience in local and state politics under three republics. In the period preceding the Civil War, Santos would become a very successful rancher and businessman, as well as a popular local political leader (among other posts, he would be elected mayor of Laredo in 1856). He also gained valuable para-military experience fighting bandits operating out of Mexico and, from the opposite direction, raiding bands of Comanche and Lipan Apache.

Santos was commissioned a captain of Texas volunteers in 1861, and he would eventually reach the rank of colonel (the highest ranking Tejano in the army of the CSA) even though he never led more than a few companies at a time. His entire Civil War service was spent along the Rio Grande front, a post which required both military and diplomatic skills. It is Thompson's view that Benavides excelled in both arenas. Through great affection for Mexico but loyalty to Texas, Benavides was able to promote friendly relations (for the most part) on both sides of the border. He also demonstrated his military skills on two great occasions. In 1861, he crushed invading forces led by Mexican marauder and would-be revolutionary Juan Cortina and in 1864 defeated advancing Union forces at the gates of Laredo.

However, as the book shows, pitched battles were few and far between, and Benavides's most significant contribution to the Confederate cause was in consistently keeping open a vital stretch of the Rio Grande for the all-important cotton trade with Mexico, the proceeds of which kept the isolated Trans-Mississippi Department afloat. This task became even more important when Union forces seized the mouth of the Rio Grande in 1863, and advanced inland. The victory at Laredo mentioned above was a critical event in keeping Union forces based on the coast from linking up with their brethren in southern New Mexico and choking off border trade entirely.

Thompson also explores at some length the unproductive feud between Benavides and his immediate superior, Colonel John S. "Rip" Ford. Ford was frequently frustrated with Benavides's insubordination, and Ford, in turn, was blamed by Santos for preventing the rank-ambitious Tejano from obtaining a much sought after brigadier general's star. Even though the two never reconciled, Ford (unlike Benavides) was able to look past personal animosities, and the famous Texan generously praised the Civil War contributions of Santos in his memoirs. Really, the Civil War section of the book is far richer than expected. Those chapters together comprise perhaps the literature's very best account of the Civil War along the Texas-Mexico border between Eagle Pass and Rio Grande City.

Benavides generally supported conservative Democrats and later aligned himself with their stances on social issues when he served in the state legislature after the Civil War. Some of his closest friends and allies, like Edmund J. Davis, declared themselves for the Union in 1860-61, but it appears that Santos himself had no reservations about joining the Confederate cause. In addition to having social views compatible with the Texas majority, perhaps he viewed his wealth as being best protected and served by remaining loyal to the Lone Star State. Thompson also very plausibly suggests ideological transference between Santos and Uncle Basilio's long standing opposition to strong central control from Mexico City and the States' Rights debates of their new country post-annexation.

Given how deeply intertwined the long life of Santos Benavides was with his beloved hometown of Laredo, the book also serves as an excellent social, economic, and political history of the town itself. One of the study's most striking features was its in-depth discussion of party machine politics in Laredo, which proved just as cutthroat as those found in the great cities of the North and culminated in the shockingly bloody election riot of 1886. Thompson also details how Santos and other local leaders during the post-Civil War period built between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo a literal and figurative bridge between Texas and Mexico. Benavides was influential in bringing the railroad to Laredo from the Texas interior, as well. At the same time, he used his deep personal connections south of the border to assuage the security concerns of Mexican officials, who feared that railroad links in the northern Mexican states might entice another invasion from the United States. The effort was a success, and Benavides helped modernize trade and communications between both countries.

As he did both before and during the Civil War, Benavides consistently sought closer ties between Texas and Mexico during his three terms as a state legislator in Austin. The Civil War ruined many others, but Benavides was fortunate enough to have retained his considerable wealth and (as mentioned above) was often sought out as a facilitator of border business interests. According to Thompson, Benavides's extremely poor command of the English language (which he apparently made little effort to improve throughout his life) was a significant limiting factor to political advancement. Perhaps his greatest political disappointment was in fellow Democrat Grover Cleveland's dismissive rejection of Benavides as candidate for U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.

In researching this book, Thompson mined an impressive array of archives and newspapers from both sides of the border. Complaints are few, and none are serious. Cosmetic errors pop up here and there, and, at one point, a photo caption inaccurately claims that John B. Magruder lost an arm in Mexico.

Tejano Tiger
convincingly positions Jose de los Santos Benavides as one of South Texas's most important social, political, and military figures of the nineteenth century. In addition to providing an exhaustive record of the Civil War military career of Santos Benavides, Thompson's book also recounts the full life of a man whose unusually steadfast commitment to binational harmony and prosperity deserves to be more widely remembered.

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