Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Kiser: TURMOIL ON THE RIO GRANDE: The Territorial History of the Mesilla Valley, 1846-1865"

[Turmoil on the Rio Grande: The Territorial History of the Mesilla Valley, 1846-1865 by William S. Kiser (Texas A&M University Press, 2011). Cloth, 10 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:228/301. ISBN:978-1-60344-296-1 $35]

According to historian Jerry D. Thompson, Mesilla, a New Mexican town located astride the most direct and favorable invasion route to and from Texas, experienced the harshest degree of Civil War military rule of any occupied community in the southwest. Arizona State University grad student William Kiser's Turmoil on the Rio Grande confirms this judgment and more with his military and political history of the strategic territorial region centering roughly on the southern New Mexico towns of Mesilla, Las Cruces, and Doña Ana.

Beginning with the Mexican War conquest of New Mexico and Alexander Doniphan's victory at Brazito, the greater part of Kiser's study deals with the pre-Civil War years. Students of U.S.-Mexican relations will appreciate the extensive attention paid to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the bilaterial international commission charged with surveying the permanent border. The war and its legacy inspired heated conflicts between Whigs and Democrats, so matters dealing with the Mexican Cession, including the U.S.-Mexico border and potential trans-continental railroad routes, inevitably became hot button political issues. Kiser's discussion of the partisan politicization of the U.S. commissioner position, a long and wasteful process that saw the appointing and firing of several individuals, is enlightening.

With the Gadsden Purchase and the final sorting out of the border, the next pre-Civil War source of turmoil was the dissatisfaction felt by many inhabitants with the U.S. government's denial of their request for a new territorial status apart from New Mexico, an issue that would later lead to significant local support for the formation of Confederate Arizona in 1861-62.  Another historical thread common throughout the period examined by the book was the problem of Apache raids.

Turmoil informs us that Mesilla Valley civil authorities, newspaper editors, and business interests were strongly pro-Confederate, welcoming Lt. Colonel John R. Baylor's initiation of what would become a full scale invasion of the New Mexico Territory. Kiser summarizes well the subsequent Battle of Mesilla, as well as Baylor's dramatic pursuit and capture of U.S. army Major Isaac Lynde's far larger Fort Fillmore garrison command near the San Augustine springs. Conventional wisdom from the historical literature holds that Lynde's superior force collapsed from lack of water and wide scale drunkenness, with many soldiers foolishly filling their canteens with whiskey instead of water for the long desert trek, but Kiser suggests the possibility that the troops were slyly plied with the foul liquid by pro-Confederate fort sutlers and even disloyal officers. While one generally wishes to shy away from unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, the idea might be worthy of consideration.

While the Mesilla Valley ruling classes supported the Confederates, what the Hispanic majority thought of the Civil War in terms of governmental loyalty remains largely enigmatic after reading the book; however, it is entirely possible that the needed primary source material is unavailable. This lack of evidence makes the assumption by both sides that the Mexicans were predominately pro-Union in sentiment unsatisfactory. The civil and property rights of the newly American inhabitants were not a serious consideration for either side. Confederate actions against suspected unionists were harsh, but the property confiscation, arbitrary arrest, and travel restriction policies of Union officers James H. Carleton and Joseph R. West during the period 1862-65 were less discriminant and demonstrably more severe.  A proper social and cultural history of the experiences and attitudes of the New Mexico-Arizona territorial inhabitants during this period would make for a useful and original adjunct to the existing scholarship.

City, county, and other local Civil War era studies abound but few if any of these venture into the Trans-Mississippi theater's desert regions. Turmoil on the Rio Grande is an notable foray into this historical genre. If William Kiser can research and write a scholarly study of this quality as an undergraduate and graduate student, one suspects he has a bright future in his chosen field.

Other CWBA reviews of TAMU Press titles:
* Tejanos in Gray: Civil War Letters of Captains Joseph Rafael de la Garza and Manuel Yturri
* Why Texans Fought in the Civil War
* Moss Bluff Rebel: A Texas Pioneer in the Civil War
* Frontier Defense in the Civil War: Texas' Rangers and Rebels
* Confederate Struggle For Command: General James Longstreet and the First Corps in the West
* Planting The Union Flag In Texas: The Campaigns of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks in the West
* The Yankee Invasion of Texas
* Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest

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