Friday, March 1, 2019

Review - "Blue and Gray on the Border: The Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail" by Miller, Skowronek, & Bacha-Garza

[BLUE AND GRAY ON THE BORDER: The Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail by Christopher L. Miller, Russell K. Skowronek, and Roseann Bacha-Garza (Texas A&M University Press, 2018). Flexbound, maps, photos, drawings, tables, source lists, index. Pages main/total:xxv,191/200. ISBN:978-1-62349-682-1. $28]

Taking their cue from the educational and economic success stories of similar trail projects created in other parts of the country possessing rich collections of Civil War era historical sites, a small group of individuals at University of Texas-Pan American in 2012 planted the seeds of what would eventually become the Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail. Between that time and the present a number of educators, government agencies, historical societies, museums, and other groups joined the effort. Their collective work resulted in a jointly funded, bilingual Lower Rio Grande historical trail spanning five Texas border counties (Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, and Zapata). An illustrated history and travel guide designed to directly engage readers and travelers with this ambitious project, which begins at the Gulf Coast's Point Isabel Lighthouse and ends approximately 200 miles upriver at Laredo, has just been published under the title Blue and Gray on the Border: The Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail.

The long settled history of the valley of the Lower Rio Grande is a complicated one with prominent international elements, and co-authors Christopher Miller, Russell Skowronek, and Roseann Bacha-Garza appropriately begin their book with a brief but helpful contextual refresher course on the border region's history from the Spanish colonial period through Mexican Independence, the U.S.-Mexican War, the American Civil War, and Reconstruction. The guide's collection of Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail historical sites are organized into five chapters, one for each county. With African-American connections to the border an additional topic of emphasis in the book, discussion includes settlers who took advantage of the border region's comparatively higher tolerance for biracial families. In addition, a standalone chapter is devoted to the black military experience during and after the Civil War. Especially during the Reconstruction period, black troops formed a large part of the U.S. army contingent tasked with border security, cross-border trade regulation, and protection of Texas Unionists and freedpeople from violence.

Among the great diversity of historical locations featured on the virtual trail are ranches, cities, towns, homes, hospitals, cemeteries, memorials, museums, battle sites, and forts. More site register than complete tour guide, the book does not provide detailed driving directions for following the entire length of the trail. However, street addresses, access information, GPS coordinates, and other applicable location information are included for each site on a standalone basis. Each trail stop also has its own extension number for visitors wishing to take advantage of the "mobile web" experience through their cell phones. Supplementing the guide's text is a profusion of photos (B&W and color), maps (period and original), and tables.

Several paragraphs of informative historical background narrative accompany each trail stop sub-section, as do full text transcriptions (where relevant) of Texas Historical Commission markers. It might seem out of place that the trail has so many places associated with the Mexican War, but these entries offer useful context for many Civil War events like the bloody cross-border rivalry that developed between Union ally Juan Cortina and Confederate officer Santos Benavides. Sites are suitably selected in support of common themes that convey the local, national, and international importance of the Texas borderland during the Civil War period and beyond. For example, a great many trail stops represent key geographical points and events related to the border trade economy (southern cotton in exchange for otherwise unobtainable supplies, medicines, consumer goods, and war materials) that were critical to the maintenance and survival of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department. Union authorities attempted to choke off this regional trade outlet that was immune to naval blockade at various times during the war and many trail locations are associated with their military interventions.

Readers are, of course, encouraged to visit the trail's official website (here) for more information. The guide should also be regarded as an introductory companion to Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876. Edited by Miller, Skowronek, and Bacha-Garza, that recently released volume from the same publisher contains a series of scholarly essays addressing at greater depth many of the same events and themes introduced in Blue and Gray on the Border. Hopefully, books, website, and trail will collectively inspire wider popular interest in the social, political, military, and economic history of the Lower Rio Grande River Valley during the Civil War era.

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