Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Review - "The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876" by Bacha-Garza, Miller, and Skowronek, eds.

[The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876 edited by Roseann Bacha-Garza, Christopher L. Miller, and Russell K. Skowronek (Texas A&M University Press, 2019). Hardcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxi,294/347. $45]

In February 2015, the Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail was formally launched. Spanning five Texas counties (Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Webb, and Zapata), the trail begins at the mouth of the Rio Grande River and leads travelers all the way to Laredo. A host of historical sites are registered along its path, including ranches, cities, towns, homes, hospitals, cemeteries, memorials, museums, battle sites, and forts. With contributions from many individuals and groups, among them "Texas Historical Commission experts as well as regional university professors, National Park Service personnel, historians/historical commission leaders, museum curators, ecotourism developers, preservation architects and elected city officials,"* the project developed a number of resources designed for use by the general public. In addition to a website and podcasts available in both English and Spanish, a tour guide was created by historians Roseann Bacha-Garza, Christopher L. Miller, and Russell K. Skowronek and published by TAMU Press under the title Blue and Gray on the Border: The Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail. The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876 is the scholarly companion to Blue and Gray on the Border. In it editors Bacha-Garza, Miller, and Skowronek contribute to and oversee an eleven-essay anthology that explores "three decades of ethnic conflict, shifting international alliances, and competing economic proxies at the border."

Christopher Miller's opening essay usefully demonstrates how deeply the history of the earliest Spanish colonial settlement of the desolate Nueces Strip informed the three-decade period examined in the book. Among other findings, Miller notes that political and economic autonomy were always practiced in the isolated northern reaches of Mexican territory and many seeds of future discontent, including precarious land titles (many of which were never formally issued by Spanish officials to individuals), were planted generations before Texas independence and statehood brought them into the limelight.

One of the more interesting parts of Douglas Murphy's following essay is its examination of the symbolic role Fort Brown assumed during two major wars (the U.S.-Mexican War and the American Civil War). Murphy's chapter recounts at some length the efforts of both Union and Confederate partisans to appropriate the earlier martial and nationalistic legacy of Fort Brown as primarily their own. The fort's newfound sacredness to many northern advocates belied the conflict's widespread unpopularity in that section and common belief at the time that the war was being fought primarily to further southern aims at expanding slavery. The writer also reminds readers just how much the national heritage of the war with Mexico resonated with Civil War soldiers and their home front supporters, even though that popular memory was almost completely supplanted by the Civil War experience after 1865.

Two essays, one by M.M. McAllen and another from Karen and Tom Fort, examine cross-border trade during the Civil War. McAllen's chapter takes a more general approach in its discussion of the border's economic interdependence, which saw American and Mexican Rio Grande Valley merchants vigorously trading and competing with European businessmen and interests. The Forts look more closely at the international cotton trade that was essential to sustaining the Confederate war effort in the Trans-Mississippi. This topic has been exhaustively covered in the literature, so while the essay does not provide any particularly fresh insights it nevertheless offers a fine summary of the unique historical significance of the "cotton times."

Though slavery in Texas border counties was practiced on a miniscule scale, there was a notable black military experience there as well as social context worthy of the heavy emphasis the volume places on both. Three chapters, authored by Roseann Bacha-Garza, Stephen McBride, and James Leiker, explore the relative tolerance border society had for interracial families, the southern border's role in the Underground Railroad (where thousands of slaves escaped to freedom in Mexico), and the deployment of black troops to the region before and after 1865. McBride documents how four USCT regiments (their ranks filled primarily with ex-slaves from Kentucky) enforced border security, apprehended smugglers, and to some degree intimidated Imperial Mexican forces by their mere presence. While McBride found that the black troops were mostly positively received by the border's Tejano majority, Leiker notes that this relationship had soured by 1870, a dramatic change his essay mostly attributes to increased hostility to the sustained military presence in the region rather than racism.

Rolando Garza's contribution analyzes the deeply flawed historiography of the May 1865 Battle of Palmito Ranch and serves as a particularly fine example of how modern conflict archaeology can help sort through the documentary record's outstanding contradictions and frustrating gaps. In addition to summarizing the current state of the published literature, Garza traces the fruits of three small-scale archaeological projects (including one of his own) that together raise serious questions regarding how and where the battle was fought. Garza's fascinating piece comprises yet another convincing argument for the historical utility of battlefield archaeology, and the significance of the limited findings cited in the article provide a powerful argument for further work to be done on the site and surrounding areas.

Irving Levinson's chapter traces, among other things, the economic ties between the United States and Mexico that developed through and beyond the three-decade period examined in the book, all of that despite a steady stream of foreign wars, civil wars, and local conflicts. In tracing the violent Civil War era rivalry between the Benavides clan of Texas (especially Confederate officer Jose de los Santos Benavides) and the ostensibly pro-Union Juan Cortina, Jerry Thompson's chapter shows that the American Civil War on the southern Texas border was also, at least on some level, a Hispano civil war. Finally, co-editor Russell Skowronek ties the collection together with a thoughtful summary essay.

As part of the ongoing debates over the subjective parameters of the "Long Civil War," the themes presented in The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876 make a collectively strong argument for expanding the war's boundaries—in people, places, and time. In considering this collection, Blue and Gray on the Border readers seeking more information regarding that companion guide's scholarly underpinnings will also find themselves rewarded by the effort. Recommended.


* - https://www.utrgv.edu/civilwar-trail/about/project-brief/index.htm

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