Monday, March 8, 2021

Review - "Violence in the Hill Country: The Texas Frontier in the Civil War Era" by Nicholas Roland

[Violence in the Hill Country: The Texas Frontier in the Civil War Era by Nicholas Keefauver Roland (University of Texas Press, 2021). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, index. Pages main/total:200/288. ISBN:978-1-4773-2175-1. $45]

Wilderness frontier borderlands have attracted opportunity-hungry individuals and agents of collective/national expansion since time immemorial, but occupying those often contested spaces also typically came with a host of human and environmental dangers. Living an isolated existence far from the protections and regulating forces of "civilization," newcomers often maintained personal security, communal welfare, or even existence itself through violent intervention. In cases where cultures alien to each other were competing for the same land and resources, the turn to violence was often at its most extreme. Many of those qualities could be found in the Texas Hill Country before, during, and after the American Civil War, when Anglo American and German immigrant settlers to the area clashed with themselves and with a common enemy in the form of highly mobile native groups (primarily Comanche, Kiowa, and Lipan Apache) whose raids commonly took settler lives and property. Analysis of both regularly occurring and unique "patterns of violence" that swept through the region over that period is the main focus of Nicholas Roland's fascinating new study Violence in the Hill Country: The Texas Frontier in the Civil War Era.

The Texas "Hill Country" can be seen as a rather nebulous geographical term, so, at least for the purposes of Roland's study, the "Hill Country" is defined as a twelve-county area formed by the "eroded eastern and southern margins of the Edwards Plateau, which rises to the west and north of the Blackland Prairie and Rio Grande Plains, respectively" (pg. 12). It is basically a large, rugged expanse of south-central Texas with natural features and white settlement patterns distinct from both the frontier northwest counties and those that formed the state's Red River border with Indian Territory.

Though the nature and scale of the Hill Country's internal and external conflicts varied over the 1845-81 period studied in the book, one of its mainstays, according to Roland's research, was the honor code violence brought to the area by its Anglo American settlers, most of whom possessed upland South origins. Much of the study dwells upon this. In the context of the high level of uncertainty that the frontier broadly brought to settler life, this code allowed citizens to use vigilante force (even lethal means) to protect their bodies, property, and livelihood as well as enforce societal norms, laws, and ideas of order until "civilized" government was established. The author claims that Germans did not have an honor culture tradition, and thus that particular brand of violent expression was not prevalent in their own immigrant communities. German-speaking states in Europe certainly did have some elements of honor culture violence (one can refer to the nineteenth-century dueling tradition that trickled down society somewhat from the German and Austrian upper classes), but if Roland is only specifically referring to commonplace lethality then his point is well taken. Also addressed is the raiding culture common to Southern Plains native groups that frequently resulted in settler killings of an indiscriminate nature.

1850s politics in the German immigrant-heavy Hill Country counties and support there for the federal government and U.S. Army there were complicated by numerous factors: including nativism, economic relationships, and party loyalties, but the frequency of Indian raids on isolated homes and settlements was a unifying force among those with otherwise divided views. The broader literature often overgeneralizes the 1860 German American vote as staunchly abolitionist and Republican in the North and Border South, but it was different in frontier Texas. Democratic Party ties in the Hill Country counties (though there were some exceptions) remained strong among its broadly antislavery immigrant voters, a bond that the author primarily attributes to party loyalty with some secondary impulses related to fitting in better with local society.

Unlike other parts of the lower South, however, the Hill Country's Breckinridge votes (Douglas was not on the ballot in Texas), particularly among the Germans, did not necessarily translate into support for secession. Countering some views to the contrary in the literature, Roland offers several convincing arguments that Indian raids had little effect on frontier voting patterns in the northwest, Red River north, and Hill Country counties during the build up to secession. Instead, the evidence the author presents convincingly shows that settler origins and state of relations between citizens and the federal government at election time (the latter heavily influenced by prominent newspaper editors and other local leaders) had the most significant impact. Charles Grear, the acknowledged expert on why Texans fought during the Civil War, found that family and social networks between Texans and the cis-Mississippi southern states they left behind strongly motivated them to both support Texas secession and be willing to fight and die on faraway fronts1. Complementing Grear, Roland establishes that the heavily pro-secession northwest frontier counties had a proportionally higher number of settlers from the Deep South to go along with their poor relations with the federal government during the late antebellum period. In contrast, Hill Country citizens were far more skeptical of the fruits of secession. As the book documents at length, many were heavily involved in supplying area forts with food, fuel, and forage and had good relations with both the federal government and the army. Additionally, the Hill Country's native-born American population was largely from the Upper South, where conditional unionism thrived.

Though recent studies have reminded us of the diversity of German immigrant culture and politics, the fact remains that most German Texans possessed the same antislavery impulses and liberal nationalism outlook that motivated the more closely studied Border South and western (especially St. Louis) Germans to support the Union. As was the case across the political spectrum, individuals who were important opinion leaders swayed the popular vote. Roland also found this to be the case of the Hill Country, where a small group of Forty-Eighters (perhaps only a hundred) assumed many leadership positions and influenced German voters at a scale far beyond their meager numbers. Of course, small but active pro-secession minorities among both German and Anglo American populations existed in the Hill County, too, and the many reasons why they differed from their neighbors are also enumerated and convincingly explained in the text.

When secession finally did become reality, hoped for improvements in western Texas border security under the new Confederate regime did not at all materialize after the departure of the U.S. Army. This caused no little consternation among Unionists and secessionists alike. Additionally, in the Hill Country secession and Civil War dissolved the strongest source of unity that existed among all social and political factions [that of having a common enemy (i.e. Indian raiders)]. This led to interpersonal and collective violence being redirected inward at internal ethnic and political foes. Indian raids and settler killings did not fall away, but they no longer distracted citizens from internal divisions. Rather quickly, secessionist violence against Hill Country Unionists assumed similar characteristics to that of Union suppression of pro-Confederate guerrillas and civilians in the Border South. The Hill Country became riven with internal borderland strife while as the same time the external threats from the prewar frontier borderland continued unabated. Confederate Army supply contracts and the organization of a Frontier Regiment2 specifically organized to address border security allayed some of the opposition's concerns, but the state's militia act of December 1861 and national conscription in April 1862 only amplified fears that the open frontier would be left undefended.

As was the case during the war's early months in East Tennessee prior to the coordinated bridge burning campaign there that sparked a harsh crackdown, Confederate martial law in the Hill Country was broadly conciliatory. However, the situation changed by summer 1862 when more organized and militant draft resistance (a Union Loyal League was formed) and other forms of subversion (ex. killing informants and forming armed groups to cooperate with expected Union invasion) led to violent suppression. Though the bloody Nueces River battle and continued killing, arrest, and imprisonment of Unionists into the fall effectively suppressed organized resistance in the Hill Country by the end of 1862, draft opposition, an uptick in Indian raids, Frontier Regiment ineffectiveness (through both failed tactics and logistical shortfalls), drought, choked-off trade, and sharp inflation all fed a growing disaffection with a flailing government and all of the power instability that came with that. All of those factors plus a dramatic increase in deserters and draft evaders infesting the Hill Country widely intensified interpersonal violence among Union and Confederate supporters. These were in addition to regular deaths from Indian raids. The Confederate government was not entirely unresponsive to the turmoil, and President Davis ordered martial law to be rescinded (he determined that local commanders were exceeding their authority) and opposition subsided somewhat after conscription was suspended across the Texas frontier from the end of 1863 onward. When it came to violence committed by the Hill County's secessionist minority, Roland interprets much of its source to the ways southern honor culture addressed the frontier and power uncertainies reference earlier.

The year 1863 brought another outside contributor to Hill Country violence in the form of uniformed Union troops. Though they did not strike inland, Union Army forays up the Rio Grande Valley in 1863 nevertheless inspired an uptick in armed irregular activities by Texas Unionists based in the Hill Country and across the border in Mexico. These men, variously labeled by their enemies as jayhawkers, bushwhackers, and renegades, attacked secessionist lives and property in the Hill Country and, as described in the book, also came into violent contact with the Frontier Regiment and assorted state militia organizations. Additionally, Union Army recruiters infiltrated the Hill Country, and there was the ever present criminal element to contend with as well. In response, localized pro-Confederate vigilantism met this threat with deadly force of their own. Oddly enough, Roland finds evidence of cooperation between Unionists and state authorities by early 1864, there being a mutual desire to stem the increasingly chaotic flow of disorder and violence. Much of the credit appears to be due to Governor Pendleton Murrah, who investigated claims from all sides and installed a new commander, militia general John McAdoo, who seemed to have possessed a rare gift for calming the passions of extremists on both sides and bringing relative peace to the Hill Country. Murrah himself even fought with national authorities to allow Hill Country citizens regardless of affiliation to be exempted from Confederate export restrictions as they had no other markets available to sustain themselves in their economically strangled region. If not entirely unique, this state-level initiative of reaching out to the enemy was at the very least uncommon in the conflict's many other bitterly contested 'inner wars,' and the author's suggestion that it was largely accomplished with a pragmatic view toward the future (stock in the Confederate government's continued existence being at low ebb in the 1864 Trans-Mississippi) and the readdressing of the common Indian threat to the frontier counties is persuasive.

While animosities, lawsuits, and some instances of extralegal murder continued after the war, the book shows that Reconstruction violence in the Texas Hill Country was relatively scarce in comparison to other parts of the state. In Roland's view several key factors were at play. Even though continued postwar violence is duly documented in the text, it is the author's opinion that the German population's lack of all-encompassing cultural trauma (at least compared to the world-shattering losses and social/political changes experienced by Anglo Texans) eased reconciliation and thwarted widespread revenge seeking. It also helped that many of the most notorious vigilante offenders left the area soon after the Confederate collapse. Given that much Reconstruction violence was directed toward freedmen, the tiny size of the region's black population also did not inspire much (comparatively speaking) in the way of racial violence. Also, the poverty of postwar Texas and its weak justice system meant that there were few attempts at prosecuting individuals for their wartime deeds, the result being that the kinds of festering resentments that such efforts could have created failed to materialize. As mentioned before, instead of fighting each other Hill County citizens banded together to oppose a dramatic postwar increase in Indian raiding and organized criminal activities such as livestock rustling and cross-border banditry. The former was the result of a number of military, political, and environmental factors (all of which are documented in the book), and the latter arose from the abundant openings for lucrative criminal enterprise that weak, underfunded legal institutions and the emerging cattle industry created.

The appendix section of the book usefully compiles some valuable reference data in the form of Hill Country death rosters. These are sub-divided into categories related to lethal Civil War violence, Indian raiding deaths during the Civil War years, and postwar Indian raiding deaths. On the negative side of things, a pair of publishing decisions provide sources of complaint. While the endnotes appropriately display the author's research depth and range, the study unfortunately lacks a bibliography. Also, while a number of general-purpose maps showing the state's county borders are borrowed from other sources, an original map of the volume's twelve-county region of study, one detailing the major locations and events covered in the text, is absent. Such a tool would have been immensely helpful, especially for those readers unfamiliar with Hill Country geography.

Employing a sophisticated and creative research and analysis of Texas Hill Country patterns of interpersonal, ethnic, political, and economic violence during the key transitional period of the mid to late nineteenth-century, Nicholas Roland skillfully weaves into his narrative a host of local, state, and national contexts the overall assessment of which forms a welcome, even vital, contribution to the literature of westward expansion. A multitude of scholarly and popular reading audiences, including American Civil War, Indian Wars, Southwest borderlands, and German American immigrant history students, are abundantly well served through the contents of this book. Violence in the Hill Country is highly recommended.

1 - See Grear's Why Texans Fought in the Civil War (TAMU Press, 2010). No one knows more about the topic than the author.
2 - For a highly useful and still unsurpassed history of the Frontier Regiment as well as Civil War Texas frontier defense as a whole, see David Paul Smith's Frontier Defense during the Civil War (TAMU Press, 1992). Roland's many references in Violence in the Hill Country to the multi-faceted and varyingly effective role of Texas militia leaders and units in frontier defense and internal security makes one wish for the publication of a Civil War history of the organization. Unfortunately, comprehensive study of most Confederate state-sponsored armies continues to be neglected.

1 comment:

  1. This is just a superb review on all accounts. Roland's brilliant work lights up the cultural geography of that era and - it should be noted - is beautifully written. The depth with which the 1862-1863 period of Unionist-Secessionist violence is analyzed justifies the importance of the book in and of itself.


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