Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Review - "Illusions of Empire: The Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands" by William Kiser

[Illusions of Empire: The Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands by William S. Kiser (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:165/262. ISBN:978-0-8122-5351-1. $55]

Even though they were small in size and traditionally receive only passing mention in most general Civil War histories, the military campaigns and battles fought in New Mexico Territory and all along the US-Mexico border are remarkably well represented in the more specialist literature. The cross-border cotton exchange's vital economic role in sustaining the Confederate war effort west of the Mississippi has also been well recognized and addressed in numerous books and articles. Most recently, Civil War-era "borderlands" studies and works exploring the international dimensions of the American Civil War have together greatly expanded the range of historical investigation, with the roots of economic interdependency, diplomacy, ethnic conflicts, and sovereignty issues dealt with in a growing list of Southwest-oriented publications. A product of both astute synthesis and original research in U.S. and Mexican sources, William Kiser's Illusions of Empire: The Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands integrates these established and emerging avenues of historical inquiry into a comprehensive work of grand scope made all the more impressive by how much is accomplished in such a slim volume.

With most U.S.-published borderlands studies focused on particular sub-regions (at least when it comes to those most closely tied to the Civil War period), the geographical breadth of Kiser's broad-themed work encompassing the entire U.S.-Mexico border region is highly unusual. To offer just a few notable examples from the Civil War-era scholarship, the works of Kiser himself prior to this one [ex.: see here and here], Andrew Masich, and James Blackshear are centered on the lands surrounding the Upper Rio Grande while those of Miguel Ángel González-Quiroga, Michael Collins, James Irby, Stephen Townsend, Stephen Dupree, and a host of other authors are mostly focused on the Lower Rio Grande region. The Civil War Southwest historian who has published the greatest number and most diverse range of biographies and histories associated with the entire length of the US-Mexico borderlands is Jerry Thompson, and even he has not attempted to gather his career-long engagement with the topic into a single volume treatment. Spanning a vast territory from southern California to Brazos Santiago on the U.S. side of the border and Guaymas to Bagdad on the Mexican side, the scope of Kiser's investigation in Illusions of Empire is probably unique.

Kiser begins the book with a solid discussion of how lingering memories of troubled past relations between the United States and Mexico involving territorial disputes, a major war, Indian raids, and filibustering expeditions haunted Civil War-period diplomatic interactions. With that ingrained mistrust between neighbors always in the background, the narrative moves on to provide readers with a remarkably inclusive political, economic, diplomatic, and military history of the entire borderlands region during the Civil War. Appended to that is a limited but still insightful extension into the Reconstruction period.

Every modern history of the antebellum and Civil War-era southwestern borderlands recognizes their fluid nature (in human movement, violence, economic exchange, diplomacy, governmental control, law enforcement, and more), but Kiser is really the first Civil War scholar to integrate into a single narrative, as he does in Illusions of Empire, the full range of significant transborder actors. Each individual or group actor addressed in Kiser's analysis possessed some degree of real power, but, as the author creatively and persuasively illustrates, each also had "illusions" regarding that power's strength, sovereign aspirations, and extent of influence (by threat and/or persuasion) over other transnational actors. The list of historical actors integrated into Kiser's narrative includes U.S./Confederate military officers, Davis and Lincoln administration diplomats, French emperor Napoleon III, the contending Juarez and puppet Imperial governments and forces in Mexico, northern Mexico's state governors, non-aligned Indian tribes, bandit groups, and regional warlords of shifting loyalty (ex. Juan Cortina). With varying degrees of sovereign expression and support behind their powers, all of these forces vied with each other over control of the borderlands (or, in some cases, survival). Within this complex milieu, conflict was all too often the order of the day, though cooperation in areas of mutual interest (ex. trade) was frequently sought.

Though international diplomacy was the acknowledged domain of central government leaders, in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands the combination of past history, distance, civil conflict, self-interest, competing ideologies, and practicality rendered traditional diplomatic channels a source of frustrating dead end. As Kiser ably and amply demonstrates, however, diplomacy did not die there during the Civil War years but rather assumed a different, more localized and interpersonal form. While the Lincoln administration consistently supported the presidency and government of Benito Juarez, the Confederates, desperate to exchange southern cotton for war materials (especially after the closing of the Mississippi River in July 1863), were prepared to work with any faction in Mexico willing to facilitate cross-border trade that could bypass the Union blockade.

Just like the U.S. had competing philosophies regarding the relations between state and federal governments, Mexico had a long tradition of regionalism versus centralization. In the book, Kiser details how Mexican governors of northern states all along the border assumed the dubious right to conduct international diplomacy with U.S. and Confederate military officers. These governors, successfully and unsuccessfully, employed diplomacy in ways aimed toward reinforcing their own wealth and power while at the same time opposing both domestic and international threats. With tenuous links to the embattled Juarez government, which was on the run during the height of the French Intervention, governors negotiated trade agreements with Confederate military and civilian authorities that lined their own pockets (along with those of key allies), funded the government apparatus, and raised monies needed to recruit and equip state forces necessary to oppose Imperial encroachment. With Mexico's territorial losses from decades earlier still fresh in their minds, the governors were also successful in deterring the aggressive efforts of U.S. officers and diplomats who at various times sought transit rights across the border, wanted approval to use Mexico as a base for cross-border raids by Texas Unionists, and harbored ambitions of future annexation of Mexican lands. Kiser's centering of the roles played by these Mexican governors in the historical narrative of the Civil War borderlands is a major theme and strength of this book.

One area where cross-border cooperation might have been more generally expected was in combating the mutual threat of Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa raiders. These aggressive tribal groups had collectively killed thousands of Mexican citizens during the decade preceding the American Civil War, and they were just as troubling to U.S. civilian and military authorities. However, Union and Confederate hopes for active cooperation from Mexico in that area did not come to fruition, as Mexican officials understandably mistrusted the motives behind any American intervention, fearing the consequences of what might happen if large numbers of U.S. or Confederate forces were allowed to operate on Mexican soil under the pretense of suppressing Indian raids. As Kiser shows, this illusion of expected yet consistently thwarted collaboration joined many others in being a constant headache for border leaders.

Perhaps chief among the many notable contributions to the Civil War historiography that can be found in this book is Kiser's very persuasive presentation of northern Mexico's most powerful governors as worthy of consideration alongside major leaders north of the border when it came to the ability to influence the course of the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi West. As individuals not vested with the traditional trappings of a diplomatic portfolio, semi-autonomous Mexican governors nevertheless were able to use their local power to profoundly shape international history. With most studies concentrating on the many ways in which contested borderlands facilitated aggressive territorial expansion, this one perceptively demonstrates how those very same frontier properties could also thwart expansionist desires. It's amazing that William Kiser was able to accomplish this marvel of sweeping interpretation of historical forces in little more than 150 pages of principal narrative. If any single volume addressing the Civil War history of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands can be recommended enthusiastically to general readers and scholars alike, Illusions of Empire is worthy of placement at the top of the list of candidates.

No comments:

Post a Comment

***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.