Author Interview--Roseann Bacha-Garza (Editor), Christopher L. Miller (Editor), Russell K. Skowronek (Editor) (The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876) 1/2

Patrick Kelly Discussion


Hello H-CivWar readers,

today we feature Roseann Bacha-Garza, Christopher L. Miller, and Russell K. Skowronek, the editors of The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846–1876 (Texas A&M University Press, 2019) Link

Roseann Bacha-Garza is the program manager for the Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools (CHAPS) Program at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. She (with Miller and Skowronek) is the coauthor of Blue and Gray on the Border: The Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail and coeditor of The Native American Peoples of South Texas.

Christopher L. Miller is Professor of History at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and associate director of the CHAPS Program. He is the author of Prophetic Worlds: Indians and Whites on the Columbia Plateau.

Russel K. Skowronek is Professor of Anthropology and History at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. He is the founding director of the CHAPS Program and author of X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy and HMS Fowey Lost . . . and Found!

Guest editor is Patrick Kelly. He is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas-San Antonio. His work includes “The North American Crisis of the 1860s”(Journal of the Civil War Era, September 2012).


It is often forgotten that the Rio Grande was the southern border of the Confederate States of America. Your important new collection of essays reminds historians that Rio Grande Borderlands was an important theater of the U.S. Civil War.
I'm interested in the periodization of your collection of essays.  Can you explain the importance of this periodization (1846 to 1876) to your thinking of the Civil War along the Rio Grande frontier?


RBG, CLM, RKS: All too often the Confederacy is treated as a monolithic whole wherein slavery was ingrained in the larger culture. Texas, as it was known during the Civil War and it is known today, did not come into existence until its annexation by the United States in 1845, the accelerant for the Mexican-American War.


Prior to that date the accepted Spanish colonial-era and Mexican Republican-era southern boundary of Texas was the Nueces River, located just south of Corpus Christi. The region of our interest had been part of Nuevo Santander and later Tamaulipas, and never part of Texas. This was colonized by ranching families from the Monterrey area of Mexico. In the associated towns and ranches slavery was largely unknown in the colonial era and was abolished by the Republic of Mexico in February of 1829 during the administration of President Vicente Guerrero, a man of Afro-Mestizo descent. This act in conjunction with the growing centralization/federalism of the Mexican government was one of the catalysts for the Texas revolt of 1835.


During the thirteen years following the end of the Mexican-American conflict (1848-1861) a handful of enslaved African-Americans came to the region as servants to US Army officers based at Forts Brown, Ringgold, and McIntosh. At the same time the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act and growing racial tensions in the cotton belt led to the immigration of several mixed-race families from Alabama (e.g., Jackson, Champion, Singletary) and East Texas (Webber). These families lived near one another on the banks of the Rio Grande. There they ran cattle, did subsistence farming, and operated ferries across the Rio Grande to free Mexico. On occasion they “conducted” runaway slaves from Arkansas, western Louisiana, and Texas to freedom in Mexico.  Their proximity to Mexico meant that should things have grown too uncertain succor could be found with “just a ferry ride to freedom.” We have a documentary film bearing this title, “Just a Ferry Ride to Freedom," on this very topic.


With the onset of the Civil War and the closing of Southern ports by Union blockade the international boundary marked by the Rio Grande meant that money and war materials could flow through this remote backdoor into the Confederacy in exchange for cotton. It thus was remembered as the “Cotton Times” or in Spanish Los Algodones. People from both sides of the border flocked to the river towns to participate in the boom times.


It is worth noting that not everyone in this region supported the Confederacy. At the very moment Fort Sumter was being bombarded there were clashes along the river between those who supported the Confederacy and those who supported the Union. Just as in the rest of the country this was truly a civil war along the borderlands. When the war was finished 4,000 Tejanos would serve in the forces of the Confederacy and nearly 1,000 with the Union.


Between 1861 and 1865 control of the Rio Grande would pass four-times between the Union and the Confederacy. What is also significant about this era was the other civil war which was raging in Mexico between the republican forces of President Benito Juarez and the reactionary supporters of Napoleon III’s puppet monarch Maximillian. The Confederacy made common cause with the monarchists while Juarez and Lincoln acted in concert. Unknown to most Civil War historians is that at the final land battle of the American Civil War, Palmito Ranch, (May 1865), when artillerymen from Maximillian’s army fought alongside the Confederate troops.


A final aspect of our view of the “long Civil War” revolves around the arrival of USCT and their role in the last battle of the conflict and the subsequent Reconstruction occupation of the border. Not only did these troops reconstruct and occupy Forts Brown, Ringgold, McIntosh and many others across the West, but they establish smaller camps between these sites to thwart “unreconstructed” Southerners from crossing the Rio Grande to support Maximillian and possibly reconstitute a Confederate army. Furthermore, they supplied, somewhat clandestinely, weapons to the armies of Juarez.

What are some of the most important aspects of the Civil War on the Rio Grande that you would believe Civil War historians often overlook?

RBG, CLM, RKS: While casualties were light or insignificant in the dozen clashes which marked the region compared to the pitched battles fought east of the Mississippi, the value of the cotton trade was immense. It is worth noting that at the outset of the war, the Confederacy was the fifth wealthiest nation in the world with deposits of $47 million. During the war $162 million (in 1860 dollars) was realized from the sale of cotton. This money and the associated war materials kept the Confederacy alive into 1865 and as a result cost tens of thousands more casualties in the battles fought in the closing months of the war.


Also overlooked is the role of Latino soldiers on both sides of the conflict. The highest-ranking Spanish-speaking officer in the Confederacy was Colonel Santos Benavides of Laredo. He raised an entire regiment and never knew defeat. We have also wondered about issues surrounding the 1864 battle of Las Rucias where the 1st Texas (Union) Cavalry was defeated by Confederate forces. Led by English-speaking officers the rank and file of the 1st was made up of German-speaking troops recruited in the Texas hill country near San Antonio and Spanish-speaking troops raised in San Antonio and along the Rio Grande.


We also note that the mixed-race families often served with Confederate “Partisan Rangers” at the beginning of the conflict. We speculate that was to ensure their property was not confiscated and so they could be alerted when slave-catchers were nearby. Others among the bi-racial families served as covert agents for the Union. At the end of the conflict some Confederate soldiers married the mixed-race children of the original settlers.


Also, the US Colored Troops played an important role in this region during the war and Reconstruction. USCT John Dorsey a Private in Company E of the 117th US Infantry founded the mixed-race community known as the Jackson Ranch in Hidalgo County along the Rio Grande and married a mulatto woman named Emily Smith Singleterry, settled and had a family.


Finally, and perhaps most significantly the profits made in the cotton trade helped create the land-rich and powerful King and Kenedy dynasties of south Texas. And Charles Stillman, a long-time Rio Grande entrepreneur, utilized his profits from the cotton trade to help grow the “City Bank of New York,” which is today’s global giant Citigroup.

I'm often speculating about this myself, but I want to ask this question of other experts in the field. Why, in your opinion, has the Civil War along the Rio Grande been largely ignored by most mainstream Civil War scholars?

RBG, CLM, RKS: For military historians the pitched battles and carnage that marked the Civil War east of the Mississippi was lacking in this region. Adding to this, documents associated with this period are lacking or difficult to find and may be written in Spanish. Moreover, many aficionados of the Civil War expect the story of the Old South not of Spanish-speaking soldiers who were not supporters of slavery. As one of the contributors to this collection has noted elsewhere, “the national narrative about the Civil War continues to be in black and white; adding brown somehow seems inconsistent and disturbing.” The Civil War is our national moment of atonement, of the expiation of sin; the story in the Rio Grande Valley just doesn’t fit the narrative of either the victory of virtue or the “lost cause.”

One of the unique factors of the Civil War on the Rio Grande was its transnational nature, especially the role of Mexico in this story. Can you discuss what your book identifies as some of the key transnational aspects of this story.


RBG, CLM, RKS: The significance of the Rio Grande in the American Civil War cannot be understood without a broader appreciation for international politics. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War made the Rio Grande an international boundary. As an international waterway it would be considered illegal to interfere with commerce on the river and certainly with that shipped from Mexican ports. To do so would be an act of war. While the Monroe Doctrine, in conjunction with British imperial interests, had for more than four decades kept European nations out of Mexico and Central America, the fallout following the election of 1860 and the outbreak of war in 1861 coincided with European intervention under the leadership of Napoleon III into Mexico to collect “reparations.” A distracted and divided United States was in no position to intervene on the part of Juarez. Thus, it was to the benefit of the Confederacy to support Maximillian and Mexican reactionaries against the republican forces of President Benito Juárez. Interactions between Austrian, Belgian, French, and Imperial Mexican troops along the border with those of the Confederacy was common. It also meant that individuals like Juan Cortina who, in the 1850s had battled the newly arrived soldiers and settlers of the United States in clashes along the Rio Grande, would find himself allied with the Union to fight the Confederacy and the reactionaries.


To Be Continued