Author Interview--Nicholas K. Roland (Violence in the Hill Country) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Nicholas K. Roland to talk about his new book Violence in the Hill Country: The Texas Frontier in the Civil War Era, published by the University of Texas Press in February 2021.

Nicholas Roland received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and is a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.

Nicholas, could you tell us how you became interested in the Texas Hill Country during the Civil War?

NKR: I'm a native of East Tennessee, a region that was extremely divided during the Civil War. That division, and the ebb and flow of military control of the region, lent itself to a high degree of extralegal violence and an active guerilla war. I was aware of this history and wrote an undergraduate thesis on a Confederate unit from majority-Unionist East Tennessee. When I began graduate school I was interested in these issues: Unionism, guerilla warfare, and political violence during the Civil War era. When I came to Texas I knew little about the state's history, but I soon found that many of the same issues were playing out in Texas, especially in the Hill Country.

Texas, and the Southwest/West in general, is, unfortunately, an afterthought in the mainstream of Civil War history, though recent work is reminding us that the war's origins were in the West and that its consequences were equally important west of the Mississippi as in the East. The scholarly work on the Hill Country was scant and I thought this was an important story to tell, both to fill a gap in our understanding of these issues and because I came to see the Hill Country as a lens through which to view the United States in the Civil War era.

What do you argue in Violence in the Hill Country?

NKR: Through my research, I found that violence of several varieties was the defining feature of the Texas frontier during the Civil War era. I argue that this violence - interpersonal, political, raiding, warfare, banditry - was not some sort of ineluctable feature of life in the "Wild West," but was driven by specific conditions on the ground. These conditions changed over time, with different types of violence waxing and waning in response, and the region's transition from frontier conditions in around 1880 marked the end of pervasive violence. I further argue that patterns of violence during the frontier period - the mid-1840s to around 1880 - illustrate how national trends played out on the ground.

Violence in the Hill Country took place in three basic phases. When the Hill Country's settlement began in the mid-1840s, rugged terrain, weak law enforcement, the prevalence of open-range cattle-herding, and Anglo-American cultural baggage meant a high degree of interpersonal violence. At the same time, encroachment on the territory of the Lipan Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, and other native groups brought white settlers into the orbit of a well-established raiding/trading culture. As native raiding accelerated in the 1850s, settlers viewed this as tantamount to war and called for the extermination of hostile native groups. Neither the US Army nor the state of Texas proved able to do much about raiding, so armed settlers wound up responding to raids themselves. The centripetal force of an outside threat to white settler communities in many ways masked the divisions that would appear after secession.

During the Civil War, despite sharp differences in the region over secession, frontier defense remained the most important issue until the passage of a state militia law in December 1861, and the impending threat of a Confederate draft. Hill Country men of all political stripes wanted to stay on the frontier rather than fighting somewhere else. At the same time, threats to the Texas coast and military actions further east left the frontier with little in the way of Confederate military forces. This opened the door to active Unionist resistance, known after the war as the Union Loyal League (ULL), beginning in the spring of 1862. Confederate repression of this resistance movement culminated in the battle of the Nueces River on August 10, 1862, and the subsequent execution of a number of ULL members in the summer and early fall of 1862. After this initial campaign, Confederate authorities once again focused elsewhere and Unionist resistance continued. In the absence of clear political control of the region, between 1863 and 1865 Hill Country Unionists and secessionists waged a local campaign of terror, vigilantism, and assassination against one another. In some counties, this conflict continued into the late 1860s, but for the most part, the violence was over by 1865. I follow David Kilcullen's and Stathis Kalyvas's research in arguing that the political and military situation, and the degree to which any side was able to exert control over the region, was the single greatest factor in the level of violence the Hill Country experienced during the war years. In other words, violence was endogenous to the state of civil war and driven by the lack of effective political and military authority, and other factors such as preexisting political and ethnic differences were of secondary importance.

Remarkably, in contrast to the rest of Texas, the Hill Country's bitter wartime divisions did not spill over into a high degree of political violence during Reconstruction. This was due to a number of factors such as the small African American population in the region, the politics of the German immigrant community, and the weakness of Reconstruction-era local governments, who were unable to inadvertently extend the conflict through aggressive prosecution of wartime atrocities. However, the single biggest factor was the re-emergence of native groups as a threat to the frontier, as well as a new threat from organized bandits. Once again, the US Army and the state of Texas did little. With the resurgence of raiding in 1865 and through the late 1860s, former Unionists and secessionists were forced into what I term a "pragmatic reconciliation," and we find them once again shoulder to shoulder fighting and killing their Indian and criminal foes. The US Army (and their Mexican counterparts) finally destroy the Indian threat by around 1880, with the last recorded deadly raid taking place in 1881. Simultaneously, the Texas Rangers largely ended the threat from banditry, though cattle rustling and range wars continued further west.

  When we examine these phases in violence on the Hill Country frontier, we find that despite their differences white settlers maintained the same priorities throughout the period: zealous protection of their property and households, a determination to extend Anglo-American institutions into the Southwest, and a desire for integration into the wider industrial capitalist economy. I view frontier settlers as agents of empire, aggressively pushing for the central government to build roads, provide contracts, and end the Indian threat. This story largely follows the arc of the United States in the nineteenth century, and I view this as an example of how the century-defining process of national incorporation took place at a local level. Perhaps most provocative for readers of H-CivWar, I argue that when seen from a vantage point on the frontier, the Civil War was incredibly bloody and significant, but it was an aberration rather than being the defining story of the nineteenth century.

You are providing some very provocative arguments indeed. I have heard the suggestion that we may need to treat the Native American territory as a borderland, but you seem to suggest that even the Texas Hill Country would fit into such an analytic framework? Why were loyalties so divided in the region? Surprisingly, why were some Texas Hill Country residents loyal to the United States?

NKR: I do view the Hill Country as a borderland. It was on the frontier between continuous white settlement in Texas and areas still controlled by Indian powers, and it was within a few days' travel of the Rio Grande. Geographically, it was on the border between the humid South and arid West, and its economy was centered around ranching, subsistence farming, and small-scale logging rather than cotton growing as in Texas counties to the east. This, in turn, meant that slavery was present but uncommon. After secession, it was a majority Unionist region with very little Confederate or pro-secessionist governance, so again you have this ambiguity in political authority that is characteristic of borderlands.

The political situation in the Hill Country was complex. One of the notable features of the region was the presence of large numbers of European immigrants, predominantly Germans. Most Anglo frontier settlers came from the Upper South, while immigrants from the Deep South flooded into Texas's cotton belt in the 1850s. The Hill Country also had more settlers from the Lower North than other parts of Texas. This diversity among white settlers was uncommon in the future Confederacy.

Settlers brought their political viewpoints with them, as the Hill Country was mostly settled in the decade before the Civil War. German immigrants often espoused what we might call a liberal nationalist outlook and many seem to have held antislavery views. Anglo frontier settlers tended to hold nationalist views as well, and seem to have seen themselves as part of a grand civilizing project in the Southwest. At the same time, with a majority of Anglo settlers coming from future Confederate states, there was at least a strong minority whose politics would make them supportive of secession. Much more than questions related to slavery and status of the Union, frontier settlers were most concerned up to 1861 about Indian raiding. This common concern muted many of the political differences found in these communities prior to secession.

  Opposition to secession arose from several sources. First, the German immigrant community was a major source of Unionism. A number of Forty-Eighter political radicals had settled in several communities in the Hill Country, and many of the leaders of the German community were committed Unionists. Regular German Texans also clearly identified the national political struggle as being between the forces of pro- and antislavery, and most had a clear distaste for slavery and aristocracy. Other settlers seem to have viewed secession as a threat to the frontier in particular, as they feared that a new government and a possible war would have deleterious consequences for their communities and economy. Economic concerns in particular likely played a major role in opposition to secession, as Hill Country farmers and businesses benefited from Army contracts and the presence of troops, both of whom paid in gold. This factor can clearly be seen when comparing voting on secession in the Hill Country to that of the frontier counties to the north, where government contracts were essentially nonexistent. Like the Hill Country, the counties of the Red River valley had many settlers from the border states, benefited from government contracts for Indian Territory, and mostly voted against secession.