Author Interview--Nicholas K. Roland (Violence in the Hill Country) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with 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.

How much did the Confederate government care about this region and its protection? Did they leave it to Texas to handle the frontier policing? There seems to be an interesting situation in that we usually think of U.S. and C.S. forces fighting each other, but rarely do we think of C.S. troops having to also engage Native Americans on the frontiers.

NKR: Texas secessionist rhetoric had focused on the federal government's failure to end Indian raiding, and promised a better situation under the Confederacy. Two Confederate regiments were initially raised to patrol the frontier, but they were soon called away to serve in areas deemed more important. A struggle took place for most of the war between Richmond and Austin over frontier defense. Jefferson Davis asserted the authority to order any Confederate units to any service he deemed necessary, while Texas wanted Richmond to provide and pay for a frontier defense force that was not subject to recall from the frontier. Texans also fought against implementation of the Confederate draft in the frontier counties. Texas eventually prevailed, and for the last eighteen months of the war the Confederate draft was essentially suspended on the Texas frontier. Ironically, this quickly turned the frontier into a haven for men wanting to avoid conscription.

Ultimately, a series of Confederate and state forces served in a frontier defense role, but none were particularly successful. The U.S. Army and Texas Rangers had established the preferred tactic against nomadic Indians before the Civil War: attacks on villages. Under the Confederacy, frontier defense forces were always undermanned or logistically unable to carry out offensive expeditions beyond the frontier line, and they instead remained reactive and ineffective. This really left frontier defense up to the settlers themselves, just as it had been prior to secession. This necessity for home defense fed into opposition to conscription and militia service away from the frontier by settlers of all political persuasions.

There seems to be much conflict in this region, among the settlers and those dodging state or Confederate authorities. Besides thinking of the Hill Country as a borderland, does not this region also fit into William Freehling’s argument of South vs. South or such recent works like the Free State of Jones?

NKR: Certainly, you see the rise of anti-Confederate dissent in the Hill Country during the war, much as in other parts of the Confederate South. Probably a good number of Hill Country citizens who voted against secession were conditional Unionists who went over to the Confederate cause after Lincoln's call for volunteers. But anti-Confederate dissent grew as the war went on. Along with what Vickie Bynum calls "communities of dissent," like those committed German or Anglo Unionists who had supported the Union Loyal League, wartime disaffection manifested itself in the anger of frontier residents over Confederate policies such as the tax-in-kind, restrictions on trade with Mexico (except for cotton shipped by East Texas planters), the threat of the draft and/or militia service, and the failure of frontier defense efforts. The weakness of Confederate authority in the region allowed people at the community level to resist many of these policies.

I think that the more we look at Southern localities during the Civil War, the more of these types of local conflicts we will find. In my research, I found evidence of violence between Unionists and secessionists in other parts of Central Texas outside the Hill Country. In many parts of the South, this was the primary experience of the war. The Hill Country is emblematic of this, though certainly in much more dramatic form than many other regions. It also reminds one of the civil wars waged in the countryside during the American Revolution. I think there are great similarities between the American colonies and the Confederate and border states in terms of the social upheavals and violence that they experienced at the local level during these periods.

Had places like the Hill Country been uniformly secessionist and committed to the Confederate cause it may have alleviated some issues for Jefferson Davis. But there were inherently conflicting priorities - for example, maintaining a robust frontier defense effort versus sending troops to major theaters of the war - that were basically unresolvable even when both sides fundamentally agreed politically. War exposes and widens social and political fissures on the side for whom it's going badly, and this happened in the Hill Country as it did all over the Confederate South.

You also have a significant amount of extra-legal violence, including lynching. How do we explain this, was there a breakdown in legal authority? Did people not trust the legal system? Were these personal issues?

NKR: Lynching was a deeply-rooted form of communal violence that Anglo American settlers brought with them to the frontier. Interestingly, there is scant evidence of vigilantism or other extra-legal violence in the prewar Hill Country. However, once the war starts you see the rise of political violence in 1862, and then the subsequent weakening of Confederate authority leads to vigilantism. I use the term vigilantism for the violence employed by secessionists primarily in 1863 and 1864. It fits the framework of nineteenth-century American vigilantism because it was a movement, at times quite organized, that sought to reassert incumbent legal authority and social order in a period of perceived upheaval.

Hill Country secessionists were concerned with the apparent growth in anti-Confederate disaffection over time. As I've said, both Unionists and secessionists on the frontier successfully argued that military-age men from their region should be allowed to stay home to protect their property and households against Indian raiding. This had the unintended consequence of causing thousands of deserters and draft evaders to flock to the frontier counties, further destabilizing the region and frightening secessionists.

In the fall of 1863, a Union army under Nathaniel Banks invaded the lower Rio Grande. Union operations along the Mexican border in South Texas emboldened Unionists who had fled to Mexico, as well as those still operating in the Hill Country, and they began to threaten and attack secessionists in the region. At the same time, the Frontier Regiment, a Confederate unit, was to be transferred away from the frontier. Local secessionists considered this unit to be trustworthy, despite its undistinguished record in Indian fighting, and feared the promise of "protection" by the local militia, which they believed to be rife with Unionist sympathizers. Adding to the turmoil, the Union army was sending clandestine recruiting missions into the Hill Country, a fact that was known to Confederate authorities and secessionists in the area. With the situation increasingly unstable and secessionists fearing for their lives, they retaliated against those they believed to be involved in Unionist activity. This, in turn, led to the outbreak of a local civil war between late 1863 and the summer of 1864.

Secessionist vigilantes saw themselves as giving force to a series of punitive anti-dissent and sedition laws that had been passed by the Texas legislature, and they believed they were doing what was necessary to protect their property against a threatened onslaught of Unionist "renegades" and "bushwhackers." Known Unionists and secessionists alike were serving in positions in local governments and militia units, so neither side was clearly in control. So yes, there was a breakdown in legal authority as the Hill Country increasingly became a zone of competitive control.

There is some evidence that personal issues were at play in this conflict. This is well-documented as a source of civil war violence by Stathis Kalyvas and others. However, it is my estimation that this civil war in the Hill Country was one between Unionists and secessionists who were struggling for political control and security for their respective communities. Had it gone on longer and intensified, no doubt it would have deepened and begun to take in all sorts of tangential grievances.

I think that this resort to wartime vigilantism points to the relative power of government in nineteenth-century America. In the war's aftermath, some of this type of violence continues in the form of a range war known as the Mason County or Hoo Doo War and in Reconstruction political violence. But in the postwar period, we also see the growing assertion of state authority and the stamping out of Indian resistance, banditry, and other challenges to the Anglo American political-legal regime. The Hill Country shows us in part how the long process of national incorporation took shape on the ground.

I am glad you are bringing up Reconstruction as this was something I was going to ask about, there seems to be quite some fluidity and not clear distinct chronological boundaries in this region. How much is Reconstruction in the Hill Country just a continuation of the struggles from the Civil War?

NKR: Reconstruction in the Hill Country was more of a return to the pre-war "normal" than a continuation of the Civil War. In the book, I include post-war political violence in the same chapter that I discuss wartime violence because they are connected. While political violence was certainly present into the late 1860s, it was not pervasive as in the war years. Instead, a resurgence of Indian raiding and the growth of organized banditry posed new external threats to white Hill Country communities and inspired what I call a "pragmatic reconciliation." The army didn't return to the frontier until the fall of 1866, and it once again proved unable or uninterested in ending the Indian threat. This finally changed with campaigns beginning in the mid-1870s, but in the intervening decade, Hill Country settlers were forced to continue relying upon one another for self-defense. Fairly soon after the war, we have former Unionists and secessionists alike transitioning to face this new security situation and fighting these new threats together.

This was in stark contrast to much of the state of Texas where the Reconstruction years were marked by a violent insurgency against the incipient Republican coalition of white Unionists, freedmen, and the US Army. As previously mentioned, a number of factors contribute to this state of affairs, with external threats to the frontier being the most important. While other parts of the state were in a sense still fighting the Civil War, Hill Country settlers beginning in 1865 were demanding the same things they wanted before secession: the defeat of hostile Indian groups; transportation and communications infrastructure; integration into the national and international market economy; and implementation of effective civil governance.

In a similar vein, how much does the Texas Hill Country illustrate to us just as much about the Civil War era, as it does about how the Civil War era in the West witnessed continuities of ongoing struggles, where the Civil War was potentially just background noise? Do you see your work talk to the growing Civil War in the West scholarship?

NKR: If we step back and look at the region over the entire span of the Civil War era, we see that white settlers consistently prioritized the things I’ve mentioned - markets, security, infrastructure, and civil governance. These are things that regular people in any setting want as basic living conditions. I think the fact that white Americans with little stake in slavery and an obvious external threat wound up in a bloody local civil war illustrates how the war itself drove the process of polarization and eventually violence. Things that on a daily basis weren't of primary important before, such as kinship ties in the eastern states, views on race and slavery, and ideas about nationalism, suddenly became the things that put people on one side or another and motivated them to kill their neighbors. When the war is over, these former identities no longer mattered so much, and Hill Country Texans found that they had to work together again to achieve what they wanted out of life on the frontier. So at least from this perspective, the Civil War was less the defining event of the nineteenth century and more of a particularly horrific period in this longer story of the consolidation of European American economic and political dominance in the West/Southwest.

I do see my work as part of a historiographical trend that is shifting our perspective on the Civil War era westward. The Civil War began over the fate of the western territories, and we know that just as William Henry Seward was declaring that America's destiny lay on Pacific shores, some secessionists had their own imperial dreams. The West was always on American minds as they imagined what the Union or a Southern Confederacy would look like in the future. The Civil War was part of this process of national incorporation, immediately followed by the conquest of the remaining Indian polities and then expansion overseas. My book helps us to see how this process from the ground level.

I think you could also couch my book in the "dark turn" body of scholarship. The deaths and suffering I record make it abundantly clear that this is not a triumphalist story. When the Confederacy is defeated and slavery ends, on the frontier this means that white settlers can once again focus primarily on brutal warfare with the indigenous peoples that threaten their goals. As others have argued, we see this in the national conquest of the West after Appomattox. I fear I've written a somewhat depressing book, but I think it's an important perspective to advance on some topics that are often addressed in triumphalist terms.

What are your future plans? Do you have another idea with the Civil War in mind?

NKR: I'm currently considering some article-length projects, but I haven't identified a new major project quite yet. My job as a federal historian has me focused on modern maritime history, so it's an entirely new field that I'm trying to learn. But I will always have an interest in the Civil War era and hope to continue publishing in it in the future.