Author Interview--William S. Kiser (Illusions of Empire) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature William S. Kiser to talk about his book, Illusions of Empire: The Civil War and Reconstruction in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in November 2021.

William Kiser is Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. Billy Kiser received his Ph.D. in 2016 from Arizona State University. He has also published Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands (2018); Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (2017); Dragoons in Apacheland: Conquest and Resistance in Southern New Mexico, 1846-1861 (2013); and Turmoil on the Rio Grande: The Territorial History of the Mesilla Valley, 1846-1865 (2011).

To start, Billy, this is not your first book on the U.S.-Mexican borderland, what prompted you to write this one?

WSK: While researching and writing one of my previous books, Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny in the New Mexico Borderlands (Oklahoma, 2018), I encountered a significant number of primary source documents that involved a Rebel officer's clandestine diplomatic mission to Chihuahua and Sonora in 1862 as part of a broader Confederate strategy to take control of New Mexico, California, and portions of northern Mexico.  Despite the extensive and impressive secondary literature on Civil War operations in New Mexico and Arizona, this episode was mostly unfamiliar to me since historians had not previously covered it in detail.  A personal conversation with Brian DeLay in the Fall of 2017 led to a discussion of this topic, and he encouraged me to pursue a longer transnational study of Civil War operations along the US-Mexico border.  Once I devoted my full research attention to these historical events, I quickly discovered that there was a lot more to the story than just one officer's diplomatic mission to Chihuahua to Sonora, and that opened up the metaphorical pandora's box that led me to write a book covering the broader Civil War era across the entire US-Mexico borderlands, from Tamaulipas and South Texas in the east to California and Baja California in the west.

What do you argue in Illusions of Empire?

WSK: I advance two specific arguments in this book, one of them conceptual within the framework of borderlands studies, the other one historical within the framework of the Civil War and its outcomes.  With respect to the former, I contend that a very complicated series of diplomatic events involving French imperialists, Confederate separationists, Union expansionists, Mexican regionalists, independent revolutionaries, and indigenous leaders provides an important way of thinking about borderlands environments as places that simultaneously enable and stifle the growth of empires.  Regarding the latter, I argue that diplomatic and, to a lesser extent, military events along the U.S.-Mexico border between 1861 and 1867 played an important and underappreciated role in the Civil War, the French Intervention, and Greater Reconstruction.  Specifically, the importance of transnational operations along the border revolved largely around the fact that many high-level administrators--including Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin, Maximilian I, and Napoleon III, as well as Native leaders like the Chiricahua Apache chiefs Mangas Coloradas and Cochise--believed that their empire-building fortunes could live or die based on the success of their operations along the US-Mexico border.  In the case of the Confederacy, wartime operations depended to a notable extent on the ability to export cotton and import war materiel through northeastern Mexico as a means of circumventing the U.S. naval blockade, and this in turn caused Southern and Northern figures alike to devote considerable diplomatic attention to Mexican officials.  These lines of argument challenge the assertion by many historians of the Civil War era that transnational (and even Trans-Mississippi) events were not particularly relevant to Civil War operations.

I could not agree more with you. This borderland has such a complicated history and it still remains so today, what impressed me the most reading your book was, and you eluded to it already a little, the vast number of characters and players--France, Mexico, U.S., rebels, Apaches, local warlords, to name just a few--how did you make sense of all their different and, at times, contradictory interests and changes to those interests in the course of the war?

WSK: Because of the large number of historical actors involved, and their disparate interests, the narrative organization of this book was a major challenge, as was explaining the multitudinous ways in which different peoples' actions intersected in the context of the Civil War and the French Intervention.  As just one example, an important way to understand the actions and motivations of Mexican actors involves the role of centralism and regionalism, because many of the Mexican officials chronicled in this book were independent-minded regionalists in the northern border states who acted with their own political and economic ambitions in mind.  With respect to Apaches, Comanches, and other borderlands indigenous groups, their leaders aimed first and foremost to protect interests in land and resources in the context of tribal homelands, where an arbitrary border between two nation-states meant little to them outside of strategic raiding and trading.  To that end, indigenous peoples saw almost all outsiders--Confederates, Unionists, Mexicans, and the French--as enemies and acted accordingly.  In some cases, it remains difficult to make sense of individual actions.  One example is Governor Santiago Vidaurri of Nuevo Leon, a political shapeshifter who constantly remolded his strategies to fit his changing predictions about the outcome of the Civil War and the French Intervention. 

I was going to ask more about Vidaurri later, but since you open the door, I want to follow up on this. He is such a fascinating character and survivor or chameleon if you want. I especially enjoyed how he was aware of his position of power and used it. It was fascinating how this local warlord and his minions, Patricio Milmo, could dictate terms to the Texas rebels. Does this speak more to his abilities or the weakness of the Confederate State?

WSK: All evidence suggests that Vidaurri was a master at his political craft, cleverly recognizing the Confederacy's weaknesses and vulnerabilities and realizing that the Southern war effort depended at least in part on his own good graces in allowing commerce to flow through northeastern Mexico.  Vidaurri also realized, in the context of the French Intervention and the plight that President Benito Juarez faced, that the central government lacked the power and authority to rein him in for independently handling foreign affairs and tariffs, which was tantamount to treason under normal circumstances, and this explains why Vidaurri was executed in 1867 when the French withdrew from Mexico and Juarez reclaimed power.  To put it simply, Vidaurri saw political and economic ways to personally benefit from the American Civil War, and he used his position of power in the US-Mexico borderlands to capitalize on the Confederacy's weaknesses as a "nation" lacking any formal international recognition or allies and as a wartime entity that was cut off, via naval blockade, from trading with the outside world.

To briefly talk about the top-level diplomatic, the rebel government has a reputation of picking the worst possible diplomats and Pickett seems to fit that bill. How much does Mexican equating of filibusters with slavery expansion hurt rebel diplomatic efforts?

WSK: Pickett was certainly a bad choice for diplomatic service to Mexico, and as you rightly say, Confederate leaders had a tendency to send the wrong men to the wrong places when it came to international relations.  In Pickett's case, his selection was predicated on the mere fact that he had briefly resided in Vera Cruz; as it turned out, Pickett deplored the Mexican people and treated them as childish inferiors -- hardly the type of person you would want conducting high-level diplomatic negotiations in Mexico City.  In a similar example of failure, the Confederacy sent a diplomatic agent to Mexico in 1864 based on the fact that years earlier he held a diplomatic appointment in Spain, the assumption literally being that this man's experience in one Spanish-speaking country qualified him for service in another Spanish-speaking country.  Regarding antebellum filibustering, many Mexican leaders at both the national and the local level continued to equate American diplomatic outreach within an aggressive expansionistic context, and to this end they did not typically distinguish between the Confederacy or the Union.  In other words, Mexican leaders during the 1860s tended to view all Americans, regardless of sectional affiliation, as aggressive opportunists seeking to prey on Mexico in various ways.  Interestingly, as a diplomatic strategy, both Northern and Southern officials stressed--and in most cases deeply exaggerated--their counterparts' territorial ambitions during interactions with Mexican officials.  Union leaders constantly told Mexicans that the Confederates aimed to conquer and control large swaths of Mexican soil, and that the only sure way to prevent such an outcome was to ally with the United States.  At the same time, Rebel leaders constantly told Mexicans that the United States government was scheming to take control of northern Mexico, and the only way to prevent such an outcome was to ally with the Confederate States of America.  Mexican officials, especially regionalist governors in the northern border states, almost always saw right through these ruses and refused to take the bait from either side.