Author Interview--William S. Kiser (Illusions of Empire) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with William S. Kiser 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.

Part 1

But these regional governors had so many issues to juggle too, it seems like they were trying to manage a "Wild West" with bandits, border raids, Native people. How does the Conservative/French Intervention change the dynamics along the border?

WSK: When Napoleon III initiated his "Grand Design" and sent French troops into Mexico in 1862, sitting liberal president Benito Juarez proved unable to resist the onslaught and was ultimately forced to flee Mexico City, retaining his title as president but lacking real power to control events throughout much of the country, especially the southern states occupied by French troops and their Mexican conservative allies.  This series of events in southern Mexico proved pivotal to the course of events in northern Mexico, where regionalist-minded governors realized that their central government no longer had the power to effectively control affairs in the vast US-Mexico borderlands.  Governors like Pesqueira in Sonora, Terrazas in Chihuahua, Vidaurri in Nuevo Leon, and Lopez in Tamaulipas began to pursue their own courses of action with Union and Confederate officials in ways that could never have occurred without a foreign invasion undermining the national government's power.  Political leaders in the far north were accustomed to lacking federal military power and being left largely to their own devices in fighting indigenous peoples like Apaches and Comanches, so in that sense Mexican governors had always acted with a modicum of independence.  But when it came to dealing with foreign diplomats and officers--men like Reily, Bee, and Quintero from the Confederacy or Fergusson, Wright, and Carleton from the United States--these Mexican officials along the border found themselves with unprecedented abilities to act independently, and they often did so in ways that benefited themselves and their benefactors.

What you are describing sounds almost like the textbook definition of a caudillo. They also have the added issue, that it is not just Native raiders crossing the borders, but also possible filibusters from California into Sonora and Confederates from Texas. How much do these complicate matters of defending your state and managing good relations with your neighbors?

WSK: Northern Mexico's governors in the 1860s were very conscious of the threat of American filibustering, particularly Ignacio Pesquera in Sonora, who had helped fight off Henry Crabb in 1857 and remained wary of all Americans who took political, diplomatic, or economic interests in northwestern Mexico.  He was just as suspicious of Unionists like Carleton in New Mexico and Wright in California, as he was of Confederates like James Reily and William Gwin.  Pesqueira had also led Sonora's resistance to Chiricahua Apaches and even went so far as to reimpose a scalp bounty in the 1860s akin to those that Sonora and Chihuahua previously adopted in the 1840s.  These dynamics in northwest Mexico were quite different than northeast Mexico, however, where Vidaurri acted as a veritable Mexican secessionist at one point and offered to append his state of Nuevo Leon to the Confederacy.  Vidaurri saw a lot more to be gained by an alliance with Southerners, and as I've said found numerous ways to profit from the American Civil War.  Vidaurri also lacked an urgent indigenous threat because by the 1860s the Comanches were no longer staging large raids into Mexico, so his primary concern with respect to stateless enemies involved Mexican revolutionaries and bandit groups.

I want to briefly go back to Vidaurri and the Matamoros cotton trade. You have this instance where Vidaurri ups the tariff on cotton to punish Confederates and they try to retaliate unsuccessfully with a cotton embargo, which is akin to what some in the Confederacy tried in 1861 to bring Britain in. It seems cotton diplomacy just never works and Confederates always overestimate the power of the white fiber.

WSK: Yes, the incident you allude to was one of several in which Vidaurri tried to take advantage of Confederate dependency on the cotton trade and on northeast Mexico as an outlet for that cotton to circumvent the U.S. naval blockade.  On more than one occasion, Vidaurri managed to manipulate the Texans by using their dependency on the cotton trade.  In another case, he successfully blackmailed them by raising the tariff and telling them he would lower it again when Confederate troops eliminated one of his political enemies, Octaviano Zapata, and in a matter of months Southern troops did indeed kill Zapata and Vidaurri immediately lowered the tariff.  In this particular instance, cotton diplomacy not only failed the Confederacy, but it completely backfired on them, as Vidaurri turned the tables on his Rebel counterparts to use cotton diplomacy to his own advantage.

It is an interesting situation indeed. I want to switch gears a little, your work deals primarily with the Southwestern Borderlands and in the last few years, we had a significant number of new books. Why do you think there was so much recent interest in this borderland? What have been some of the most important contributions of this new scholarship?

WSK: As someone who has always had a deep interest in Southwest Borderlands history, it has been nice to see the recent growth of scholarship in that field as it relates to the Civil War era.  One point I would make here is that there has always been a lot of interest in the Confederate invasion of New Mexico, and that specific topic has been the subject of dozens of books going all the way back to the 1960s.  What is new and exciting about the books coming out in the last 5-10 years is the ways that historians have begun expanding the scope on the Civil War era in the Southwest, looking beyond military operations and battles to examine the roles that Hispanos and Native Americans played in shaping the course and outcome of these events in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.  In the case of Illusions of Empire, I hope that one of my primary contributions to the future direction of this literature will be to encourage a transnational turn, focusing not just on Americans but on Mexican and French actors as well, because that continues to be an understudied and underappreciated component of these Civil War-era events.  

While your work is mostly related to the Borderlands, you are also addressing the larger Civil War West literature. How does your work illustrate that we cannot just dismiss what happens in the western parts of the country as not important to the outcome of the war?

WSK: This is a great question, and one that gets to the heart of my point in the previous answer about the transnational turn in Civil War literature. Largely as a result of recent scholarship, some historians are beginning to recognize the Trans-Mississippi West, the US-Mexico Borderlands, and the Pacific Coast as important Civil War theatres of operation--and here we must expand our understanding of theatres of operation beyond military to include economic, political, and diplomatic, because if we remain wedded to the notion that the only things that really mattered in the Civil War were enormous battles involving tens of thousands of men, then almost all places, all events, and all actors outside of the Pennsylvania-to-Louisiana eastern corridor will forever seem irrelevant.  I think everybody rightly understands and believes that the outcome of major battles was extremely important, but even so, the sort of Eastern-exceptionalism that has long dominated perspectives on the Civil War leaves out a lot of other very important considerations--and here Steven Hahn comes to mind as somebody who has illustrated the need for a broader transnational perspective in some of his recent work.  One of my primary purposes in writing Illusions of Empire was to prove this very point about the importance of transnational events, and I do so in part through the lens of diplomacy--and more specifically irregular diplomacy--within the hotly contested power dynamics of the US-Mexico border.  There is extensive historical evidence, outlined in my book, showing that during the Civil War, men like Lincoln and Seward; Grant, Sherman and Sheridan; Jeff Davis and Judah Benjamin, and many, many others, all placed a high degree of importance on the outcome of events along the US-Mexico border, and they all seemed to believe that the outcome of the Civil War itself could hinge on the success or failure of their efforts in that faraway region.  My books also shows that this remained true in the early years of Reconstruction, when Grant and Sheridan in particular saw the preservation of American democracy as contingent on the outcome of the French imperial project in Mexico and acted accordingly by flooding the lower Rio Grande Valley with military force and encouraging other more clandestine forms of intervention in the Mexican conflict.

Billy, to close the interview, you have published so many works already, do you have any plans for a new project?

WSK: I am currently working on a book-length project that examines Indian scalp bounties, within the context of genocide, across the frontiers of North America, from the 1600s through the 1800s.  Although portions of this book will cover the nineteenth-century US-Mexico borderlands, it will be much broader in scope to include much of North America, from the early colonial period through the end of the nineteenth century.