”The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876,” edited by Roseanne Bacha-Garza, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 352 pages, $45
The last battle of the American Civil War, Palmetto Ranch, was fought in the Rio Grande Valley in May 1865. Yet, battles were only part of the Civil War story of the Rio Grande.
“The Civil War on the Rio Grande, 1846-1876,” edited by Roseanne Bacha-Garza, examines the whole story. The book, a collection of 11 essays by different authors looks at virtually every aspect of the ways in which the American Civil War impinged on life along the border between the United States and Mexico.
The seemingly odd choice of years in the title, 1846-1876, is revealed as appropriate while reading the book. Although the American Civil War only ran from 1861 through 1865, the Mexican-American War (1846-48) influenced the conduct of the Civil War along the Rio Grande. Additionally, the American Civil War fell in the middle of a series of Mexican civil wars, which lasted until 1876. In the valley, these conflicts blurred together, making it impossible to understand any individual war in context understanding the other wars.
The book covers a surprising breadth of topics. There are chapters on life in the Lower Rio Grande during this period, and race relations between whites, Hispanics and blacks. (It proved remarkably free-flowing. Interracial and intercultural marriages took place at rates higher than seen in the United States until the 21st century.) Another chapter examines the remarkably wide impact of the cotton trade.
The civil wars in both countries are examined. One chapter is spent contrasting two Hispanics who became commanding officers; one a colonel in the Confederate Army, the second a general in the Mexican Army. Another chapter examines the lives of U.S. black troops soldiers sent to the valley in 1865. They stayed until 1867. There’s also a chapter on an archaeological examination of the Palmetto Ranch Battlefield.
“The Civil War on the Rio Grande” is an unconventional history, but an informative one. Some of the chapters are written in academic style. These often make slow reading. Yet the result is rewarding. The book reveals the complexities of the war fought along the nation’s southern boundary.