Friday, June 10, 2016

The Free State of...Texas (Book Review: "Lone Star Unionism")

Reading this book and writing this review comes at a great time with the forthcoming release of the much-anticipated film, The Free State of Jones! And as you'll see below, there is a specific connection between the book and the film!

First, I want to thank the kind people at the University of Oklahoma Press for sending me a review copy of  Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance: Other Sides of Civil War Texas (2016), edited by Jesús F. de la Teja.  

One of the great benefits of an edited volume of essays is that it gives the opportunity for scholars to write on interesting, but focused, topics that may not warrant book-length treatment; this book also makes accessible a collection of scholarship presented at a symposium at Texas State University in 2014. On both counts, OU Press has done readers a great favor.

I was originally attracted to this book for several reasons:

a) my own reading, research, and writing as relates to Civil War-era Texas, as expressed in my own book, Galveston and the Civil War (2012)

b) an interest in Southern Unionists and other examples of dissent and resistance (including slaves and abolitionists), especially in Texas (e.g., see posts here and here)

c) I was already acquainted with and admire the work of four of its contributors: Victoria E. Bynum, W. Caleb McDaniel, Richard B. McCaslin, and Walter D. Kamphoefner.

If one takes the main title of the book as its presumed mission, I'd say it satisfies it only if very broadly defined.  However, in terms of the subtitle - "Other Sides of Civil War Texas" - it excels in its scope, originality, and scholarship.

The publisher's overview:

Most histories of Civil War Texas—some starring the fabled Hood’s Brigade, Terry’s Texas Rangers, or one or another military figure—depict the Lone Star State as having joined the Confederacy as a matter of course and as having later emerged from the war relatively unscathed. Yet as the contributors to this volume amply demonstrate, the often neglected stories of Texas Unionists and dissenters paint a far more complicated picture. Ranging in time from the late 1850s to the end of Reconstruction, Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance restores a missing layer of complexity to the history of Civil War Texas.

The authors—all noted scholars of Texas and Civil War history—show that slaves, freedmen and freedwomen, Tejanos, German immigrants, and white women all took part in the struggle, even though some never found themselves on a battlefield. Their stories depict the Civil War as a conflict not only between North and South but also between neighbors, friends, and family members. By framing their stories in the analytical context of the “long Civil War,” Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance reveals how friends and neighbors became enemies and how the resulting violence, often at the hands of secessionists, crossed racial and ethnic lines. The chapters also show how ex-Confederates and their descendants, as well as former slaves, sought to give historical meaning to their experiences and find their place as citizens of the newly re-formed nation.

Concluding with an account of the origins of Juneteenth—the nationally celebrated holiday marking June 19, 1865, when emancipation was announced in Texas—Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance challenges the collective historical memory of Civil War Texas and its place in both the Confederacy and the United States. It provides material for a fresh narrative, one including people on the margins of history and dispelling the myth of a monolithically Confederate Texas.

And now to the review! I'm going to start with what I thought were the strongest contributions:

Victoria Bynum's "East Texas Unionism: Warren J. Collins, Big Thicket Jayhawker" is excellent.  It's Bynum's book, The Free State of Jones, Movie Edition: Mississippi's Longest Civil War, that is the basis for the forthcoming film, and the chapter comes closes to what I hoped the book would encompass in terms of exploring themes of Texas Unionism.  It's a terrific integration of folklore, geography, family migration from Mississippi to Texas, backwoods life, conflict between poor whites and commercial planters, participation of Collins family members in Newt Knight's Unionist guerilla band in Mississippi, and a transition into 20th century political life.  The research is exceptional and the story is very interesting.

I had the privilege and pleasure of seeing Walter D. Kamphoefner speak about Germans and the Civil War several years ago when I still lived in Texas.  Like Bynum, his chapter - "New Americans or New Southerners? Unionist German Texans" - also comes close to what I was hoping from in the book's mission.  It's a very good summary of German-American sentiment in Texas in the Civil War era, and in other states, including Missouri, where I live now, so it also appealed to me on that level.  Her examines slave ownership, voting records, enlistment in Union and Confederate units, post-war recriminations and/or assimilation, analysis of German-American correspondence and more.  An especially interesting aspect was the adoption of the German language by some African-Americans in Texas. Apart from a disappointing, unnecessary, and uncharitable ad hominem insult that closes the chapter, it is an excellent piece of work.

I have interviewed Caleb W. McDaniel on this blog before and admire his scholarship very much, and his chapter - "Involuntary Removals: "Refugeed Slaves" in Confederate Texas" - does not disappoint.  The focus of the chapter is the influx of slaves into Texas in the war years - swelling the estimated slave population by an additional 50,000-150,000, owing to an exodus of slaveholders from other states, especially Louisiana and Arkansas.  The best part of this chapter dispels the myth of the "faithful slave" and discusses African-Americans Unionism and dissent, especially in terms of runaways. What's especially impressive about McDaniel's contribution - and most others in the book - is that they are original contributions to scholarship and literature and that shows up in the diligence in the research as evidenced in the endnotes.  Especially interesting in McDaniel's case is his utilization of the Weeks family correspondence.

McDaniel's chapter is actually one of at least four chapters that focuses on the African-American experience in Texas in the era.  Other chapters focuses on "Slave flight," "African-American women and racial violence," and "Juneteenth."Of the three besides McDaniel's, "Slave flight" relied too heavily on newspaper accounts and did not exhibit the breadth or depth of research that other contributions in this book did; likewise, the chapter on Juneteenth did not add much in the way of new scholarship in my opinion.  However, Rebecca A. Czuchry's chapter, ""In Defense of Their Families: African-American Women, the Freedmen's Bureau, and Racial Violence During Reconstruction in Texas," was exceptional and one of the strongest in the book. It makes for interesting, if uncomfortable, reading owing to an emphasis on the sexual crimes against African-American women in post-war Texas. 

Richard B. McCaslin's Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas, 1862, is one of my favorite books, and he builds on it with his excellent chapter, "A Texas Reign of Terror: Anti-Unionist Violence in North Texas." 

Another chapter in the book - on Edmund J. Davis - was interesting, but offered little more than straight biography. The introductory chapter on "Collective Memory of a Confederate Texas" was interesting but seemed an odd choice t introduce the other subject matter.

In terms of learning something new, I really enjoyed Omar Valerio-Jimenez's chapter, "Although We Are the Last Soldiers: Citizenship, Ideology, and Tejano Unionism," as it was an entirely new subject to me and it was an outstanding contribution to this group.

Of the 10 chapters in the book, 6 are truly outstanding, and the others are average or above - it's a good mix of material and highly recommended reading. 4 to 4 1/2 stars out of 5, for sure.

The one thing I would have liked to seen covered was a discussion of institutionalized suppression of civil liberties in Texas by the Confederate government - something along the lines of Mark Neely's (1999) Southern Rights: Political Prisoners and the Myth of Confederate Constitutionalism. My own research indicates there is a lot to explore in terms of secret police activities, imprisonment, confiscation of property, etc., against Unionists in Texas.

Many thanks again to the University of Oklahoma Press.

1 comment:

Sam said...

And I thought the movie on the Jones nation was simply fictional... Another great post! Thanks!
Sam Vanderburg
Gun Barrel City, TX