Personal Connections with the Civil War West

Personal Connections with the Civil War West

Last year I attended the Western Historical Association meeting for the first time. While listening to the papers of my own panel, walking around the book exhibit, and attending several of the other panels, it got me thinking about being a Mexican-American woman, a historian of the Civil War era, and how I’ve related to, or at times not been able to relate to, the field that I’ve chosen to study. We as historians don’t necessarily need to feel personal connections to our research, but my struggle with that connection speaks to more than personal feeling and echoes the ways that the nation chooses to include or exclude Latinos/as voices in American history. In this post I want to talk more about one of the major benefits of widening the story of the Civil War to more fully include the West and the U.S.-Mexican borderlands: that is, by including more diverse historical voices we welcome more diverse students and scholars into the discussion of the meaning of the War and the mid-nineteenth century.

I doubt it will come as a surprise to readers when I say we are in a period of intense national debate over race, the place of immigrants in American society, and the commemoration of historical events such as the Civil War. Perhaps in response to our current political climate, many historians of the Civil War in the West and those working on transnational aspects of the war’s history call for a broadening of the field and a rethinking of the larger narratives of the nineteenth century. Recently, Erika Pani wrote an excellent blog post on Muster, “A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective,” in which she encouraged us as teachers to utilize a broader view of the Civil War’s fundamental questions. Pani observes (quite correctly) that while the prospect of having to incorporate multiple conflicts into the study of an already unwieldy subject—the American Civil War—can seem overwhelming, events and locations such as the West and the violent Civil War in Mexico allows Civil War educators to further complicate the central themes present in our courses.[1] In their edited volume, Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States, Adam Arenson and Andrew Graybill also call on historians to consider including the experiences of those living west of the Mississippi River more fully into the field of Civil War study. The issues at stake in the war such as the end of slavery, the power of the state, ideas about race and gender, and the future of the nation are issues that bridged both sides of the United States as it broke apart in 1861, and they still connect our present with their past. As I often remind my own students, the Civil War ultimately poses more questions than it answers, and Americans continue to struggle with many of these questions.[2]

My interest in the period of the Civil War, like many other historians, dates back to childhood, but, to be honest, I don’t remember feeling as though the war’s history was a part of my identity as an American. It wasn’t until the professor of my college undergraduate Civil War course mentioned to me that Mexicans also fought in the war, that I ever felt any real connection to this part of the nation’s past. Students like me tend to spend a lot of time looking at American history from a distance, waiting to see if people who look like them pop up somewhere in their textbooks. Even if you love American history it can sometimes be difficult to see yourself reflected in it. The more I studied the nineteenth century in graduate school the more I began to think about my own family’s stories within the broader history of America.

Raphael Rios and family. Courtesy of the author.

My earliest ancestors arrived in the United States in the midst of Reconstruction in Texas. At that time there were no massive fences and no walls separating Mexico and the United States. My great-great-grandfather, Rafael Rios, appears to have migrated to central Texas from Mexico sometime in 1867. It was after the Civil War that cotton culture began to push out cattle ranching in the region south of Austin, the state’s capital. His journey remains shrouded in silence for us, but he began working on cotton farms in the area shortly after his arrival. Placing this short story within the larger history of cotton agriculture in Texas, such a migration may have been in response to white planters’ attempts to replace freedmen and white tenant farmer with Mexican day laborers. Most often the work was seasonal, and Mexicans were subjected to the same poor housing conditions and wages that freedmen experienced. By the end of the nineteenth century, we find Rafael Rios’ name in the tax rolls for the small town of Luling, Texas, having purchased a small plot of land along with his brother who was also then in the country. This migration is the first evidence I have of my family’s connection to these broader historical narratives that I have dedicated my life to studying.

The presence of my ancestors is part of the complex racial history of Texas cotton culture, but it also reflects how Latinos/as complicated the narratives of this time period in multiple ways, and it demonstrate how discussions of race were never entirely along a binary. The counties of this region south of Austin and north of San Antonio recorded high percentages of Mexicans living and working in there, especially around San Antonio where eighty two percent of the population of Mexican-born Texans lived. Mexican laborers followed the work into other parts of Texas as well as the sugarcane fields in Louisiana. Even in bayou country the Mexican migrants of the late nineteenth century were not the first; Latin American presence in Louisiana was as constant as it was for the southwest borderlands.[3] It’s these kinds of experiences that provided the basis for my scholarly interest in the connections between the Southwest borderlands, the Old South, and Latin America, which became the central focus of my scholarship.

The multi-racial experiences of people living in the tiny part of Texas where I was born is only a glimpse of a much larger tale. The silences that historians of the Civil War West uncover and the voices that we restore will not only alter the narrative of the Civil War, but also help students and educators from diverse backgrounds connect to this singular moment in U.S. history. There is power in telling stories that allow more people to claim American history as their own.


[1] Erika Pani, “A Bird’s Eye View of the Civil War: The Virtues of a Transnational Perspective,” Muster (February 5, 2018, accessed February 13, 2018)

[2] Adam Arenson, “Introduction,” in Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States, eds. Adam Arenson and Andrew Graybill (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 1-15.

[3] Niel Foley, The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 26-35.

Maria Angela Diaz

Maria Angela Diaz is Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century U.S. history at Utah State University. She graduated from the University of Florida with a PhD in American history in 2013. Her current book project is entitled Saving the Southern Empire: Territorial Expansion in the Gulf South and Latin America, 1845-1865.

One Reply to “Personal Connections with the Civil War West”

  1. Read your recent blog and can also recommend Andrew E Masich recently published “Civil War in The Southwest Borderlands 1861-1867”

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