Author Interview: William S. Kiser

Author Interview: William S. Kiser

Our author interview for the June 2019 issue is with William S. Kiser, author of “‘We Must Have Chihuahua and Sonora’: Civil War Diplomacy in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands.” He is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University-San Antonio, where he teaches courses in U.S. history and the American West. Born and raised in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he received his Ph.D. in 2016 from Arizona State University.  He is the author of four books: Coast-to-Coast Empire: Manifest Destiny and the New Mexico Borderlands (Oklahoma, 2018); Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (Pennsylvania, 2017); Dragoons in Apacheland: Conquest and Resistance in Southern New Mexico, 1846-1861 (Oklahoma, 2013), and Turmoil on the Rio Grande: The Territorial History of the Mesilla Valley, 1846-1865 (Texas A&M, 2011).

Thank you for joining us in conversation, Billy! Your article expands the geographic scope of Civil War diplomatic history to incorporate the story of our southern neighbors. What inspired you to undertake this research project?

This research project evolved from a topic that I briefly addressed in my latest book, Coast-to-Coast Empire. In that book, I devoted only about two-three pages to the subject of Civil War diplomacy in northwestern Mexico, but it occurred to me at one point that it would be a suitable topic for an article-length study. Much of my previous work involved the Civil War era in the Southwest, but I had yet to pursue a transnational study that looked at the effects of the Civil War on the Mexican side of the border. In fact, this JCWE article has developed into a full-length book project that will cover Civil War diplomacy along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, from Tamaulipas to Baja California.

Some of our readers may have read your article, but for those who have not, can you please summarize your topic? And what is the main point you want to drive home?

This article focuses on Union and Confederate diplomacy in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora between 1861 and 1863. It highlights several unsanctioned diplomatic expeditions during that short time frame, in which U.S. military officers traveled into Mexico to meet with the governors of those two states in an attempt to broker special wartime alliances. This occurred within the context of the Civil War and the French Intervention, two simultaneous conflicts that prevented national authorities from effectively managing affairs on their isolated frontiers. One of the main points is that Unionists and Rebels used acts of irregular diplomacy and intrigue in an attempt to buttress their war efforts by enlisting the support of foreign governors along the international border.

This idea of “irregular diplomacy” strikes me as an important contribution to the field, and that leads nicely into my next question! Early in the article you state that these diplomatic relationships were messy, with the United States, Confederate States, Mexico, and also Indigenous nations, all as major players. How did you, as a historian, tackle these complications?

The most difficult aspect of these messy diplomatic interactions is the role of Apaches and Yaquis. This is partially due to the fact that we have no firsthand accounts of these incidents from their perspectives, and thus it is more difficult to ascertain their motivations and goals. Furthermore, Indians took no active part in the actual diplomatic discussions between Mexicans and Americans that I discuss in this article. I had to tease out their indirect role (primarily as unknowing pawns during negotiations for trans-national military alliances to fight a common enemy) using documentary evidence from governors and army officers.

There were some rather fun examples of spy craft, such as when two U.S. agents snuck into Manuel Escalante’s office to transcribe some documents pertaining to Confederate diplomatic discussions. What are some of the other interesting anecdotes you came across, that didn’t make it into the article?

One of my favorite stories on this topic occurred in northeastern Mexico and South Texas, beyond the scope of the article. In 1862, Governor Santiago Vidaurri of Nuevo León took advantage of Confederate dependency on Mexico as a corridor for exporting cotton around the Union naval blockade of the Southern coastline. Vidaurri slyly raised his tariff rate (itself an act of irregular borderlands diplomacy, because tariffs are supposed to be handled at the national, rather than the state, level) on cotton exports from one cent per pound to two cents per pound in retaliation for Texas Confederates aiding the banditry of his political enemy, José María de Jesus Carvajal. To assuage the governor, Rebel officers fought and defeated Vidaurri’s enemy for him, whereupon Vidaurri lowered the cotton tariff back to one cent per pound.

It sounds like the Confederates and Governor Vidaurri eventually fashioned a mutually beneficial relationship, which speaks to your greater point about the importance of these informal, unsanctioned alliances. So, moving back to the article itself, what conclusions can we draw from this story? In other words, what is the biggest takeaway from your research?

There are two big takeaways from my research on this topic. First, Civil War diplomacy was not limited to the conventional state-level actors in London, Paris, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. but instead took on some very unusual dimensions in regions where national leaders exercised minimal control. The diplomatic conniving that occurred along the border demonstrates that Confederate and Union officials believed Mexico could become an important actor in the American Civil War, and they behaved accordingly in their attempts to formulate regional alliances with state governors. Second, these unconventional diplomatic techniques tell us a lot about the ways in which contested borders and borderlands give rise to complicated and confusing political relationships that undermine national authority. We need look no further than the nightly news to see the ways in which the ongoing porosity of the U.S.-Mexico border continues to confound national leaders in both countries.

Thank you again for participating! Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?

Keep an eye out for my book-length project on Civil War diplomacy in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. It will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press sometime in 2021 or 2022.

To learn more about Confederate attempts to gain support from Mexico, be sure to check out Billy’s article, available through subscription and via ProjectMuse.

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