Prelude to an Unholy Union: A Muster Roundtable

Prelude to an Unholy Union: A Muster Roundtable

The roundtable ahead features three posts that gather Southern and Western history in a continental conversation, from Khal Schneider, Alexandra Stern, and Kevin Adams, respectively. I write to offer background and context for those pieces, all of which build toward October 2024, when the Western History Association and Southern Historical Association will hold concurrent conferences in Kansas City, Missouri, the first such for two of the largest historical organizations focused on regional history in North America.

Group of soldiers standing in a row.
15th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry, c. 1861-1865, tintype.

I came to know of these plans in the autumn of 2017, when, as the William S. Vaughn fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt, I learned of the initiative from Anne Hyde, editor of the Western Historical Quarterly. I shared the irony that the manuscript upon which I was working at the Center, an exploration of the unruly cultural stratigraphy of several counties in the southern Colorado borderlands, had unexpectedly developed a strong “Southern” strain—a post-Civil War (1869-70) migration of white “refugees” from Congressional Reconstruction from north Georgia to Huerfano County.  Their descendants, even today, identify as “the Georgia colony.”  Anne explained that discussions were underway between the WHQ and The Journal of the Civil War Era toward joint or special issues of that would preview the conference, and invited me to serve as convener of topic sessions at WHA meetings and to guest-edit the special issues.  Thus, in this Call for Proposals, was born The Unholy Union.

“The editors of the Journal of the Civil War Era and the Western Historical Quarterly seek contributions toward joint programing at the WHA in the years ahead, and two special joint issues of the journals in 2020/21. James F. Brooks of the University of California, Santa Barbara will serve as guest editor on this shared project. We hope to inspire comparative insights and unearth hidden connections between history in the “South” and the “West”, however far flung those might prove.”

2021 saw two special issues appear that  confirmed our sense that a serious new scholarly school of thought was emerging.  In March, The Journal of the Civil War Era featured four articles:

Andrew Shaler’s exploration of the Cherokee and Wyandot Companies offered a new cut on distinctions between “settled” Indians and “unsettled” overland emigrants inspired by the California gold finds.  Departing from their recently assigned “homelands” in Indian Territory and Kansas, respectively, these overlanders offered non-Indians who joined their caravan expertise in gold prospecting as well as skill in westering through Indian Country.  Shaler argues that “Cherokee and Wyandot emigrant companies effectively navigated a liminal space between the ‘indigenous’ and ‘settler,’ ‘Indian’ and ‘emigrant,” and actively maintained complex relations with both communities.”  Their dispossession and forced removal from homelands east of the Mississippi came strangely coupled with heightened perception of Cherokee and Wyandot progress toward civilization in many white eyes. Their Companies drew praise from new members, who also benefited from the gold prospecting and panning experience Cherokees could offer once they arrived in California. While some emigrant Indians remained in California, (most prominent, John Rollin Ridge, grandson of Treaty Party leader Major Ridge), most returned after their sojourn. Among those were a contingent who camped on the banks of Cherry Creek in Colorado, and noticed some flakes of float gold, and which news would travel back to the east via those who traveled the Cherokee Trail.

Max Flomen drew us into a world of movement as well, as the “renegades” produced by Indian dispossession and expanding slavery sought shelter and the faint promise of independence and freedom in the borderlands of Mexican Tejas, and later the Republic. Maroons, runaways, emigrant dispossessed Indians, renegades, and weapons smugglers all sought, for their particular ends, emancipation from the bonds of American imperialism, while aspiring planters looked to be in the vanguard of an expanding cotton kingdom. The weakness of Mexican control in the borderlands held promise for contending groups who, ironically, tended to reinforce each other’s strengths. The renegade factions flourished in the frailty of Mexican authority, while emigrant planters from the Old South found themselves welcomed by the same weak state for the role they played in frontier defense. As experiments in “alternative emancipations” mounted, Mexicans and Texicans maintained tactical alliances to quash those campaigns. Yet by 1836, of course, Texicans had become Anglo-Texans, and “committed to ‘whitening’ the Greater Southwest” (the failed annexation of New Mexico in 1841 aside). Rebellions and outbreaks of the enslaved held by Creek, Cherokee, and Texan planters in 1842 and 1845 illustrated the potential for Mexico to destabilize even after surrendering territory, which would stimulate Texas’ annexation.

In “War Waits,” Lance Blythe entered debates around the relevancy of the Civil War to other, contemporaneous, conflicts in the West.  Treating the complex array of violent exchanges among Native peoples, between Natives and New Mexicans, and between US Army forces and both Natives and New Mexicans, he offers a powerful argument that fore-fronting the causative role of the Civil War “tends to efface, if not erase, local, deep, and long histories in favor of the relatively recent US history, a phenomenon that can be seen in recent historiography of the Civil War in the West.”  Emphasizing the local over the national, he employed two cases, the Battle of Apache Pass in July 1862, and the Massacre at Fort Fauntleroy at Ojo de Oso in 1861, to make a granular, spirited case that we attend to causal conditions in the canyons, mesas, sheep husbandry, and protagonists’ personal histories for our meanings, well below the vantage of “the nation state.”  We come away convinced that “the United States was not a full participant in the local borderland wars…and US officials and soldiers in the Civil War era ultimately played a marginal role in the true wars of the Southwest.”  Kit Carson, the local, laid pillage to Canyon de Chelly for reasons his commander, James Carlton, little understood.

Angela Pulley Hudson chased a glancing reference to a deployment of western Indian Scouts in support the Freedmen’s Bureau in the post-War South to an unexpectedly fruitful exploration of “western” Indians in the Old Southwest–including the 1887-1894 incarceration of Geronimo’s Chiricahua Apaches at Mount Vernon Barracks, Alabama. Her work not only reverses the predominant “westering” directionality of our narratives, by bringing Apaches eastward to Alabama, but also provides for discovery of a resident Indian people, the MOWA Choctaws, who became neighbors and informal kinsfolk to the Apaches.  Hudson plays provocatively with the notion that Indian “removals” might have trended eastward, and that the “removals” of the 1830s in the Old Southwest were less complete than popularly imagined.  Two “Native Souths” entail here, and neither fully what we might expect. As if anticipating my own Georgia Colony story, Hudson suggests “rather than tending to follow the westward path of U.S. expansion, what if we follow people and stories where they lead, even if that lands us in unfamiliar historiographical waters?”  Venturing that Apaches and Choctaws employed each other’s presence to enhance their own sense of indigeneity, she asks us to wonder if the imprisoned Apaches rescued their Muskogee cousins from becoming “vanishing Indians.”  She later expanded on this essay with a Muster post.

The special issue of the Western Historical Quarterly appeared in the summer of 2021 and featured another four articles under the Unholy Union rubric.

 In “Reimagining ‘Defeat’ in the Transnational West” Matthew Hulbert brought South and the (South)west into conversation in a wry examination of how some former Confederates, rather than surrender their futures to the victorious Union, sought a new location where the “social and cultures features of the Confederate experiment” might be kept alive, under the protection of Mexican Emperor Maximillian.  Crossing the Rio Grande at Las Piedras, some imagined a return of the halcyon days of the Old South, while others, particularly those whom Hulbert details, imagined a new white supremacist landscape that would contain many of the socioracial features of what we come to be known at the New South.  Placing Confederado thinkers John Newman Edwards, Henry W. Allen and Alexander W. Terrell as representatives of specific imagined futures for the post-Civil War South.  Although they may never have seen realization, understanding their visions, and the strategies by which they sought to bring them to realization, “is paramount to our broadest understanding of how Confederates conceived of defeat and coped with it culturally, both at home and abroad.” One comes away from the essay wondering at Confederado naivete, yet recognizing that the “Old South” did, indeed, survive in deed and word:  several emigrant colonies in Brazil, for instance, and more robustly in the many echoes of Edward Pollard’s The Lost Cause today.

In “’No Country Will Rise Above its Home, and No Home Above its Mother:’ Gender, Memory and Colonial Violence in Nineteenth Century Central Texas,” Patrick Troester tackled another enduring myth of westering–the victimization of innocent women and children as justification for white men’s violence–while situating its origins in the Old Southwest.  By bringing a gender focus to literary representations, especially memoirs, of colonization (seldom used term) in the “settling” of Texas, he argued that “Anglo women served as active colonial agents through their work making homes, raising children, and building social ties—labor which bound them firmly to more overt forms of colonial violence by men and the emerging state.” Mary Maverick, daughter of Northport, Alabama attorney William Adams, misremembered her father as appointed by Andrew Jackson as Indian Agent for Choctaws and Cherokees.  Her husband to be, Samuel Maverick, disliked the hands-on daily work of managing enslaved workers on his father’s Tennessee plantation, and sought more bountiful returns in side-ranging land speculation.  Although the family prospered, “Mary faced the same bitter frustrations as other slaveholding women in the American South coupled with a quintessentially western sense of frontier isolation, “a slave of slaves.”

In “Between Civilization and Savagery: How Reconstruction Era Federal Indian Policy Lead to the Indians Wars,”  Boyd Cothran brought us farther west (and east) than any in our series across the two journals. His essay arced from the lava-beds stronghold of the Modocs to Washington, DC, and Ulysses S. Grant’s halting formulation of a “Peace Policy” that would seek, finally, to end the Indian Wars and bring Indians into the new body politic of the reunited states. That the Peace Policy would fail is attributable to an inability to grasp the “entrenched realities of life on the ground throughout the American West.”  Focusing on a single year, 1873, the messy realities of the West could unravel high-minded political reforms and kneecap Gilded Age avarice.  Francis Amasa Walker, the leading architect of the Peace Policy, a gifted intellectual and theorist, failed to craft a nationwide response to the knotty social realities of Indian-Settler relations in the West, and the Modoc War served as the “precipitating event” that would lead to a resumption of the Indian Wars as a final solution.

Steve Kantrowitz closed out our special issue with “Jurisdiction, Civilization, and the Ends of Native American Citizenship: the view from 1866” asked to place the imagined futures of Freedmen and Indians in conversation with one another to clarify the hidden contradictions that the 1866 Civil Rights Bill held for American Indians. Birthright citizenship, which seemed so straightforward in the case of newly freed women and men, became vexingly complicated once Senators contemplated embracing the “wild and savage” as fellow members of the body politic. The fact that Indians “bore a very different relationship” to the newly freed became obvious during debate.  Where “rights and equality” lay at the core of freedmen’s citizenship debates, Senators were undecided on issues of Native “jurisdiction.” Were Indians bound first by their tribal affiliation and therefore “foreign,” or were (some, at least) cloven from tribal passions and in the continuum of dependent subjects of the United States, hence “domestic”? If the latter, how might individual Indians be place on the spectrum of savagery to civilization?  How could “birthright” citizenship also allow for “enculturation” citizenship? Kantrowitz uses these questions to argue that in our “settler’s empire, republican constitutional principles could not be allowed to hamstring the fundamental sovereignty of settlers and their governments.”


In the Fall of 2021, I had the pleasure of serving as discussant for another WHA session, one continuing the themes that yielded the special issues, “South Meets West: Examining Federal Power and Policies After the Civil War.”  I found those papers exciting in their own right, and so strongly aligned with our ongoing work that I suggested to Khal Schneider, Alexandra Stern, and Kevin Adams they submit them to Muster, so that their insights might be included in our conversations before Kansas City. The various pieces will appear in a special roundtable over the next two weeks.

James Brooks

James F. Brooks is the Gable Chair in early American history at the University of Georgia and is research professor in history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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