Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A side trip in history

I'm frequently in the position of throwing up my hands and demanding what a poor fiction writer's supposed to do when the facts are so bizarre. While in the opening throes of my current research, in order to get a general overview of the period of interest I read the relevant portions of T.R. Fehrenbach's general account Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans. And this is what we find:

See, crops were good in Texas throughout the war and although far and away the majority of able-bodied white men joined either the CSA or a frontier defense unit, the plantations of the Cotton Belt kept right on producing cotton under the aegis of lone white women and capable slaves, who despite white paranoia never took the logical course of rising up or escaping en masse to Mexico - which, to be fair, was having its own civil war at the time and may not have been a tempting prospect compared to the devil they knew. The Union Navy blockaded the Gulf of Mexico, but all these Southern belles had to do was ship their cotton overland (a considerable chore, as roads were universally terrible and our few navigable rivers all run west to east) and sell it in Mexico, from whence the purchaser (as likely to be the Union Army as anybody else, but as long as they paid in gold only the CSA government cared) could not be legally constrained from carrying it away as long as it wasn't in a ship flying the CSA flag. In time the state took over the cotton trade, to its considerable complication. The war caused a chronic draft animal shortage, so experimental camels confiscated from the U.S. Army at Camp Verde at the beginning of the war were used for hauling cotton. But that's not the weird thing.

I won't trouble you with all the geographical and military minutiae, but suffice to say that the Union Army succeeded in disrupting the Mexican cotton trade by occupying coastal positions near the Rio Grande. The charismatic Texan professional fighter and once-and-future Texas Ranger John Salmon "Rip" Ford, who had no Confederate Army rank and didn't get along with the generals supposedly protecting the border, raised the Cavalry of the West - a motley assortment composed mostly of boys too young and men too old for the current conscription laws - to protect the cotton trade and successfully bottled the Union up in an untenable position from which they could do no harm. At about the same time, the French were taking advantage of the chaos in Mexico to try to install Napoleonic relative Maximilian as Emperor. Ford - not a much-loved figure to anyone he could call a Mexican, but a pragmatist above all - generally dealt with whatever Mexican was in power in the region that concerned him in a diplomatic manner that got him what he wanted, backed up by the knowledge that he'd rather shoot a Mexican than get a disadvantageous deal from him. (This is me talking, not Fehrenbach.) Matamoros, the border town through which the cotton trade passed, was in Imperial hands at the beginning of 1865, and everybody was making a profit, except the Cavalry of the West, which had never seen a payday. So now we get to the weird part.

On March 6, 1865, the Union soldier-politician Lew Wallace, the later author of Ben Hur, appeared at Brazos de Santiago. General Wallace came to try to make a truce on the Rio Grande, with Lincoln's approval. Wallace had concocted a fantastic scheme of getting the Confederates to surrender and reenter the Union, and then joining their army with Juarez in Mexico. Together, this force would drive the French and Imperialists out. The Rio Grande still inspired wild dreams.
No kidding!

So on March 11, Wallace hosted a party for Ford, the real commander, and General Slaughter, the official commander, at Port Isabel (where I spent the weekend before commencing this research - oh, opportunity lost! What might I have found there, had I been looking?), with $600 worth of refreshments and a plan. Ford and Slaughter were both aware that, despite how well Texas was doing militarily, the CSA was on its last legs, and thought the idea worth considering; but their superior, Major General J.G. Walker, got wind of it and came down hard on Slaughter, the only one who could commit the Army to anything. Ford used to talk regretfully about the proposition afterward. He thought it could have worked, and anyway would have been more advantageous to Texas than going down with the Confederate ship proved to be.

A month later, Lee surrendered, but nobody knew that. In May, an ambitious young Union officer broke out and was roundly beaten at the Battle of Palmito Hill (per Fehrenbach; records of the cause of Palmito Hill are contradictory), the last battle of the Civil War and a Confederate victory, for all that was worth. A few days later, Ford received a flag of truce and a message conveying the news of the surrender. "Ford cursed violently for a spell, then began to laugh. He agreed, not to surrender, but to an exchange of courtesies." These courtesies involved a party at his house followed by a junket to Mexico to watch an Imperial military revue. General Slaughter refused to surrender, wanting to take the remains of his army across the border and join the Imperialists (against whom he'd been willing to form an alliance three months before, remember). He couldn't raise any enthusiasm for this idea among the (still unpaid) men.

Ford likewise turned down an Imperialist offer of lancers disguised as civlians to help him hold Matamoros's sister city of Brownsville, but General Slaughter made a deal to sell the Confederate artillery to them for 20,000 pesos in silver. He appears to have intended to keep the money, but Ford intercepted it, arresting Slaughter at gunpoint, and the troops in Brownsville, at least, finally got a payday. Slaughter then signed his command over to Ford, who dismissed the troops and carried his family across the border to Mexico, where he stayed until the terms of amnesty were declared in July and he went on home.

Why I think I need to invent anything when Texas history is right here, I'm not sure! None of this is directly relevant to my story, but realizing that the father of one of my characters was a cotton speculator gave me the first indication of how my plot would shape up, and the flexibility of loyalties on the Texas frontier is very relevant indeed. Since then I've learned a lot more about the cotton trade, and hence about Mr. Bonvillain's character, and why he left his daughter in San Antonio while he went to Mexico, and where he was when he died.

I'm long past reading general secondary histories for this project. As a rule, I am not fond of them. They tend to skim over the interesting bits in favor of faking neutrality - and they are never neutral. Even Texas history can be made to seem boring, if you leave out the stories. Give me a partial, prejudiced, honest historian who carries the ax he's grinding openly and tells interesting stories any day of the week over the stuffy textbook that hides its bias under a layer of dullness!

In archeology and paleontology, most of the interesting stuff is underground. Something has to draw attention to a site before it can be dug. Bones erode out of a stream bed; a field is known as a good place to collect "arrowheads" (which may really be lance points, or knives, or engravers); a construction crew finds jewelry in the treads of its earthmover. General histories show the surface scatter. Scholarship and primary sources provide the diggings; and then you interpret what you find in accordance with your own needs.

And in the course of that, you turn up stories like that of the Cavalry of the West, the author of Ben Hur, and the Mexican Civil War, that aren't what you need at all, and which you'd never dare to make up! Which is a good in itself, and needs no excuse.

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