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For Civil War–era Americans on the eastern seaboard, the West was a place apart. Geographically distant, envisioned as a sublime landscape, wide open to Anglo-American settlement and “civilization,” the region seemed far removed from the political, military, and racial strife of North and South. Present-day historians have mostly abandoned these romantic myths of a “virgin” West, but the relegation of scholarship on the region to the peripheries of American history continues. Historiographically speaking, the West remains isolated.
Civil War Wests, a collection of twelve essays edited by Adam Arenson and Anthony R. Graybill, demonstrates that contemporary debates over race, citizenship, and national consolidation did not end at the Mason-Dixon Line. Looking east from the Pacific coast, the Great Plains, Indian country, and the desert Southwest, contributors to this volume explore the Civil War and Reconstruction from new vantage points—reorienting how historians understand the West’s significance to one of the periods of greatest conflict and transformation in the United States. The authors contend that these “troubled peripheries” were testing grounds where an increasingly powerful federal government faced challenges to its sovereignty, as well as developed means of incorporating (or excluding) racial and ethnic “others” into the body politic (p. 118). The West, as much as the former Confederacy, was a site of national redefinition both before and after Appomattox.
Military officers, government officials, and civilians in the western borderlands of the second half of the nineteenth century encountered a uniquely complicated political and racial landscape. No region of the country brought the expanding American state into direct contact with more foreign powers than the West—the British in the Pacific Northwest, Mexico south of the Rio Grande, and, scattered across the country, Indian peoples the United States had treated as sovereign nations since the founding of the republic. Nor was any other region so ethnically diverse. The presence of Indians, Hispanos, Chinese immigrants, and African Americans formerly enslaved by tribes such as the Choctaw complicate the conventional story of Civil War–era race [End Page 246] relations, often seen strictly in shades of black and white. As Nicholas Guyatt writes, the West as well as the South became a “canvas for multiple versions of racial containment and separation” (p. 97).
But the contributors to Civil War Wests emphasize that regional distinctiveness did not prevent the West from becoming entangled in the same struggles over U.S. sovereignty, citizenship, and national belonging that occupied the East. Martha Sandweiss’s chapter, for example, explores how members of President Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Commission to Indian country carried their experiences of war and southern Reconstruction into negotiations with the Lakota Sioux—their attitudes toward African Americans (variously sympathetic and adversarial) mirroring their engagement with western Indians. Fay Yarbrough compares the status of Choctaw freedpeople, who gained rights to landownership after emancipation but not full legal citizenship in the Choctaw nation, and southern blacks, for whom the reverse was true. Joshua Paddison illustrates the ways in which western concerns also flowed east—racial antipathy for Indians and the Chinese shaping core Reconstruction legislation, which extended citizenship to African Americans just as lines of exclusion hardened for other groups. Virginia Scharff and Stephen Kantrowitz, meanwhile, examine cultural strategies employed by some of these excluded groups (white women and the Ho-Chunk and Winnebago tribes of Wisconsin, respectively) to strengthen their own claims to citizenship. Other chapters focus on diplomatic maneuvering, military conflict, and federal occupation in the West, but all share a focus on what Gregory Downs calls “sovereignty tests,” the government’s attempts to stabilize a nation in flux by consolidating its power and codifying who did and did not belong in the reunified United States (p. 119).
Taken together, these essays work to expand the scope of Civil War and Reconstruction historiography. Examining familiar themes in new settings, Civil War Wests draws intriguing connections between events, people, and policies across the country, demonstrating, in the...