- The Devil’s Triangle: Ben Bickerstaff, Northeast Texans, and the War of Reconstruction in Texas
Right from the start the authors of The Devil’s Triangle let the reader know that this book is about death. More specifically, this book deals with the violent lawlessness of post-Civil War northeast Texas, and the men who carried out acts of murder [End Page 222] and crime in the region. Other books have been written detailing the exploits of Texas Reconstruction era desperados such as Cullen Montgomery Baker and Bob Lee, but this is the first work to provide an in depth study of Ben Bickerstaff. The purpose of this work is to bring Bickerstaff’s life story into the larger context of violence in northeast Texas and Reconstruction in the South. The authors contend that the Civil War did not end in Texas in 1865 but rather continued on until the state was redeemed by the Democratic Party in 1874.
Smallwood, Howell, and Taylor make the point that violence carried out by Ben Bickerstaff and men like him was political in nature and state, “Those men helped ensure that ex-Confederates would ultimately control Texas” (7). They fully explain Bickerstaff’s early years and his Civil War service in the Eleventh Texas Cavalry that fought in several major battles including Pea Ridge, Perryville, and Murfreesboro. Bickerstaff was wounded at Murfreesboro on January 3, 1863, and while mending was ordered to forage for supplies. The authors convincingly make the case that this period led Bickerstaff to a life of crime. He robbed Southern civilians, burned their feet, hanged them, and committed all manner of atrocities in an effort to obtain valuable goods for himself. Bickerstaff also abused Union prisoners and was eventually demoted from sergeant to private by his commanders for his actions.
On January 29, 1864, Bickerstaff was captured by Union forces near Sevierville, Tennessee. Bickerstaff’s time as a prisoner of war at Rock Island Barracks in Illinois is presented as a life-changing event. At this prison camp, diseases were rampant, rations were cut back, and the authors suggest there is some evidence of wrongdoing by African American soldiers who guarded the camp. The case is made that being held prisoner in the camp made Bickerstaff hate the Union, Yankees, and African Americans with a level of passion that led him to commit acts of violence against them once he escaped. Bickerstaff spent the last months of the war in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana with a group calling itself the Frontier Rangers. These men became notorious for killing freedmen and white Unionists and robbing local Southern civilians. With the authorities on their trail, the group came to Texas and continued their criminal activities.
From 1865 to the time of his death in Alvord, Texas, on April 5, 1869, Bickerstaff was a wanted outlaw who joined or created Klan-like organizations that sought to maintain white supremacy and uphold the Lost Cause. To that end he murdered, robbed, raped, and pillaged across northeast Texas, targeting primarily African Americans and whites loyal to the Union. Local authorities in northeast Texas did little to stop Bickerstaff and men like him because they viewed them as heroes to the South. As the authors state, “Such men interfered with efforts to implement the Reconstruction process. They cared little for life, nothing for the law, and nothing for the stability of their regions. Death and destruction characterized their world” (56).
The authors managed to weave together the national, state, and local narrative of Reconstruction and presented it in a fluid and comprehensible manner. Their use of primary and secondary sources is exhaustive with well over 100 monographs, articles, and dissertations cited as well as dozens of government documents and thirty-four newspapers. This work is an important addition to our overall understanding of Reconstruction in Texas. [End Page 223]