- Bastrop County during Reconstruction
Kenneth Kesselus examines Bastrop County during the period 1865-1874 as a way to explore the transformations taking place both in Texas and in the United States during Reconstruction. Kesselus, a native of Bastrop County, is quite familiar with the local terrain, history, and personalities, and he takes care to distill this knowledge for the reader. He examines in careful detail all features of life in Bastrop County and covers such aspects as economic development, building and rebuilding infrastructure (including a failed attempt to persuade a railroad to run a line through the town of Bastrop), the role of social and fraternal organizations, particularly for German Americans and for African Americans, and politics at the local level.
Kesselus does a fine job of probing not only the morass of political parties in the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction, but also capturing the volatile nature of local politics. He discusses the formation of an interracial Republican coalition of German Americans, some native white Texans, and African Americans, a critical point because the German American population held the balance of power between Democrats and Republicans. German Americans siding with the Republicans, therefore, gave Republicans sufficient strength to win a series of local races. However, as Kesselus notes, "the strength of African and German Americans at the polls did not empower them to prevail against conservatives determined to regain control through intimidation" (83). He analyzes the use of violence by Democrats to repress and terrorize Republicans and the relative impotence of the state government in responding to this extralegal violence and finds that violence and anger over what seemed excessive taxation, succeeded in provoking a significant proportion of German Americans to vote Democratic, which ended Republican control of Bastrop County and ushered in a long period of Democratic control.
While this is an eminently readable and informative book, there are several issues that merit consideration. Kesselus is assuredly correct that Bastrop County represented in miniature what was happening in the rest of Texas. However, at times, one wonders if he focuses on the micro at the expense of the macro. For instance, he alludes to President Johnson's plan for Reconstruction, but does not consider in great depth the battles between Johnson and Congressional Republicans and tends to treat what happened in Texas as somewhat isolated from the national political scene. Kesselus writes that "unusual turnover in such offices reflected political instability as well as the power of federal officials to remove from office those who did not adhere to the principles of Reconstruction" (12). [End Page 334] The principles of Reconstruction, of course, were different depending on whether Johnson or Congressional Republicans were in charge. The book would have been stronger if he had made a more concerted effort to link what was happening in Bastrop County to the national level.
Furthermore, Kesselus might have connected his study of Bastrop County to the historiography of Reconstruction in Texas. Barry Crouch's The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Texans (1999), for example, is not cited and Crouch's work might have helped Kesselus contextualize what happened in Bastrop County. If Kesselus would have thought a bit harder about connecting his work to the secondary literature, he also might have expanded his base of primary sources beyond town and county newspapers. State or national papers might have lent the book a wider scope and allowed Kesselus to think about how the events in Texas were both shaped by and shaped other events during Reconstruction. Still, these few flaws aside, this is a useful and informative county study for both historians and lay readers.