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Riding for the Lone Star

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The idea of Texas was forged in the crucible of frontier warfare between 1822 and 1865, when Anglo-Americans adapted to mounted combat north of the Rio Grande. This cavalry-centric arena, which had long been the domain of Plains Indians and the Spanish Empire, compelled an adaptive martial tradition that shaped early Lone Star society. Beginning with initial tactical innovation in Spanish Tejas and culminating with massive mobilization for the Civil War, Texas society developed a distinctive way of war defined by armed horsemanship, volunteer militancy, and short-term mobilization as it grappled with both tribal and international opponents. Drawing upon military reports, participants' memoirs, and government documents, cavalry officer Nathan A. Jennings analyzes the evolution of Texan militarism from tribal clashes of colonial Tejas, territorial wars of the Texas Republic, the Mexican-American War, border conflicts of antebellum Texas, and the cataclysmic Civil War. In each conflict Texan volunteers answered the call to arms with marked enthusiasm for mounted combat. Riding for the Lone Star explores this societal passion--with emphasis on the historic rise of the Texas Rangers--through unflinching examination of territorial competition with Comanches, Mexicans, and Unionists. Even as statesmen Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston emerged as influential strategic leaders, captains like Edward Burleson, John Coffee Hays, and John Salmon Ford attained fame for tactical success.

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Chapter 1: Tribal Warfare of Colonial Tejas, 1822–1835

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The story of Texas and its dynamic martial tradition began with the challenges of American colonization between 1822 and 1835. Throughout initial settlement the settlers increasingly focused on the military use of horses as they adapted to the frontier environment of Mexican Tejas. The resulting transition, from woodland infantry tactics to plains cavalry techniques, developed over two stages: early militia campaigns against proximate coastal tribes, and later offensives against more distant prairie and plains peoples of central and western Texas. This steady march of conflict reflected both relentless small-unit raiding and larger expeditions in 1824, 1826, 1829, and 1835. The final campaign on the eve of revolution, comprising entire battalions of mounted men, illustrated the colonists’ full emulation of Indian mobility.

In addition to tactical adaptation, colonial leaders unleashed selective hostility that reflected adept strategic exploitation of tribal power and relations. While historian Wayne Lee's thesis that Anglo colonials generally saw natives as “true barbarians, fit targets for the most extreme forms of war” is true, he is also correct that the colonists’ initial decade in Texas was defined by pragmatic “graduation of intensities for particular purposes.”1 Empresarios like Stephen Austin swiftly recognized the population dimension as the Clausewitzian center of gravity in Tejas warfare, and thus identified domestic centers as both military targets and allies to be courted.2 This calculated appreciation of the human landscape often benefited from intelligence gained from indigenous sources.

 

Chapter 2: The War for Texian Independence, 1835–1836

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Texas's uprising against Mexico, and the associated revolutionary military structure that Anglo-Texan rebels developed through 1835 and 1836 to achieve it, represented the second formative stage in its approach to warfare. Two factors made these years distinctive in the rise of a distinctive way of war: the nationalization of volunteer horsemen as rangers and cavalrymen in organized companies and battalions, and the organizing of Texan forces to operate across a much wider spectrum of conflict than seen during the colonial period. In the case of the San Jacinto Campaign in spring of 1836, it represented the simultaneous execution of centralized, massed efforts against the Mexican Army and decentralized, irregular patrolling against tribal raiders within a comprehensive framework that centered on a concerted attrition strategy.1

The defense of revolutionary Texas consequently required a two-tiered military structure to negotiate the dual threat environment. Acting Governor James Robinson described the peril to Texan society—now nationalistically called Texian—with dramatic flair, proclaiming the nation stood “Surrounded on one side by hordes of merciless savages, brandishing the tomahawk and scalping knife, recently red with human gore; and on the other by the less merciful glittering spear and ruthless sword of the descendants of Cortes, and his modern Goths and Vandals.”2 Settler Noah Smithwick agreed, worrying that while “Mexico had an organized army of several thousand…there were thousands of Indians eagerly watching for an opportunity to swoop down on us and wipe us from the face of the earth.”3

 

Chapter 3: Conflicts of the Early Texas Republic, 1836–1838

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The third stage in Texas's military history spanned the initial years of the republican era as it struggled to preserve strategic gains under Houston's leadership. Beginning with the stunning victory at San Jacinto and ending with deactivation of all large-scale fighting units in 1838, this period generally continued the revolutionary framework that included a conventional brigade, at least in theory, positioned to the south, and dispersed ranger companies oriented north and west. While the Army of Texas intended to deter and counter further Mexican attempts at reconquest with Napoleonic mass, a succession of mounted riflemen regiments would follow precedent of the original Corps of Rangers in warding off Indian opponents.1

This choice for varied military composition—which recognized diverse threats on multiple fronts—reflected a potential inflection point in the development of Texas's way of war. On one hand the nascent polity hoped to maintain a modern, professional army comprised of infantry, artillery, and cavalry branches with a small navy to protect maritime interests on the Gulf. On the other, with much of the nation's population dispersed along expanding borders with settlement concentrations along the lower Colorado and Brazos rivers and in Nacogdoches, Texas yet required a flexible frontier guard. These two manifestations, nation-state regular army and irregular ranging forces, would present Texans with a choice: would they adopt war-making methodology along European normative standards or embrace their colonial heritage of short-duration service by volunteers?

 

Chapter 4: Conflicts of the Middle Texas Republic, 1838–1840

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An expanding scope of Anglo-Indian warfare defined the middle years of the Texas Republic. From 1838 to 1840 the young nation fought conflicts of territorial expansion and preservation—both state-sanctioned and unsanctioned—as it sought to establish an enduring strategic security. Texian mounted forces rode at the heart of this contest as national militia and elite rangers. Simultaneously, the explosive growth of the Anglo population from approximately 35,000 in 1836 to over 150,000 in 1845 intensified ethnic confrontation.1 This immigration transformed the depth and reach of Lone Star military power in the wake of their hard-won independence. As thousands of adventurers, entrepreneurs, and pioneers travelled west from the United States, the phrase “Gone to Texas” became symbolic of the movement.2

The year 1840, in particular, saw the largest immigration wave in the republic's short history. The rapidity of population growth and increased societal militarization directly instigated among the most destructive ethnic conflicts the lower Great Plains would ever experience. As more and more ambitious Texians interjected frontier towns into the contested periphery, a reinforcing confluence of settler initiative and political encouragement attained critical mass. This pressure created a powerful impetus for aggressive settlement and a deep reserve of human capital to fight for new lands; it propelled the republic's boundaries west, north, and south with a devastating surge of violent energy.

 

Chapter 5: Conflicts of the Late Texas Republic, 1841–1845

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Even as Texas conquered vast swaths of territory for Anglo settlement across the breadth of its expansive frontiers, it remained dangerous for both settler and Indian alike at the close of 1840. While Comanche, Cherokee, and other tribes had suffered greatly due to repeated militia and ranger incursions, they yet retained the capacity to strike, on a temporarily reduced scale, even as aggressive Anglo prospectors surveyed seasonal encampment and hunting grounds. That December, as the Texas Congress deliberated a replacement strategy in response to the failure of the Frontier Regiment, angry citizens cried—with willful disregard for the causality of their very presence—for military assistance: “We are exposed to a general attack, and are painfully convinced, from every appearance that we shall be overwhelmed by numbers in such an event, unless assistance is speedily sent us.”1

As the embattled republic embraced a national militia, it simultaneously found more nuanced expression in the rise of new defenders: elite and semi-professional Texas Rangers. It was during this period—even as increasing proportions of newly immigrated Texians never saw actual combat due to the emergence of increasingly peaceful interior counties—that a specialized cadre of hardened fighters gained exceptional tactical prowess due to refinement of frontier tactics, development of hybrid equine breeds possessing both strength and endurance, and most importantly, adoption of revolving firearms with unprecedented killing effect. Under the captaincies of John Coffee Hays and other leaders, these ranging companies would patrol with outsized impact, both materially and culturally, between Texas and its enemies from 1841 to 1845.

 

Chapter 6: The Mexican-American War, 1846–1848

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The explosion of war between Mexico and the United States provided a testing ground for Texas's military strengths—and traditional weaknesses—on a continental stage. While Texan colonial, revolutionary, and republican mounted forces had attained both regional admiration and notoriety between the Rio Grande and Red River, they remained lesser known across greater North America. Deployment of rangers as auxiliary cavalry in the Mexican War would change that. As vengeful volunteers armed with rifles and revolvers augmented the U.S. Army from the initial invasion of northern Mexico to the final occupation of Mexico City, the term Los Diablos Tejanos, or Texas Devils, found bloody resonance across the Mexican landscape.1

The onset of another nation-state war again placed Texas in strategic peril. Similar to its revolution a decade prior, this conflict compelled a return to a familiar scenario: massed confrontations with Mexico to the south and ranging along its Indian Frontier. While the Mexican War years of 1846 to 1848 again demanded short-term mobilization at the regimental scale, enduring Anglo-Indian hostility compelled numerous patrols and expeditions. From Indian preserves in Oklahoma to the urban sprawl of Mexico City, Texan volunteers served as auxiliary rangers, mounted riflemen, light cavalry, and infantry as they sought conclusions to old enmities. These expeditions occurred both independent of and in direct support of the U.S. Army, an untested factor in the Rio Grande borderland.

 

Chapter 7: Conflicts of Antebellum Texas, 1846–1861

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Texas fought along its historical Indian Frontier throughout and after the Mexican-American War. From American annexation in 1846 to secession in 1861, the new state intermittently deployed rangers and militia to augment newly arrived, and often inadequate, Federal garrisons.1 Explosive population growth and territorial expansion—which actually resulted in a proportional decrease in military participation by state residents—ensured further friction with Tejanos and natives. John Salmon Ford, who would replace Jack Hays as the preeminent frontier captain, described the border volatility from a predictably biased perspective: “The war waged upon Texians, by Indians, upon the inhabitants of Texas was cruel and barbarous.” Looking south, he also lamented they were “constantly subjected to a war of the butcher knife and the lasso” by Mexican marauders along the perennially troubled Rio Grande.2

Such exaggeration belied the incredible attraction Texas held for American immigration after achieving statehood. Population density during antebellum years rose from 154,431 Anglos and 58,161 black slaves in 1850 to 421,294 Anglos and 182,921 black slaves by 1860.3 Over the same period, the state benefited from approximately $10,000,000 in Federal stimulus—mostly in support of U.S. Army garrisons—totaling 4 percent of Texas's value growth.4 This economic expansion, and the territorial aggrandizement that it inevitably spurred, demanded limited but repeated mobilization of government sanctioned, nominally unsanctioned, and even illegal rangers to preserve and enhance territorial gains. Even though many new residents avoided actual combat, militant traditions continued to define Lone Star culture.

 

Chapter 8: The War for Confederate Independence, 1861–1865

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Texas's way of war culminated in the massive mobilization of its forces under the Confederate banner for the American Civil War. Lasting from 1861 to 1865, subjugation by the Union Army presented the greatest territorial threat since Santa Anna's attempted reconquest in 1836. With such existential peril Texas's horsemen responded en masse with enthusiasm. The scope of deployment as light cavalry, mounted riflemen, partisan rangers, and mounted militia was unprecedented in North American history and reflected the pinnacle of mounted warfare on the continent. The resulting quantity of Texan horsemen who fought in the Civil War remained unmatched by any state, Confederate or Union, proving the centrality of mounted arms in their society's unique approach to warfare.1

As in Texas's previous conflicts, its frontier communities, towns, and cities embraced rebellion with a distinctive martial fervor. For most Texans the contest reflected a nationalistic crusade to preserve Lone Star freedom and honor as they fought first to protect home territory, then for safety of extended family in threatened states, and lastly to preserve the Confederacy. As articulated by Victor Rose of the 3rd Texas Cavalry Regiment, “To us, Texas was the ‘nation’; to her alone we owed allegiance; we were allied with the other Southern States, not indissolubly joined.”2 In this regard, the war was seen by many Texans as the second war for independence where they countered yet another foreign army compelling political subordination through military conquest.

 

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