Looking backwards from secession in 1860, historians often focus on a trajectory of slavery and anti-slavery that frames western expansion as instrumental to the rising regional tension that led to war. A current movement within scholarship looks at the Civil War era in continental or international terms and reexamines the role of the West in both the antebellum and wartime periods. The opportunities present in the expansion of our geographical focus westward was highlighted by a roundtable session, “The Old South in the New West: Southern Expansionism and Empire Building in the American Borderlands.” William Deverell (University of Southern California) served as chair alongside panelists Stacey Smith (Oregon State University), Andrew J. Torget (University of North Texas), Maria Angela Diaz (Utah State University), and Kevin Waite (Durham University). Since this followed a roundtable format, each panelist gave a brief presentation of their research and questions for the field before the chair opened the conversation to the room.
Andrew J. Torget’s research examines southern expansion into Mexico in the first half of the nineteenth century as part of the western expansion of slavery and the international expansion of the cotton economy. As southern slaveholders moved into Mexican territory they had to explain the system of cotton and slavery to a new regime and their presence sparked a debate over the place of slavery in the newly independent nation. This debate helped cause the Texas Revolution and the creation of the Texas Republic, which Torget argued was everything the Confederacy wanted to be a couple decades later. The cotton and slave society set up in Texas ultimately failed, however, due to low international support and the collapse of the cotton economy during the Panic of 1837, leading to its necessary annexation into the United States.
While Torget framed his research as more of an economic opportunity rather than a chance at imperialism, Angela Diaz situated her scholarship more squarely in the discussion of empire. She argued that communities such as Pensacola, Florida, saw themselves as staging grounds for further colonization and questioned what happened to these southern communities when they reached out to conquer the west and Latin America. She also questioned the place of race in this southern expansion. While the American South had a binary white-black system where race was part of socio-economic status, that binary breaks down in more diverse areas such as territory taken from Mexico, cities like New Orleans, or countries in Latin and South America. When expanding west and south, Southerners had to put their structure against places that were racially and culturally very different than their own.
The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.