The First Civil War, 1830-1842


Real War
   Grounded Networks
      The Plains  
      Custom, & the Ports   
      Nat Turner, & Others  
      The Islands  
      The Southern Slopes  
      The Mission Coasts
  Control Networks
      Mills & Planters
      Silver & opium
      Alamán & Calhoun
      Rancheros & Pilots
      The War of the South
      Siege & Contagion
A Note on Then and Now
What They Called "Civil War"
   Liberal Projects
   Conservative Demagogues
   Fight Scenes
  Grounded Reaction
Outcomes, and Vision

The Real War was for keeps, between the two great systems that divided society:.

    On this side, people in local communities were building up their own "strategic links," reaching out to other communities and to the world and what it offered, but acting through energies grounded in local life.
    From the other side, smaller groups of people were imposing control circuits designed to regulate and exploit local energies. These control networks used the techniques of European commerce and the nation-state -- and the local slave patrol. And while Anglos and Hispanics and French competed against each other for dominion, times did come when they could cooperate at hunting people down.

The meanings of these two systems appeared in the lives of some representative individuals, such as:

  • Vicente Guerrero , in Mexico, starting with his local network of mule trains, keeping up a guerrilla resistance, first against Spanish forces, later against centralizing controls within Mexico
  • Edmund P. Gaines,  U.S. Army general, active in Florida and on the Texas border, but arguing for a futuristic strategy:  an eccentric who imagined a railroad network to amplify the controls that his own, still undeveloped nation was extending over the continent.

Taking Sides

The two systems were not walled off from each other. Towns, and tribes, and whole nations, could belong to both systems at once.

But there was an enormous moral difference between working for one system and working for the other. Individuals, try as they might to operate in a space between systems, had to decide which way they would go.  In California, while the missions were still under Franciscan control, it did not take politicians from Mexico City to learn how authority worked on the ground. A youngster from Kentucky could learn it quickly, and show that he knew how to take the side of authority against people, even while he was off on a lifetime of adventure.

Christopher Carson was too young at 20 (or anytime later, for that matter) for people to call him anything but Kit. It was off to join up with traders into Mexico, which soon enough meant into southern California. They were "mountain men," and might well have limited themselves to the fur trade. They did not. Working north, they reached the area around San Francisco Bay, where there were a couple of missions, a scattering of Hispanic ranchers, no urban development to speak of -- but also quite a array of Indian settlements -- Wintun, Miwok, and Yokuts, among many.  .

The bunch Carson was with met a search party from San José, hunting for Indians who had run away from the mission. He may have "run away" from home himself, but he knew how a good young man acted, back there in Kentucky or Missouri, when a patrol came around hunting for fugitive slaves. He would have helped, then. And so he did, now. They chased down the runaways, to a village. They burned and killed. They called out the leaders of the village, saying: Turn over the fugitives, or we will kill everyone.

The fugitives went back to the mission.

Actions and Battles

That patrol action, with many other incidents like it, was the day-to-day stuff of the Real War. It came to a focus in separate little encounters, and in critical battles that revealed the strategic pattern, battles like:

[There were also critical battles in what was called "Civil War," between elite factions, but that was a different list.]

The Two Kinds of Map

Over the North American continent, the wars of 1811-1821 produced a set of boundaries, not always definite, marking off four large countries whose governments rested on uneasy social compromises: Central America, Mexico, the United States, British North America. As "nations," not one approached the solidity and intensity that later enthusiasts would expect from a proper "nation-state." All of these units were tentative, vulnerable abstractions.

To the 20th-century mind, at least until political units began to break up after 1990, the "state" would seem a hard, empirical fact. In the North America of 1821, the state had less substance than did the two broad strategic systems -- the "criollo" and the "indigenous."   While the criollo system was identified with the world of political boundaries, and can be given a map, even if the map says little about how power was exercise, the indigenous, popular system is best pictured as zone of intensity at crucial points of the continent.  Make no mistake about it, though:  these were centers of intense popular life, not the "regions of refuge" dear to those intellectual social workers who condescend to indigenous life.

    [XXX Map under constructiont, including zones for:

For these two systems, the 1820s were a time of paradox. Moves like the Plan de Iguala in Mexico, or the Missouri Compromise in the United States , sought to impose some kind of consensus. The winning of independence for criollo nations was a threat to the grounded communities of the continent. Yet the new criollo nations, still brittle, suffered a faltering of their own, a time of uncertainty that left some space to other peoples. Bursts of community action -- from Alabama and California to Zacatecas, and Mexico City itself -- showed that the popular side was not waiting to be offered hand-outs.

Neither side was acting the part of the passive victim, with no mind or policy of its own. Each side had its vision of how it wanted the world to serve its interests. The ongoing war was that between the two systems.

Labels, and What Made the Difference between the Sides

Partly, the Real War was a matter of race: white versus non-white. But there were exceptions to the pattern. There was a fair sprinkling of mixed-race merchants and hacendados, just as there were many poor-white villagers (in all countries). Individuals, pulled in different directions by their different identities, resolved any conflict as best they could.

More, the Real War was a real class war: between people who were losing control over their own resources, and people who were seizing control.  If there were aggressive leaders on the "grounded-network" side, willing enough to rake in material goods for themselves, these leaders were usually ready to stand their ground for community in Comanchería, or Oaxaca, or Haiti.   

The real conflict was always that between the nation-state and the nations of human beings -- between the state, tied directly into the world economy, and the real nations on the ground, linked through their local networks into the republic of hope. It was also a war between those people who owned land according to the rules of European law, and all those people who either worked on that land, or who occupied land into which Euro-Americans could expand.

One pair of words for these two groups, based partly on race and partly on historical experience, is:


(These labels are not perfect. Slaves born in the Americas were occasionally called criollos, to distinguish them from recent imports. And poor whites, if they lived where they saw few indigenous people, or had little access to the temptations of "new land," could also act as "natives" of their neighborhoods. This was true in Quebec, or in the poorer valleys of Appalachia, or in big-city slums throughout the continent.)


Population Strategies

Each of the two systems was trying to take advantage of the other. The continental formation worked by adoption and exchange; the criollo, by trade but even more by segregation and discipline. The "essence" of the continental formation was that it had no essence: it consisted of layer after layer of articulation and exchange, with no absolute property at the core. The essence of the criollo formation was precisely its drive to turn everything into formal property, or into production by workers assembled under central authority.


Intermediate groups like the métis, or the free black populations in a Philadelphia or Havana, were in this sense "indigenous." They had arisen from the inability of traders or slaveowners to deal with their "property" without engaging in communication. They stood as an offense to the "white-settler" communities of eastern cities -- in the same way that Indians who owned slaves stood as a challenge to the white settlers of Georgia.

Indigenous population was on an edge between its massive losses of the colonial period and a spotty recovery that was getting underway, in one area after another. Agriculture and medicine in the Americas, using techniques, not really different from what had prevaiile for centuries in most of the world, were not yet sustaining a birth rate that was consistently much larger than the death rate. Only in Europe, and a small corner of North America was technology producing just that massive differential, with the vast migrations that it entailed..

Adoption made sense within the North American core, as a way to maintain a gradual circulation and equilibrium of population. European populations, in contrast, were not taking people in from outside: they exported people, either to cities or to new lands conquered from non-Europeans. Apprenticeship, which had once placed young Europeans into town families, was disappearing as a genuinely adoptive institution.

Demographic change worked both ways at once. The conquest of new lands could relieve the pressure on new cities. And urban growth might -- in some ideal world -- stave off the pressure on indigenous peoples.

European strategy worked by mobilizing people into disciplinary groups, or into land-hungry populations on the move outwards. Indigenous strategy worked by regulating contacts with the outside, and by taking into existing communities and families any people they needed. Mobilization versus adoption .



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