The Devil’s Triangle, James Smallwood, Kenneth Howell, Carol Taylor, University of North Texas Press. Paper, $19.95. Non-fiction, Maps, Notes, Bibliography, Index. This book is a well-written study of the War of Reconstruction in Texas between 1865 and 1877. Gangs of ex-Confederate soldiers returning home to Texas after the “Lost Cause“ harbored hatred and resentment toward freedmen (ex-slaves) and Northern sympathizers who tried to begin new lives after the Civil War.
For more than ten years, roving bands of robbers and highwaymen, acting under the guise of getting even for past grievances were determined to use the war as an excuse for the murder and mayhem they created. Most were really bandits and renegades using their hatred for a good excuse for their skullduggery.
One young ex-Confederate soldier, born and raised on a successful Texas farm, is featured in this book as one of the ringleaders operating throughout various Northeastern counties in Texas. Ben Bickerstaff came from a disciplined, hard-working family. He took to soldering at a young age, joined the Confederate Army when Texas went with the South and saw military action in a number of battles. He eventually became a prisoner of war and spent time in a Northern prison camp. A series of harsh experiences drove his hatred for the North, and by the time he returned home in Texas at Warts end, he was a bitter, battle-hard soldier determined to get even with everybody.
Bickerstaff was one of the organizers of the Ku Klux Klan, and apart from robbing and looting, he took part in the murders of many freedmen trying to live in their own new world. With peace officers few and far between, Bickerstaff and his followers created nearly constant fear and unrest in the entire Northeastern corner of the state of Texas. Due to his familiarity with the countryside learned from his boyhood, Bickerstaff and his followers were able to hide in heavily wooded areas where lawmen and bounty hunters could never successfully follow.
The book goes into detailed political maneuvers among those trying to create a. safe environment for law-abiding citizens living both in towns as well as on ranches. The emotional turmoil spilling over after years of war continued to cause harsh feelings among the people, and some even privately took sides with Bickerstaff’s hatred for the North. Bickerstaff’s crimes were horrific; folks who sympathized with the North were in peril until Bickerstaff’s own death at the hands of an armed group of townsfolk who had finally had enough of him. Bickerstaff was a married man, and it sounds like his wife was as tough as he was. Upon learning of his death, she angrily retrieved the body for burial in a place of her choice, even though the corpse had been beheaded.
We read about influential people such as Sam Houston trying to establish peace and tranquility in Texas newly returned to the Union. The history of Texas Reconstruction between 1865 and 1877 is fascinating and sometimes shocking. The authors have presented a serious, hard-hitting view of a difficult time in Texas history that has been mostly forgotten today. This book belongs in your Old West library.
Editor’s Note: The reviewer Phyllis Morreale-de la Garza is the author of numerous published books about the Old West, including 9 Days At Dragoon Springs, published by Silk Label Books, P.O. Box 399, Unionville, New York 10988 www.silklabelbooks.com