Larry McMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove, about a great cattle drive from Texas to Montana in the 1870s, deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986. The novel’s protagonists were Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, former Texas Rangers who embodied the mythic cowboy traits of being loyal and fierce fighters, courageous frontiersmen for the ages. You won’t find such admirable Rangers in Doug J Swanson’s smashup of Texas’ law enforcement legends. In Cult of Glory, Mr Swanson, a former Dallas Morning News reporter, now a journalism professor at the University of Pittsburgh, scorches the reputations of such legendary Rangers as Ben McCulloch and William “Bigfoot” Wallace for massacring Native Americans and Mexicans willy-nilly. Debunking Rangers lore as sold in movies, television shows, museum exhibitions and novels is the crux of Swanson’s revisionist mission. Though well-written, Cult of Glory isn’t a book for the fainthearted. Swanson, a prodigious researcher, recounts how in their nearly 200-year “attention-grubbing” history Rangers burned peasant villages, slaughtered innocents, busted unions and committed war crimes. They were as feared on the United States-Mexico border as the Ku Klux Klan was in the Deep South. “They hunted runaway slaves for bounty,” he writes. “They violated international laws with impunity. They sometimes moved through Texas towns like a rampaging gang of thugs.” In 1823 the Rangers were created by Stephen Austin, the “father” of Anglo Texas. Settlers had moved into East Texas and improvised their own rules with scant regard for Native American inhabitants. The Rangers’ job was to patrol settlements and eradicate the nuisance of Cherokee, Tawakoni, Tonkawas and Caddos, whose land they were appropriating. “It soon became an article of faith among many newly arrived Texians, as they called themselves, that all Indians were thieves,” Mr Swanson writes. “Mere suspicioned intent could be punishable by death.”
Mr Swanson portrays the 19th-century Rangers as a paramilitary squad, proudly waving the banner of white supremacy. Nevertheless, he also dutifully recounts the bravery of the scouts John “Coffee” Hays and Sam Walker during the Mexican-American War in protecting American supply trains from attacks by Mexican guerrillas. When Walker joined the Rangers in the 1840s, he brought with him a practical revolver, designed by Samuel Colt, which became a battlefield game changer. Even if Rangers were outnumbered by Comanche or Mexican forces, they won bloody skirmishes courtesy of their repeating pistols. Ranger atrocities against women and children during the Mexican-American War are horribly abundant in Cult of Glory, though the United States Army soldiers stationed in Texas at the time were repulsed by such gleeful bloodlust. “About all of the Texans,” Second Lt Ulysses S Grant wrote his fiancée, “seem to think it perfectly right to impose upon the people of a conquered city to any extent, and even to murder them where the act can be covered by the dark.” When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the Rangers sided with the Confederates. John “Rip” Ford, a seasoned Ranger fighter, boasted throughout Texas that slavery was ordained by the Lord Almighty. The Rangers’ horrific treatment of African-Americans after the war equalled that in Mississippi and Georgia.
Between 1865 and 1930 there were 450 lynchings in Texas, mostly of blacks, which the Rangers ignored. “White citizens in many cases treated them as public entertainment — spontaneous and gruesome versions of the county fair,” Mr Swanson writes. “Vendors circulated through the mobs with refreshments. Photographs of corpses hanging from nooses were sold, and mailed, as picture postcards.”