By: Dr. Richard B. McCaslin
The popularly accepted explanation behind the origin of John Salmon Ford's famous moniker centers around his penchant for applying "RIP" labels to deceased Texans named in his military reports. Another possibility put forth by Ford colleagues, used to giving playful nicknames to each other, was that Ford fell asleep on duty so much they started comparing him to Rip Van Winkle. Another suggestion refers to the South Carolina-born Texan's aggressiveness in a fight, his tendency to "rip" into the enemy. Regardless of the truth, and Ford himself offered no definitive clues, it cannot be argued that Ford was not a colorful figure that played an important role in many aspects of Texas history. Even in an era without onerous professional barriers to entry, Ford enjoyed an unusually variegated career path, with stints as a Texas Ranger, newspaper editor, state legislator, military officer, physician, surveyor, Deaf and Dumb Asylum superintendent, and historian. Richard McCaslin's new biography Fighting Stock: John S. "Rip" Ford of Texas covers comprehensively and quite well all the aforementioned aspects of his subject's life.
A bit over one-third of McCaslin's biography covers the Civil War years. Ford was able to use his popularity in the state to propel himself into command of the 2nd Texas Cavalry, but, although he enjoyed a fair degree of authority along the Rio Grande front during the war, he never advanced beyond the rank of colonel in the Confederate army. His difficulty in cultivating a working relationship with superiors actually led him to lose his commission, and he spent much of the war without a Confederate rank at all. Fortuitously for the regional command arrangement, the state stepped in to appoint him a brigadier general of Texas forces, partially resolving the embarrassment that ensued.
McCaslin is no stranger to Texas Civil War history [readers might recall his excellent treatment of the 1862 "Great Hanging"], and his summary of Ford's military service along the border between Texas and Mexico covers all points at a level of detail that should satisfy most readers of Civil War biography. The author's reconstruction of the complicated and shifting border situation, with its four competing power bases (Union, Confederate, Jaurista, and Imperial French) is also well done. It is true that Ford's role at the 1865 Battle of Palmito Ranch is only traced briefly, but we already have a pair of modern, full histories of the battle by Philip Thomas Tucker and Jeffrey Hunt.
While excellent overall in its treatment of Ford's Civil War career, Fighting Stock is not without flaws. One aspect of the book left wanting is an overall assessment of Ford's military leadership and insights on how he conducted his battles. Also, given how often he was incapacitated by sickness, a more in-depth discussion of Ford's health might also have been fruitful. Finally, the single spare map at the front of the book is inadequate to properly inform readers of the many often obscure locations along the Texas-Mexican border that are mentioned in the text.
Utilizing extensive research in unpublished and published source materials, McCaslin is also able to flesh out Ford's pre and post Civil War careers. Before the Civil War, Ford, a Mexican War veteran of John Hays's regiment, was heavily involved in border skirmishes and sympathized with the filibustering tradition. He first encountered his frequent nemesis of the Civil War years, Juan Cortina, in this period. It is clear that protecting slavery, and fears of what a Republican administration might do about the institution, was a top level concern for Ford when he joined the secessionist cause in 1861. After the war, Ford was a leading figure in sweeping Texas Democrats back into power in the waning moments of Reconstruction. He was a multi-term legislator and mayor of both Austin and Brownsville. McCaslin, the author of a history of the Texas State Historical Association, also devotes a chapter to Ford's own effort to research and write a volume of state history. A participant in many of the region's defining events, Ford's writing was also an attempt to correct gross inaccuracies found in available publications. Unfortunately, the manuscript was never published.
Richard McCaslin's Fighting Stock is a superb addition to TCU Press's The Texas Biography Series, admirably fulfilling the series dictate of examining a subject's life in full. So much of Civil War biography sandwiches the war years with weak bookends, but McCaslin's look at Ford, while acknowledging the paramount importance of that time, recognizes that the 1861-65 period comprises a brief interlude in a long and eventful life. Both Civil War specialists and those with a much broader interest in Texas history with find much to admire in this volume.