Civil War invasion to seize Brownsville, Texas recounted
The Brownsville Herald, Texas
BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Civil War historian Stephen A Townsend described the third Union invasion of Texas — a campaign aimed at seizing Brownsville from Confederate soldiers — at the Third Annual Civil War Fall Symposium held Saturday in Brownsville.
The Union action temporarily achieved its goal, including the occupation of Texas land and disruption of the Confederacy’s economic and business system roughly from Corpus Christi to Laredo, he told an audience of about 100 people at the Dancy Building at 12th and Madison streets.
But Confederate troops eventually pressured the Union invaders to withdraw from Fort Brown and the Union outpost at Brazos Santiago along the Gulf Coast east of Brownsville. Yet, many Union leaders in Washington, D.C., looked upon the Rio Grande Expedition as a success for two diplomatic reasons: The aggression served to convince France and Mexico to avoid a direct alliance with the Confederate States of America to become military allies against the United States of America.
Townsend, a native of Mission who serves as a professor of history and government at New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, is the author of the book “The Yankee Invasion of Texas.” He said the Rio Grande Expedition easily could have led to a different Civil War outcome in South Texas and the border region.
“If they (Yankee commanders) had gotten the orders, it’s very likely they would have taken Texas,” he said. Those orders from the Union chain of command never came, however.
The Rio Grande Valley became a priority for Union strategists in 1863 in an attempt to sever the cotton trade between the Confederacy and foreign nations that flowed through Texas to Matamoros, Townsend said. The Union navy had placed a blockade on the CSA along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, but Confederate goods could access foreign ports through Matamoros because Mexico maintained its neutrality. Foreign nations paid the CSA for cotton produced in the southern states that could leave Matamoros and the CSA converted the revenue into war materials. Union President Abraham Lincoln wanted to strangle cotton trade to hasten an end to the Civil War after key Union victories in 1863, Townsend added.
The Rio Grande Expedition with troops aboard 20 to 25 ships left New Orleans on Oct. 26, 1863, the professor explained, and came ashore at the mouth of the Rio Grande on Nov. 2 with the intentions to occupy Brownsville. To thwart the invaders, a small Confederate garrison at Fort Brown destroyed military supplies and tons of cotton.
“It was just absolute chaos because the enemy was coming,” Townsend said.
There also was panic among some southerners in Texas, including Anglos and Tejanos in Browns-ville, who had signed loyalty pledges with the Union. Many of the Union sympathizers later fled to Union lines along the Gulf Coast or crossed into Matamoros as Confederate troops approached to regain control of Fort Brown, he said.
The outnumbered Confederates withdrew from Fort Brown and the Union forces moved north — including a raid on the King Ranch — along the Gulf Coast, he said. The Union did not halt the cotton trade because the CSA shifted its southern cotton route west to Laredo to go around Union patrols.
Letters and diaries of Confederate troops and South Texas civilians show they were weary of the Civil War and feared the terrorism the Union aggressors could bring, Townsend said. Union navy ships along the Gulf Coast, for example, frequently bombarded Confederate positions. The civilian population was unsure where Union cavalry might appear or what consequences civilians might suffer during wartime.
Confederate Col. John S. Ford, commander of the 2nd Texas Cavalry, led an expedition he titled “the Calvary of the West” to recapture Brownsville, but manpower was low for the Confederacy in Texas due to the widespread conflict; thus, it took Ford and his troops months to make progress, Townsend said. The Confederate force also faced the challenges of a severe drought and cold weather. By April 1864, the Calvary of the West arrived at Fort Ringgold in present-day Rio Grande City to organize its final push toward Brownsville. Confederate troops led by Ford and Refugio Benavides skirmished with Union cavalry at Las Rusias near the Rio Grande, west of Brownsville, on June 25, 1864, before the Union troops withdrew from Brownsville to Brazos Island by July 28, 1864, Townsend said.
“The Tejanos clearly showed their courage” during the Rio Grande Expedition and other military engagements throughout the Civil War, he said.
Several minor clashes between Confederate and Union forces occurred in Texas during the closing months of the Civil War, but southern resistance was so strong that Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant speculated that he might eventually be required to challenge remnants of the CSA army on Mexican soil, Townsend said. There is speculation about the reasons behind why the Battle of Palmito Ranch occurred weeks after Grant and CSA Gen. Robert E. Lee agreed to a truce, he said, but the final military action associated with the Civil War cemented Brownsville’s lasting legacy in the conflict.
Wilson P. Bourgeois, co-chairman of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee in Cameron County, announced that a cleanup day will be scheduled in April for the Palmito Ranch Battlefield site and the committee is working on organizing a reenactment of the clash between Confederate and Union troops at Las Rusias in 2014. In conjunction with the Texas Historical Commission and other agencies and sponsors, Cameron County historians also are planning a large-scale ceremony and activities to produce a final official commemoration of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the final land battle, the Battle of Palmito Ranch, of the Civil War in 2015.