Texas Claims the Last Land Battle of the American Civil War

More than a month after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox (April 9, 1865), the Last Land Battle of the American Civil War occurred at Pamito Ranch a few miles below Brownsville.

Bagdad Port on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande

Tensions ran high all along the lower Rio Grande because Confederates depended on hauling cotton from throughout Texas across the river to hundreds of European ships anchored offshore at the neutral Mexican port of Bagdad. The cotton was lightered in small vessels to awaiting ships in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, and desperately needed medical supplies.

Cotton Roads to the Rio Grade

Union forces had briefly occupied Brownsville, which forced the cotton wagons to travel upriver to Laredo or Eagle Pass and then haul their valuable cargo back down the Mexican side to the port at the mouth of the Rio Grande. When the Confederates regained control of Brownsville, federal troops withdrew to Brazos Island on the United States side of the river where they continued to enforce the coastal embargo.

Cotton ferried from Brownsville to Matamoros waiting for shipment along the river to Bagdad.

In March 1865, believing the Union had won the war, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant gave permission for Maj. Gen. Lewis Wallace to meet Confederate commanders of the Brownsville area in hopes of securing a separate peace agreement. The Union terms offered at the meeting on March 11th required Confederates to take an oath of allegiance to the United States; stated that there would be no retaliation against the troops; and said those who wished to leave the country would be allowed to do so. When the Union’s proposal went up the Confederate chain of command, not only did Maj. Gen. John G. Walker denounce the terms, he wrote an angry letter to his subordinates for even agreeing to meet with the Union. As late as May 9th the commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith told a gathering of governors of the Confederate states west of the Mississippi that despite Lee’s surrender he proposed continuing the fight.

Meantime, a passenger on a steamer heading up the river to Brownsville tossed a copy of the New Orleans Times to Confederates along the Rio Grande. It was May 1st and the newspaper bought the news of Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination. In the next few days, several hundred rebels headed home, but those who remained were as determined as their leaders to continue the fight.

When the Union commander on Brazos Island received a false report that the Confederates were abandoning Brownsville, he sent 300 men to the mainland with instructions to occupy Brownsville. Confederates got word of the advance on May 12th and met the federals for a brief skirmish at Palmito Ranch twelve miles down the river from Brownsville. Both sides sent for reinforcements, but the following day the Confederates were supplied with mounted cavalry and a six-gun battery of field artillery. The federal increase in infantry to 500 was no match for the rebels. Within four hours the Union troops retreated seven miles back to Brazos Island.  At that point, Confederate Col. John Salmon “Rip” Ford commander of the southern division is quoted as saying, “Boys, we have done finely. We will let well enough alone and retire.” Ford wrote in his report of the battle that it had been “a run” and the clash showed “how fast demoralized men could get over ground.” The accounts differ on the number of loses, from a handful to a few dozen Confederates wounded, while the Union had from sixteen to thirty killed and wounded.

Diorama depicting Battle of Palmito Ranch
Texas Military Force Museum, Camp Mabry

At the same time the Battle of Palmito Ranch raged, governors of the Confederate States of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas were instructing Lt. Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith to dismiss his armies and end the war. Within days, Federal officers from Brazos Island moved into Brownsville to arrange a truce with the Confederates.

Today the Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark is open for visitors.

 

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Indianola Survived and Thrived After the Civil War

STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA, tells the story of immigrants operating a boarding house in the thriving Indianola seaport. They arrived with hope for a new life and were thrust into the political choice of supporting a land that had welcomed them or standing for their principles that did not include slavery.

The new edition of Stein House.
Cover image of Federal troops leaving Indianola in 1861 is from the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

The Civil War came to Indianola with the federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico, which halted supplies coming through Pass Cavallo, the narrow channel from the gulf into Matagorda Bay. By October 1862, when a federal fleet made a foray into the bay, the family had already offered their sons to the war. Residents of the Stein House watched from the upstairs porch as Indianola officials refused to sell supplies and beef to the waiting Union ships. Cannons exploded in a brief battle that resulted in the death of one Union and two Confederate soldiers. The Federal troops looted Indianola, sailed up the coast and looted Lavaca, then moved back out into the Gulf of Mexico.

The waiting game began. It was only a matter of time before Federal forces would make another push to invade the middle Texas coast to stop the movement of cotton—the Confederacy’s means of exchange with Great Britain and other European countries.

Efforts to move cotton through the Gulf blockade quickly proved inadequate, promoting dependence on the Cotton Road, a route through the central part of Texas and across the Wild Horse Desert, the untamed and unpoliced land between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. At Brownsville, freighters ferried cotton across the Rio Grande and then hauled it along the Mexican side of the river to Bagdad, a port at the mouth of the river. There, hundreds of foreign ships anchored in neutral waters off the Mexican coast to exchange the precious cotton for Winchester rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, and equipment desperately needed by the Confederacy.

News of the war was scarce but word came of Confederate troops putting up little resistance when Federals attacked Galveston. General John Bankhead Magruder, convinced that Texas would be invaded along the coast at Indianola, ordered a scorched earth defense––burn bridges, destroy lighthouses, dismantle the railroad out of Lavaca, and burn the warehouses and wharves at Indianola. He met bitter resistance from the locals who refused to destroy their own infrastructure. In war, they expected the enemy to destroy property, not their own officials. There would be time enough when the Yanks made a move. Then spirits lifted on hearing that Confederates had retaken Galveston on New Year’s Day 1863.

In November Brownsville fell, cutting off the shipment of cotton into Mexico. Confederates moved the cotton crossing on up the river to Laredo and as far west as Eagle Pass.

Indianolans waited as Federals began a relentless march from the Rio Grande up the Texas coast. They captured town after town until they reached Indianola in December 1863. Residents of the Stein House stood again on the upstairs porch to watch the brief battle. Within hours, troops descended on the property, camped in the yard, and took over the upper floors of the boarding house.

The occupants of the Stein House foraged for food, fed families of men who were off fighting, educated the children and waited for word from their men.

On March 14, 1864, less than three months after they arrived, the Federal forces began to depart. As they watched pontoon boats carrying men to the waiting ships, one of the boats took on water and began to sink. People along the shore rowed out to the rescue only to see twenty-one men drown in the shallow water. In gratitude for their help, the commanding office donated military clothing that the women of Indianola dyed and refashioned for children who had become threadbare.

The sudden troop withdrawal led to speculation that an invasion of Texas was imminent. In fact, the Yankees planned to invade from Northwestern Louisiana near Shreveport. When the Red River Campaign failed on April 8, 1864, Union forces made no further effort to control Texas.

With the troops gone, Indianolans started rebuilding their destroyed homes, filled in the rifle pits that scarred the landscape, and replanted gardens that had been stripped bare. The legislature allowed residents who had no money to pay their taxes in goods or articles that were redistributed to destitute families. When the war ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, hope returned for a future of peace and prosperity.

The Federal blockade of the Gulf of Mexico ended in June, swinging wide the gates of commerce. The Chihuahua Road reopened and hundreds of wagons and Mexican carts loaded with silver, copper, and lead from the mines in Mexico rumbled into the port. Lumber and manufactured goods, which had been halted by the blockade, flooded through Indianola. Charles Morgan, the shipping tycoon, reclaimed and rebuilt his ships that had been confiscated by both sides in the war. He intended to regain his lost shipping empire, and Indianola benefited.

The arrival of the Army of Occupation that came to maintain order and see that the freedmen were not harmed, sent shivers through Indianola and the wary residents of the Stein House. A young Yankee lieutenant took a room at the Stein House and soon eased the tensions of Reconstruction and tempered the anger generated by the government requirement that citizens sign amnesty oaths, and the denial of the right to vote for anyone who had any political or military association with the Confederacy.

Indianolans continued to look to the sea for their survival. Ships brought in everything from groceries to building materials and exported cotton, wool, hides, and even beeswax. Ice, cut from the ponds of New England, arrived during the warm months. They repaired bridges, constructed roads, and built houses next to the grading for the future railroad that had been stopped by the war.

Indianolans believed that getting their economy and their seaport back in operation and maintaining a working relationship with all the country was in their best interest. The seaport thrived––even rivaled Galveston––until 1875.

Next week: Storms that Created a Ghost Town.

Drumbeat for Civil War

Indianola sat on the middle Texas coast––a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the cosmopolitan world of commerce, business cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe. The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow

Indianola by Helmuth Holtz, Sept. 1860
Library of Congress
Wikipedia

bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing. The vast slave plantations thrived much farther east and north in the rich bottomlands of Texas’ rivers. The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies. Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners.  They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake. Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and despite the law against freedmen living in the state without Congressional approval, they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off. However, the arrival of a gentleman who was accused of being an abolitionist prompted city authorities to force him onto an outbound ship and appoint a “vigilance committee,” to maintain order.

During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

The news of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas. Residents threw caution aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”

On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade. An owner of one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas. Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candles or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.

The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. A judge gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action. Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens. While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution. After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with the support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood. The dye was cast.

Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away. Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.

Texas in the Civil War, Courtesy Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede. First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor. Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores. Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered. But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.

Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual. The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition. The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic. Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.

Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.

My award-winning book includes this story. STEIN HOUSE, A GERMAN FAMILY SAGA has just been republished by Sunstone Press. The cover image is of Union troops in the streets of Indianola, a wood engraving by Thomas Nast published in the New York Illustrated

From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas.

News, April 6, 1861.

Ex-Slave Becomes Community Leader

Born into slavery in Arkansas in 1845, Nelson Taylor Denson moved, at age eleven, to Falls County in East Texas with his master. Denson, who had been educated by his master, developed high regard for Sam Houston after hearing Houston speak when he visited Marlin in his campaign for governor. During the Civil War, Denson accompanied his master in the Confederate Army, serving as a saddle boy looking after the horses.

An account titled Slaves Narratives—Rural NW Louisiana African American Genealogy includes Denson’s account of the Civil War in which he praises Sam Houston for standing by his principles and refusing to take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, which resulted in Governor Houston being removed from office. Denson says he that at age sixteen he went to war as his master’s “bodyguard.” In his gripping account of the night before the Battle at Mansfield on the Sabine River, he describes the sound of whippoorwills calling and the low mummer of the men singing spirituals and listing for an attack from the Yankees camped just across the river.

Denson views the slaves who ran away and joined the Union forces as not properly caring for the women and children left behind on the plantations. He goes on to share his concern after the war for the change in the “old order,” and the decline in virtue and chivalry.

After the Civil War, Denson returned to Falls County as a free man and began working to fulfill his two dreams—to preach and to teach. Incorporating a deep understanding of human needs and rights, Denson became a circuit preacher in the Baptist denomination.

On November 8, 1868, the Reverend Denson, his wife, and eleven other blacks organized the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, the first black congregation in Falls County. Denson believed that black citizens must have the basic rudiments of education, which led him to teach the fundamental skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. He helped start a school sponsored by the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church, and others soon followed. By the mid-1880s Denson won election as county commissioner, becoming the first black official in the county. His good judgment and spirit of cooperation won the respect of both the black and the white communities, and he continued to be respected and called on for advice and counsel until his death in 1938 at the age of ninety-three.

The Rev. Nelson T. Denson and the Marlin Missionary Baptist Church historical marker is located at 507 Bennett at George Street in Marlin, Falls County.on

Houston’s Civil War Hero

A handsome, redheaded Irish saloonkeeper lead a group of forty-six Irish dockworkers in a Civil War battle that Jefferson Davis called the most amazing feat in military history.

Lt. Richard "Dick" Dowling

Lt. Richard “Dick” Dowling

At the outbreak of the war, Richard “Dick” Dowling, joined the Davis Guards, and soon became the company’s first lieutenant. After gaining a reputation for its artillery skills in the January 1, 1863, Battle of Galveston in which the Confederates regained control of the island, Dowling’s company was assigned to Fort Griffin, a nondescript post at the mouth of

Battle of Sabine Pass

Battle of Sabine Pass

Sabine Pass on the Texas/Louisiana border.

The twenty-five-year-old Dowling showed leadership beyond his years by keeping his rowdy men occupied with artillery practice—firing the fort’s six cannons at colored stakes placed on both sides of a shell reef that ran down the middle of the pass dividing it into two channels. The east side of the passage led along the Louisiana border and the west paralleled the earthen embankment of Fort Griffin.

On September 8, 1863, Dowling’s Company F watched a Union navy flotilla of four gunboats and 5,000 men approach the pass. Waiting until the first two gunboats entered the parallel channels, the little band of forty-six Irishmen opened fire with all six cannons, striking the boiler and exploding the Sanchem on the Louisiana coast and then striking the steering cables of the Clifton on the Texas side of the pass. With both channels blocked by disabled ships, the Union force sailed away.

In less than one hour Dowling’s men captured both Union vessels, killed nineteen, wounded nine, and took 350 prisoners without suffering a single casualty.

Dick Dowling rose to the rank of major before the end of the war and he returned to Houston as its hero, hailed as the man who stopped federal forces from coming ashore and marching westward to capture Houston and Galveston. Jefferson Davis presented a personal commendation, calling the Sabine Pass Battle the “Thermopylae of the Confederacy.” The ladies of Houston presented Dowling’s unit with medals made from Mexican coins smoothed down and inscribed on one side with “Sabine Pass, 1863.”

Dowling claimed genuine Irish roots. Born in County Galway, Ireland in 1838, he moved with his parents and six siblings to New Orleans to escape the Great Irish Potato Famine of 1845. Orphaned by the 1853 Yellow Fever epidemic that took the lives of his parents and four siblings, Dowling finally made his way to Houston and within four years opened his first saloon.

By 1860, the mustached Irishman with a good sense of humor owned three saloons; the most popular, called “The Bank,” sat on the square with the Harris County Courthouse and became Houston’s social gathering place. Dowling also immersed himself in Houston’s business community–investing in local property, helping set up Houston’s first gaslight company, and installing gaslights in his home and in “The Bank.” He helped found Houston’s Hook and Ladder Company fire department and the city’s first streetcar company.

After the war, Dowling returned to his earlier business interests and expanded into real estate, oil and gas leases, and ownership of a steamboat. Unfortunately the 1867 Yellow Fever Epidemic, which swept across Texas from the Gulf coast, ended Dowling’s life on September 23, 1867.

Survived by his wife Elizabeth Ann Odlum and two children Mary Ann and Felize “Richard” Sabine, Dowling was honored by the city of Houston’s first public monument, which stands today in Hermann Park.

Dowling statue at entrance to Houston's Hermann Park

Dowling statue at entrance to Houston’s Hermann Park

Former Texas Slaves Serve in Civil War

Three Holland brothers—Milton, William, and James—were slaves born in the 1840s on Spearman Holland’s plantation near Carthage.  Apparently their father was Spearman’s half brother, Capt. Bird Holland.  Capt. Holland purchased his sons from Spearman and moved them to Travis County. Little is known of their early life except that Bird Holland served as a captain in the Mexican War (1846-48) until illness, probably cholera, forced him to resign and return home.  He became chief clerk and assistant secretary in the state department and in the 1850s he took his three sons to Ohio where they were enrolled in Albany Manual Labor Academy, a private school that maintained the very unusual policy of admitting both black and female students.

After Texas joined the Confederacy, Bird Holland was appointed secretary of state until he joined the Confederate Army in November 1861. Meantime, sixteen-year-old Milton was in Ohio and eagerly volunteered for the U.S. Army, only to be turned down because of his race.

Milton and his older brother, William, may have joined a group of blacks that formed the Attucks’ Guard, which was named for Crispus Attucks, the first man (who was also black) killed in the Revolutionary War.  The Attucks Guard marched to the governor’s mansion in Albany to offer their service, but they were turned down.  It was not until June 1862 that Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton allowed black Americans to enlist and even then they had to serve in separate units commanded by white officers with less pay than white soldiers.  And, they were not allowed to rise above the rank of the non-commissioned officer.

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform

Only known wartime photo of Milton Holland in uniform

While Milton waited for his opportunity to join the military, he used the skills he learned at the Albany Manual Labor University to work as a shoemaker for the quartermaster department.  In June 1863 he joined the Fifth United States Colored Troops, and his older brother, William, joined the Sixteenth United States Colored Troops.

Although both brothers fought in several battles, it was Milton who rose to the rank of sergeant major.  In late September 1864 while engaged in hand to hand combat at Chaffin’s Farm and then at New Market Heights, Virginia, all the white officers were either killed or wounded. Milton and three other black soldiers led the troops in routing the enemy and securing a victory that opened the door to nearby Richmond.  Despite being wounded in the charge, Milton Holland continued to lead his men.  For his extraordinary service Milton Holland was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on April 6, 1865, one of sixteen black soldiers in the Civil War to receive this country’s highest honor.  Although he had been promoted to captain

Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor

Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor

in the field, the U.S. War Department refused to honor the commission because of his race.  Ohio’s Governor David Tod offered to commission Holland as a captain if he would agree to be reassigned to another regiment as a white man.  Holland refused the offer, declining to deny his racial identity.

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor.  Courtesy of Rob Lyon

1st Sgt. Milton M. Holland wearing Medal of Honor. Courtesy of Rob Lyon

During the war Milton’s father and former owner, Bird Holland, had risen to the rank of major in the Confederacy.  While serving during the Red River Campaign as head of his regiment in the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, Bird Holland was killed.

Milton mustered out of the army and settled in Washington D.C. where he worked as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department and studied law at Howard University, graduating in 1872.  He established a law practice, remained active in Republican politics, held offices in two black-owned banking businesses, and founded the Alpha Insurance Company, one of the first black-owned insurance companies in the country. After his death from a heart attack in 1910, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

William Holland

William Holland

Milton’s brother William attended Oberlin College, returned to Texas and taught in several Texas schools, and held a position at the Austin post office.  After moving to Waller County, he was elected to the fifteenth legislature where he sponsored bills establishing Prairie View Normal College (now Prairie View A&M University) and The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Institute for Colored Youth, where he was superintendent for eleven years.

Born into slavery, both brothers served the United States with honor as freedmen.

Texas Unionists in the Civil War

With the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, the United States headed relentlessly toward civil war.  Not all southerners

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

supported secession.  Almost 2,000 Texans were sufficiently opposed to separating from the Union that they joined the federal army. Other Unionists, those who did not want to break up the United States, handled their positions in different ways. For instance, Sam Houston was adamantly opposed to destroying the Union.  He had been elected governor of Texas in 1859 despite campaigning vigorously against secession.  He had worked for years after Texas won its independence from Mexico to secure statehood for Texas, and after the Secession Convention voted to secede on February 1, 1861, he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Confederacy.  He was removed from office on March 6, and returned to his home in Huntsville where he died in July 1863.

Sam Houston, photo by Mathew Brady

Sam Houston, photo by Mathew Brady

Robert E. Lee was a Unionist who was heartsick over secession.  But, when he was offered a generalship in the U.S. Army, he turned it down because he could not bring himself to fight against his beloved state of Virginia.  General Robert E. Lee, like so many others, remained in the Confederacy.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Edmund J. Davis

Edmund J. Davis

Edmund J. Davis, a judge in the Brownsville district, opposed secession, and his views probably caused him to lose his bid to represent his district at the Secession Convention.  After Texas seceded Davis refused to take the oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, and like Sam Houston, the state vacated Davis’ judgeship.  He fled to Louisiana and then with John L. Haynes and Andrew Jackson Hamilton, Texans who also opposed secession, he went to Washington to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. With Lincoln’s support for providing arms, the first and largest unit—the First Texas Cavalry Regiment—was organized on November 6, 1862, in New Orleans under the command of Edmund J. Davis (who later served as Texas governor during the period of reconstruction).  The regiment remained in Louisiana, except for brief forays into Texas, until November 2, 1863, when it landed on the south Texas coast as part of the 6,000-man Rio Grande Campaign.  The invasion force was tasked with stopping the Confederate wagons loaded with cotton that came down through Texas to reach the old port at Bagdad on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.  Waiting off shore were hundreds of European (mostly British) ships eager to receive the cotton in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, and other essentials for the Confederate Army.

Confederate cotton across the Rio Grande from Brownsville

Confederate cotton across the Rio Grande from Brownsville

After only a month on the Rio Grande, the regiment’s ranks grew by more than 50 percent as refugees, Unionists, and Confederate deserters fled south. Texas was the only southern state that bordered a neutral country, and the Rio Grande served as the dividing line that offered an escape route.  Although the officers of the First Texas Cavalry were primarily men from mainstream southern backgrounds, the rank and file consisted in large part of Spanish-speaking Texans and first-generation immigrants, including German Unionists from settlements in the Hill Country. Most of the troops did not own slaves and saw no reason to fight for those that did.

Tejanos in the Civil War

Tejanos in the Civil War

With the occupation of Brownsville and the increase in the number of volunteers, the Second Cavalry Regiment was formed and then both regiments merged into the First Texas Volunteer Cavalry.  In preparation for a federal invasion of Texas from Louisiana, most of the Union troops were pulled out of the Rio Grande Campaign and only a few hundred were left in the area between Brownsville and Brazos Santiago, a port across from the southern tip of Padre Island on the Gulf coast.

Seizing the opportunity, Confederate troops retook Brownsville on June 29, 1864, and chased the remaining federal troops, including the remaining Texas Volunteer Cavalry, to Brazos Santiago.

One month after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the federal infantry on Brazos Santiago made an ill-advised decision to advance toward Brownsville.  The Confederates who had been keeping a watchful eye on the Union troops met them at Palmito Ranch on May 12, 1865, killing, wounding and capturing more than two-thirds of the Yankee force to win what has been called the last battle of the Civil War.