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.

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LAST BATTLE OF THE CIVIL WAR FOUGHT IN TEXAS?

Official Civil War records claim the battle at Columbus, Georgia, on April 16, 1865, was the last fight of the war and that the Battle of Palmito Ranch along the lower Rio Grande was a “post-Civil War encounter” because it occurred more than a month after General Robert E. Lee’s surrendered on April 9th The reasons for the Texas battle are also open to argument although it is clear that some of the officers and enlisted men on both sides were not yet ready to quit the fight.  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 agreeing to meet with the Union in the first place.  Even on 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.

After receiving a false report that the Confederates were abandoning Brownsville, the Union commander on Brazos Island at the mouth of the Rio Grande sent 300 men to the mainland with

Battle of Palmito Ranch

Battle of Palmito Ranch

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 Confederates were supplied the following day with mounted cavalry and a six-gun battery of field artillery that offered far more firepower than the federals that had to make do with an increase in infantry to only 500.  At 4:00 P.M. on May 13th the battle began and immediately the federal line started falling apart.  Within four hours the Union troops retreated seven miles back to Brazos Island.  At that point Confederate Col. John Salmon “Rip” Ford

"Rip" Ford

“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 also 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.

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.  A few days later, federal officers from Brazos Island arrived in Brownsville to arrange a truce with the Confederate Commander of the Brownsville area and Col. John Ford.

OBLATE FATHERS OF THE RIO GRANDE

Known as the horseback “Cavalry of Christ” to Mexican ranchers along Texas’ lower Rio Grande Valley, the Oblate Fathers arrived in 1849 to serve as Texas missionaries.  The padres, young men from large cities in France, wore plain black soutanes resembling ankle-length, long-sleeved dresses with an Oblate cross hung around their necks.  Experiencing a steep learning curve mastering Spanish and English, the city boys faced the added challenge of horseback- and burro-riding over 100- to 150-mile circuits along dusty, mesquite-choked trails to ranches scattered along the Mexican border.  

The U.S.-Mexican War ended the year before the Oblates arrived throwing the new arrivals into a tumultuous period of cattle rustling and general lawlessness, civil wars in the U.S. and Mexico, as well as disasters like yellow fever and periodic hurricanes. Despite the hardships, residents along both sides of the river loved their French padres, especially Father Pierre Yves Keralum, known to the Mexican people as Santo Padre Pedito for his humility, his obedience, and his kindness. He’s also remembered for the mystery surrounding his death.

Father Keralum an architect and master builder combined preaching, baptizing, and marrying people with designing and constructing Gothic Revival style churches all along the Rio Grande.  Assigned in 1854 to Roma, a new mission center covering a large area upriver about half way between Brownsville and Laredo,  Father Keralum completed the design and construction of Our Lady of Refuge Church.  

When an Oblate superior drowned at sea after starting the design of the massive church at Brownsville, the Oblates called on Father Keralum who modified the plans and completed in 1859 Brownsville’s massive Immaculate Conception Church (designated a Cathedral, 1874) with its beautiful vaulted ceiling.  In 1960, fire and smoke damaged the Keralum designed hand-polished mesquite alter and pulpit and some of the chandeliers.  He also designed the nuns’ convent, priests’ house, and college building.

Along the Rio Grande many tiny chapels survive on former ranches and at midway mission stations where the Oblates stayed during their long circuit rides. One of the mission centers, La Lomita, sits on a ranch the Oblates inherited from René Guyard, a fellow Frenchman.  Located between Brownsville and Roma, the La Lomita mission served about sixty-five area ranches.  Today, the reconstructed chapel survives and the town of Mission, a citrus-growing center known as the “tourist mecca of South Texas”  occupies much of the original ranch.

Overlooking San Agustín Plaza, where Laredo began in 1755, the cathedral of San Agustín was rebuilt in 1872 with Father Keralum probably assisting Diocesan priests with the construction.

After twenty years of traveling at least three times annually on horseback, visiting seventy to 120 widely scattered ranches along the Gulf coast and interior, Father Keralum at age fifty-five was frail and nearly blind.  On November 9, 1872, despite misgivings of his fellow Oblates, he mounted his horse and rode away from Brownsville.  He stopped about forty miles away at a ranch northwest of present Mercedes before he disappeared.  His horse was found contentedly grazing.  For a time people suspected murder.  Over ten years later in 1882, some cowhands found his remains identified by his Oblate belongings.  Perhaps he followed a cattle trail by mistake, became entangled in a thicket, and dismounted to rest.  Speculation suggests a rattlesnake bit him or he simply became lost and died of weariness and starvation.

His legacy survived in the lives of those he touched and in the handsome churches that dot the landscape of the Lower Rio Grande Valley.’