Cameron County

Project participants have identified key locations in the Rio Grande Valley that played significant roles in the Civil War history and place these on a physical map/brochure. Each of these locations are associated with an audio podcast that will explain the site’s significance and share interesting details about the action that took place there. These podcasts are accessible on this website and are accessible via cell phones through QR codes and by dialing (956) 847-3002.


Bagdad

Located near the mouth of the Rio Grande, Bagdad played a vital role as a port city for Mexico and the Confederates during the Civil War. Although the ports of Texas were blockaded by Union warships, the Rio Grande was recognized as an international waterway. This allowed Mexican-flagged steamers to legally carry cotton brought into the Rio Grande Valley from other parts of Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas to Bagdad. At times, as many as three hundred ships from England and other European nations were anchored off the coast of Bagdad awaiting shipments of the precious fiber. Important goods such as medicine, food, clothing, gunpowder, and rifles were subsequently smuggled through Bagdad as well. This small community, established in 1848, became a bustling city of 25,000 inhabitants that attracted cotton brokers, sailors, teamsters, gamblers, French and Austrian troops in the service of Emperor Maximilian, and various assortments of criminals. When Brownsville's cotton shipments were interrupted by Union occupation in November 1863, this transport moved west to Laredo. The war's end quickly brought the lucrative export business of Bagdad to an end, but it was the horrific hurricane of 1867 that had the final word: Mother Nature reclaimed the once desolate, salt-sprayed sand dunes and marshland and Bagdad now lives on only in history, tales, and memory.

Brazos Island

Once a small low barrier island in southernmost Texas that played an important role in the Civil War, Brazos Island does not appear on modern maps. Although the Rio Grande in the nineteenth century could support boat traffic, a sandbar at the mouth of the river prevented large ships from entering its deeper inland waters. The solution was to unload ships at Brazos Island and ferry their cargoes upriver. During the Mexican War, General Zachary Taylor established a military depot on the island’s north end. Following Texas secession from the Union, Confederate troops seized the port. Union naval ships tried to halt the trade through Brazos Island as part of its blockade of the Confederate coast, a strategy that forced the Confederates to shift their commerce to Bagdad, across the river in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Nonetheless, until Union forces occupied the island in November 1863, it remained a haven for blockade runners. At that time, Union General Napoleon Dana landed his troops at the depot and fortified it before pursuing his conquest of the Rio Grande Valley. Confederate troops eventually pushed back, but a small U.S. force held Brazos Santiago for the remainder of the war. After Confederate leaders in Texas surrendered in May 1865, Union troops, primarily U.S. Colored Troops, used Brazos as their landing and staging point for postings in the interior. A major storm in 1867 destroyed most of the depots’ structures. The Brazos depot was never rebuilt and its remains eventually disappeared under coastal dunes. The land that formed Brazos Island is still there, but it is now a narrow peninsula connected to the mainland.

Brownsville Market Square

Before and during the Civil War, Brownsville was a major hub in the international trade flowing out of the Rio Grande. Slavery was not common in Brownsville, so when the Civil War erupted, Brownsville residents chose sides for either personal or business reasons. When Texas seceded from the Union in February 1861, Confederates chased their Unionist neighbors out of town and confiscated their properties. Many of those Union supporters fled across the river to Matamoros and formed military units to fight their former neighbors. When Union ships blockaded the southern coastline, planters from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas shipped their cotton by train to the area south of Houston. From there, the “white gold” as cotton was known, was transferred by wagons on the difficult overland journey to Brownsville, where it could be ferried across the river to Matamoros. Mexico remained a neutral nation, so Union ships could not legally interfere with trade on the Rio Grande or in Mexican ports. By 1862, wagoneers lined up for miles along the road to Brownsville, waiting for their turn to stack their bales on the town’s wharves. Hoping to stop the cotton trade, Union Army General Nathaniel Banks invaded South Texas in 1863. As Banks's troops burned Fort Brown and destroyed cotton cargoes, Unionists returned from Matamoros, reclaimed their property, and this time sent the Confederates rushing to the opposite shore. Military control of the city would change two more times in 1864. In May 1865, the Confederacy surrendered and Union forces, including U.S. Colored Troops, reclaimed Brownsville.

Clarksville

Clarksville was a small community located near the northern edge of the mouth of the Rio Grande opposite Bagdad. Founded during the 1840s, Clarksville served as a staging area for U.S. troops during the Mexican American War. Early in the Civil War, Clarksville prospered because of the cotton trade and presence of Confederate blockade-runners. In 1863, however, the area was captured and occupied by Union forces, which seized private homes and warehouses and caused most residents to flee. As part of emperor Maximilian’s efforts to suppress Mexican resistance, French gunboats occasionally shelled Clarksville. Theresa Clark Clearwater, daughter of the town's founder, recalled that "often the families were forced to take refuge behind some big sand hill during these bombardments." Troops of the Texas Confederate Calvary, as well as French and Austrian soldiers from Maximilian’s forces also frequented Clarksville. In 1866, American filibusters, private soldiers of fortune, attacked Maximilian's imperial forces at neighboring Bagdad with the help of black soldiers from the 118th U.S. Colored Infantry. The great hurricane of 1867 killed many residents and caused heavy damage to Clarksville, but the community survived. In 1872, the building of a railway from Brownsville to Port Isabel diverted commerce away from Clarksville, which was damaged again by storms in 1874 and 1886. Eventually, the little community ceased to exist, and a change in the course of the Rio Grande in 1953 resulted in the river flowing over the old site.

Fort Brown

As the primary U.S. military establishment at the mouth of the Rio Grande, Fort Brown became a major prize for both sides during the Civil War. Originally named Fort Texas and later renamed in honor of Major Jacob Brown, one of the first casualties in the Mexican American War, the fort was built by General Zachary Taylor in 1846, making it the first major U.S. military post built along the Rio Grande. In February 1861, Union General David Twiggs—a southern sympathizer—agreed to surrender all military sites in Texas to the Confederacy. During most of the Civil War, Confederate troops at Fort Brown served as guardians of the prosperous cotton trade to Matamoros. In November 1863, however, General Napoleon Dana and seven thousand Union troops seized control of Brownsville. However, the Union army's presence there was brief as Union priorities shifted and troops were dispatched to other fronts. Confederate forces under Colonel John S. “Rip” Ford steadily pushed back the remaining Union troops. In July 1864 the Union once again abandoned the post, leaving Fort Brown in southern hands for the duration of the conflict. After May 1865, Fort Brown was re-occupied by the U.S. Army, including U.S. Colored Troops, and became the Rio Grande district headquarters, resuming its role as a guardian of the border. Fort Brown declined in importance as Mexico stabilized following its revolutionary period (1910-1917) and local law enforcement agencies replaced the military in policing the border. In September 1944 it was formally decommissioned when the 124th Cavalry was sent to Burma during World War II.

Juan Cortina and the American Civil War

In July, 1864, Union Forces abandoned Brownsville, leaving Juan Cortina facing hostile Confederates to his north and equally hostile Austro-French imperialists advancing on Matamoros from the south. Cortina made plans to cross some 1,500 men of his Cortina Brigade to the north bank of the river where they could join Union forces. As many as 300 of Cortina’s Exploradores del Bravo with three pieces of artillery did successfully cross the river on September 8, 1864, where they joined with Federal forces in an attack on Confederates near Palmito Ranch. In the fighting, twelve Cortinistas were captured and held as prisoners of war. The presence of the Cortinista army in the United States touched off a firestorm of diplomatic protests from the French. After surrendering Matamoros and a brief stint in the Imperial Army, Cortina turned against the French in April 1865, and once again opened friendly relations with the Federals, who were holding Brazos Island and a sliver of the Rio Grande. With the conclusion of the Civil War, Cortina even opened a recruiting office in Brownsville. While on a tour of the Rio Grande frontier in the summer of 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman met with Cortina in Brownsville and war materials began flowing into Mexico to support the Liberals and Benito Juarez in the bloody struggle against the Imperialistas. By late June 1866, the remnants of the once grand Imperial army evacuated Matamoros and Cortina rode triumphantly into the city. For years to come, as the Liberals fought one another for power in Mexico, Cortina continued to compete for the hearts and minds of the people of Tamaulipas and South Texas.

Juan Cortina and the First Cortina War

Juan Cortina was born to a cattle-ranching family in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico in 1824. When he was still young, Cortina’s mother inherited portions of a large land grant in the lower Rio Grande valley, including the area that surrounded Brownsville, to which the family relocated. Like many of his contemporaries, Cortina objected to the unfair treatment that landowners of Mexican descent received in Texas following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, leading in 1859 to a series of violent confrontations collectively called the “First Cortina War.” In late September, after having shot local marshal Robert Shears, Cortina led a party of armed men who seized the town of Brownsville. A counter posse called the “Brownsville Tigers” formed to oppose Cortina’s force and he abandoned the town, fleeing to the family ranch. There, in November, Cortina easily routed the attacking Brownsville Tigers. Soon after, a company of Texas Rangers attempted to take Cortina, but he defeated them as well. In the following month, a second group of Rangers led by Captain John "Rip" Ford arrived and joined with U.S. forces at Fort Brown. Cortina retreated up the Rio Grande. On December 27, 1859 the combined army and ranger force engaged him in the Battle of Rio Grande City. Cortina's forces were decisively defeated and Cortina fled into Mexico. In one final blow against his enemies, Cortina attempted to capture the steamboat Ranchero, owned and operated by two of his antagonists, Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy, only to be defeated again on February 4, 1860 in the Battle of La Bolsa. He then remained in Mexico, only to return when the Civil War opened new opportunities to pursue old grievances. It was as a result of Cortina’s activities that Colonel Robert E. Lee (USA) visited Ringgold Barracks in 1860.

Las-Rucias

On June 25, 1864, Confederate forces led by John S. “Rip” Ford defeated Union troops under the command of Captain Phillip Temple at Las Rucias. The Confederates had abandoned Brownsville in November 1863 following Union Army General Nathaniel Banks’s invasion of South Texas and Union soldiers advanced up the Rio Grande as far as Laredo. After their initial foray into South Texas, however, many federal troops were redeployed elsewhere and Confederate units pushed back against the dwindling Union force. By June, Ford and his “Cavalry of the West," were within striking distance of Brownsville. Warned that Ford was nearby, Temple rode with 100 troops of the Union 1st Texas Cavalry to the Las Rucias Ranch, about 24 miles west of Brownsville, hoping to take Ford’s 60-man force by surprise. But Ford had added troops from the 4th Arizona Cavalry and arrived at Las Rucias with 250 men. In a short battle, the Confederates pinned the Union troops in the ranch headquarters then routed the federals, killing 20, wounding 25, and taking 36 prisoners. Despite his success at Las Rucias, Ford lacked the troops and supplies to immediately follow up on his victory. By the time he was ready to strike, Union troops had already abandoned the city and the Confederates reoccupied Brownsville on July 30, 1864 without additional fighting.

Neale House

One of the oldest houses still standing in Brownsville, the Neale House and its builder, William A. Neale, are illustrative of the Civil War era in the Rio Grande Valley. Neale, an Englishman who had come to Matamoros in 1820 as a soldier of fortune during Mexico's fight for independence, established a stage line from El Fronton, now Port Isabel, to the ferry landing in Brownsville in the early 1840s. Soon afterward, he constructed a hotel, a rambling structure covering nearly a quarter of a block. Although he discontinued his stage line in 1855 and established a mercantile business twenty-five miles upriver from Brownsville at Nealeville (also called Santa Maria), he maintained interests in Brownsville, serving as the town’s mayor in 1858 and 1859. During the Civil War, he served as captain of a company of home guards at Fort Brown, was a second lieutenant in the Third Texas Infantry Regiment, an inspector for cotton going into Mexico, and the enrolling and passport officer for General Hamilton Priolueau Bee. He witnessed naval actions of the federal blockade at the mouth of the Rio Grande and the burning of Fort Brown. When federal troops occupied Brownsville in 1863, he returned to Matamoros to live. In his absence, Union soldiers began tearing down his hotel, taking lumber to Fort Brown to build barracks. Still an English citizen, hence legally neutral in the war, Neale demanded that the general in command stop this destruction immediately. Unfortunately, only the tail end of the structure remained when removal operations ceased. That part was repaired and retained as the Neale home when he finally resettled in Brownsville in 1865.ate, salt-sprayed sand dunes and marshland and Bagdad now lives on only in history, tales, and memory.

Old City Cemetery

Although it was not a military cemetery, dozens of town residents who were involved in the Civil War—either in military or governmental roles—were interred there after the war. Some of those buried here were local figures who served the Confederacy in the Rio Grande Valley. William Neale was a Captain in Brownsville’s Home Guard and also served in the 3rd Texas Infantry and as a cotton inspector in Brownsville. Victor Egly, for example, was an Assistant Engineer aboard the Confederate Naval ship “Neptune,” while Joseph James Cocke served as a Corporal in the 1st Virginia Artillery Regiment and saw action in battles at Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, and Fredericksburg. William and John Putegnat each served with units from Alabama: William in the 2nd Alabama Infantry and John in the 32nd Alabama Infantry as well as other units. These include George M Dennett, who served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 9th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops; Eugenio Guzman who was a 2nd Lieutenant of the U.S. 1st Texas Cavalry; and Welcome Alonzo Crafts, who held the rank of Captain in the Fifth New Hampshire Infantry. Many became important figures in the development of Brownsville and their names are preserved not only on the tombstones in this historic cemetery, but also on schools and community buildings throughout the modern city.

Palmito Ranch

Though largely unknown by the public in general, the skirmish at Palmito Ranch on May 13, 1865 was the last battle of the Civil War. Most fighting had ended after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, but many Confederate commanders west of the Mississippi had not yet accepted the Union's victory. By this time, Confederate troops still controlled Fort Brown, Brownsville, and the surrounding mainland, while a small Union garrison occupied Brazos Island. On May 11, Colonel Theodore H. Barrett, commander at Brazos Island, ordered Lieutenant Colonel David Branson to lead 250 men of the 62nd U.S. Colored Infantry and fifty men of the 2nd Texas Cavalry toward the remaining Confederate strongholds. Branson’s force advanced to Palmito Ranch and on May 13, bolstered by Barrett himself and 200 men of the 34th Indiana Infantry, pressed steadily onward toward Brownsville. The arrival of John S. “Rip” Ford with 300 Confederate cavalrymen and several artillery pieces halted Barrett’s advance near the western edge of Palmito Ranch. The Union Infantry fell back to the coast and as darkness fell, an artillery bombardment by Union naval ships held the Confederates at bay and allowed the federals to escape. Casualties in the battle were relatively light: the Confederates counting ten men wounded and the Union six wounded and two killed. One of the dead was Private John Jefferson Williams of the 34th Indiana Infantry who earned the sad distinction of becoming the final battlefield fatality in America’s bloodiest war.

Palo Alto Battlefield

The prairie of Palo Alto and the nearby field Resaca de la Palma were scenes of a battle from the U.S-Mexican War, but the sites also had significance to the Civil War. Dozens of young officers who experienced some of their first combat in the clashes with Mexican troops on May 8th and 9th 1846, moved up to positions of leadership in the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant, George Gordon Meade, Don Carlos Buell, and 21 others became Generals in the Union army. James Longstreet, John Pemberton and 12 more of their peers became Generals in the Confederate ranks. Edmund Kirby Smith who was a lieutenant at Palo Alto, commanded the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy, which included Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. Although the battlefields did not witness fighting during the Civil War, the Palo Alto prairie was a camping spot for Union forces when they arrived to seize control of the Rio Grande in the autumn of 1863. Groups like the 37th Illinois Volunteer Infantry bivouacked on the site on their way to the occupation of nearby Brownsville. The sites also had great symbolic value for these Union soldiers who (though a generation later) well remembered battles during the war with Mexico. Major Augustus Pettibone of the 20th Wisconsin volunteers captured the thoughts of many of his peers when he wrote home to explain the invasion of the Rio Grande delta: “We have come,” he said, “as armed citizens of the Union to occupy and possess our own, to recover the soil for which our elder brothers fought and bled in the war with Mexico, and to once more unfurl the ensign of the republic along this southwest border, made historic ground for all time by the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma.”

Point Isabel

Formerly known as El Fronton, Point Isabel had been a major commercial center before the Civil War era. Its significance was marked in 1852 by the construction of a major lighthouse to guide ships through the Brazos Santiago pass, the tallest structure in the vicinity. Although the town declined in importance after steam technology made safe passage directly into the Rio Grande possible, the lighthouse served as a beacon for small Confederate trade ships that used the port to avoid the Union blockade. When Union troops occupied South Texas in 1863, the Confederates attempted to blow up the lighthouse to prevent it from being used as an enemy observation post, but their efforts failed: they only damaged the top part. When Confederates recaptured the Rio Grande Valley in the summer of 1864, they pushed the Union troops back to Brazos Island and kept a close watch from the nearby Point to guard against an amphibious landing. The most significant clash between the two forces came on August 9 at the Point Isabel docks when 250 Confederate cavalrymen skirmished with 75 men of the Corps of African Engineers—a unit of black freedmen from Louisiana. In March 1865, U.S. General Lew Wallace, who later gained fame as a governor of the New Mexico territory and author of the bestselling historical novel Ben Hur, met here with rebel leaders James Slaughter and John S. “Rip” Ford to discuss a cease fire for the Rio Grande delta. Although they reached no formal arrangement, they did agree to an informal truce, which lasted until hostilities again broke out at Palmito Ranch.

Rio Grande

It is not surprising that the Rio Grande itself played a central role in the history of the Civil War in the Rio Grande Valley. As Federal blockades sealed off the Confederate coastline, Mexico became a vital outlet for southerners to export their cotton. But the river's significance dates back much earlier. In the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States and Mexico agreed that the waterway which divided their two nations would be an international river, open to merchants of both countries. In the 1860s, this agreement prohibited the Union Navy from halting shipments along the river. Merchants brought their cotton to Matamoros, loaded it on Mexican-registered steamboats, and transported it to Bagdad where it was transferred to larger ships for international distribution. Union forces could not halt this flow of supplies without widening the war's scope to Mexico, which was itself beset at that time by civil war. Although the U.S. Army did briefly occupy towns of the Rio Grande Valley and slowed the flow of cotton southward, boats filled with cotton continued to ply the river's waters, unimpeded for the duration of the war.

Sheridan Bridge

The line of palmetto pilings just to the north of Highway 4 at Boca Chica Beach are the remains of a Union railroad built at the close of the Civil War. These posts were the foundations of a bridge that crossed the narrow Boca Chica inlet to connect Brazos Island to the mainland at White’s Ranch. When Union troops entered the Rio Grande delta in November 1863, they landed on Brazos Island and crossed the Boca Chica waterway using temporary floating pontoon bridges. After occupying Brownsville, Union General Francis Herron gave orders to build a railway and bridge that would transport troops and supplies to river steamboats which would carry them to points upriver. Union troops fell back to Brazos Island in spring 1864, scrapping plans for the line. When the Confederacy collapsed in May 1865 and Union forces re-entered Brownsville, the line again became a priority. General Philip Sheridan, commander of the Union Military Division of the Southwest, feared that Confederates who had fled to Mexico might stage attacks from across the border, perhaps in alliance with Mexican imperialist forces. Consequently he ordered completion of the railroad and bridge, which was constructed by U.S. Colored Troops. The line was a short lived one, however: the hurricane of 1867, which wiped out the towns of Bagdad, Clarksville, and the Brazos Santiago depot, also destroyed Sheridan's bridge. It was never rebuilt.

Stillman House

Like the historic Neale House, the Stillman House and its original owner, Charles Stillman, were characteristic of the Civil War Era in the Rio Grande Valley. Born in Connecticut, Stillman arrived in Matamoros in 1828 and established a variety of enterprises in Northern Mexico. During the U.S.-Mexican War, Stillman partnered with Richard King and Mifflin Kenedy to transport U.S. troops and supplies from the Rio Grande delta to Mexico's interior. When the war ended and Mexico was forced to give up its northern territories, Stillman and his partners turned their attention to acquiring lands on the river's north bank which he later sold for the settlement that would become Brownsville. When the Confederacy seceded from the Union, Stillman and his partners obtained a contract to transport cotton across the Rio Grande, helping Confederate growers evade the Union blockade. Some of the cotton Stillman sent to his own textile factories in Monterrey. He loaded cotton onto his fleet of steamboats, which now were registered as Mexican flagged ships, and steamed them safely and legally past the warships in the Gulf. Such trade prolonged the war by providing important revenue for the Confederacy. Befitting a true profiteer willing to trade with both sides, Stillman also shipped cotton into Union ports, even selling to the U.S. government. By 1865, he had become one of the richest men in the United States. Stillman later abandoned the steamboat business and invested his money in several banks, including National City Bank of New York—today known as Citibank. Having made his fortune, he also left his home in Brownsville to move to New York—where he died in 1875.

USCT United States Colored Troops

Early in 1863, Abraham Lincoln observed: “The colored population is the great available yet unavailed of force for restoring the Union.” Two months later the War Department issued General Order #143 which sanctioned the creation of the United States Colored Troops (USCT).Three regiments of the USCT entered the Rio Grande Valley in the fall of 1864. Encamped at Brazos Santiago, a detachment of the 62nd Infantry fought Confederates at the Battle of Palmito Ranch on May 13, 1865. Two weeks later, on May 30, the 62nd, along with other U.S. Army units, moved into Brownsville. By May 1865, nearly 16,000 USCT veterans of the 25th Corps arrived at Brazos Santiago from City Point, Virginia, and were quickly dispersed to Forts Brown at Brownsville, Ringgold Barracks at Rio Grande City, Fort McIntosh at Laredo, and Fort Duncan at Eagle Pass, as well as to smaller posts where they were assigned to prevent former Confederates from establishing their defeated government and army in Mexico. Later, the USCT, along with their successors the "buffalo soldiers"—as they were called by Plains Indians—patrolled the border to stop ongoing violence in Mexico from spilling into the United States, and to discourage bandits and Indians from attacking civilian communities. The black soldiers made a fine adjustment to the hot desert terrain and diverse culture of the Valley, as explained by Sergeant Major Thomas Boswell of the 116th: "If our regiment stays here any length of time we will all speak Spanish, as we are learning very fast." The last USCT regiment, the 117th U.S. Colored Infantry, left the Rio Grande in July 1867.