Zapata 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.

Confederate Retaliation at La Soledad

After the skirmish at Redmond’s Ranch and the running battle at Carrizo in May 1861, Juan Cortina and his followers did not return to Zapata County. However, the fight against the Texas Confederates continued under the leadership of Octaviano Zapata. In December 1862, Zapata and his followers attacked a Confederate supply train near Roma, causing an interruption in the Confederate supply lines. The Confederates retaliated by destroying homes at La Soledad, a farming community in Zapata County about 10 miles south of Carrizo. This retaliatory action inflicted further damage on relations between the Confederacy and its dissenters in Zapata County, leading to further turmoil.

Confrontation at Carrizo

Strong Unionist support existed in Zapata County from the earliest days of the Confederacy in Texas. An influential resident, Antonio Ochoa, rallied several Union supporters and confronted Zapata County Judge Isidro Vela in April 1861 at Carrizo, the county seat for Zapata County. Although the vote to join the Confederacy had been reported as unanimous by county officials, there were several prominent citizens who demanded that Zapata County remain within the Union. After a long meeting, Judge Vela persuaded Ochoa and his supporters to return peacefully to their homes. A mistrust of central authority was inherent in Zapata borne from the principles of individual rights guaranteed by the El Fuero Juzgo, the Spanish Book of Laws in effect since the 6th century, and manifested most prominently in the area through the actions of such important figures as Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, who had launched a strong challenge during the War of Independence against the Spanish authorities declaring Texas independent in 1813. In 1839, in direct defiance to the dictatorial rule of President Antonio López de Santa Ana in Mexico City, Zapata County became the seminal center for the formation of La República del Río Grande hosting the initial gathering of the leaders of the movement at the village of El Uribeño where the republic was proclaimed. Such independence of mind and spirit would contribute to the conflicts in Zapata County during the US Civil War.

Cortina and the Second Cortina War

With the outbreak of Civil War in both the United States and Mexico, the notorious Juan Nepomuceno Cortina returned to the north bank of the Rio Grande. In May 1861, he splashed across the river with about thirty of his Cortinistas and sacked Carrizo, the county seat of Zapata County. In a forty minute fight on May 22, 1861, however, Confederate Captain Santos Benavides decisively defeated Cortina, killing or capturing several of his men and driving what remained across the river into Mexico. Eleven of Cortina’s men who were captured appear to have been shot or hanged by the Confederates. Still seeking power and revenge, Cortina joined with Benito Juarez’s forces in opposition to the Austro-French army then occupying Mexico. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, Cortina returned to the border in 1863 where he encouraged and cheered the Union Army’s occupation of Brownsville. A number of Cortinistas even enlisted in the Union Army where they received a bounty and were able to strike at their old enemies in Texas. Cortina even allowed the Federals to take control of three of Mifflin Kennedy and Richard King’s steamboats that had been under Mexican registry. Only weeks after occupying Brownsville, the commander of the Union Rio Grande Expedition, General Nathaniel Banks, crossed the river to be warmly welcomed by Cortina in Matamoros.

Massacre El Clareño

Several days after the April 1861 confrontation at Carrizo between Union supporters led by Antonio Ochoa and Zapata County Judge Isidro Vela, a Confederate Cavalry unit commanded by Captain, later Colonel, Santos Benavides, stationed in Laredo, arrived in Carrizo. Following Benavides' arrival, Judge Vela ordered Ochoa’s arrest. Benavides and his unit proceeded to El Clareño where Ochoa and his supporters lived. A battle ensued in which numerous civilians were killed. The news of the massacre spread quickly throughout Zapata County and other communities on both sides of the border. The situation became more complicated as Unionist feelings were mixed with sympathy for Juan Cortina, a landowner from the Brownsville area, who was dispossessed of his lands by dishonest judges and attorneys. Such men had colluded with law enforcement officials who together coveted land grants in existence since Spanish colonial times. The deaths at El Clareño resulted in stronger local opposition to the Confederacy, as well as opposition to using the border area as an export base for cotton through Mexican ports in order to evade the Union Fleet blockade of Confederate ports.

Second Battle at El Clareño

After the retaliatory attack of Confederate forces at La Soledad in which houses and buildings were destroyed, Octaviano Zapata and his men attacked El Clareño, ultimately capturing and hanging Zapata County Judge Isidro Vela. Judge Vela was considered untrustworthy by Zapata and his followers after he issued orders to arrest Antonio Ochoa and his men, following an April 1861 meeting at Carrizo. Zapata and his men continued their raids along the border until September 1863 when Confederates under Major Santos Benavides killed Zapata and several of his men near Mier, Tamaulipas, Mexico. Thereafter, the war moved away from Zapata County. Under the protection of Benavides’ troops, area merchants and shippers were able to export Confederate cotton to Mexico for the lucrative European markets. In the process, they evaded the Union Navy’s blockade of Confederate ports.

Skirmish at Redmond Ranch

John Redmond’s Ranch was located just south of the Zapata County seat of Carrizo on a headright acquired from the Cuellar family, into which he had married. In 1858, Redmond, a local merchant and postmaster, had petitioned for the formation of Zapata County from lands in Webb and Starr Counties. Within a short time, he became the first Zapata county judge and wielded significant political influence. On May 21, 1861, following Captain Santos Benavides' killings of Union supporters at El Clareño, a large force of Cortinistas--followers of Juan Cortina--surrounded a Confederate unit at Redmond’s Ranch. Confederate reinforcements soon arrived from Laredo, causing Cortina to retreat across the Río Grande after a running fight. At the end of the Civil War the U.S. Army, including U.S. Colored Troops, created a post at this ranch that lasted until 1867.

The Reconstruction Era in Zapata County

The era of Reconstruction from 1865 to 1877 fostered political restrictions to Zapata County residents, as well as to those of all Texans. All elected officials had to submit their credentials to Governor Edmund J. Davis for review and approval prior to taking office. Cesáreo Flores was elected Sheriff of Zapata County in 1872 but could not take the oath of office until Governor Davis issued a Certificate of Authorization attesting to his loyalty to the United States. Sheriff Flores’ certificate from Governor Davis is dated January 3, 1873. Economically, Zapata, as well as other border towns, prospered greatly when Mexico's Juarez administration declared a duty-free zone all along its border with the United States. The tariff-free exchange of goods brought prosperity and modernization through the introduction of manufactured products that improved working and living conditions on the farms and ranches. During this period, the more affluent families began to send their children to schools in Laredo, San Antonio, Monterrey and Saltillo. Also, many private schools began to open throughout the villages and towns of Zapata County, providing instruction to the population in general. Almost all instruction was conducted in Spanish and the curriculum consisted of Literature, Reading, and Arithmetic with great emphasis on Writing and Penmanship which was then recognized as a sign of personal refinement.

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.