Hispanics serving on both sides participated in some of the bitterest fighting of the Civil War as Texas, critical to the Confederacy as its primary source of food supplies and ports for cotton export, represented a civil war within a civil war. Tejano (Hispanic Texans) fought Tejano and they faced particularly complex choices as to where to place their loyalties. Slavery, being relatively scarce, played less of a role in these decisions. Many from the northern frontier of Mexico were proponents of Mexican Federalism, a belief in regional autonomy that coincided with the states’ rights policies of the Confederacy. Others, having engaged in frequent clashes with U.S. troops stationed on the post-Mexican War border, welcomed the removal of those forces from the region. Wealthy Tejano ranchers mirrored their Creole counterparts in Louisiana and were linked to the Confederate leaders of Texas by marriage, politics, and shared economic interests. Santos Benavides, a member of a wealthy Laredo family, represented these Tejanos. He served as a colonel in the Confederate army.
However, some Tejanos remained strong Unionists. Many opposed slavery and desired not to support a government fighting to preserve and extend the institution. Other Hispanics of the lower classes had little interest in the Confederate social system that placed them above only slaves.
These differences occasionally produced “strong political stands and even violence. When Texas first announced its secession from the Union in 1861, a group of 40 Tejanos led by Antonio Ochoa marched on the Zapata County seat to prevent local officials from taking an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy. Confederate troops responded by forcing Ochoa to flee across the border into Mexico. There Ochoa gained the support of Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, a Mexican general and folk hero, who had already gained a reputation as a fearless defender of Mexican-Amer-
ican rights. From the safety of Mexico, Ochoa, Cortina and others attacked military and economic targets in south Texas, keeping Confederate troops constantly preoccupied. In one brutal attack, pro-Union raiders commanded by Octaviano Zapata rode to the ranch of a Confederate county judge and hanged him. Confederate retaliation was swift. Capt. Refugio Benavides led a company of cavalry into Mexico in pursuit of Zapata, killing 18 and wounding 14 of his men. Zapata escaped that time, only to die later at the hands of Refugio’s brother, Santos Benavides.”
Col. Santos Benavides had turned down an offer of a Union generalship to protect his homeland of Texas. His troops were said to be “the peer of any soldier or officer in the Confederate armies” and received a citation from the Confederate Texas Legislature for “vigilance, energy, and gallantry.” The Benavides brothers, Santos, Refugio and Cristobal, were a formidable fighting force, comprising a significant part of the corps of effective Confederate officers in Texas.
Under them, skirmishes gave way to full-scale warfare as south Texas gained importance for the Confederacy. The Union blockade of Confederate ports from Virginia to Texas became a stranglehold in 1862, making Texas border communities such as Brownsville and Laredo key ports for exporting Southern cotton. Wagon trains from the eastern Confederacy rolled into south Texas with the “white gold,” crossed the Rio Grande and loaded on Mexican flagships that safely sailed past Union warships. Cuban-born, Harvard educated diplomat Jose Agustin Quintero helped establish and maintain this vital trade for the cash-strapped Confederacy. Not long deceived, the United States attempted to cut this economic lifeline. A large Union force landed on the barrier islands of south Texas in November 1863 and occupied Fort Brown in the city of Brownsville. From this base, Union forces continued west to capture Laredo and its cotton stores. However, Col. Santos Benavides forced the invaders back down the Rio Grande on March 19, 1864.
Much of the Union invasion force withdrew from southern Texas to fight in other arenas of the war after the failed attempt to seize Laredo. Confederate forces made the best of this opportunity, sweeping back toward Brownsville and retaking the city in July 1864 after several skirmishes. Only a small Union presence remained in the region – Brazos Island on the Texas coast.
This small garrison fought the final action of the Civil War. Aware of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, the Union commander of Brazos Island made one final foray toward Brownsville on May 12-13. Confederate troops, including Hispanic soldiers, responded. On the coastal plains near the mouth of the Rio Grande at Palmito Ranch, they defeated the Union forces – a final Confederate victory in a lost cause.
What was the end result of Hispanic contributions in the Civil War? Allen C. Guelzo concluded in his new book, “Fateful Lightning: A New History of the Civil War & Reconstruction”: “Hispanic Americans constituted an even smaller piece of the American ethnic pie, especially since the Anglo-Texans who turned Texas into an American republic and then an American state in the 1840s successfully drove most of Texas’s small Hispanic population south into Mexico…. Much to the surprise of those who thought that the Civil War would be a ‘white man’s war,’ the conflict quickly broadened, by policy and by accident, to include a kaleidoscope of races and ethnic majorities, from Battery Wagner to Glorieta Pass. Each of these groups saw the confusion of civil war as a moment of opportunity, whether they had rights and respect to win or political agendas to build or merely scores to settle. None of them saw their hopes fully realized. What is remarkable is how the issues and battles of the Civil War made those hopes soar.” What is more remarkable is how those hopes continue to soar a century-and-a-half later.