FORT BROWN TEXAS: A NEW FRONTIER
Civil War Reaches Texas
Soon after Texas seceded from the Union in 1861 to join the new
Confederate States of America, state officials demanded that federal
troops abandon Fort Brown and leave all supplies for the Confederacy. U.S.
Army Captain B.B. Hill complied with the request to leave, but not before
destroying many supplies. A government draughtsman made this sketch of
Fort Brown in 1860. The drawing appeared in "Harper's Weekly" magazine.
While mountains appear in the background, there are actually none near the
The Confederates took control of the fort and remained there for a time.
Military clashes scarring the southeastern landscape of the United States
and killing thousands seemed far away from south Texas. Gradually,
however, the U.S. Navy strengthened its blockade of Southern ports, making
it increasingly difficult for the Confederacy to export its primary crop,
cotton, to Europe and to receive valuable imports to sustain its armies
Confederates, as a countermeasure, used blockade runners who camouflaged
fast-moving ships along river banks or rarely-used shores before setting
sail and trying to slip through the thick net of ships flying the U.S.
flag. Brownsville became another increasingly important avenue for trade
as the blockade tightened.
From all over Texas and nearby Southern states, farmers too old, young, or
infirm to fight, along with slaves still in bondage, rode wagons loaded
with cotton to the banks of the Rio Grande. Taken across the river into
Mexico, the cotton was then driven by oxcart toward the coast and the
mouth of the Rio Grande. There, at the once sleepy town of Bagdad,
ocean-going ships anchored by the dozens, waiting to load and unload
precious cargoes. Bagdad mushroomed from a small fishing village into a
bustling city of 15,000 people, becoming a polyglot of diverse
nationalities lured by the possibilities of earning gold from the trade.
A Helpless Giant Can Only Watch
Bagdad and Brownsville boomed because the Union navy had become a helpless
giant, watching the blossoming trade, but hampered from interfering by an
earlier diplomatic agreement. Cotton from Southern states, once
transported across the border, became Mexican goods, and the Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War, stipulated that the
United States would respect Mexico's right to international commerce along
the Rio Grande.
Frustrated Union strategists decided to act, but in a manner that didn't
violate the agreement. In November 1863, General Nathaniel P. Banks
launched an invasion toward Brownsville from Brazos Santiago Island on the
Gulf of Mexico coast. Hearing of the Union approach, Confederate General
H.P. Bee ordered Fort Brown's evacuation. Confederate soldiers set fire to
the fort and dozens of bales of cotton as they left and dumped other
cotton, waiting for transport across the Rio Grande, into the river. Fort
Brown's fire spread to downtown Brownsville, leaping from one building to
the next as smoke and panic engulfed the town. Law and order departed with
the army and looting began.
Fearing approaching Union troops, many Brownsville citizens fled across
the river, seeking sanctuary in Mexico. Adding to the panic was a
tremendous blast as flames engulfed the Fort Brown arms depot. Some 8,000
pounds of explosives erupted, creating a blast so massive that it sent a
heavy wood beam sailing through the air across the Rio Grande. The beam
crashed into a customs house in Matamoras.
Union troops soon occupied what was left of Fort Brown. They slept in
tents and began rebuilding, using bricks stockpiled during the
construction of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, the picturesque
cathedral still in existence in Brownsville.
Fort Brown became the Union staging ground for raids against wagon trains
carrying cotton toward Mexico. As Union patrols became more vigilant, the
wagon drivers changed routes to avoid them, crossing the border more to
the north and west, upstream on the Rio Grande and farther from Fort
Brown. Once the cotton crossed the border, Mexican soldiers, commanded by
General Santo Benevides, provided safe escort to Bagdad, protecting the
cotton from thieves.
Union troops, forced to travel farther and farther from Fort Brown to
block cotton from reaching the border, were vulnerable to hit-and-run
raids by Confederate soldiers led by John "RIP" Ford. Ford, a doctor,
acquired the nickname "RIP" during the Mexican-American War when he took
time to write "Rest in peace" on soldiers' death certificates. Pressed for
time as casualties escalated, he shortened the benediction to "RIP."
Confederates Retake Fort Brown
During the Civil War, Ford and his troops were increasingly emboldened by
their successes against Union troops. Union officers, fearing an
overwhelming attack, decided to abandon Fort Brown and retreat to the
coast. Before leaving, they apparently returned several thousand bricks to
the Immaculate Conception Church, according to a soldier's diary entry.
In July 1864 Confederates once again took possession of Fort Brown and
remained until the war ended .