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 site.

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 and civilians.

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 .