Battle of Laredo, Texas

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Aug 21, 2005
San Antonio, Texas
Battle of Laredo, Texas
March 19, 1864
Source: Article in Civil War Times Illustrated, August 1980

The stage for this battle was actually set on November 2, 1863 when a force of nearly 7000 Union troops landed at Brazos Island, off the Texas coast, after a stormy passage from New Orleans, LA. This troop movement was part of the Union plan, led by Major General Nathaniel Banks to cut off the flow of cotton and seize Texas for the Union. Three days later, the Union force landed at the mouth of the Rio Grande River and began to march on Brownsville, 30 miles away. Confederate defenders, led by Brigadier General Hamilton P. Bee, numbering about 100, had no choice but to evacuate the town. Forty-five wagons carried supplies toward the Nueces River as troops destroyed Fort Brown and as much cotton as they could. The fire soon went out of control and destroyed an entire block along the riverfront. Adding to the destruction was an explosion involving 8000 pounds of gun powder.

At 10:00 a.m. on November 6, 1863, the 94th Illinois Regiment entered Brownsville, facing light resistance. At 3:00 p.m., with assistance from the 1st Missouri Light Artillery and the 13th Maine Regiment, the town was secured. Brownsville would be used as a base for expeditions up the Rio Grande in order to cut off a route for goods that entered the Confederacy from Mexico.

Late in November, a force of 1500, consisting of the 1st Texas (Union) and 2nd Texas (Union) Cavalry regiments, under the command of Brigadier General Edmund Jackson Davis, a Unionist Texan. The 1st was a unit that came over from New Orleans while the 2nd was formed in Brownsville and composed of Unionist Hispanics. The force went up the Rio Grande aboard the steamer Mustang and seized Ringgold Barracks and the town of Roma with no resistance. As word of the advance spread up the river to the town of Laredo, a local leader, Santos Benavides, who was a local merchant and political leader, became concerned. As leader of Laredo’s Hispanic population, and one time mayor in 1856, he had thrown in his lot with the Confederacy as other Hispanics became pro-Unionists. This was the condition along the river as various factions vied for supremacy. With the withdrawal of General Bee’s troops, Benavides, a Confederate Colonel, had the only creditable force in South Texas, and that wasn’t much. Fortunately, the Federals halted for the winter, allowing the Rebels to gather supplies for the fight that was surely coming.

Early in 1864, a reconnaissance force of 25 led by Lieutenant Martin Gonzales left Laredo and rode 200 miles into deep South Texas and managed to track Federal movements, revealing that Davis’ troops were on the move and heading for Laredo. On March 17, 1864, Confederate troops under Colonel John “Rip” Ford left San Antonio on what was called the “Rio Grande Expedition” hoping to take back the lower Rio Grande Valley. The lead elements were ambushed by Union guerrillas under Cecilio Valerio, a pro-Union Hispanic attached to the 2nd Texas (Union), and stopped. This left Benavides with only a total of 72 militiamen in order to defend Laredo.

March 19, 1864: a relative of Benavides named Cayetano de la Garze rode into Laredo and reported that a force of 1000 was approaching the town. Benavides ordered bales of cotton, at the time being stacked for shipment into Mexico, be used as barracades in case of street to street fighting. He also ordered the cotton burned if things went against the Confederates. As citizen volunteers lined the roofs of Laredo, Benavides, also ailing, led his small force out to face the enemy.

The Federal force approaching Laredo actually consisted of 200 men, half under Valerio and the other half under Jim Fisk, another guerilla. In order to get to Laredo, the Federals crossed into Mexico and rode up the south bank until they were within a few miles of their objective, then they crossed the river again and soon was within a half mile of the town. Benavides placed his 42 men into a corral east of town and sent the remainder into Laredo as a final defensive line. As the Union troops approached the corral, they split into groups of 40 and began to launch their attack. Through three hours of fighting, Benavides’ men held off the Federals with no Rebel causalities, but managed to inflict substantial losses on them. After three heavy assaults and with night falling, the men of the 2nd Texas (Union) had to retreat to the southeast and make camp three miles away. In the early morning hours of March 20, Confederate cavalry, who were in a camp 25 miles to the north, arrived to reinforce Benavides, with the added effect of forcing the Union force to break camp and retreat further away. On March 21, a scouting party sent from Laredo and commanded by Benavides’ brother Refugio found a trail of abandoned equipment, some of it bloody, and spotting several groups of Federals who were running back toward Brownsville. The Federal force had totally broken.

Benavides’ illness caught up with him and he collapsed while checking out a report on another force of Union troops approaching Laredo (this turned out to be one of his own scouting parties). Soon, help arrived in the form of Colonel Ford’s troops from San Antonio, the ambush only delaying them. Laredo became the staging area for a new Confederate offensive to drive the Federals from South Texas. Benavides had to sit out the first stages of the offensive due to his illness, but recovered in time to participate in driving the Federals from Brownsville and ending Edmund Davis’ dream to reconquer Texas for the Union. Benavides would be promoted to Brigadier General for his actions.

Following the end of the Civil War, Benavides would return to his businesses and Davis returned to Texas as Governor (one of the worst ever), both would become friends.