"Fighting on the Fringe: The Civil War in Texas"
In March, 1861 Texans decided that the time for compromise with the free states of the North had passed. The time to stand solidly and vigorously with the Deep South had arrived even if it meant a costly war. Southern interests had to be defended at whatever costs!
While pockets of Unionism existed in north central Texas and in the German Hill Country to the west of Austin, the vote of the state's electorate on the secession proposal was a foregone conclusion. Texas was an extension of the Deep South socially, economically, and politically. While few in number, plantation owners wielded disproportionate influence on public opinion and governmental decisions. Economically, slavery was much too important to take chances with once the new Republican party assumed control of the executive branch of the federal government. The 182,000 black slaves in Texas in 1861 had an assessed value of almost $107 million - "20 percent more than the assessed value of all cultivated lands". Texans, like other Southerners, were Jacksonian Democrats who rejected the kind of larger, interventionary federal government envisioned by the Republican platform and campaign in 1860.
Most importantly, Texans had linked themselves psychologically to the Deep South during the sectional struggles of the 1840s and 1850s. With each passing battle - annexation, the Wilmot Proviso, the Santa Fe controversy, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court - Texans came to regard the northern free states as their mortal enemies. Northerners had spawned abolitionism; Northerners had spawned John Brown (who had attempted to spark a slave rebellion across the South); Northerners had given birth to the Republican party committed to the strangulation of slavery; and Northerners had placed Abraham Lincoln in the White House without a single vote in Dixie. Northerners were preparing now to wipe out the entire southern way of life. If slavery were limited geographically to those areas where it already existed but was barred from expanding to the west, the institution would collapse under its own weight and the southern system would disintegrate, accompanied by economic ruin, social upheaval, and political anarchy. The South, then, had to act to defend itself by withdrawing from the Union, establishing its own separate country, and taking up arms in defense if the North was determined to fight.
So secession it was.
Immediately following the state's withdrawal from the Union, militia forces led by members of the Texas Ranger such as "Rip" Ford and Henry McCulloch began seizing federal military installations. Convinced of their indefensibility, federal officers abandoned the western frontier forts in Texas as well as Fort Brown along the Rio Grande in Brownsville. General D. E. Twiggs, faced with a far superior number of Texas militia and seeing that an engagement would be futile, surrendered the federal arsenal in San Antonio with all its weapons and supplies. Under an agreement worked out on the spot, Twiggs and his troops were permitted to march to the Gulf Coast with their personal sidearms for evacuation to the North. Similar arrangements were negotiated all around the state. Thus "without firing a shot, Texans disposed of a large part of the Federal army and seized $3 million in military stores". The citizens of the state would learn it would be much more difficult and costly to defend Texas.
While nearly two-thirds of the state's military-age population saw service during the next four years, Texas was far from the center of the war. Texas was, after all, a frontier outpost of the Confederacy - the westernmost state and one of the most sparsely populated and least fully developed. This was reflected in the Union's military strategy for winning the conflict which began with the attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The "Anaconda Plan" called for splitting off the western sections of the Confederacy by gaining control of the Mississippi River and then constricting the life out of the rebel states with military strikes into the Deep South and an impenetrable naval blockade. Such a strategy, if successfully implemented, would deprive the Confederacy of the means to export cotton, by which it hoped to finance the war effort, and import needed foodstuffs and arms necessary to defend southern soil. It also would deprive Texas food and weapons to the heart of the Confederacy. While the state's coastline was vulnerable given the Union's near monopoly in naval strength, Texans had to defend their western Indian frontier as well. Without assistance now from the United States Army, which had manned the frontier forts since annexation in 1846, Texans found they were no match for the Indians, who rolled back the line of Anglo settlement nearly two hundred miles during the war years.
The war began in earnest for Texans with grandiose dreams of expanding the Confederacy to the Pacific Ocean. Southerners, long concerned that geographic limitation of slavery would mean its slow death by strangulation, were intent on expanding to the west in order to protect the labor system. Furthermore, occupation of the entire southwestern portion of the continent, besides fulfilling southern dreams of empire, would make possible the seizure of the area's vast mineral wealth and provide the Confederacy with a second coastline, one free from Union blockade.
In 1861 Colonel John R. Baylor and troops occupied the abandoned federal forts of the western frontier, declared the Confederate territory of Arizona south of the 43rd parallel, and occupied Tuscon. In a supportive movement, General H. H. Sibley, leading three regiments of Texas troops, occupied Albuquerque and Santa Fe in February, 1862. The goal seemed to have been achieved but Sibley found it impossible to solidify much less press his advantage. As Union troops assembled in California to thwart the Confederacy's westward thrust, Sibley's contingent of Texans learned that they had pushed too far from their base of support. Unable to maintain supply lines back into Central Texas, Sibley "presided over a series of disasters," including the Battle of Glorietta Pass, when Union troops attacked in strength. Faced by the attacks of Apache Indians as well as Union troops, the decision was made to retreat. By the end of the spring the Confederate territory of Arizona had been abandoned. "As he fell back, the officers of the provisional government packed and departed with him. The long march back to San Antonio was a horror. Only remnants of the three regiments arrived. In this way died the last Texan dream of driving to the western sea."
Texans fared better in their next major engagement against Union troops. Determined to use its naval advantage to blockade the South and thereby deny it an outlet for its cotton and an avenue for importing necessary manufactured goods including arms, the Union began attacking and seizing Confederate ports on the Gulf of Mexico in late 1862. Having already taken New Orleans, federal troops moved against Galveston as the year drew to a close. On December 25th a Union naval squadron under Colonel William B. Renshaw occupied Kuhn's Wharf within the harbor with just over three hundred troops.
A Texas counterattack was not just a matter of pride. Galveston was one of the state's largest population centers and its largest port facility. Thorough Galveston passed much of the trade in and out that blockade runners were able to manage. While the amount might be minimal, it had to be maintained.
Accordingly, Confederate Major General John B. Magruder assembled an amphibious landing force, who were dubbed "Horse Marines". Three hundred rebel militia tried an unsuccessful assault on Kuhn's Wharf. Confederate naval forces immediately thereafter met and defeated Union ships that had been providing artillery support. Union land forces then surrendered to Magruder because any chance of reinforcement or evacuation had vanished. While twenty-six Confederates perished in the battle, fifty Unionists died, over six hundred were captured, and the Confederacy once again controlled Galveston which they would hold until war's end.
The next engagement along the coast was even more spectacular and the Confederate victory even sweeter. On September 5, 1863, twenty Union vessels carrying 5,000 federal troops left the occupied city of New Orleans. Their objective was the capture of Sabine Pass as the opening step of an invasion of Texas planned by Federal Admiral David Farragut and Major General N. P. Banks. If Fort Griffin, a small earthwork defended by six cannon and forty-six men led by Lieutenant Richard W. "Dick" Dowling, could be captured, the gates to Texas would open before them.
On the afternoon of September 8, three Union gunboats - the Clifton, the Arizona, and the Sachem - sailed into the pass to eliminate Confederate opposition before the landing of the Union troops began. Dowling and his men held their fire until the ships were only 1200 yards away. The wait was well rewarded. The Sachem was hit and fell out of action. After being struck, the Clifton lost navigational controls, grounded itself, and was forced to surrender. In forty-five minutes of fighting, Dowling saved Texas from invasion. "Shocked and battered, the remaining flotilla raced back out to sea." Dowling's forces suffered no casualties or fatalities while taking over 300 prisoners. "The armada and its 5,000 invasion troops eventually sailed back to New Orleans."
The federal government demanded that General Banks make yet another effort to invade East Texas. The French had placed Emperor Maximillian at the head of the Mexican government and Washington, D.C. thought it important to plant the Stars and Stripes in Texas to discourage any French intrigue there. Thus Banks assembled 25,000 well-equipped combat troops at Alexandria, Louisiana in March, 1864. "The Union strategy was to make a vast sweep through the richer regions of the southwestern states, to cut a swath of destruction similar to the one Sherman planned for the Southeast." Banks was to meet General Frederick Steele, who was marching south from Little Rock with an additional 15,000 troops, and from along the Red River they would strike deep into the heart of Texas.
General Edmund Kirby Smith, the commander of the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department, worked feverishly to stave off impending disaster. By 1864 the Confederacy had expended almost everything it had. "With a crumbling, ill-fed, and desperate Army", the Confederates produced yet another victory. Sterling Price stopped Steele at Camden, Arkansas, preventing him from joining up with Banks. General Richard Taylor, working with Kirby Smith, was able to put together a force of only 11,000 troops scavenged from Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas to meet Banks' army of 25,000. Nonetheless, he attacked Banks on April 8, 1864 at Mansfield, La. only forty miles from the Texas border. Audacity and cunning prevailed. Taylor all but routed the Union army. "Although Banks repulsed a second attack at Pleasant Hill on April 9, both his nerve and the Union drive collapsed. The invading army retreated back to the Mississippi River. There was never to be a Union song called "Marching Through Texas".
Throughout the Civil War, Texas played an important economic role for the Confederacy as an outlet for cotton to the outside world. Actually, the Republic of Mexico was the means for Texans to circumvent the Union's naval blockade. Cotton from all over the state was hauled south to the border, delivered across the river from Brownsville in Matamoros, and finally shipped in hundreds of European ships which anchored in the Gulf. Union forces, who couldn't afford to alienate Great Britain and France, could only watch helplessly. Interference would have violated international law and led to a break in diplomatic relations and perhaps even war.
Texans were thus able to export their only cash crop until November, 1863 when General Dana, under N.P. Bank's command, landed at the mouth of the Rio Grande River with 6,000 troops. He quickly seized Fort Brown and Brownsville along with Corpus Christi. This thoroughly disrupted the Texas cotton trade. "Now, the trade route had to be moved far northwest through Eagle Pass, adding 300 miles. The new trail also lay through desolate and dangerous country, swarming with Mexican and Anglo bandits, Apaches, and Kickapoos. The cost, as well as time, doubled." Thus economic pressure as well as pride demanded that Confederate Texans deal with the Union seizure of Brownsville.
The CSA turned to Texas Ranger John S. "Rip" Ford to liberate Brownsville. Fort had picked up his nickname "Rip" during the War with Mexico when he'd recorded the names of the dead and added the words "Rest in Peace" at the end of each list he submitted. Fellow Rangers started calling him "Rip" and the nickname stuck.
Recruiting out of San Antonio, Ford was able to enlist 1,300 men and boys for his cavalry unit. He would face a far superior enemy force. General J. F. Herron, the new Union commander in Brownsville by July, 1864, had almost 6,500 troops supported by heavy artillery pieces. As Ford's cavalry rode south it encountered federal outriders on several occasions but as his force moved into Brownsville, they found that the Union army had abandoned it and its troops were boarding evacuation ships. The cotton connection thus was reestablished and would remain open until the end of the war in 1865.
Texas, as we have seen, then was an important part of the Confederate war effort. Texas contributed significant numbers of troops to the CSA and several very effective officers. Texas' manpower contribution, however, was limited by Texans' need to defend their western frontier from an Indian menace. When the president of the Confederacy begged Texas' governor for more troops, the governor could refuse because of the weakness of the central government in the Confederacy. Texas also played a major role economically during the war - supplying the Confederacy with food, clothing, and arms and serving as an outlet for Confederate cotton via the Republic of Mexico. Militarily, it must be pointed out that Texas was a frontier area and had only a minor impact on the course and the outcome of the war.