The bloody American conflict didn’t reduce demand for southern cotton at textile mills in places like England, France, and even New England. In return, the Confederacy’s cotton exports financed its war effort, supplying Rebel armies with imported guns, ammunition, swords, uniforms, and accouterments far beyond what limited Southern industry could produce. To squelch the trade, and hopefully shorten the war, the Union established blockades along the Gulf Coast, pushing foreign ships to seek ports free of interference. They found them at Texas’ southernmost tip—the destination of southbound wagons on the “cotton road.”
“Anyone hoping to better understand the Civil War in Texas will want to visit the Rio Grande Valley,” says Jerry Thompson, a history professor at Texas A&M International University and co-author of Civil War and Revolution on the Rio Grande Frontier. “Called the ‘cotton times’ by residents living on the Rio Grande frontier, such communities as Brownsville, Rio Grande City, Laredo, and Eagle Pass all prospered during the war as thousands of bales of cotton were taken across the river into Mexico from as far away as Arkansas and Louisiana.”
A good place to start exploring the Rio Grande Valley’s Civil War history is on US 77, which roughly follows the cotton road as it unrolls south from Victoria to Kingsville and beyond. Wagon trains found a welcome stop west of Kingsville at Captain Richard King’s Santa Gertrudis Ranch. A staunch Confederate and former Rio Grande steamboat captain, King had strong connections to the cotton trade. His ranch provided the cotton freighters with hospitality and a place to sleep. Though King’s wartime ranch house is long gone, the modern King Ranch still welcomes travelers with tours that include the bridge site where Civil War cotton wagons crossed Santa Gertrudis Creek.
Nearing the Rio Grande, some cotton wagons headed to Port Isabel, which was then a haven for cotton traders because the U.S. Navy’s attempts to blockade the port were weak. Under sail or steam, blockade-runners threaded the channel between Padre Island and Brazos Santiago Island, and anchored off Port Isabel. Crewmen unloaded cargoes for Confederate Texas—arms, military gear, and civilian goods—and repacked the ships’ holds with cotton bales. Small boats, known as lighters, shuttled between the wharves and ships in the Laguna Madre, ferrying crates and bales. Late in 1863, Union forces occupied the town—then known as Point Isabel—halting its cotton trade until the next summer, when resurgent Rebels drove out the Federal forces and the blockade-runners returned.
Today, the historic Port Isabel Lighthouse is open as a state historic site. Visitors can climb the lighthouse’s winding iron stairway to an observation platform, where Confederate lookouts once trained spyglasses on Navy blockade ships and on runners arriving with more goods. Nearby, the Port Isabel Historical Museum and Treasures of the Gulf Museum chronicle local history ranging from 16th-Century Spanish shipwrecks to the U.S.-Mexican War and the Civil War.
Just over the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway is South Padre Island. At the island’s southern tip, Isla Blanca Park overlooks Brazos Santiago Pass, where ships and fishing boats now follow the ghostly wakes of long-forgotten blockade-runners.
While some cotton wagons turned east to Port Isabel, others rumbled on to Brownsville, the cotton trade’s financial nerve center and gateway to Mexico—which remained neutral in the American Civil War. Across the river in Mexico were Matamoros and its nearby port of Bagdad, a ramshackle village on the south bank of the Rio Grande that flourished briefly as a primary destination for outbound Confederate cotton. Foreign ships anchored in waters off Bagdad could load cotton without interference by the U.S. Navy.
At the trade’s height, teamsters shouted, mules brayed, and oxen bawled as cotton wagons jammed Brownsville’s streets. The activity converged on the riverfront at Levee Street, where hand-pulled ferries and puffing steamboats carried cargo across to Matamoros. On Levee Street’s north side, shipping offices, warehouses, and saloons overlooked the muddy river landing. Today, Levee Street is still a business district, but it’s mostly high and dry: The fickle Rio Grande shifted away long ago.
Elsewhere in Brownsville, remnants of Civil War times are palpable. Enter the brick Stillman House Museum on East Washington Street, and step back in time. Victorian rugs, curtains, and period antiques recall the 1850 home’s first occupant, financier Charles Stillman, who partnered in steamboating with Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King. Together, the trio dominated the wartime cotton trade. Today, the Brownsville Historical Association oversees the Stillman House Museum and the adjacent Brownsville Heritage Museum, which display artifacts from the city’s Civil War years, including military relics from the Confederate and Union troops that alternately occupied Brownsville.
On the city’s southeast side sprawled Fort Brown, an Army post established in 1846 at the beginning of the U.S.-Mexican War. Confederate and Union forces both occupied the fort at different points of the Civil War, and in 1863, retreating Rebels burned it down. Rebuilt later, Fort Brown today houses Texas Southmost College and the University of Texas-Brownsville. No Civil War-era buildings remain.
Seeking to close river crossings and end the cotton trade, Union forces invaded the Rio Grande Valley in November 1863. Blue-clad troops gathered at Brazos Santiago Island and marched on Brownsville. The outnumbered Confederate forces withdrew, and frantic townsfolk crossed into Mexico. Old Glory waved again over Fort Brown’s charred remains.
The Federals soon marched west along the road connecting river settlements from Brownsville to Rio Grande City. Used heavily by the Army, it was called the Military Highway; today, most of it is US 281, but signs along the road still bear the old name. Moving up the Valley, the “Yanks” seized hand-pulled ferries at Edinburgh (now called Hidalgo), Rio Grande City, and Roma. Meanwhile, Union cavalry ranged north and west, raiding distant ranches, including King’s Santa Gertrudis, and taking livestock to feed Union ranks.
Union cavalry also targeted La Sal del Rey salt lake in Hidalgo County, north of modern-day Edinburg. Salt was a valuable preservative and a trade item. Confederates mined salt from the lake and hauled the crystals to San
Antonio and Brownsville by pack mules and oxcarts. Union forces destroyed the salt works early in 1864, but mining resumed after Confederate forces retook the Valley later that summer. The Confederates also used camels—left over from the Army’s Camel Corps experiment at Camp Verde—to transport the salt. Though well-suited to their task, camels were not popular in the city of Brownsville, which passed an ordinance to keep the temperamental beasts off city streets.
Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees La Sal del Rey as a wildlife refuge and heritage site. Salt deposits whiten the shoreline of the 530-acre lake, while the protected waters and surrounding scrub make the site popular for migratory waterfowl and wildlife like deer and javelina.
About 18 miles south of La Sal del Rey, a state historical marker on the courthouse lawn in Edinburg relates the salt lake’s wartime role. Edinburg is also home to the Museum of South Texas History, which explores Rio Grande Valley history with exhibits ranging from the fossils of a prehistoric mammoth to the daily tools of Spanish colonials and the Rio Grande’s riverboat era, including the Civil War. In one exhibit, visitors can board a re-creation of an 1860 steamboat with a theater partly enclosed by cotton bales; within, a lively program recounts the riverboat days. Nearby, a hotel façade displays Civil War-period firearms, sabers, and cannon balls. Of special interest are china fragments, bottles, and other artifacts from the site of Bagdad.
The Union’s stop-the-cotton strategy flopped. As crossings into Mexico closed near the mouth of the Rio Grande, the wagon trains simply took their cotton to crossings farther west at Laredo and Eagle Pass; once across, they headed back east to Matamoros and Bagdad. But the extra distance raised transport costs, along with prices for imported goods. Retaking Brownsville became a Confederate priority.
In May 1864, the Rebels gained a foothold in Rio Grande City, where Confederate forces under the direction of Colonel Santos Benavides and Colonel John Ford retook Ringgold Barracks (later named Fort Ringgold), a military installation built at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War to safeguard citizens from border violence. These days, the Rio Grande City Consolidated Independent School District occupies the post grounds, including the restored Commandant’s Quarters, an 1860 structure with broad porches that has the distinction of being the Rio Grande Valley’s only surviving military structure from the Civil War era.
The Commandant’s Quarters is home to a museum that focuses on Fort Ringgold history from its founding in 1848 to its closing in 1944. Period uniform replicas combined with original U.S. cavalry equipment give a vivid picture of military life on the border during a turbulent era. Among the exhibits is one about the famed “Buffalo Soldiers,” African-American troops who manned Ringgold and other remote outposts in the decades after the Civil War and the end of slavery.
From Ringgold Barracks, Ford and Benavides pursued the Federals east along the Military Highway. The Rebels won a battle at the small ranching community of Las Rucias—now recognized by a state historical marker. Weeks later, the Confederates reentered Brownsville, which had been evacuated by Union troops, and the city’s cotton trade sprang back to life.
A stalemate set in as the battle-weary sides continued to fight occasional skirmishes, far from the Civil War’s decisive events back east. But despite the news of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865, the war raged on in the Rio Grande Valley as Ford refused to concede defeat and sought to protect the cotton trade. In May, a Union force again marched west toward Brownsville. At Fort Brown, Ford rallied his remaining forces and galloped east, and hit the Federals at Palmito Ranch. The Civil War’s last battle was a Confederate victory.
Now under National Park Service management, the Palmito Ranch Battlefield National Historic Landmark opens for special occasions only. A marker on Texas 4 east of Brownsville describes the event and provides an elevated viewpoint of the battle area. Visitors can see the original wartime road that crosses the undeveloped brush country.
The war’s end brought a stop to the Rio Grande Valley cotton trade, and the once-profitable river commerce stagnated. U.S. troops rebuilt and reoccupied Fort Brown and Ringgold Barracks, bringing a long-term Army presence to the border. As the Civil War era faded into memory, those who lived through it recalled the excitement of los algodones—“the cotton times.”