Monday, November 18, 2019
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As the Rio Grande Valley prepares to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the last battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Palmito Hill, that took place May 12-13, 1865 in Brownsville, professors at the University of Texas-Pan American (UTPA) are busy creating a Civil War historical trail, defining the important role played by the Rio Grande Valley in the history of the war.

To bring to light the significance the Valley played in the Civil War, The Community Historical Archaeology Project (CHAPS) at UTPA is developing the Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail. The trail consists of a trail map and a website which features podcasts (audio recordings) about sights of historical significance. The trail will extend from the beaches of Brazos Santiago, where the first Union troops set boot in the Valley, and move along the river through Hidalgo, Starr, Webb and Zapata Counties, where it will culminate at Fort McIntosh in Laredo. Significant historic sites will be identified along the route.

20150319 RGV Civil-War-Trail 2According to Russell K. Skowronek, professor of anthropology and history and CHAPS principal investigator, the timeline includes the era of the Mexican-American War (1846-48) through the Civil War (1861-1865) and the Reconstruction Period (1865-1877). Skowrenek said the Mexican-American War era is significant because so many of the colonels and generals, including Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant, who were leaders on both sides during the Civil War, got their basic warfare training in the Rio Grande Valley during the Mexican-American War. He told the Winter Texan Times the Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail the University of Texas-Pan American is developing covers five counties – Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Zapata and Web Counties – stretching from Brownsville to Laredo.

The Civil War Trail has identified locations that were significant during those years and provides pod casts to tell more information about those locations for those who wish to drive the Civil War Trail.

In the Brownsville area, several sites have been identified, including a site across the river from Bagdad, once a thriving city in Mexico where Confederate cotton was transferred to sea-going vessels for shipment to Europe. The town was destroyed by a hurricane many years ago. In addition, there is the actual site of the Palmito Ranch Battlefield, the location of Fort Brown where the soldiers were stationed, the Palo Alto Battlefield, where American troops first entered Mexico in the Mexican-American War and the Old City Cemetery, where some of the Civil War dead are buried.

The trail continues northwest, identifying significant sites, mostly along the river. One of those sites is La Sal Del Rey, a precious salt mine near Raymondville that served Native Americans before the Europeans arrived. It was significant to Confederates during the Civil War because it provided salt to preserve food. A battle was fought over the salt mine where Union soldiers attempted to destroy this important resource.

Sites closer to the river include the sites of significant battle, a Union Calvary Camp near Hidalgo, and the Robert E. Lee House and Fort Ringgold Barracks in Rio Grande City. Between Rio Grande City and Roma, the head of navigation for steamboat traffic, there is a site where a Confederate supply train was attacked. In Zapata County there was a confrontation at Carrizo. The Trail ends in Laredo where Fort McIntosh was established.

Along with pointing out the sites of significance, the trail also mentions some of the people who fought in the Civil War.

While a map of the sites is being provided, the tour is also virtual, so if travelers have the app open on a smart phone, it will ping when they get near one of the historical sites. User visitors can also log on to the website on the computer to view maps and listen to pod casts, without actually having to visit the site in person.

The Valley played a significant role because it was an international border. Yet nationwide, little is known about what happened in the Valley. While there were few battles locally during the Civil War, the movement of cotton from Confederate plantations and sites on the Rio Grande River such as the Miflin-Kenedy warehouse in Rio Grande City played an important role in financing the Confederate effort. The cotton was loaded on riverboats sailing under the Mexican flag, like The Viper, and shipped out to Europe, where the sale of the cotton provided money for the Confederate cause. Union troops were forbidden to stop ships sailing under Mexican flags, so they could do nothing to stop the movement of the cotton downriver and into the Gulf of Mexico. The Confederacy used wagons equipped with special wheels that could move through the heavy sands of South Texas to bring the cotton to the Rio Grande Valley and other points where the Mexican riverboats were being loaded. The cotton was commonly referred to as “white gold.” Without this vital source of income, the Confederacy could not have lasted as long as it did.

Although the Civil War had ended with the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1845, ending the Civil War, 34 days prior to the Battle of Palmito Hill, there were no sources of instant communication. So, the soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies thought the war was still going on when the battle was fought. The Confederates won that battle, although they had already lost the war.

This Civil War Trail has added a new dimension to Valley history by bringing to light little known facts about various sites and their historical significance. CHAPS also hopes to expand local tourism though the trail.

“As Russ always puts it, ‘When you come here to look at birds, there are some days when the birds just aren’t out,’” Miller said.

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