Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Lion of the Rio Grande

Let’s face it!  Most of us know little about the role Hispanics played in America’s bloodiest conflict.  We think of them as mere bystanders who could care less about the Gringos’ big fight.  After all, there was little slavery in the Southwest and the recent War with Mexico left them feeling more like conquered subjects rather than U.S. citizens.  However, there was one very notable exception, a former Tejano mayor named Santos Benavides. 
                                                        Santos Benavides

The Laredo native was born in 1823 to an affluent family whose ancestry included Laredo’s founder, Thomas Sanchez.  When Texas was under Mexican rule, Benavidez was a strong backer of the Federalists during their decades- long struggle with the Centralists in Mexico City.   Isolated in a remote stretch of Northern Mexico, he believed Laredo was best served by a decentralized, regional government.  Because of his belief, it’s not surprising Benavides was attracted to the states rights doctrine of the Confederacy. 

After Texas seceded, Benavides was commissioned a captain in the Texas 33rd Cavalry and assigned the task of patrolling the Rio Grande Valley; a job he was highly suited for.  Because of his ties to the region, Benavides maintained an effective network of spies, informants and scouts on both sides of the border.  Eventually, he became colonel of the regiment, the highest ranking Hispanic during the war.  Mexican governors, with mounting problems of their own, negotiated with him, befriended him or simply looked the other way if he crossed their borders.  Vital cotton shipments from Laredo to Matamoros (see “The Mexico Connection” posting) were often guarded by Benavides’ men.
                                                            Juan Cortina

Benavides' main adversary was a Mexican rancher, politician and outlaw named Juan Cortina.  Owner of a large ranch near Brownsville, Cortina fought against the U.S. during the Mexican War.  He hated the Anglo Texas politicians who tried to take his land and exploit poor Hispanics.  In one instance, he shot Brownsville’s town marshal for pistol whipping a former ranch hand of his.  Prior to the Civil War, Cortina supporters occupied Brownsville until driven off by the U.S. Cavalry and local militia.  When Federal forces invaded South Texas in 1863, Cortina sided with them and offered his services to Union General Nathaniel Banks.  To this day, his legacy fuels debate. Was Cortina a glorious hero of the downtrodden or an opportunistic outlaw thug?   

In April 1861, Hispanic residents in Zapata County revolted against Confederate authority.  With Cortina’s support, they marched on the village of Carrizo.   At Henry Redmond’s Ranch outside the village, Benavides’ Tejano cavalry plowed into Cortina’s men, routing them into the Rio Grande.  In a note to the Confederate command, he showed his ruthless side.  “I particularly ordered my men not to arrest any of the bandits, but to kill them all,” Benavides reported. “Consequently, I have no prisoners.” As a reward, the Governor of Texas presented him with an engraved pistol.

This led to an ongoing border conflict between the Confederate Benavidez in Texas and the Union supporting Cortina in Mexico.   If provoked, Benavides did not hesitate to pursue his adversaries across the border and attack them wherever they camped.  An example was Octaviano Zapata, a Mexican bandit who received U.S Consulate support from Matamoros.  After attacking Confederate supply trains and displaying a U.S. flag in the process, he thought he was safe in Mexico.  He didn’t count on Benavides tracking him down. In 1863, near the Mexican town of Mier, Benavides surprised the Zapatista camp and brutally dispersed them.  All of Zapata’s lieutenants were killed.  Zapata, firing his pistol to the end, had his head caved in with a rifle butt.

In March 19, 1864, a detachment of 200 Texas Unionists set out to attack Laredo from the Mexico side of the border.  Benavides was sick in bed when warned of their approach.  Half dead from illness, he arose from his bed and quickly gathered forty two of his men and a handful of locals to act as snipers.  Laredo’s streets were barricaded with cotton bales.  For three hours, he held off repeated Union assaults.  Benavides exclaimed, “As it is, I have to fight to the last; though hardly able to stand I shall die fighting.  I won’t retreat, no matter what force the Yankees have-I know I can depend on my boys.”  At nightfall, the Union force retreated with no casualties on the Confederate side.

After the war, Benavides served three successive terms in the Texas Legislature.  In 1884, he was appointed the Texas delegate to the World Cotton Exposition.  He remained a rancher and political force until his death in 1891.  Benavides' guarding presence was vital to the defense of Texas during the Civil War.  As the war progressed, he made Federal invasion more daunting and more doubtful of success.  Today, his contributions are honored by the Laredo school that bears his name, Colonel Santos Benavides Elementary School.  Go Broncos !