May 11, 1865 (Thursday)
The mouth of the Rio Grande River had been guarded by a small blockade of Federal ships and less than 1,000 men stationed on the small island of Brazos Santiago. In late February, General Lew Wallace (who would later gain fame for his novel Ben-Hur), was sent south from Washington to oversee the operations and to see if he couldn’t convince Texas to leave the war.
The Confederate troops, stationed in the port town of Brownsville, were low in morale and number. Deserters would dwindling the count each day. Still, Confederate cotton there found an open port and thus the South had yet some contact with the outside world. The Federals had the numbers to overrun the Rebels, but had declined figuring that with even a modest reinforcement, the Rebels could easily take back the town.
Wallace, in early March, began some small talks with the Confederates in the area, hoping that they “may result in something more than words.” He stayed the night with General James Slaughter and Col. John “Rip” Ford. Both seemed more than favorable to the discussion of such an idea.
“What I am at now,” he wrote to Washington, “is nothing less than brining Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana voluntarily back to the Union. The business is well begun, and at this moment looks promising.”
This moment was in mid-March and the Federals and Rebels weren’t the only armies they had to deal with. There was also France’s Emperor Maximilian, ruling Mexico, and Kirby Smith’s army to the north. It was widely suspected by both Slaughter and Ford that Smith was about to join up with Maximilian in the hopes of bringing Texas under Mexico’s rule.
“General Slaughter was of opinion that the best way for officers in his situation to get honorably back into the Union,” wrote Wallace to Grant, “was to cross the river [the Rio Grande into Mexico], conquer two or three states form the French, and ultimately annex them, with all their inhabitants, to the United States.”
Both Slaughter and Ford were “not only willing, but anxious to find some ground upon which they could honorably get from under what they admitted to be a falling Confederacy.” They sent their opinions to General John Walker, commanding the Confederate District of Texas, in hopes that he would agree to the proposition to a cease fire for the eventual acceptance of Texas (at least) back into the Union. This wasn’t exactly a surrender, but more like a changing of flags. The soldiers would swear an oath of allegiance or leave the country. As for slaves, Wallace would leave that up to the Congress. It might be kept in mind that the Grant-Lee surrender had not yet happened, and so couldn’t be used by Wallace as a template.
But General Walker refused, and on April 6th explained to Wallace his reasoning.
“It would be folly in me to pretend that we are not tired of a war that has sown sorrow and desolation over our land; but we will accept no other than an honorable peace. With three hundred thousand men yet int he field, we would be the most abject of mankind if we should now basely yield all that we have been contending for during the last four years – namely, nationality and the rights of self-government. With the blessing of God, we will yet achieve these, and extort from your government all that we ask. Whenever you are will to yield these, and to treat as equal with equal, an officer of your high rank and character, clothed with the proper authority from your government, will not be reduced to the necessity of seeking an obscure corner of the Confederacy to inaugurate negotiations.”
Wallace was crestfallen. “I regret this conclusion,” he wrote to Slaughter and Ford. “Could we have succeeded, then consequence would have been more honorable to us all than battles fought. The people of Texas, at least, would have been grateful to us.” He called Walker’s reply “both childish and discourteous.”
Walker, in his own letter, regurgitated the doctrine of states rights, failing to recognize which specific right had started the war – that of slavery. “Slavery as between the sections was the only separating social and political interest,” Wallace countered, “you know that. Where is slavery now? We armed it over a year ago, and now you are doing the same thing. Apropos, once a soldier, never more a slave.”
General Wallace then returned to Washington, unable to do more than spar with Walker. “Of one thing I am sure,” he wrote on April 18th, “Texas rebels are without heart or confidence, and divided among themselves.” The soldiers were more than ready for peace, and even Kirby Smith, it was thought, would be willing to come to terms, “provided he is not too far committed to Maximilian.” He had little fear that the Confederacy would start a war alongside France as the soldier themselves had lost all taste for battle.
But this was hardly the end of things. The officer arriving shortly after Wallace took his leave was Col. Theodore Barrett, who ordered the troops at Brazos Santiago to march on the Rebels. The informal truce had been working well enough, and if left untouched would probably have lasted the rest of the war. But Barrett had learned that the Rebels were about to abandon Brownsville, and thought he could find horses for his regiments of cavalry who were without mounts.
To many it seemed as if Barrett just wanted to make a name for himself before the close of the war. And so on this date, the men were sent forward.
Col. Branson wrote in his report:
“On the morning of the 11th, in pursuance of instructions from T. H. Barrett, commanding post, I reported at 4 a. m. at your headquarters at the landing with 250 men, properly officered, ready to cross to Point Isabel. A storm coming, and steamer intended to be used for ferry breaking her machinery, I returned, as ordered, to camp, and prepared to cross at Boca Chica, with 100 rounds of ammunition and seven days’ rations (afterward five days’ only, by Colonel Barrett’s verbal order). Owing to a severe storm the crossing was with great dificulty effected by 9.30 p. m., with 250 of the Sixty-second U. S. Colored Infantry, and 50 men of Second Texas Cavalry, not mounted, under First Lieutenant Hancock and Second Lieutenant James. Two six-mule teams were taken to haul surplus rations, ammunition, &c. At 2 a. m. of the 12th, after making along circuitous march, we surrounded White’s Ranch, where we expected to capture a rebel outpost of sixty-five men, horses, and cattle, but they had been gone a day or two.”
It was not the most auspicious of starts to what would be not the most auspicious ending to the war in Texas, but it was not yet over.