The Rio Grande Valley saw more Civil War battles than any other area in Texas, says Chris Miller, a history professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. With most southern ports blockaded by the Union navy, the Mexican port of Bagdad on the Rio Grande played a vital role in supplying the Confederacy.
As an armchair tourist, you can travel the Rio Grande Valley Civil War Trail via audio recordings, accessed using a phone, to visit the trail’s 43 sites. In addition to images, narration and text, the RGV Civil War Trail website provides directions for visiting the sites in person.
“A virtual tour is a way you can quickly make a presence,” says Russ Skowronek, an anthropology and history professor at the university. Because no funding existed to develop wayside signs and exhibits for this overlooked segment of history, Skowronek, Miller and the Community Historical Archaeology Project with Schools joined forces with the Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park and others to create the virtual Civil War Trail. It stitches together historical markers and sites that tourists can visit alphabetically or geographically.
The trail begins with the first battle of the 1846–48 Mexican-American War, commemorated by the Palo Alto Battlefield park northwest of Brownsville.
The Civil War Trail is paved with fascinating stops. The salt works at La Sal del Rey in Hidalgo County provided the salt that was essential to preserving meat for the troops. Homebound cotton wagons hauled the salt north with other military supplies. Union forces wrecked the rebel-held salt works in 1863 to hamper the South’s efforts.
In Rio Grande City, the Mifflin Kenedy Warehouse still stands on Water Street, 150 years after it housed Confederate cotton en route to Europe. The couple living at Jackson Ranch sheltered slaves escaping to Mexico. In Laredo, Confederate Col. Santos Benavides garrisoned his troops around St. Augustine Plaza and blocked streets with cotton bales to thwart Union soldiers. Confederate cavalry engaged the Union forces in a battle at Point Isabel in 1864 to gain control of the lighthouse.
East of Brownsville at Palmito Ranch, the final land battle of the Civil War occurred one month after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered. Five hundred Union soldiers on their way to Brownsville confronted 300 Confederate soldiers. Following the confrontation, the Union forces retreated and sustained the last casualty of the war, an infantryman from Indiana.
With the Civil War Trail’s paper map and directions taken from the website, I drive down Military Highway (now U.S. 281), which connected Fort Brown to Ringgold Barracks in Rio Grande City. I scan the map’s QR code with my iPhone to access the Civil War Trail and select the recordings for sites scattered between sugar cane and cabbage fields. I read historical markers with only the wind for company.
While the virtual tour presents an interesting experience of many sites along the trail, several stops deserve a road trip: the sparkling white Sal del Rey, the lonesome prairie and interpretive displays at Palo Alto, and the exhibits at the Museums of Port Isabel and the Museum of South Texas History in Edinburg.
Skowronek says one benefit of a virtual tour is that more sites can be included easily. When I tell him that Union and Confederate armies had used the home of Brownsville Mayor Israel Bigelow as a hospital, he reminds me the trail is a community-generated project. “We welcome ideas from people that help us add stops on the trail.”
Author Eileen Mattei uncovered the Israel Bigelow house information while researching her book For the Good of My Patients: The History of Medicine in the Rio Grande Valley (Topp Direct Marketing, 2012).