The Burning of Brownsville

By NORMAN ROZEFF, Special to the Star

Thanks to the 1936 best-selling book Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and the 1939 film made from the book we have a dramatic picture of the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War. Equally dramatic was the burning of Brownsville in another Civil War action. This conflagration is largely unknown to most and would have been mostly lost but for the reporting of an eyewitness.

This individual was John Warren Hunter who was a resident of Sulphur Bluff, Hopkins County, TX when the war broke out. He became a teamster hauling cotton to the border to avoid conscription. He was 17 years of age when he observed the events he describes from the Matamoros shore of the river. He remained in that city until the end of the war, then returning to Texas he eventually became a teacher, writer, and a newspaper and magazine publisher.

What precipitated the event was the invasion of South Texas by a Union force of 7,000 that had embarked from Louisiana under the command of Major General Nathaniel P. Banks. Their primary mission was to stop the export of Confederate states cotton into Mexico where it was transhipped from Bagdad, Mexico and provided the rebels with a continuing source of revenue that prolonged the war.

At Fort Brown in Brownsville, Confederate General Hamilton Prioleau Bee was in command. Until his arrival on 1/29/63, the Valley area and the Confederate soldiers assigned here were under the control of Col. P. N. Luckett and Col. John S. Ford. From Fort Brown to Rio Grande City the Confederate force numbered between 1,200 and 1,500 men. The Fort Brown accomodations for the Confederate officers and their families were outstanding as were other Fort Brown facilties such as a hospital, commissary, barracks, etc. constructed following the Mexican American War.

Bee soon learned of the Union invasion of November 2, 1863 on Brazos Island. Outnumbered and with limited defenses of the fort, Bee made the decision to abandon the fort. He ordered the artillery to be ditched in the river. Naturally upon seeing this action the citizenry of Brownsville were agitated, and rumors were rampant in the city. Next Bee apparently ordered the burning of cotton bales awaiting delivery to Mexico, lest this valuable commodity fall into Union hands.Some people believed that the Union forces were responsible for igniting the conflagration.

Soon many residents believed that a windshift might bring the burning embers to the wooden structures at the fort and ignite them. This would also put the ammunition magazine of the fort at risk to explode if ignited. Their concern was real but misplaced, for the retreating Confederate soldiers were ordered to burn the structures at the fort, including the magazine. Following the lighting of the fort’s structures, lest they fall into advancing Union hands, the Confederate soldiers marched north from the city. In what would now become an even more tragic action Bee’s troops were ordered to burn any cotton-haul wagons that they encountered through the King Ranch and points north. The wagons were driven by old men and boys. The potential income from many struggling southern farm families, now led by women and their children, thereby went up in flames. At the time a pound of cotton was fetching 80 to 90 cents in gold.

In Brownsville proper panic was ensuing. It was being fed by a rumor that thousands of Black troops led by E. J. Davis were advancing toward the city and would enact vengence for. With the ferry crossing of Freeport on Brownsville’s north side cut off by the burning cotton, only one crossing remained. It was one that had a deep cut in its bank to allow freight to be loaded on its journey to Matamoros. It was soon overwhelmed by both the populace and their most treasured possessions. To frighten them even more was the fact that the exploding magazine sent fire in every direction and ignited even more of the city’s wooden buildings.

The flat boat ferry propelled by oars was soon outmoded and a steamboat put into service to haul people with their household effects. Soon a fleet of skiffs were offered at a payment of $5.00 gold for each passenger serviced. With many men staying behind “vast accumulation of clothing, bedding, trunks, musical instruments and furniture of every description from the cultured homes of the wealthy, and the cottages of the poor” made it to the cut.

Remaining citizenry were busy looting the fort’s various buildings, especially the commisary. These included deserting Confederate soldiers. The exploding magazine building threw many to the ground and fiery missiles went everywhere. Goods piled high at the ferry crossing were set aflame and even the roofs of adjacent brick buildings. This former incident let loose what the writter termed a “Reign of Terror”. Bar rooms were invaded and mounted bandits took the occasion to enact revenge on those you might have wronged them. The writer sums the event as “pandemonium became rampant”as the ranks of the howling rabble swelled. “The city was at the mercy of thieves, outlaws and murderers and the grito “Mueran a los gringos!” rang out above the unearthly din. Stores were looted, residences plundered, and it all will never be known the amount of property carried away or destroyed or the number of lives sacrificed on that fatal day.”

Finally, Judge Bigalow, who had served in the Mexican War, rallied some citizens to enact order, including the stopping of individuals coming from south of the border. Although order was partially restored, Brownsville lay in ruins with a pall of smoke hanging over the city. Banks, when his troops entered the city, did not pursue the retreating Bee’s soldiers.

Hunter would later comment that the destruction of the cotton was not wholly General Bee’s fault as he received orders from higher up on what to do. [Purportedly Bee received orders from his superior General “Prince John” Bankhead MaGruder.] He also states that Bee received no graft from the cotton trade and died a poor but honest man. His sole critism of Bee was that he failed to make any effort to engage Banks who might have been vulnerable due to wet ammunition.