November 2, 1863 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks embarked on a campaign to conquer eastern Texas by seizing control of the Rio Grande River and the Texas coast.
The Lincoln administration wanted control of eastern Texas, not only for its extensive cotton but to stop illicit trade between that state and French-controlled Mexico. General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck had originally ordered Banks to move his Army of the Gulf up the Red River and invade Texas from Shreveport, Louisiana. However, Banks was a politician, and he feared that failure would damage his political career. Thus, the Federal high command agreed to allow Banks to take the safer route along the Texas coast.
Banks had sent a force to capture Sabine Pass on the Texas-Louisiana border, but it suffered a humiliating defeat in September. He had also launched a force from Fort Bisland that was stopped at Opelousas in October. So Banks personally led this third effort, which consisted of a 3,500-man division under Major General Napoleon J.T. Dana. The troops left New Orleans on transports and steamed west, intending to capture Brazos Santiago at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The gunboats U.S.S. Monongahela, Virginia, and Owasco escorted the troop transports.
The Federals landed unopposed as the Confederate defenders retreated. Banks triumphantly reported, “The flag of the Union floated over Texas today at meridian precisely. Our enterprise has been a complete success.” From this foothold, Banks moved inland and quickly occupied Brownsville as well. The Federals were now positioned about 30 miles from inland opposite Matamoros (spelled “Matamoras” then), as well as Point Isabelle. Banks notified Texas’s Unionist governor, Andrew Hamilton, who had awaited the Federal arrival near Texas’s southern tip.
Ten days later, Banks expanded his occupation zone by capturing Corpus Christi. The Federals then continued moving east along the coast. On the 17th, about 1,000 troops and two sailor-manned artillery batteries landed on Mustang Island at Aransas Pass from transports supported by the Monongahela. The Federal howitzers bombarded the Confederate garrison into surrender. The U.S.S. Granite City seized the Confederate schooner Amelia Ann and the Spanish bark Teresita.
Banks next targeted Fort Esperanza on Matagorda Island, which the Confederates abandoned after a one-week bombardment. Federal gunboats now controlled about 300 miles of the Texas coast, from the Rio Grande to Port Lavaca. But Banks would not risk another defeat by approaching Galveston or Sabine Pass.
Meanwhile, a portion of Banks’s force moved overland about 100 miles up the Rio Grande and captured Rio Grande City. These Federal victories restricted the contraband trade coming through Mexico via Matamoros. However, since the Mississippi River was already in Federal hands, it only restricted trade with the Trans-Mississippi Confederacy, which was insignificant compared to the east. Also, trading continued farther inland at Laredo, and the operation did nothing to scare the French into leaving Mexico.
The Federal presence in southern Texas merely kept Banks’s army busy when it could have been more useful elsewhere, such as Mobile Bay.
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 338-39, 341-42; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 871; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 543-53; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 366-69, 372-75, 380; Josephy, Jr., Alvin M., War on the Frontier: The Trans-Mississippi West (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 50-51; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 428-31, 434; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 683; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 172