The Civil War in Texas: An Exhibit from the Texas State Library and Archives
Before the War 1860: Big Trouble Secession! 1861: Opening Act Dissent
1862: Fiery Trial 1863: The Tide Turns 1864: No Way Out End of the Ordeal Further Reading

1862: Fiery Trial, continued

The Cotton Times

View of Brownsville during the war

View of Brownsville during the Civil War. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
Prints and Photographs Collection, 1980/10-4
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The Confederates were not the only ones pinched by the increasingly effective Union blockade. New Englanders were affected by a severe shortage of cotton that left 75 percent of the region’s textile mills idle. By the summer of 1862, New England and New York congressmen were putting heavy pressure on President Lincoln to invade East Texas and seize the great cotton lands there for the Union.

Benjamin J. Sanford to Governor Lubbock, February 1862

This letter to Governor Lubbock from a cotton broker asks for a permit to ship cotton across the Rio Grande to Mexico, with Cuba the ultimate destination.

While Lincoln resisted the textile industry’s pleas in favor of securing the Mississippi River, Texas cotton was pouring into the Mexican port of Matamoros, just across the border from the Texas town of Brownsville. As a matter of international law, Mexican waters, including the Rio Grande, could not be blockaded. The result was a wild boom known as the Cotton Times, a raucous, multicultural, multinational affair in which many dreamed of making their fortunes and a few people actually did.

Generally, East Texas teamsters would haul the cotton as far as San Antonio. These teamsters were both white and black; at least one was an African-American woman. Then, in San Antonio, the cotton would be assembled into huge wagon trains drawn by mules or oxen and driven by Tejano or Mexican teamsters. In good weather, a cotton train could travel to the Rio Grande in six to eight weeks. The teamsters and their animals faced hunger, thirst, heat, dust, and the threat of attack by Indians, outlaws, and, as the war went on, expatriate Unionists or federal cavalry raiding from across the border.

Once in Brownsville, the cotton was quickly sold to Mexican brokers in Matamoros and unloaded onto paddle steamers for an arduous trip through the Rio Grande’s shallows to Bagdad, a village at the mouth of the river. There, as many as 70 European freighters at a time—not to mention a few from New England or New York—would be waiting with arms, medicine, dry goods, coffee, and other goods to exchange. At any given time, thousands of people teemed through tiny Bagdad, which had not a single permanent structure.

A Get-Tough Governor, A Careful Legislature

James T.D. Wilson to Francis R. Lubbock, May 1862

James T.D. Wilson, an employee of the Military Board, made numerous trips to Mexico to buy supplies for the war effort. Years later he would become the mayor of Houston.

The most significant political act of 1862 came when the Texas legislature created a new agency, the Military Board, to purchase arms and ordnance for Texas troops. The members of the board were the governor, state treasurer, and state comptroller. They were given an unprecedented degree of independent power, with the authority to sell or exchange bonds worth up to $500,000 for weapons.

Other than that action, the legislature was conservative in dealing with the war. Governor Lubbock was popular with the public, both for his concentration on wartime affairs and for his crowd-pleasing veto of the legislators’ per diem and mileage allowance. But his proposal to take on more debt to fund the Texas war effort found little support among lawmakers.

Lubbock was a whirlwind of activity. He hosted two conferences in Marshall with the governors of Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana to improve the cooperation of the Trans-Mississippi states with the national Confederate government. He and the other governors issued a plea to Jefferson Davis, a close friend of Lubbock’s, for better support for the their states, including a commanding general, a treasury branch, and a supply of arms and ammunition.

Lubbock never missed an opportunity to boost the Confederate cause. He even applauded General Paul Hébert when he declared martial law in Texas. Lubbock worked closely with Confederate authorities to organize military units from Texas and ordered that all able-bodied men muster in for frontier defense and stand ready to serve the Confederacy if needed.

Manufacturing and Transportation

At the dawning of the war, the South had almost no industry. What little did exist—sawmills, flour mills, cotton gins, wagon makers, bakeries, distilleries—was of a small-scale and served agricultural needs. For the most part, manufactured goods had always been imported from the North or overseas. Now the South would have to scramble to catch up under wartime conditions. As a place remote from the major battles of the war, Texas would emerge a major manufacturing center for the Confederacy.

Francis R. Lubbock to T.H. Holmes, September 1862

By the fall of 1862, Governor Lubbock was getting creative with requests from the Confederacy for clothing, shoes, and blankets.

Governor Lubbock volunteered prison labor at the state penitentiary in Huntsville to make shoes and to weave cloth from cotton and wool. The raw cloth was then made into uniforms, hats, shirts, jeans, blankets, and tents at clothing plants in both Texas and Louisiana. In 1862, the prison inmates wove more than 1 million yards of cloth, more than all the other clothing plants in the South put together. The factory was a tremendous operation by Southern standards. Income from prison labor constituted more than one-third of the state’s wartime revenue.

The output was impressive—but wholly inadequate. As hard as they worked, the Huntsville prisoners could supply only one-fifteenth of the requisition submitted by the Confederate army. And 1862 was the peak of production. After that, machinery began to break down, and there were no machine shops that could make replacement parts. There was not nearly enough cloth to supply the army. Many soldiers recalled that they were never issued a uniform or any other clothing while in Confederate service.

The problems at Huntsville were emblematic of manufacturing as a whole in Texas. The ironworks near Jefferson was the only factory in the Southwest capable of mass-producing pig iron, but it was still only a fraction of the Trans-Mississippi’s needs. While a rifle factory in Tyler employed more than 200 people, it still fell short by thousands compared with what was needed. Soldiers joked about charging the enemy with axes and butcher knives, and since they often depended on a hodgepodge of weapons brought from home, appropriate ammunition was in chronically short supply.

The Old General Land Office building in Austin

The General Land Office building in Austin was converted to the production of cartridges and caps. The building still stands today and serves as the Capitol Visitors Center.
Prints and Photographs Collection 1/103-75.

Thousands of Texans, many of them women and teenagers, went to work in wartime factories. The Confederate Field Transportation Bureau opened works in seven cities to produce wagons, harnesses, and saddles. Galveston and Austin both had cannon foundries. The General Land Office building in Austin was converted to the production of cartridges and caps. Besides the rifle factory in Tyler, guns were produced in Bastrop, Rusk, Palestine, Columbia, and Lancaster. One of the two major Confederate powder plants was located in San Antonio, supplied with nitrates from bat guano mined from Longhorn Cavern in Burnet County.

The most successful manufacturing enterprise was the production of salt, essential for curing and preserving meat. The salt works of Virginia and Kentucky had been captured by the federals early in the war. Texas helped make up the difference. At the main salt works in Van Zandt County, 3,000 bushels of salt were produced every day. Another successful enterprise was leather tanning, mostly for shoe leather. Tanners supplied shoe factories in San Antonio, Austin, Houston, Tyler, and Jefferson.

Texas and the rest of the South suffered from a fatal deficiency in transportation. Goods piled up in supply depots in places like Beaumont and Jefferson, waiting to be distributed to the troops. Texas rivers were shallow and not connected, making them unsuitable for large-scale freighting. In addition, most of them had to be regularly dredged, requiring heavy equipment that the South didn’t possess. When boats were damaged or wore out, they could not be easily replaced.

Likewise, the railroad system had been in its infancy when the war started. There were only a few lines, and they didn’t connect or even use the same rail gauge. As the war continued, engines broke down and rails wore out. They could not be replaced. Some railroads resorted to pulling their cars with oxen before finally abandoning the effort.

For most of the war, Texas relied on ox and mule carts; a journey of a hundred miles could be expected to take a solid month over poorly maintained southern roads. By 1863, the Confederacy resorted to impressing wagons and draft animals from private citizens to transport supplies to the army. Even so, animals and wagons were often worked beyond endurance, wearing out faster than they could be replaced.

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Page last modified: August 5, 2011