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Mexican Americans Fought on Both Sides of the U.S. Civil War

October 11, 2018 in History

By Becky Little

Most of them lived in Texas.

Mexican-American soldiers fighting off a Union General at the Battle of Valverde in 1862.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, there were tens of thousands of Mexican Americans living in California, Texas and the New Mexico territory; all former parts of Mexico that the U.S. had claimed in the 1840s. With the wounds of the Mexican-American War fresh, these Mexican Americans now found themselves in the middle of the United States’ war with itself.

At first tejanos, aka Mexican Americans in Texas, “tried to avoid declaring support for either side,” writes Sonia Hernandez, a professor of history and Latino/a and Mexican American studies at Texas A&M University, in an email.

“Some outright avoided joining either side because tejanos were accused of disloyalty even before the war officially broke out,” she writes. “Tejanos could avoid conscription by claiming Mexican citizenship and some were in fact Mexican citizens. Still others, overwhelmed with the growing divide, chose sides.”

A map detailing the parts of Mexico that were claimed by the United States, including present-day Texas, New Mexico, and California.

Jerry D. Thompson, a history professor at Texas A&M International University, estimates that a few thousand Mexican Americans joined the Confederate troops and over 10,000 joined the Union Army and Militia. Though there was some overlap, most Mexican Americans who joined the Union lived in the U.S. territory of New Mexico or the state of California, while most who joined the Confederacy lived in Texas, one of the states that seceded. At least 2,500 tejanos joined the Confederate Army.

Mexico had banned slavery when it won its independence from Spain in 1821, and some Mexican Americans may have joined the Union because they opposed U.S. slavery. “There is some evidence that there was a mini underground railroad here in south Texas that was largely fueled by tejanos, usually poor tejanos, who would help runaway slaves escape into Mexico,” says Thompson. “We know there were thousands of runaway slaves in Mexico.”

At the same time, there were wealthy Mexican Americans who owned slaves and those whose income depended on the slave trade. “You also had well-to-do individuals like Colonel Santos Benavides here in Laredo who actually became the highest ranking tejano officer in the Confederate Army,” says Thompson. “There are instances of him acting as …read more


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