A recent letter-to-the-editor in the Brownsville Herald raises the issue that Tejanos fought in the Civil War. It makes sense. Tejanos are U.S. citizens and the country was at war, but since people of color are whitewashed out of American history books and most high-profile documentaries, it’s a fact I never contemplated. Not only would Tejanos have fought in the American Civil War, they were Texans, so that means they probably would have been on the side of the Confederacy.
According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), at least 2,500 Mexican Texans joined the Confederate Army, but they weren’t all gung-ho about it.
"Secession and the Civil War deeply divided the Mexican Americans of Texas (Tejanos)," reads the TSHA website. "Accusations of subversion and disloyalty before the war resulted in a reluctance by many of them to become involved in the conflict. Those who joined militia units in South Texas and on the frontier frequently did so out of a fear of being sent out of the state and away from their families. Some were able to avoid conscription by claiming to be residents of Mexico."
In fact, while thousands of Tejanos joined the Confederate Army, some enlisted with the Union. The TSHA says that some joined because they were opposed to slavery, while others did because Jim Crow laws in Texas had been used against them to steal their land. One unit, the federal Second Texas Cavalry, was led by Col. John L. Hayes of Rio Grande City, but it was comprised entirely of Tejano and Mexican national troops. That unit, the website says, suffered an exceptionally high desertion rate.
Tejanos also engaged in guerilla warfare on behalf of the Union. The most famous of those was Cecilio Balerio and his son Juan, who operated a small horse and mule trade in Corpus Christi during the 1850s. Balerio and his family chose to remain loyal to the United States during the Civil War and were engaged by Union Army officer Edmund J. Davis, who would later become the governor of Texas during the Reconstruction period. Davis ordered Balerio to attack Confederate cotton trains between Corpus Christi and the lower Rio Grande valley. The Confederates eventually captured Balerio when a local Corpus Christi sheriff staked out the house of his girlfriend. They forced him to lead them to the encampment, where his father’s band of guerillas was sleeping. Just before the ambush, Juan shouted a warning to his comrades and a bloody battle ensued, taking many lives.
"At the last moment, Jose Balerio shouted an alarm to the sleeping irregulars. Pandemonium ensued. There was shooting in every direction. When the smoke had cleared, the boy Jose was gone. So was Don Cecilio. An old corrido of Robstown told the tragic story: the father was so ashamed of his son’s betrayal, they went to Tamaulipas to live, where they were not known," a Corpus Christi Caller Times article describes the event.
For their bravery, Governor E. J. Davis awarded Balerio’s heirs a quarter section of land in 1870.
It’s interesting that learning about people who look like you and have names like you can really make American history come alive. If only our state legislators can get with it and make a point of including Americans of color in our history textbooks.