Texas responded to the election of Abraham Lincoln by joining the Confederacy in early 1861, a few weeks before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. Although only about one in four Texas families owned slaves, support for secession was strong, with about three quarters of voters supporting secession. Many Texas men immediately joined the war effort, traveling east to fight with other Confederate soldiers. Many others joined but stayed in Texas, with some defending the coastline, some guarding against possible Union attack, and others pushing into New Mexico Territory. A small number joined the Union army.
For Texans on all sides, the war brought hardships. Although only a few battles were fought in the state, the effect of the war was widespread. Traffic through the state’s major port at Galveston was halted by a Union blockade early in the war. Union troops seized the port in the fall of 1862. But by New Year’s Day of 1863, Confederate forces had retaken the city, which remained in Confederate hands for the remainder of the war.
Barriers to trade continued until the war’s end. Imports of goods from northern factories ceased, transportation networks were damaged, and Union blockades made it difficult for cotton growers to export their crops. Trade with Mexico provided some relief. But without larger trade networks, the residents of Texas suffered from shortages of many kinds. Still, for many people fleeing the Deep South, Texas was safer ground. Many traveled to Texas as refugees, often bringing slaves with them.
The Civil War years saw an increase in the number of slaves in the state. For some, there was an awareness of the fight for their freedom – an awareness captured in memories like those of Mose Smith, a former slave from Texas who spoke of hearing about the conflict but being too far away to have direct knowledge of the war. Although many men from slave-owning families were serving in the military, slaves’ work and bondage remained very much intact during the war.
In cities and rural areas, women stepped in to do work formerly done by men who were away at war. Throughout the state, the absence of men pushed women left at home to take on significant new roles in the household, including that of farmer and provider. Women were tasked with taking care of their families alone, in a time of hardship and shortages. For women whose husbands died during the war, that role often continued after the war’s end.
Differences in political belief also created problems for many Texans during the war. Opposition to secession was common among recent German immigrants in the Hill Country, in some north Texas counties, and among many Tejanos and Mexican Texans. In some cases, those views led to violence. In 1862, three dozen Union sympathizers — most of them German Texans — were massacred near the Nueces River while they were trying to flee to Mexico. A monument was erected in their honor in 1866, and can still be seen today.
When the war ended with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, the official news did not reach Texas for weeks. It arrived on June 19, 1865 – a day now celebrated as Juneteeth – when General Gordon Granger and Union forces landed in Galveston. They had arrived to occupy the state, and to order the emancipation of all slaves in Texas. Reconstruction had begun.
Reconstruction was not an easy time for Texans. Residents had to pledge their loyalty to the United States, abolish slavery, and declare that secession from the union was illegal. For many former slaves, freedom from bondage provided limited opportunities for building new lives.
Anger at the war’s outcome simmered in Reconstruction-era Texas. Freedmen became the primary targets of widespread violence that followed the war’s end. Texan voters did not help to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishment of slavery) or the Fourteenth Amendment (declaration of citizenship for African Americans). And despite the formal end of slavery in the United States, Texas and other former Confederate states enacted restrictions for African Americans that severely limited their rights. Despite those tensions, after an uneasy five years, Texas was readmitted to the Union in March of 1870.
Texas’ return to the United States did not end the turmoil. Despite new railroad lines and industrial growth in the state, Texas remained a largely agrarian-based economy. Animosity toward the Republican party and Reconstruction policies led to the election of a former Confederate officer as governor in 1872. Slave labor was replaced with the sharecropping system, which kept African Americans in poverty and subservience to white male landowners for years to come. Old conflicts with Native Americans – largely set aside during the Civil War years — boiled over with new violence. A series of wars, known as the Indian Wars, pushed the remaining tribes in Texas off of their land, and ended in death, imprisonment or surrender for a series of Native American leaders. Both the Apaches and Comanches were expelled from the state.
Always fearful of a strong central government, Texans approved a new constitution in 1876, which severely limited the power of the governor. The Constitution of 1876 remains the basic law in Texas today. When the Presidential election of 1876 ended in Rutherford B. Hayes’ victory, agreements between Democrats and Republicans resulted in the official end of Reconstruction. The period of Reconstruction was officially over in Texas, but restrictions and hardships for minorities in the state would continue for many years to come, even as economic expansion absorbed large numbers of immigrants from Europe and other parts of the US.