In 1845 the American Army under the command of General Zachary Taylor encamped on the shoreline of Corpus Christi Bay. From the Mexican viewpoint, the camp was actually inside Mexico. A long-standing dispute between Mexico and the now defunct Republic of Texas about the boundary line separating the two had become an issue with the United States.
Intending to prove that his national domain extended to the Rio Grande by virtue of the annexation of Texas, President Polk ordered Taylor to march 160 miles south to the river. When the army reached the site of present-day Brownsville, Taylor ordered troops to build a fort directly across the Rio Grande from the Mexican village of Matamoros.
A temporary American army camp on the beaches of Corpus Christi Bay was one thing, but a small but permanent fort built on what the Mexicans believed to be their turf was something else. The gauntlet had been thrown down by the invading U.S. forces.
The challenge was quickly answered when on April 25, 1846, a Mexican force of some 1,600 men ambushed a US cavalry patrol, resulting in over 60 American casualties.
Over a century and a half later, the bay is still there, of course, but everything else has changed from its days of military importance, say historians Thomas Alexander and Dan Utley, co-authors of Faded Glory: A Century of Forgotten Texas Military Sites, Then and Now (TAMU Press, 2012).
"A beautiful bay front, featuring towering skyscrapers has replaced the 1845 city of cotton canvas tents," the authors write. "The original beach is covered by a seawall and a manicured sweep of handsome boulevard. No vestige of Taylor's camp managed to survive the decades of necessary improvements that have elevated the terrain where the many tents of his army once swayed in the Gulf's sea breeze."A cemetery several city blocks inland from the shore contains the graves of sailors killed in a ship’s boiler explosion that occurred on the bay during the time of the encampment on the beach. A marker in nearby Artesian Park indicates a possible site of Taylor’s personal tent, while other accounts suggest the general actually spent his spare time by the bay at a location one and a half mile to the north.
It is possible to stand atop the seawall that spans the bay front and look to the south along the curve of the shoreline to get at least a fleeting sense of the magnitude and sweep of Taylor’s encampment. On the far horizon, some five miles distant, a thin peninsula juts out into the bay. That same landmark is clearly visible in the lithograph made in 1845 when the army’s tents filled nearly every square foot of the beach that has now disappeared beneath a seawall.
Author Tom Alexander gives us his favorite historic site from Faded Glory:
"My favorite site as discussed in Faded Glory is probably Glenn Spring, located deep in the Big Bend National Park. Once a bustling war factory and army outpost, it is also the site of the last known military invasion of the United States. Today, it is nothing more than a hard to find pile of rocks."
Look for Faded Glory this fall for more on Texas's forgotten military sites.