Rio History: Hunting for Artifacts

By STEVE HATHCOCK
Special to the PRESS

When working (metal detecting) a battlefield, any map you find can usually be put to good use. Many older maps are crudely drawn, but when compared with modern topographical maps, hills, islands, and waterways can be used as landmarks to put you in the general area of a battle. Once the actual site has been identified, your search patterns will vary.

Old battlegrounds are full of artifacts, however, most of these sites are now part of the National Parks System and it is illegal to use a metal detector on them. But a lot of skirmishes, such as the Battle of Palmito Ranch, were running battles, fought over a large area.

I once found a crude (Civil War era) map drawn by a soldier who had been stationed at Brazos Depot located at the northern most tip of Boca Chica Beach (just across from the south jetties in Isla Blanca Park). The map showed where different companies of Union troops pitched their tents during their tour of duty. This map is important because the last battle of the Civil War was fought near there.

On 12 May 1865, a column of federal troops moving overland from the depot at Brazos Island captured the riverboat landing at White’s Ranch which was located several miles upriver from the mouth of the Rio Grande. The Confederate forces, led by “Rip” Ford, forced them to retreat. Several pitched battles were fought along the road leading back to the Island. The Confederates killed one Union soldier, wounded another 121 and captured several hundred more.

A couple of days later, the news of Lee’s surrender five weeks prior, reached Brownsville. Colonel Ford and his men immediately surrendered to their own prisoners. The National Park Service has erected a monument to honor the men of both sides but the 12 mile route of the Union retreat lies on mostly privately owned land. There are many bullets, buttons and other artifacts found along the route of the battle. In places it is possible to find a couple dozen bullets in one hole.

You can find a monument commemorating this battle along State Highway 4 going east to Boca Chica Beach. Highway 4 has several other marked sites along its 20 mile route to the beach, including a marker indicating the remains of a floating bridge built by Zachary Taylor’s men in 1846. Twenty years later, Union forces built a telegraph road along a parallel line. These are both good areas to hunt for bullets, buttons and other uniform accruements.

Good luck!

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