In April 1861, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter. This was the start of the War Between the States, more commonly known as the Civil War. Within a year, the war had reached San Diego.
In March 1862, men met at the home of E. N. Gray in San Diego, and chose 50 year-old Clemente Zapata, a native of Zapata County, as captain of Company B in the Confederate Army. Zapata was an experienced fighter having taken part in a number of battles along the border. He later left the Confederate Army and enlisted in the Union forces.
Both Confederate and Union armies were desperate for soldiers and sent recruiters into the brush country looking for draftees. Many local men got around from conscription by proclaiming Mexican citizenship. On a visit to Duval County area ranchos of Los Olmitos, Concepción, San Diego, and Amargosa, recruiter I. W. Engledow found that “nearly every other man I met claimed to be a citizen of Mexico and, therefore exempt from conscription.”
This ploy did not work with Confederate agents who did not hesitate to corral any warm body, Mexican citizen or not. They were so vigorous in their efforts that few men remained to carry on with the needed commerce of the area. An order went out not to draft freighters, or carreteros.
Union Army scouts with the South Texas Calvary, including Cecilio Valerio and his son Juan, made their way north from the Valley. They overran the Confederate salt works at El Sal del Rey, made it past the wild horse dessert and reached the King Ranch. Capt. James Speed commanded the cavalry of 70 men, half of them being Tejanos. In an attack two days before Christmas 1863, they killed Francisco Alvarado and scattered his horses before returning to Las Animas.
John Rip Ford was planning to attack the Union forces in Brownsville. His plan called for his men to March from San Antonio to Brownsville, by way of San Diego. Confederate officer Santos Benavides of Laredo advised Ford against this route. Benavides claimed that going from San Diego to the Rio Grande would be disastrous, rendering “all our horses unserviceable and incapacitate us for active operations for weeks.” Ford listened to Benavides and changed his route further west through Laredo and Los Ángeles.
In March 1864 Ford and his men reached the Confederate post at San Fernando west of Corpus Christi under the command if Major Mat Nolan. Nolan, who had 62 men under his command, told Ford that Cecilio and Juan Valerio had 125 and 80 men, respectively, under their command and had provided his troops hard battles. The Valerio troops carried Burnside rifles, revolvers and sabers. Cecilio Valerio met defeat at the hand of Confederate troops at Los Patricios in southern Duval County. He then attacked a rancho hanging Lucas, a King Ranch vaquero, and leaving him as a warning. Shortly thereafter, Cecilio Valerio led a Union attack of Laredo.
Ford ordered Major L. M. Rogers to cut off trade between the Nueces and Rió Grande by “men who furnish the Yankees and are aiding and abetting the enemies of our country, and are committing treason.”
Lt. Col. Daniel Showalter commanded a number of scouts based at Camp Patterson on the San Fernando Creek. A month later, in April 1864, Showalter and his men were at Barroneno in western Duval County and made part of a battalion with Capt. Tom Cater with who had his men at Los Ángeles.
The war dominated life but other events were also taking place. It was at this time, in 1864, that E. García Pérez built his home in San Diego. In those years, a shallow well in the northeastern part of San Diego provided a refuge for thirsty cattle. The well, familiar throughout the region, never went dry and local residents believed that an underground spring was its source.
After the Civil War, San Diego and Duval County’s history would begin a new phase that saw quick development and prosperity.