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Felipe Vargas - Benevides Regiment, Texas Cavalry

cemetery photoAs a historian at the Texas State Cemetery, it is part of my job to take pictures of headstones for our website. We have more than 2,000 headstones and most of them that don’t have photographs are in the Confederate section. I’ve been working my way steadily through the Confederates for the last year and I’m happy to say we are up to the Ws. Back when I was taking pictures of the Vs though, I came across a name that sent me down a path in Civil War history that I knew next to nothing about.



The man’s name is Felipe Vargas, he is buried in Section F, almost in the exact middle of the section, and his headstone looks like just one of many identical white headstones in the same area. While taking his picture, I saw his unit name, Benevides Regiment, Texas Cavalry. I pulled Vargas’s file and we have precious little information on him. We know he was present with his unit at the Confederate surrender, but his unit was surrendered some 600 miles from where Benvides’s regiment was stationed. General E.K. Smith surrendered the unit on paper in New Orleans, but Benevides’s Regiment was in Laredo when Smith surrendered them. The unit served along the Texas border with Mexico during the entire war. Vargas served from the founding of the unit until the surrender. He was an immigrant, like virtually every other Texan in the 1800s. He was born in 1832 and moved to Texas when he was twenty or twenty two in the early 1850s. He lived in Bexar County for 40 years and worked as a tailor before he was admitted to the Confederate Home in Austin. He died in 1920. That’s pretty much the limit of our knowledge of Felipe Vargas.

What’s better known is the story of his unit, a part of Texas history that gets lost during history class. The unit was led by the former mayor of Laredo, Colonel Santos Benevides, who was the highest ranking Hispanic officer in the Confederacy. His role in the War was just as much about guarding the border against bandits and Indian attacks as it was fighting against the Union. Santos fought Juan Cortina during the Second Cortina War in 1861, driving him out of Texas and into Mexico. After that, he patrolled the border with a single-minded ferocity. Benavides believed in a form of state’s rights, but he really thought the regional or local authority better than the national authority or the state authority. This was in direct opposition to Edmund J. Davis, a Union loyalist and Texan who offered Benevides a generalship in the U.S. Army just after secession.  Benevides turned it down. In an ironic twist, Benevides’s most shining moment in the Civil War came at Davis’s expense. Davis attempted to take Laredo with his First Texas Cavalry and Benevides defended it with anywhere from 20 to 42 men. Benevides, with help from Felipe Vargas and the other men of his unit, successfully drove off Davis and the First Texas Cavalry.

Davis was elected governor of Texas in 1869 and was buried at the State Cemetery when he died. Davis has the tallest monument in the Cemetery, a gray granite spire some twenty-five feet high. Two hundred yards from the governor and quite a ways down from Republic Hill and Davis is Felipe Vargas, a tailor from Bexar County who helped defeat the governor and his almost anonymous headstone.