José del Refugio Benavides, politician and Confederate officer, was born on July 6, 1821, at Laredo, Texas, the oldest child of José Jesús and Margarita (Ramón) Benavides. He was also the great-great-grandson of Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Garza, who had founded Laredo in 1755. Benavides first rose to political prominence in Laredo politics in the decade following the Mexican War. In one of the first municipal elections under American rule, on June 28, 1850, he was elected alderman. The Benavides family also played an important role in secession and the Civil War in South Texas. John S. (Rip) Ford wrote that the Benavides family "broke ground in favor of secession" and "did the Confederacy an immense favor by declaring for her." During the war on the border, Refugio Benavides rose to the rank of captain in command of a company in the Thirty-third Texas Cavalry. Later, a regiment raised by Col. Santos Benavides was simply known as Benavides' Regiment.
Refugio Benavides first saw action in the battle of Carrizo (at the site of modern-day Zapata) on May 22, 1861, when he joined Santos in an attack on the forces of the Mexican revolutionary Juan Cortina. Benavides had raced sixty miles through the night down the Mexican side of the river and was able to avoid Cortina's pickets at the crossing near Carrizo and to tell Santos that reinforcements were on the way from Laredo. After the arrival of the Laredo reinforcements, the Benavides brothers led an attack on Cortina that drove the revolutionaries across the river into Mexico. In April 1862 Benavides mustered into the Confederate States Army an eighty-five-man company of Mexican Texans. In December 1862 three of his men were killed by Mexican revolutionaries near Roma. Other raiders attacked a Confederate wagontrain near Rio Grande City and even raided into Zapata County, where they hanged the county judge, Ysidro Vela. With fifty-five men, Benavides went in pursuit of the Mexican raiders. They crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico and tracked them to Mesquital Lealeño, near Camargo, where they were camped in a large corral. Without hesitation, the captain ordered an attack. With Benavides in front, the Tejanos were said to have "boldly stormed" the enclosure, "tearing down the gate amid a hail of bullets, in the midst of which three horses were killed and two men wounded." In the fight eighteen of the raiders were killed, fourteen were wounded, and several were taken captive. Benavides lost two of his men. He and Santos Benavides helped defend Laredo on March 19, 1864, from a Union cotton raid in what became known as the battle of Laredo. A federal expedition from the lower Rio Grande valley had pushed upriver to Laredo hoping to burn the 5,000 bales of cotton stacked in St. Augustine Plaza. After three hours of fighting, the bluecoats were "repulsed by the vigorous fire of my gallant men," Santos Benavides wrote. Refugio Benavides next saw action with Rip Ford in the Confederate Rio Grande expedition. Moving downriver from Laredo, Benavides's company was utilized on a number of occasions by Ford for scouting purposes because of the Tejanos' familiarity with South Texas. On June 25, 1864, Benavides was in the battle at Las Rucias, upriver from Brownsville. Ford, by using an "obscure trail through the chaparral" was able to "get within a few hundred yards of the enemy before being discovered." Benavides was sent in a flanking movement to attack the federal force but was stopped twice by a small lagoon. He was able, however, to join Ford for a final attack that overran the federals. In his report of the battle, Ford singled out Benavides for his gallant conduct during the battle.
On December 8, 1873, Refugio was elected mayor of Laredo once again. His administration provided one of the first public schools, the Esquela Amarilla, constructed the first sewers in the city, established a number of ordinances in an effort to maintain law and order, and helped rewrite the Laredo city charter. He easily led an entire slate of candidates to victory in the next year's election and was elected for a third time in 1875, although this last election was unsuccessfully contested in court. In 1876 Benavides decided not to seek reelection. In 1874 he raised a company of rangers at Laredo to combat the growing bandit and Kickapoo Indian threat on the border. When he was given authority to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico, if necessary, the Mexican government filed a formal protest with Washington. Although it remains unclear whether Benavides did cross into Mexico, the matter was never successfully resolved.
Benavides was married twice, to Teresa Pizaña, with whom he had five children, and to Anastacia García, with whom he had one son. He died of chronic diarrhea at the home of his son in the Heights section of Laredo on June 29, 1899, and was buried in the Old Catholic Cemetery. During World War II his remains were moved to the Herrera family plot in the newer Catholic Cemetery.