Santos Benavides, the highest ranking Mexican American to serve the Confederacy, the son of José Jesús and Margarita (Ramón) Benavides, was born in Laredo, Texas, on November 1, 1823. He was the great-great-grandson of Tomás Sánchez de la Barrera y Garza, the founder of Laredo. Benavides married Augustina Villareal in 1842, and the couple eventually adopted four children. As a political and military leader in Laredo, Benavides brought a traditionally isolated region closer to the mainstream of Texas politics while preserving a sense of local independence. His prominence in Laredo resulted initially from the influence of his uncle, Basilio Benavides, who was three times elected alcalde under Mexican rule, then mayor and state representative after annexation. Santos Benavides's success as a merchant and rancher also contributed to his selection as procurador in 1843, then to his election as mayor of Laredo in 1856 and chief justice of Webb County in 1859. He won further distinction as the leader of several campaigns against the Lipan Apaches and other Indians. Under both Mexican and American rule, his politics remained consistent. During the Federalist-Centralist wars that swept the Rio Grande frontier in the 1830s and 1840s, geographically isolated northern Mexico supported the Federalist cause of local autonomy against the Centralists, who wanted power focused in distant Mexico City. As a young man Benavides fought for the Federalists. Frustrated with the Mexican government, he cooperated with the forces of Mirabeau B. Lamar, which occupied Laredo during the Mexican War. Benavides joined his uncle in opposing the annexation of the Laredo area by the United States, as called for by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, because he feared it would compromise the independent character of northern Mexico. When Texas seceded, Benavides and his brothers supported the Confederacy, whose states'-rights principles were so close to their regionalism.
Commissioned a captain in the Thirty-third Texas Cavalry (or Benavides' Regiment) and assigned to the Rio Grande Military District, Benavides quickly won accolades as a fighter. He drove Juan Cortina back into Mexico in the battle of Carrizo on May 22, 1861, and quelled other local revolts against Confederate authority. In November 1863 Benavides was promoted to colonel and authorized to raise his own regiment of "Partisan Rangers," for which he used the remnants of the Thirty-third. His greatest military triumph was his defense of Laredo on March 19, 1864, with forty-two troops against 200 soldiers of the Union First Texas Cavalry, commanded by Col. Edmund J. Davis, who had, ironically, offered Benavides a Union generalship earlier. Perhaps Benavides's most significant contribution to the South came when he arranged for safe passage of Texas cotton along the Rio Grande to Matamoros during the Union occupation of Brownsville in 1864.
During Reconstruction he continued his mercantile and ranching activities with his brother Cristóbal Benavides and remained active in politics. In support of his son-in-law, Gen. Lázaro Garza Ayala, and Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, he was accused of using his rancho, Charcos Largo, as a supply depot for filibustering expeditions against Mexican president Porfirio Díaz. He served three times in the Texas legislature from 1879 to 1884 and twice as an alderman of Laredo. He was instrumental in the formation of the Guarache or citizen's party in South Texas, a faction of the Democratic party opposed to the powerful Botas (see BOTAS AND GUARACHES). His political affiliations indicated his continued belief in regional independence from national authority. His leadership built Democratic support among Hispanics in Webb County and contributed to the eclipse of the Republican party in the region. Benavides's friendship with the followers of Benito Juárez and his kinship ties to Manuel Gonzales prompted Porfirio Díaz to select him as an envoy to the United States during the reciprocity controversy in 1880. In recognition of his political achievement, he was appointed Texas delegate to the World Cotton Exposition in 1884. Benavides died at his home in Laredo on November 9, 1891.