José (Joseph) Rafael de la Garza, Tejano land owner, Confederate officer, and the son of José Antonio de la Garza and María Josefa Menchaca, was born in San Antonio about 1838. His father was one of South Texas’s most important landowners who was “the first in Texas to coin money and the first to use the Lone Star as an emblem.” José Antonio de la Garza and his wife had several children. José Rafael de la Garza’s sister Carolina Angela married Bart (Bartholomew) J. DeWitt, a well-known sutler and merchant, and another sister, Elena, married Manuel Yturri, a captain in the Third Texas Infantry during the Civil War and descendant of a wealthy and influential Tejano family. De la Garza also had a younger brother named Leonardo. In his youth, De la Garza attended school in San Antonio and tended to farming and ranching duties. He left Texas in the early 1850s to study at St. Joseph’s College at Bardstown, a Jesuit-run school in north central Kentucky. While studying ancient Greek, Latin, and theology, he was described at the time as a young man of “fine disposition.”
De la Garza enlisted in the Confederate Army when the Civil War erupted and served briefly on the Texas-Mexico border under the command of Capt. Santos Benavides. On March 31, 1862, in San Antonio, De la Garza, at age twenty-three, was mustered into service as a second lieutenant in Capt. Samuel W. McAllister’s Alamo Rifles. Muster rolls listed him as Joseph R. Garza. By 1863 the Bexareño had risen to captain in Company K of the Sixth Texas Infantry. He remained a company commander in the Seventeenth Texas Cavalry, Consolidated, in Gen. Camille Armand Jules Marie “Prince Polecat” Polignac’s Brigade, stationed at Louisiana. During the Union Red River campaign at the battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, De la Garza led his company in an all-out attack against Federal troops only to be “shot above the knee” and bleed to death on the battlefield. In a letter written to Bart DeWitt (De la Garza’s brother-in-law) and dated April 19, 1864, H. B. Adams described his death, “Joe Garza fell while gallantly fighting at the head of his company at the battle of Mansfield….”
De la Garza’s valuable letters were preserved by family members and provide a rare glimpse into the daily life of a soldier in the Trans-Mississippi. Bartholomew DeWitt returned his body to his hometown where De la Garza was interred at San Fernando Cemetery No. 1.