the civil war and mexico -- 6/27/22

Today's selection -- from Illusions of Empire by William S. Kiser. The Union forces tried to encircle the Confederacy with a blockade, but the border with Mexico was a major breach in this blockade that the Confederacy exploited to prolong the war:
"From his outpost in Texas, Brigadier General Hamilton Bee informed Rich­mond officials in October 1861 that 'it is of the utmost importance to the Con­federacy that Brownsville and the line of the Rio Grande should be held.' The reasons, he explained, were twofold. First, the river valley provided an import­ant commercial corridor through which Southern cotton could be exported­ and European arms and ammunition imported -- without the high level of risk entailed in running the U.S. naval blockade. Additionally, economic and mili­tary control of this international frontier would help to prevent federal troops from staging an invasion of Texas through that vulnerable region. 'It is the only point through which we can communicate with the nations of Europe' Bee added in reference to the North's Anaconda Plan, '[and] we have no other outlet so long as the supremacy of the seas is against us,' To protect Confed­erate interests along the border, he recommended that an officer who spoke Spanish and understood Hispanic culture be appointed to the army outpost at Brownsville, where the most important responsibility was to 'keep the peace with Mexico and make her people useful friends.'

"Bee was hardly alone in making such recommendations. That same month, Department of Texas commander Henry E. McCulloch told Adjutant General Samuel Cooper that relations with Mexico were 'of great importance to our government' and insisted that 'nothing should be done to interrupt the most liberal trade and intercourse 'with the people of that country.' When Brigadier General Paul Hebert arrived at Galveston to assume command of the department, he immediately arranged for the procurement of munitions from Mexico. Vibrant but largely informal commercial alliances developed between Texan operatives and Mexican governors, providing the South with a source of supplies as well as a relatively safe outlet for cotton. Hyper­inflation drastically reduced the value of Confederate currency, and foreign governments refused to accept it, so cotton became a primary medium of exchange and provided much of Richmond's purchasing power in the interna­tional marketplace. Devalued specie was even scarcer in Texas than in other Southern states. At a Rebel training facility near the town of Victoria, Captain Udolpho Wolfe lamented in February 1862 that 'this department is without money' and repeatedly told his professional acquaintances that he could not supply troops without the means to pay local contractors,' One U.S. diplomat reported that same year that 'the merchants of Matamoros will not receive a Confederate note at any price,' and Texans stored thousands of cotton bales in warehouses at San Antonio and Brownsville to exchange for articles of war anytime a shipment arrived in Mexico.

View of Brownsville, Texas with goods stacked along the river. 

"An American correspondent in Monterrey marveled at the complexity of this trade network. 'It is astonishing to see the enormous quantities of goods that go from here into Texas,' U.S. consul Myndert Kimmey explained to readers of the New York Times in 1862. 'Millions of dollars' worth of cot­ton is sold here monthly, all of which is sent back to the rebels, by their agents here, in the shape of powder, lead, coffee, blankets, shoes, rope, sugar, [and] cotton goods of all kinds.' He concluded that 'until this trade is cut off, Texas will not feel the blockade,' William Hutchinson, a U.S. Navy sur­geon aboard one of the blockading ships, recalled seeing 'an immense fleet of vessels of all nations' moored at Bagdad, just off the shores of Tamaulipas, 'awaiting cargoes of cotton or unloading cargoes of war stores,' Browns­ville merchant Francis Latham only slightly exaggerated when recalling that 'Matamoros was flooded with cotton;' as was the entire valley from Eagle Pass to the mouth of the Rio Grande. Eliza McHatton-Ripley, a Louisiana woman who fled her plantation home when U.S. forces occupied New Orle­ans in 1862, lived temporarily in Matamoros before escaping to Cuba with her husband. From her unique vantage point, she expressed a sense of awe at her government's 'stupendous efforts to procure army supplies through Mexico' but felt puzzled by the 'wild speculation, reckless business meth­ods, and amazing complications' that characterized trade on both sides of the border.

"At one point during the Civil War, General Bee recommended that at least five thousand additional troops be sent to protect Confederate inter­ests in northeastern Mexico. But Bee failed to mention the extent to which banditry, smuggling, personal scheming, and nefarious acts of diplomatic intrigue created and reinforced the tenuous system of borderlands commerce upon which Confederates relied for regional primacy during the Civil War.

"The Mexican northeast provided a unique opportunity as the Confederacy's only international border and became an important avenue for circumvent­ing the North's maritime stranglehold. Whereas Rebel maneuvers in Chihua­hua and Sonora aimed to project Southern power westward to Pacific shores, illusions of empire in Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas revolved pri­marily around the economic imperative of cotton exports and the military imperative of arms imports. Diplomatic endeavors in the Mexican northeast sought primarily to sustain Southern empire rather than expand it.

"The region was primed for these purposes before the Civil War even began. During Mexico's War of the Reform, Tamaulipas governor Ramon Guerra established a statewide zona libre (free trade zone) that facilitated the shipment of contraband into Texas. In 1858 he abolished import duties on overseas mer­chandise, growing the local economy by redirecting the lucrative Texas trade through Matamoros. In a blatant display of regionalism, the governor imple­mented this act without the approval of national authorities. The U.S. consul at Matamoros, Peter Seuzeneau, considered the move so radical that he pre­dicted a declaration of independence from Tarnaulipas, but when the War of the Reform ended in 1861 President Benito Juarez endorsed Guerra's decree. The zona libre centered regional commerce in northeast Mexico, allowing Texas merchants to redirect imports and exports through Matamoros and then carry or float crates across the Rio Grande without paying tariffs to the U.S. government.

"The reliability of the zona libre and its Matamoros trade network depended upon a provision in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ensuring that nav­igation of the Rio Grande would remain 'free and common to the vessels of both countries.' Naval blockaders could not legally intercept seagoing traffic along this riverine trade route without consent from the other country. Since Mexico had not granted permission for U.S. commanders to extend their maritime cordon beyond the southern tip of Texas, ships could come and go from the mouth of the Rio Grande without harassment. Any direct inter­ference in this commercial network, or extension of the blockade to include Mexico's coastline, would constitute an act of war and might risk a foreign con­flict. Union agents attempted to broker agreements that would lengthen the blockade, but the French Intervention -- as well as lingering fears of American expansionism -- dissuaded Juarez from allowing it. The Texas-Mexico border thus became a gaping hole in an otherwise tight blockade that employed over six hundred ships and spanned 3,549 miles of Southern coastline from the Potomac River to the Rio Grande."



William S. Kiser


Illusions of Empire


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2022 University of Pennsylvania Press


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