In July 1863, just weeks after the twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Abraham Lincoln turned his attention to the Rio Grande borderlands of Confederate Texas. On July 31, the president wrote Francis P. Blair Sr., one of his most powerful supporters, “Yesterday I commenced trying to get up an expedition for Texas. I shall do the best I can.” By November, 6,000 Union troops had landed in South Texas.
What brought this remote region of the Confederacy to the attention of the American president? The Civil War wasn’t the only conflict on Lincoln’s mind. Engaged in a desperate struggle for union, the administration had been unable to halt Emperor Napoleon III’s deployment of French troops to Mexico in early 1862. The French leader invaded Mexico as part of his “Grand Scheme” to replace the democratically elected government of Benito Juárez with a European monarch, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria. Maximilian was but a pawn in Napoleon’s complex game: By using his army to establish the Austrian on the Cactus Throne, Napoleon III sought to check the growing American influence in the Western Hemisphere and restore a powerful French presence in North America.
Much to the emperor’s surprise, the vast majority of Mexicans remained loyal to their constitutional leader, Juárez, and rejected the idea of a French-backed monarchy in Mexico City. Juárez’s army offered unexpectedly stiff resistance to the invaders, most notably by halting the French advance at Puebla on May 5, 1862 (the event celebrated on Cinco de Mayo today). That defeat delayed the French capture of Mexico City for a full year. It wasn’t until June 7, 1863, a month prior to the Battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg, that the French army entered Mexican capital and forced the Juárez administration into exile. In June 1864 Maximilian, who followed events from his storybook castle near Trieste, arrived in Mexico City to be crowned emperor of Mexico.
The crowning of Maximilian alarmed democrats around the world. For those in the global community who agreed with Abraham Lincoln that the best form of government was one “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the French intervention in Mexico marked an expansion into the New World of the counterrevolution against republican institutions that originated with the defeat of Europe’s 1848 democratic revolts the previous decade.
Confederate officials saw things differently. They hoped to leverage the Mexican question to help persuade the French emperor to offer diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. In Texas, the Confederate state bordering Mexico, officials were vocal in their support of Napoleon III. In October 1863, John Bankhead Magruder, commander of Confederate forces in Texas, asked the Confederate envoy in Paris to share with the government of Napoleon III that “the sentiments … of all the Confederate States are most friendly to France, and the occupation of Mexico has given the greatest satisfaction to all.”
Napoleon III refused to recognize the Confederacy, but he was grateful for its acquiescence to his Mexican scheme. In 1863 he personally approved of the transshipment of 20,000 Enfield rifles and other munitions across the border from Mexico into Texas. The war materiel flowing into Texas from French-occupied Mexico played a key role in the ability of the Lone Star State to defend itself after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863 isolated states west of the Mississippi River from the rest of the Confederacy.
Abraham Lincoln regarded the complicity of the Confederacy with the imposition of a European-backed monarch in Mexico with great apprehension. After the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, the president felt confident enough about the progress of the Union forces to attempt a restoration of federal authority in the region where Confederate and French officials worked most closely together, the contact zone of South Texas and northeastern Mexico.
In early August Lincoln wrote to Nathaniel Banks, the Union commander in New Orleans. “Recent events in Mexico,” he said, “render early action in Texas more important than ever.” Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant hoped to move on Mobile, Ala., after his capture of Vicksburg. On Aug. 9, Lincoln wrote to Grant that the capture of Mobile “would appear tempting to me also, were it not that in view of recent events in Mexico, I am greatly impressed with the importance of re-establishing the national authority in Western Texas as soon as possible.” (For Lincoln, “Western Texas” meant the Rio Grande borderlands.) Heeding Lincoln’s request, 6,000 troops from the Union Army’s 13th Corps landed near the mouth of the Rio Grande in November 1863 and soon the American flag once again flew over Brownsville.
Largely because of inept leadership, the Union invasion of Texas proved a failure. By the summer of 1864 Union troops along the Rio Grande – including a large number of African-American soldiers, many of them ex-slaves – retreated from the mainland to South Padre Island. The enormous circulation of military and consumer goods between Texas and Imperial Mexico continued without interruption throughout the war’s final year.
The restoration of American authority along the Texas side of the Rio Grande following the Confederate defeat in 1865 reversed the strategic situation that favored Napoleon III during the Civil War. Grant deeply opposed the French effort to impose a monarch on the people of Mexico. After the Union victory he was determined to use the Union Army to assist the republican forces of Benito Juárez regain control of Mexico.
Immediately after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Grant deployed 25,000 United States troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan to South Texas. Assigned the task of intimidating imperial forces in the Mexican northeast, Sheridan supplied Juárez’s troops with tens of thousands of surplus rifles and pistols. These weapons, Sheridan later wrote, “we left at convenient places on our side of the river to fall into their hands.” By the summer of 1866, the well-armed and aggressive Liberal army forced the French Imperial Army out of Matamoros. Over the next year the military situation unraveled for Maximilian. In May 1867 Juárez’s troops captured Maximilian, and on June 19, 1867, he was executed on a hillside outside the city of Querétaro.
Maximilian’s death, combined with the fall of the Confederacy, marked an ebbing of the antidemocratic wave that began in Europe in 1848 and spread to North America in the 1860s. A victory by the French-Confederate alliance — a partnership that proved most successful in the contact zone along the Texas-Mexican border — would have been deeply ominous for development of republican government around the world. The dismemberment of the Union would have fatally undermined the republican experiment in the United States, a country that remains a democratic model for much of the world.
A victorious Confederacy would have served as a buffer against American intervention in French-occupied Mexico, and an important ally in Napoleon III’s effort to restore an anti-democratic monarchy on North American soil. By ordering the death of the Austrian prince, Juárez announced to the world that, however imperfectly, republican government would henceforth reign supreme in the nations located on both sides of the Rio Grande.
Patrick J. Kelly is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the author of “Creating a National Home: Culture, Politics and the Building of the Veterans’ Welfare State, 1865-1900.”
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