Tex-Mex Border Economy In US Civil War, German Texan Socialists, Cortina, French Intervention and Cooking

Blockade Runner Advance

Blockade Runner the Advance

Tales From The Tex-Mex Border During the Time of the US Civil War and French Intervention in Mexico

This is an interesting but sort of obscure story of what might be the original Bagdad by the Sea. It was a port on the north coast of Mexico on the mouth of the Rio Grande river, near the city of Matamoros across the river from Brownsville. The region became a boom town during the American Civil War and was the original Bagdad by the Sea. Mexican Republicans allied with President Benito Juarez and the Conservatives aligned with the French backed Austrian Maximilian vied for control of the Mexican side and the Union and Confederate forces battled over the American side with some crossing over from one side to the other of the various parties. This is an example par excellence of a fluid border region and how international affairs can affect even the most remote seemingly insignificant places.

There is almost no anarchist connection here but I do have the German connection in Texas. On August 10 1862, Germans living in the hill country in Texas who opposed the Secession were massacred by Confederate troops while trying to escape to Mexico attempting to make their way to join the Union. Many of them were socialists who had left the various principalities that became Germany when the Revolution of 1848 failed. See the story below.

This is an excerpt from a short piece by Terry Hogan

Bagdad and the American Civil War

On November 3, 1863, the 91st Illinois Infantry became part of the North’s efforts to block the shipment of cotton across the Rio Grande. On that date, it arrived at Point Isabell, Texas, via the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. On November 6, the unit began moving across land from Point Isabell to Fort Brown at Brownsville, Texas on November 9. In the unit’s published Adjutant General’s Report, a brief mention is made of the report of French troops crossing the Rio Grande to support Confederate troops in battle with the 91st. The battle occurred near Bagdad on September 11, 1864. The report records:

“until the 11th day of September, 1864, when the Regiment had quite a fight with the rebels near Bagdad, on north side of Rio Grande River, and it was said at the time a squadron of French troops forded the Rio Grande to help the rebels, but all to no use, for they were driven back and over the old battle field of Palo Alto of 1846. Rebel loss, 20 killed and left on the field. Our loss, two wounded.”

This is a fascinating detail, French and Confederates battling together against Union troops on the border. What were the French doing there? Remember the French set up Maximilian as the Emperor of Mexico, taking advantage of the US being distracted by the Civil War. But then why did they join the Confederate forces? Well that is an interesting tale and that is what I propose to write about now.

French Cavalry in Mexico

French Heavy Cavalry in Mexico

The French intervention in Mexico was an invasion of the Republic of Mexico by the army of the Second French Empire in 1862. It resulted in the establishment of the Second Mexican Empire in 1864, which was supported by many conservative Mexicans, under the Austrian Maximilian I of Mexico. Although the Empire established control of the center of the country, the republicans held out in the North and South. With the end of the American Civil War, the USA lent its support to the republicans and put pressure on the French to withdraw in 1866. The Imperial forces fought on, but were defeated in a series of battles, with the republicans regaining control of the City of Mexico on 15 May 1867. Maximilian was captured and then executed on 19 June 1867. History records show that there were all in all 1,020 minor or major battles and sieges in the intervention

French Intervention in Mexico

French Intervention in Mexico: Battle of Puebla May 5, 1862 Mexican Victory celebrated as Cinco de Mayo

But the story, like most Civil War stories, is more complex than this. Neither the North nor the South wanted France in Mexico. Mexico didn’t want French troops in Mexico. There was even a trial balloon floated to create a cease fire between the North and the South so that they could join forces and fight the French in Mexico. Advocates of this plan hoped it would bind the American wounds by fighting a common enemy and bring an end to the American bloodletting. Obviously, this did not happen and the loss of life continued for a couple more years. In fact, the Rio Grande saw a battle between the North and the South occur over a month after Lee surrendered to Grant.


The Union forces repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to blockade or capture the Confederate access to the Mexican Port of Bagdad. Union forces would capture one location and the Confederates would find a new route, or recapture another. This went on up to the last battle of the Civil War.

This is from a site of Austin/San Antonio Civil War Antiquities

On May 13, 1865, more than a month after the surrender of Gen.Robert E. Lee, the last land action of the Civil War took place at Palmito Ranch near Brownsville. Early in the war the Union army had briefly occupied Brownsville but had been unable to hold the city. They established a base at Brazos Santiago on Brazos Island from which to blockade the Rio Grande and Brownsville. They were, however, unable to blockade the Mexican (and technically neutral) port of Bagdad, just below the river. The Confederates landed supplies at Bagdad and then transported them twenty-five miles inland to Matamoros to be shipped across the Rio Grande into Brownsville.

Palmito Ranch

Battle of Palmito Ranch, last battle of US Civil War


This is an excerpt from a book written by a participant during the Civil War.

Landing at Bagdad Mexico in 1864

From “Three Months in the Southern States” by Lieut. Col Freemantle – Published 1864

1st April. —Anchored at 8. 30 p. m. , three miles from the mouth of the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo del Norte, which is, I believe, its more correct name, in the midst of about seventy merchant vessels.

2d April. —The Texan and I left the Immortality, in her cutter, at 10 a. m. , and crossed the bar in fine style. The cutter was steered by Mr. Johnston, the master, and having a fair wind, we passed in like a flash of lightning, and landed at the miserable village of Bagdad, on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande.

The bar was luckily in capital order—3½ feet of water, and smooth. It is often impassable for ten or twelve days together: the depth of water varying from 2 to 5 feet. It is very dangerous, from the heavy surf and under-current; sharks also abound. Boats are frequently capsized in crossing it, and the Orlando, lost a man on it about a month ago.

Seventy vessels are constantly at anchor outside the bar; their cotton cargoes being brought to them, with very great delays, by two small steamers from Bagdad. These steamers draw only 3 feet of water, and realize an enormous profit.

Bagdad consists of a few miserable wooden shanties, which have sprang into existence since the war began. For an immense distance endless bales of cotton are to be seen.


Landing in Bagdad

Landing at Bagdad 1864

This tells you little about the port of Bagdad, but a lot about the hazards of getting there, and the fact that a lot of people seemed very interested in the place. I became interested in this piece of border history and I decided to dig a little further.

This is from an article called Bagdad

by Mike Cox

“It was a small village consisting of a few thatched-roof and mud-plastered jacales which served as the homes of ranchmen, fishermen and pilots for the few merchant ships that came to the port,” Teresa H. Clark Clearwater, daughter of the founder of Bagdad’s sister city [Clarksville], recalled years later.

Prior to the Mexican War, the nearest port to Matamoras, Mexico was Brazos Santiago, a small spit of sand just south of Padre Island. But when the Rio Grande became the undisputed U.S.-Mexico boundary in 1848, Mexico established a port on its side of the river’s mouth.

The last outpost of what could be called civilization on the 1,200 mile-long Rio Grande, Bagdad - located 50 miles downstream from Matamoras, Mexico - slumbered on what seemed like a never-ending siesta until the outbreak of the Civil War and the federal blockade of Southern ports.

Cotton, the economic life blood of Texas and the Confederacy, soon made its way to Bagdad by riverboat, ship or ox-drawn wagons. From the Mexican port, it could be shipped to Britain and other European markets.

As Clearwater put it, with cotton bringing a dollar a pound, Bagdad “grew to be a village of more than 20,000 souls,” many of them “refugees from the invaded Southern cities.”

Though technically in Mexico, Bagdad may as well have been in Texas. It had more southerners living in it than Mexicans. To add more spice to the mix, the town teemed with French sailors and soldiers [with the U.S. preoccupied, the Emperor Maximilian, aided by the French, had occupied Mexico] as well as men of other European nations.

Isolated and awash in money, Bagdad with its bars and brothels soon drew comparisons to the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and other famously sinful venues.

Map of mouth of Rio Grande

Mouth of Rio Grande with Bagdad

With stevedores and other working men bringing in $5 or more a day, and owners of skiffs and other vessels capable of hauling people or freight from the riverside docks to the ships lying at anchor in deeper water fetching up to $40 a day, money flowed through Bagdad with far greater volume than the Rio Grande.

Father Parisot [local priest in Brownsville], “The saloon and hotel keepers were reaping an abundant harvest. The Gulf, for three or four miles out, was literally a forest of masts. Ten stages were running daily from Matamoras to Bagdad.”

Melinda Rankin, a Presbyterian missionary who had been operating a school for girls in Matamoras, arrived in Bagdad in March 1863.

“It was not unfrequently the case that a hundred vessels were lying off the bar,” Rankin later wrote in her memoir, “Twenty Years Among the Mexicans.” “Not only were they discharging goods, but were receiving large quantities of cotton for foreign ports.”


The southern states were extremely low in many essential resources such as coal, gunpowder and their industrial production was limited, blockade runners and shipping through the Mexican port of Bagdad became essential source of supplies. Monterrey in Mexico became an industrial center in part because of the economic boost from supplying the Confederate war effort as the Confederate cotton, and other mostly raw materials flowed through Matamoros, wealth generated locally was used to develop fledgling industries in Monterrey to supply the South but also became the financial basis for further development of the Monterrey economy. (Haber, Stephen H. Industry and Underdevelopment: The Industrialization of Mexico, 1890-1940. P 81).

An example of how the American Civil War benefited Mexico business is the example of the Milmo family. This is from their corporate site The Milmo Group.

1845 - Patricio Milmo O’ Dowd left Ireland to come to America in pursuit of fortune.

1848 - He established the first banking agency in the north of Mexico under the name Casa Milmo with branch offices in Matamoros, Eagle Pass, Laredo, Texas and later Torreon.

1861 - Patricio Milmo married Miss Pudenciana Vidaurri daughter of General Santiago Vidaurri and Dona Juana Vidaurri, descendants of Vasquez Borrego, one of the founders of Laredo, Texas.

1862 - Patricio Milmo expanded his businesses to cotton, mining, transportation, steel production, cattle and sheep raising. He acquired several ranches and shares in the furniture factory “La industrial” and in the soap factory “La Esperanza” of Villa Lerdo. Also, he gained a partial interest
in the National Railway to transport his coal and became “coal partner” in La fundador steel company.

1863 - Patricio Milmo opened the Milmo Bank of Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico.

Don Patricio Milmo O'Dowd

Don Patricio Milmo O’Dowd (Patrick Mullins) Irish Mexican Businessman

The specific context is the expansion during the 1860’s, money made during the American Civil War was used to expand the family and corporate business interests. Gun powder, copper, tin, coffee and sugar was produced in Monterrey for sale to the Confederacy. Patricio Milmo having been established in the textile trade made many uniforms for the Confederate army and was one of the primary capitalists in Monterrey (Contreras, Joseph, In the Shadow of the Giant: The Americanization of Modern Mexico p. 191-192).

Milmo smartly moved to invest in the La Laguna, which became a major Mexican cotton growing region, after the cotton trade collapsed at the end of the Civil War in 1865, based in Parras, Coahulia and Laredo, Texas and was one of the few capitalists in Mexico with money to invest after the French were defeated in 1867. Milmo was among a few families that had made money in Matamoros and Monterrey from money lending, the cotton business and commerce (Mora-Torres, Juan, The Making of the Mexican Border: The State, Capitalism, and Society in Nuevo León, 1848-1910 P. 66-67)

Investing in the South during the war paid off for the lucky few. It provided the basis for large fortunes of families that still dominate in Mexico.

USS South Carolina off Galveston

USS South Carolina Blockades Galveston August 1861

This is from the Wikipedia article about blockade runners..

Prior to the actual battles of the war John Fraser & Company had already begun negotiations for steamship service between England and points along the southern coast of the Confederacy. Taking advantage of the fact that neither side was fully prepared for war Trenholm and his partners began shipping arms from Liverpool and New York to Charleston. The state of South Carolina was the buyer for these first shipments which in turn sold them to the Confederacy for a substantial profit.

Before war broke out military arms for the Confederacy were in short supply. There was also little gunpowder stored among the seceded states and the availability of fuses and percussion caps was also in very limited supply, the caps in the south amounting to only a half a million. There was no machine to produce them in any of the Confederate States. Powder supplies in Florida were so low that in April 1861 General John B. Grayson warned Jefferson Davis in Richmond:

“As sure as the sun rises, unless cannon powder, etc, be sent to Florida in the next
thirty days, she will fall into the hands of the North. Nothing human can prevent it.”

The same urgent demand for military ordnance and supplies was dispatched to Richmond from every military center throughout the south. Because of the incursions of the Union Army the Confederate navy was also in very short supply of coal, the only sources being located in North Carolina and Alabama.


Brownsville transport hub to Mexico

Confederates prepare to Evacuate Brownsville as Union Troops approach November 1863

This is from an article By Damon C. Sasser

The Doomed City of Bagdad, Mexico

In 1846, Clarksville sprang from a temporary U.S. Army camp used during the Mexican War. The town was named for William Clark, a civilian who established a country store and was an agent for the various steamship lines that used the small Texas port. During the early days of the Civil War, the town prospered on the trade of the Southern blockade-runners However, in 1863 the strategic port was captured by Union soldiers who held it until the end of the war.

Bagdad, Tamaulipas, Mexico was established in 1848 on the south bank of the mouth of the Río Grande. The port city was major player in the Civil War and of vital importance to the Confederacy in its struggle against the Union, even though few people realize it even existed. Suffering greatly under the Union blockade, the Southerners needed a way to get their valuable cotton crop to Europe where it commanded a high price.

By routing their cotton through Bagdad, the Southerners could keep a steady stream of revenue flowing. The Union dare not start a war with Mexico and did not want to interfere with their trade with the Europeans even though they were fully aware of how Southern cotton was getting to European buyers. Bagdad may as well have been in Texas. It had more Southerners living in it than Mexicans, many of them refugees from invaded Southern cities.

Cotton from East Texas and other parts of the South was transported across the Rio Grande to Bagdad. At Bagdad, the cotton was loaded on to shallow draft boats that carried the cotton to the mouth of the Rio Grande, which was choked with sand bars and shallow waters. Once there, the cotton bales were loaded on to waiting ships in the Gulf. It has been reported that as many as 300 foreign ships were anchored waiting for the South’s cash crop.

Until cotton times, Bagdad had been a deplorable collection of fishermen’s shanties. In just a few months, all this changed. To this town a motley group of the dregs of the world found their way in great numbers, augmented by the intermittent visits of soldiers from the French, Austrian, Belgian and Mexican armies. The town was filled with peddlers, gamblers, swindlers and smugglers, prostitutes and thieves.

Belgian Legion in Mexico

Belgian Legion in Mexico (from ‘history in 1/72 scale’ blog site, they have a nice batch of pictures)

Business was so good that simple laborers made up to $10.00 per day in cash and the owners of skiffs and lighters (small craft carrying cargo through the treacherous surf to large ocean going vessels anchored offshore) could demand upwards of $40.00 per day in pay.

The New York Herald described Bagdad as:

. . .an excrescence of the war. Here congregated . . . blockade runners, desperadoes, the vile of both sexes; adventurers . . . numberless groggeries and houses of worse fame. [Where the] decencies of civilized life were forgotten, and vice in its worst form held high carnival . . . while in the low, dirty looking buildings . . . were amassed millions [in] gold and silver.” A blockade runner once described Bagdad as a place where everyone was trying to grab what he could by using whatever scheme possible to make money out of crisis.


Father Parisot

In fact, Father P.F. Parisot wrote in his Reminiscences of a Texas Missionary, “The cosmopolitan city of Bagdad was a veritable Babel, a Babylon, a whirlpool of business, pleasure and sin.” The reverend was an Oblate priest who ministered to the citizens of south Texas during the 1850s – 1860s.

In 1865 Bagdad had over 200 structures inside a northward bend of the river. The port was large and it was not unusual to see over 100 vessels waiting offshore for entry to the harbor to deliver or load goods. In April of 1865, Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox ended the port’s usefulness. The next few years were very tumultuous for the city, with bandits, deserters from both armies and desperadoes roaming the area at will. Banks were not safe and most of the citizens hid their valuables close at hand.


Interesting details pop up on different sources along with repetitions of some of the same themes. This is from Wikipedia:

Camels in Texas

Camels in Texas

To speed up this process, the Confederacy decided to utilize camels, first brought to Texas at the recommendation of secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, in 1857. Each carried two bales of cotton to Matamoros where it was then unloaded and shipped on to Bagdad. The camel caravans would return to Camp Verde carrying six hundred pounds of salt from El Sal del Rey and Sal Vieja. The camels could carry twice the load of that of a mule. However, Brownsville citizens soon complained when some camels created havoc. The Brownsville Commission immediately enacted an ordinance prohibiting anyone from walking camels in the streets.

German Unionists Resist Confederate Conscription

German Unionist Resistance to Confederate Conscription

German Unionists and Socialists escape Texas To Mexico

Unionist Germans who did not want to join the Confederacy found that they were in trouble and fled south to Mexico, and Bagdad to find passage to the North by ship.

On 10 August 1862, Confederate soldiers massacred a band of German Texans along the Nueces River. The German population around Austin County, led by Paul Machemehl, was successful in reaching Mexico [from Wikipedia article about Texas in Civil War]. This is where my socialist tie in comes. Many socialists from Europe moved to Texas, as this excerpt below indicates.

From Texas’ History of Class Struggle (Part 1)

Written by David Harding

Several Texas communities were settled in part by European socialists. Under the influence of utopian ideas and often on the run from authorities for participation in the revolutions of 1848, these socialists sought the open land and relative political freedom of the American frontier.

French utopian socialist Étienne Cabet set up an “Icarian Colony,” or utopian socialist commune—one of several across the country—near Denton, TX in 1848. Socialists also settled in Bettina, Boerne, Castell, Cometa, Comfort, Justin, Leningen, La Reunion, and Sisterdale. Although many of these communes never entirely came together, some did last a couple of years. The rest collapsed during the Civil War under ruthless Confederate rule. In Comfort, TX, for example, after the Battle of the Nueces, Confederate soldiers executed utopians for insurrection and draft-dodging. Today Comfort has the only German-language Civil War monument, commemorating those socialists.

Along with the development of industry came the growth of the working class, and with it the ideas of socialism. Workers have been organizing and striking in Texas at least since the days of the Texas Republic (1836–46). In the fall of 1836, the Texas Typographical Association—the first union in the state—went on strike against Houston publishers and won a 25% wage increase.


From the Houston Institute for Culture there is this article excerpt.

Hin’ nach Texas! Off to Texas!

By Sheena Oommen

The ‘48ers, a scholarly, wealthy class of Germans, arrived in Texas amidst the German Revolutions of 1848. Some of these settlers, known as the Freethinkers, formed experimental colonies like the communistic town of Bettina. They were commonly atheistic or agnostic. Carl Postl’s glorified Texas in his 1841 novel The Cabin Book, although it is unclear whether Postl ever visited Texas. Frenchman Henri Castro’s pamphlets spread the word about Texas across Europe in the 1840s and aided in the colonization of Castroville. Although most German publications wrote favorably of Texas immigration, some opposition existed. Georg Franz wrote editorials questioning the lack of adequate preparation for the large, expensive endeavor over the Atlantic and into a strange territory.

“Their general aversion to slavery distinguished the Germans from their Anglo neighbors. Dr. Carl Adolph Douai, a Freethinker and editor of the San Antonio Zeitung, candidly criticized slavery in the newspaper.”

Interestingly Karl Marx’s brother-in-law was among those who settled in Texas as part of the move to the Hill country in the 1840’s. According to one article listed Karl Marx even considered moving to Texas himself and one of his major influences moved to Texas, Victor Considerant.

Victor Prospere Considerant

Victor Prospere Considerant

From a site called Labor History From Texans is this piece:

Socialism Settled in Texas

Socialism is nothing new in Texas, it has been here almost as long as in Europe.

A communistic society in Bettina, one of several, collapsed in 1848. Others lasted longer and made a more enduring mark in Texas history. During that period, several utopian communities were started. Comfort and Sisterdale in the Hill Country near Fredericksburg and La Reunion just outside Dallas were examples.

A leading European socialist, Victor Considerant, came to North Texas in 1853. Considerant had been an early influence on Karl Marx. He wrote Manifeste de la Democratie Pacifique in 1843 and Marx read it, as he read all of Considerant’s writings. Five years later, Marx co-authored The Communist Manifesto. Parts of the earlier work are covered without disagreement in the later one. Thus Considerant and Marx had broad agreement on their diagnosis of the ills of capitalism, even though they differed greatly on the prescription.

Considerant had been active in French politics. When Louis Bonaparte III became President, Considerant joined a rebellion against him. For that, he was driven into exile in Belgium. From there he came to the U.S. to meet with a co-thinker and famous American socialist, Albert Brisbane. They toured the country and ended up riding horseback into North Texas.

Considerant was what Marx termed a “utopian socialist.” He believed that capitalism could be coaxed into changing by providing good examples of functional socialist enterprises. His elaborate plans for experimental communities were tried in many places in Europe and America. They were not economically successful. However, many of the Europeans stayed even after their original settlements collapsed. They made great contributions in the sparsely settled areas where they finally raised their families.

In Texas, the Civil War put a final end to all of the communities. The slave-holding Confederacy could not tolerate the free thinking Europeans. A number of them were massacred at the “Battle of the Nueces” as they tried to escape conscription by fleeing from Comfort, Texas, to Mexico.

It has been suggested that Karl Marx himself once considered coming to Texas. Or, possibly, he only mentioned the idea as a ruse to throw authorities off his trail.

IF Marx Came to Texas

Imagine Karl Marx in Texas


This is from a Wikipedia article about Sisterdale, TX.

Sisterdale was settled in 1847 by German surveyor and free thinker Nicolaus Zink. Originally part of Comal, Sisterdale became part of Kendall County when the latter was formed in 1862.

Among the settlers were German pioneers Fritz and Betty Holekamp, geographer Ernst Kapp; Anhalt Premier progeny Baron Ottmar von Behr; journalist Dr. Carl Adolph Douai; August Siemering who later founded the San Antonio Express News; author, journalist and diplomat Dr. Julius Fröbel;future Wall Street financial wiz Gustav Theissen; and Baron Edgar von Westphalen, brother to Jenny von Westphalen who was married to Karl Marx.

This is from the Texas State Historical Society

On this day in 1862, Confederate soldiers attacked a force of Hill Country Unionists camped en route to Mexico beside the Nueces River in Kinney County. The skirmish is known as the battle of the Nueces. The sixty-odd Unionists, mostly German intellectuals, had camped without choosing a defensive position or posting a strong guard. Nineteen of them were killed and nine were wounded The wounded were executed by the Confederates later in the day. Two Confederates were killed and eighteen wounded. Of the Unionists who escaped from the battle, eight were killed on October 18 while trying to cross into Mexico. After the war the remains of the Unionists were gathered and interred at Comfort, where a monument commemorates them.


Harpers Story About Germans in Texas

Harper’s story about German Patriots

When Texas aligned itself with the Confederacy, Union loyalists were persecuted. Many German-American residents of the Hill Country, in particular, and other Union loyalists found it necessary to flee for their lives. Many of these Union loyalists made harrowing journeys through territory strange to them in the South Texas country. Matamoros was their destination, but their hope was to eventually make their way by sea, through Bagdad, back to the Northern States.

Texan Confederate residents of Brownsville were aware that Union loyalists were hiding in Matamoros. These refugees were chased and were not safe in Matamoros. Texan Confederates were free to roam Matamoros, a city where they enjoyed long-established and friendly relations with many of the locals, and they actively hunted Union loyalists.

This situation greatly concerned the U.S. Consulate in Matamoros, and he sent dispatches on behalf of the refugees, via ship, to Washington. There were numerous pleas imploring Washington to send a military naval vessel to Bagdad to provide safe passage. The consulate gave assurances that were this to occur these men would make loyal soldiers in the service of the Union.

The Naval Blockade of Southern ports took priority, however, and response was slow. A U.S. naval ship did eventually make its way to just north of Bagdad and a party of long-suffering German-American refugees were at last rescued.

The Consulate also complained bitterly in his dispatches about the cotton trade and implored Washington to find some way to stop it. But as Mexico was a neutral party, there was little Washington could do.




From the Wikipedia article on Matamoros

At the beginning of the American Civil War, the city of Matamoros was simply a sleepy little border town across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. It had, for several years, been considered a port, but it had relatively few ships arriving. Previous to the war, accounts mention that not over six ships entered the port each year. Nevertheless, in about four years, Matamoros, due to its proximity to Texas, was to assume state as a port, and multiply its inhabitants in number. Following is a quote from a Union General in 1885 describing the importance of the port in Matamoros:

“Matamoros is to the rebellion west of the Mississippi what New York is to the United States—its great commercial and financial center, feeding and clothing the rebellion, arming and equipping, furnishing it materials of war and a specie basis of circulation that has almost displaced Confederate paper…The entire Confederate Government is greatly sustained by resources from this port.”

Romantic View

Romantic view of Matamoros, ships that large may not have been able to get past the sand bars

The cotton trade brought together in Bagdad, Tamaulipas and Matamoros over 20,000 speculators from the Union and the Confederacy, England, France, and Germany. Bagdad had grown from a small, seashore town to a “full-pledge town.” The English-speaking population in the area by 1864 was so great that Matamoros even had a newspaper printed in English—it was called the Matamoros Morning Call. In addition, the port exported cotton to England and France, where millions of people needed it for their daily livelihood, and it was possible to receive fifty cents per pound in gold for cotton, when it cost about three cents in the Confederacy, “and much more money was received for it laid down in New York and European ports.” Other sources mention that the port of Matamoros traded with London, Havana, Belize, and New Orleans. The Matamoros and New York City trade agreement, however, continued throughout the war and until 1864, and it was considered “heavy and profitable.”

By 1865, Matamoros was described as a prosperous town of 30,000 people, and Lew Wallace informed General Ulysses S. Grant that neither Baltimore or New Orleans could compare itself to the growing commercial activity of Matamoros. Nevertheless, after the collapse of the Confederacy, “gloom, despondency, and despair” became evident in Matamoros—markets shut down, business almost ceased to exist, and ships were rarely seen. “For Sale” signs began to sprout up everywhere, and Matamoros returned to its role of a sleepy little border town across the Rio Grande.

Cortina’s War

The next piece is about the state of relations between Anglos and Mexicans on the eve of the American Civil War. Resentment remained over the results of the Mexican American War and as the story below indicates the Matamoros border region was in the heart of these tensions.

Juan Cortina

Juan Cortina Leader of Mexicans Unhappy with American Presence in Border Region Eve of Civil War

The US Army on the Mexican Border:A Historical Perspective
by Matt M. Matthews

According to Utley, “Mexicans of every station on both sides of the border hated the gringos for the Mexican War and for the oppression that followed.” Clendenen, on the other hand, wrote that “many Americans, with their point of view warped by the memories and myths of the recent war and the Texas rebellion, were fully convinced that all Mexicans were treacherous, undependable and cruel.”

This volatile state of affairs ignited on 13 July 1859 when Juan Nepomuceno Cortina shot and wounded the Brownsville city marshal who had beaten one of Cortina’s former employees…After gunning down the marshal, Cortina fled to Matamoros. By the time he arrived in Mexico, his violent encounter with the Anglo establishment had transformed him into a champion of oppressed Mexicans.

Cortina remained in seclusion for more than 2 months, but on 28 September, he raided Brownsville, murdering four men and liberating the Mexicans held in the local jail. After running roughshod over the terrified Anglo population for nearly 24 hours, prominent citizens in Matamoros, perhaps fearing American reprisals, persuaded Cortina to leave Brownsville. Late in the afternoon, Cortina, accompanied by approximately 80 men, headed north. To ensure the protection of American citizens in Brownsville, a Mexican militia force from Matamoros crossed the Rio Grande and occupied the vacant Fort Brown. It was a surprising turn of events indeed. A Mexican military force crossed over onto US soil and occupied a fort abandoned by the US Army to protect xenophobic American citizens from a vengeful Mexican insurgent

View from Fort Brown

Matamoros from Fort Brown

From Trouble along the Rio Grande: The First Cortina War
by Jeffery Robenalt

Alarmed by the continued chaos on the border, Governor Runnels ordered John Salmon “Rip” Ford to take control of the situation. The formal orders caught up with Ford on November 17. He was to assume overall command of the Rangers on the border. According to Governor Runnels, “The service required is to protect the western frontier against Cortina and his band and to arrest them if possible.

Fierce skirmishing on both sides of the Rio Grande continued unabated until early spring, with the Rangers crossing the border in pursuit of Cortina whenever the opportunity presented itself. Both sides suffered casualties, and property damage was extensive. However, the situation changed abruptly in April 1860. Texas elected a new governor, Sam Houston, and with the possibility of a civil war looming on the horizon, Houston ordered Ford to disband his Rangers and return to Austin.


Texas Ranger John Salmon Ford

Texas Ranger John Salmon Ford in Confederate Uniform was tasked to capture Cortina and failed.

More from Matthews book, interesting appearance of Robert E. Lee on the border.

In February 1860, Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee temporarily replaced Twiggs as the Commander of the Department of Texas. Lee arrived in Texas with two letters from the Secretary of War, granting him wide discretion in his dealings with the Mexicans. One letter authorized Lee to go “beyond the limits of the United States” in pursuing Cortina. The other letter authorized him to attack the “banditti” in Mexico if the Mexican military authorities failed to break up Cortina’s band. In March, Lee allowed about 200 soldiers and Rangers to cross into Mexico in search of Cortina. When the local military commander protested the incursion, Lee informed him that he “had been directed by the honorable Secretary of War . . . to notify the Mexican authorities that they must break up and disperse the bands of banditti concerned in the outrages. . . . I shall, therefore consider it my duty to hold them [the Mexican officials] responsible for its faithful performance.”

Lee in Texas

Robert E. Lee in Texas

Unfortunately, neither Lee nor the Mexican Government could do [much] to stop the continued raids across the border. According to James Arnold, “Lee concluded that Indians, Mexicans, and Americans would commit crimes when it could be done with impunity. He judged that it would require twenty thousand troops to defend adequately the region’s isolated ranches and small towns.”

General Sheridan Helps Mexicans Against French

After the Civil War General Grant sent General Sheridan to the Texas border to both intercept escaping Confederates and to aid the Mexican forces of Benito Juarez against the French and their Mexican allies.

Again from Matthews The US Army on the Mexican Border:A Historical Perspective

By the time Sheridan arrived at his headquarters in New Orleans, Confederate forces in Texas and Louisiana had already surrendered. Concerned that former Confederates were attempting to cross into Mexico, Sheridan ordered George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry division to Houston, Texas, and Wesley Merritt’s cavalry division to San Antonio in an effort to “make a strong showing of forces in Texas.”10 In combination with Custer’s and Merritt’s movements, an infantry division was sent to Galveston and another to Brazos Santiago. The IV Corps was ordered to Victoria, Texas, and a large portion of XXV Corps moved directly to Brownsville. “The object being,” Sheridan remarked, “to prevent, as far as possible, the escaping Confederates from joining Maximilian.

On 1 June, Sheridan arrived in Brownsville, determined, as he put it, “to impress the Imperialist, as much as possible, with the idea that we intended hostilities.”13 Without delay, Sheridan sent scouts and spies into northern Mexico and ordered his troops on the lower Rio Grande to brandish their warlike intentions. To further inflame imperialist angst, Sheridan demanded the return of Confederate munitions that ex-Confederates gave the Mexican imperialist commander at Matamoros. Not wanting to anger the Americans, the commander of Matamoros quickly complied with Sheridan’s demands. “These demands,” Sheridan recalled, “backed up as they were by such a formidable show of force, created much agitation and demoralization among the Imperial troops, and measures looking to the abandonment of northern Mexico were forthwith adopted by those in authority.”

By October 1865, Sheridan’s provocative maneuvers on the Rio Grande had produced the desired effects. “These reports and demonstrations,” Sheridan stated, “resulted in alarming the Imperialist so much that they withdrew the French and Austrian soldiers from Matamoras, and practically abandoned the whole of northern Mexico as far down as Monterey, with the exception of Matamoras where General [Tomas] Mejia continued to hold on with a garrison of renegade Mexicans.” With the withdrawal of most of the French and Austrian soldiers from northern Mexico, Sheridan began leaving large quantities of “condemned” small arms, ammunition, and other military supplies at various points along the American side of the Rio Grande. These supplies soon fell into the hands of Juarez’s liberal army.

Juarez symbol of resistance

Benito Juarez President and leader of Mexican Resistance to French Incursion

There is more, lots of details about battles between the French allied factions and the Juarez forces, Confederate and Union dealings with the various factions, then there is the Mexican American war and the Battle of Matamoros, also the Texan Independence war. There were filibusters that attempted to take over the city and even a post civil war US troop sack of the city involving Black soldiers. Ultimately Bagdad was destroyed by hurricanes, but it had fallen on hard times after the war boom years. I could do another whole blog, hell I could do a book on this fascinating area and it’s history.

General Sheridan

General Sheridan

“15 May 1866, Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman (Boise, ID), pg. 7?, col. 3:
GEN. SHERIDAN does not have a very exalted opinion of Texas as a place of resident. Said he lately, “If I owned hell and Texas, I would rent Texas and live at the other place.” In former times, before Texas was “re-annexed,” Texas and the other place were made to stand as opposites. Thus, when Col. Crockett was beaten in his Congressional district, he said to those who defeated him, “You may go to hell, and I’ll go to Tex!” which he did, and found a grave.”

My initial conclusion is that the border region is fascinating and the history is rich with constant crossing from one side to the other, the idea that the US and Mexico are separate, especially on the border is simply false. These cultures and histories are intermingled and always will be. The idea of building a wall to separate them is simply absurd and counter productive. Cultures thrive when they are in contact and freely become what they will be organically. Imposing barriers merely stems the tide and makes the eventual change all the more traumatic. As then Colonel Lee concluded it would take massive amounts of troops to secure the border, a task that is even less necessary today than it might have been then. The example of the time of Cortina is a case in point. He was Mexican raised on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, fought for Mexico in the Mexican American War and was tired of being mistreated by the arriving Yankees, but the Matamoros citizenry defended their brethren in Brownsville from his assaults when the US military was unable or unwilling. Brownsville and Matamoros had been the same municipal region before the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 caused a final separation as the Mexicans had claimed the river Nueces as the border not the Rio Grande upon Texan independence and there were still ties of family on both sides of the border, as there are to this day.


Last night August 9th I made a salad with toast. The salad was my usual romaine lettuce, with slice of chopped onion, a whole Roma tomato, a third of a bell pepper and a whole jalapeno pepper, with a dollop of humus, a whole small avocado, a dollop of sour cream, two fingers of sharp cheddar cheese cubed and wheat germ. On top I put my sesame dressing with apple cider vinegar, canola oil, sweet chili sauce, soy sauce, and a squeezed lime slice. I put some hot sauce and black pepper on top.
The toast was covered with peanut butter and vanilla yogurt. A fairly normal dinner but tasty and good.

This morning, Aug. 10th or I should say afternoon I had breakfast of two pork sausages, fried in canola oil with nopales, third of a bell pepper chopped up, a jalapeno chopped up, some soy sauce, cumin, turmeric, and basil, with a little powdered lemon grass, and two fried eggs over medium with some cilantro stems thrown in. On the side I chopped up a slice of onion, a Roma tomato, cilantro with the stems removed, and the remains of a package of Oaxaca cheese pulled into pieces. I heated in the microwave some basmati rice, fresh made moist style pinto beans and corn tortillas. I served with some hot sauce and black pepper thrown on top. This made a good breakfast but I think I would have preferred a salad tomato since it was uncooked, Roma tomatoes are better cooked unless they are really ripe.

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