The Most Perfect Anarchy: Confederates Imagine the Mexican Border

The Most Perfect Anarchy: Confederates Imagine the Mexican Border

This week, we share our first Field Dispatch by Maria Angela Diaz, an assistant professor of history at Utah State University. Her current book project is entitled Saving the Southern Empire: Territorial Expansion in the Gulf South and Latin America, 1845-1865.


When we think about Confederates and the Civil War we do not often think about the Southwest. We certainly never think about the Mexican border. However, the Civil War era was an incredibly important time in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and how Confederates imagined the border during the war pointed the way toward how Americans conducted themselves in that region after the war. Understanding how people in places like Civil War Texas thought about the border provides us with additional historical context that connects the Civil War to modern-day issues confronting those that live along the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as those who seek to impose their own ideas and policies on borderland communities. Historians’ recent emphasis on exploring the Civil War in the West, as well as its transnational context, gives us new ways to examine the conflict and learn even more about its long term effects. Then, as now, news media, politicians, and public figures used border violence to invoke nightmarish images of the people and places that made up the borderlands all the while willing to use the Mexican border’s porous nature to their benefit. Confederates were only one in a series of groups who did this. Before 1861 white southerners primarily viewed the border with fear, but the Civil War and the French invasion of Mexico made the border appealing to them in ways not entirely anticipated at the start of the conflict.[1]

Juan Cortina, a Mexican ranchero, politician, military leader, and voice for the disenfranchised on the U.S.-Mexico border. Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org.

Confederate Texans’ ideas about the border were grounded in the encounters between whites and Mexicans prior to the war. By 1859 the border began to solidify as the dividing line between two nations, yet outbreaks of violence along the Rio Grande still shaped how the region was depicted in public discourse. Events such as the Cortina War of 1859, in which a ranchero named Juan Cortina led Mexicans along the border in a fight against Anglos who had encroached on their lands and political rights, lingered in the minds of Texans the way that the Haitian Revolution stuck out in the minds of slaveholding Southerners throughout the Southern states. Anglo Texans viewed the U.S.-Mexico border as a hostile place filled with enemies who could use the border’s permeability and the perceived Mexican opposition to slavery as a way to infiltrate the cotton belt.

What was essentially border security popped up in Texas’ declaration of the causes of secession. Indeed the protection of slavery went hand-in-hand with asserting control of the border. The declaration of causes stated that the “Federal Government, while but partially under the control of these our unnatural and sectional enemies [the northern states], has for years almost entirely failed to protect the lives and property of the people of Texas against the Indian savages on our border, and more recently against the murderous forays of banditti from the neighboring territory of Mexico.” While it did not point directly to Juan Cortina by name he remained active in the borderlands, eventually invading Texas yet again later that year, ensuring that he remained a symbol of the “chaos” that an upending racial hierarchy might cause.[2]

Once the war commenced Confederates began to see the Rio Grande border as providing a host of possibilities that might actually help their cause rather than hinder it. The presence of the French in Mexico triggered a kind of reimagining of the border, and the small bordertown of Bagdad became a lifeline through which Confederates smuggled out cotton. Elites within the border region (both Mexican and Anglo) profited from the traffic in war cotton making its way across the border. Texas’s other borders became equally important as slaveowners, desperate to hold onto their slaves, forced them on marches that ended in the Lone Star State. For Confederate soldiers wearied by the war in West Texas the possibility of escape from the tedium and terror turned into desertion. In 1863, the Texas Almanac noted, with frustration, that the conscription act had caused many soldiers to opt for desertion and escape to Mexico rather than continue to fight. In the same year Captain W.W. Reynolds toured Texas’s frontier to assess its state, and proclaimed that the “most perfect anarchy prevails.” By 1864 roughly a quarter to half of the men serving in Texas Ranger units deserted. While it is not certain how many hid out in Mexico, the temptation was there.[3]

“Panorama of the Seat of War: Bird’s Eye View of Texas and Part of Mexico,” 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, white Southerners viewed the border as both a means of escape from what might be a vengeful Union, and as a space of continued upheaval. Similar to the ways that their slaves had once used it to gain freedom, they too rode for the Rio Grande, seeking safety in Mexico, which had been under French control since 1862. Anglos’ ideas about Mexico and Mexicans in places like Texas were also key to the Confederacy’s support of the French invasion of Mexico. Stretching back before the war, Anglos constructed images of Mexicans as enfeebled people due to the history of racial mixing within Mexico. With Benito Juarez, a brown-skinned, dark-haired man who took office as president of the Mexican nation in 1861 as the other option, the idea of an essentially white European-dominated empire was a palatable and even encouraging idea. Texas newspapers referred to Maximilian I, the emperor installed by Napoleon III, as presiding over a “mongrel race,” and the Houston Telegraph asserted that if Mexico was “left to her own people, alone, they will not be able to perpetuate the republic.”[4] Yet, with war continuing in Mexico between the forces of MaximilianI, and those loyal to Juarez, and with Confederate soldiers slipping across the river, the border continued to be defined by chaos for a United States now wanting to regain control of the borderlands.

In the past historians often divided the Civil War from these massive shifts in power on the continent and, more specifically, in the southwest borderlands. As more recent historians have observed, the path toward the war began in the various borderlands of the American South and southwest. In order to further recontextualize the origins of the war, its stakes, how it was fought, and how it ended we must continue to understand the impact of the borderlands on the American Civil War and vice versa. The fear and suspicion of the border and what lay beyond it has persisted into our own time, as has the necessity of a porous boundary. These ideas are directly connected to the trials and tribulations that borderland communities faced during the Civil War, and how Confederates imagined them.

 

[1] Don H. Doyle, The Cause of all Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 8-10, 299-304; Patrick J. Kelly, “The European Revolutions of 1848 and the Transnational Turn in Civil War History,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 4, no. 3 (September 2014): 431-443; Gregory P. Downs, “The Three Faces of Sovereignty: Governing Confederate, Mexican, and Indian Civil War Era Texas,” in Civil War Wests: Testing the Limits of the United States ed. Adam Arenson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 118-138.

[2] “Texas Items,” Houston Weekly Telegraph, January 4, 1860; Jerry D. Thompson, Cortina: Defending the Mexican Name in Texas History (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007), 150-152.

[3] George T. Diaz, Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling across the Rio Grande (Austin: University of Texas, 2015), 30-33; Texas Almanac, May 23, 1863; Glen Sample Ely, “Gone From Texas and Trading with the Enemy: New Perspectives on Civil War West,” The Southwestern Quarterly 110, no. 4 (April 2007): 438, 443, 450-453.

[4] The Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph, May 24, 1865; Doyle, Cause of All Nations, 301-306; Patrick J. Kelly, “The North American Crisis of the 1860s,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 2, no. 3 (November 2012): 337-368.

Maria Angela Diaz

Maria Angela Diaz is Assistant Professor of Nineteenth Century U.S. history at Utah State University. She graduated from the University of Florida with a PhD in American history in 2013. Her current book project is entitled Saving the Southern Empire: Territorial Expansion in the Gulf South and Latin America, 1845-1865.

One Reply to “The Most Perfect Anarchy: Confederates Imagine the Mexican Border”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *