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Lost causes: Confederates and the Emperor Maxmiliano

23 February 2022

Ashley, let’s run away. We’d go to Mexico. We could be so happy there. I’d work for you, I’d do anything for you.

(Scarlett O’Hara, “Gone With The Wind”)

When the American Civil War broke out, England and France — both countries having a thriving clothing industry — welcomed the conflict, hoping to profit from a Confederate victory, creating a weak nation (or perhaps several weak nations, if the Confederacy, with it’s prickly “states rights” attitude broke up into a series of smaller republics) dependent on agricultural exports.  However, this would have entailed a naval invasion, and the Union had one powerful ally… Russia.  The Russian fleet was sent to guard Union ports, and, the total cock-up of the Crimean War fresh in the minds of the Russians, the British and the French, any such plans were quickly scrapped.  

Which did not mean the Confederates did not continue to pin their hopes on foreign assistance.  Nor that the European empires didn’t hope to profit from the Civil War.

Napoleon III had gambled that a protracted war in the United States would give his army the sufficient time to establish Maximiliano on the Mexican throne without interference from the United States.  Not only would this give France a strong position in the growing market for manufactured goods and financial services in Latin America, it would also give France control of Mexican raw materials… specifically gold and silver.

So, of course, Maximilio’s foreign policy … dictated by the French occupation force… favored the Confederacy.  By the spring of 1865, the French, Maximiliano, and the Confederates were having to rethink their positions.  Well, maybe not Maximiliano, not certain southern gentlemen who neverlet facts get in the way of  own obtuse fantasies of imperial splendor and racial supremacy.

When Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomadox (9 April 1865), there were still other armies in the field, mostly in the west. Among those who had yet to surrender was General Jo Shelby:

On June 1, 1865, with his army disintegrating around him, he determined to take as many of his men as would go to Mexico to continue the war.  With a few hundred well-disciplined and orderly men, with all their cannons, arms, and ammunition, he marched from Corsicana through Waco, Austin, and San Antonio to Eagle Pass.  Prominent persons joined them along the way.  While crossing the Rio Grande at Piedras Negras, they sank their Confederate guidon in the river, in what came to be known as the “Grave of the Confederacy Incident”. 


Shelby’s rag-tag force was, at most, reluctantly welcome.  Forced to “sell” their artillery and equipment to the first soldiers they met (Juarez’ Republican fighters), about 600 of them would be reluctantly mustered into the imperial forces as an auxillary unit,  see action in a few engagements, but nothing significant in what the beginning of a long withdrawal by the French.

Not only Shelby, but other prominent Confederate military officers , like John B. (Jeb) Magruder, James Slaugher, Sterling Price, and Edmund Kirby Smith, had made the same decision to offer their services to Maximilaino.  Although it may have been they hoped to market their military skills, perhaps more importantly, as traitors to their country, following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination less than a week after Lee’s surrender (15 April 1865), they had little to expect but malice towards them, and no charity at all. 

Likewise, there was one prominent Confederate who at least had more to offer than a few defeated regiments:  Matthew Fontaine Maury.    Maury had been a United States naval officer at the time, but had chosen — unwisely — to join the Confederate Navy when his native Virginia left the union.  In addition to working as a spy and diplomat, Maury had invented numerous weapons, including new torpedoes and underwater explosives. At the end of the war, he was in London, working both as a diplomat seeking British support, and overseeing the construction of Confederate war ships and arms production.  Given his importanceto the now lost cause, he had every expectation that returning home would mean trial and execution.  Failing to interest either the British or Swedish navies in his services, he turned to  the one foreign admiral he knew who was in a position to help:  Maximiliano. 

One of Max’s … perhaps his only … talent had been in reorganizing the administration of the small Austrian Imperial Navy.  Maury, among his several medals and awards for his contributions to oceanography, had been highly honored by then Prince Admiral von Hapsburg. 

And — one might add — as a “southern gentleman” Maury shared the plantation owner class’ pretension to membership in some sort of international aristocracy.  Although Maximiliano was initially more interested in having Maury oversee port modernization and the Mexican merchant fleet, he also believed not just in the natural superiority of his kind, but — typical of the 19th century elites — believed that progress in the Americas depended on “whitening” the population through immigration.  Marshall Bazaine, the real power in Mexico (he headed the French military forces, the only people who put — and could keep — Maximiliano on his throne), while not particularly awed by aristocrats (he was a “soldier’s soldier”, having come up through the ranks, most of his service in the definitely not-elite French Foreign Legion), he had the same outlook, estimating that somewhere between 50 and 60,000 “white” migrants would be needed to pacify the country (in other words, subdue the native indigenous people and mestizos). 

Despite the emperor’s claim to be upholding indigenous rights and privileges (such as they were), he accepted Maury’s proposal to promote emigration by the former secessionists to Mexico.  This nicely dove-tailed into the fever dreams of those from the old plantation class (like Maury) who saw themselves in the model of Europe’s landed aristocracy, both Maury and Bazaine got part of what they wanted.

Bazaine’s proposal led to an offer of 50 dollars in gold and free land to any U.S. immigrant.  Maury, in a rather deluded attempt to return to the ways of the “old South” had asked for too much, but got something.  He tried to get around the one thing that could not be recreated in a “New Virginia”…  slavery. Instead, he got Maximilano to sign off on “apprenticeship” for those former slaves accompaning their former masters. A new name for an old concept … indentured servitude. “Apprentices” would serve 10 years without pay in return for a promise of a plot of land at the end, and maybe some limited rights.  To no one’s surprise, former slaves didn’t take up the offer, and, those Confederate migrants who tried to make a go farming with “apprentices”, had to look, mostly unsuccessfully, for Chinese laborers. 

As it was, despite Maximilano’s financing (and, remember, the Mexican treasury had been emptied out to remodel Chapultepec Castle and some incidentals, like paying the French Army), Maury was expected to settle a string of “white” colonies in Mexico.  Widely advertised (even in the northern states) he never found many takers, despite the generous terms (cheap land, tax breaks and the like). The offer of 50 dollars and a plot of land, was not much of an incentive to the old aristocratic southern gentlemen, but appealed more to landless, unemployed, and often illiterate and uneducated people with no other prospects.  Some of whom would join the Republican side, most of whom would eventually give up and return home, or simply be assimilated into those very communities they were meant to “whiten” into the future.  

By the time the project got going, it was obvious to anyone who read the news that the Empire was doomed, and there were no guarantees the Republic would honor the contracts.  Even newspapers that leaned towards supporting the Empire were full of stories about “Republican banditos” attacking Europeans.  Still, Maury and the old self-identified aristocrats were at pains to present their “colonies” (notably “New Virginia” or “Colonia Carlota”) in the best possible light. 

… accustomed to framing themselves as white in opposition to US blacks, the Southerners in Mexico had to reconstruct their whiteness in opposition to non-white Mexican neighbors. At the same time, they shaped an exocticied form of whiteness for their “Spanish” neighbors in order to prove to their friends and family in the United States that Mexico was a sufficiently civilized place.

Maximilian had placed the promotion of immigration as a cornerstone of his government’s policy, and the Confederates were a convenient source of immigrants. Maximilian offered key Confederates positions in his own government to facilitate immigration and gave land grants at cheap prices for the immigrants.

(Kinney, “Leaving the United States for the Land of Liberty”)

Despite glowing reports sent back (or at least hopeful ones) by John Newman Edwards… who’d arrived with Shelby, and was the acknowledged “founding father” of New Virginia., of his sizable land grant, “the garden spot of all that I have seen in the continent of America”, and was even publishing an English language newspaper, the Mexican Times.

By 1866 — only a year into the colonization project, Maury had already skipped back to England — and Edwards was aware that that trouble was brewing.

Edwards claimed — spitting in the wind — that “I do not apprehend any difficulty with the United State”. Something likely to be questioned not just by the Mexican republicans who were winning their asymmetical war against the French (what sympathetic US newspapers of the day tried to write off as “bandito attacks”) but a dubious proposition to a fe gringos, likeGenerals Sherman, Sheridan, and Grant. They used the plausible excuse of pacifying Confederate resisters in Texas, to openly supply the Mexican republican with both seized Confederate, and surplus Union Army and equipment.

And worse for the “colonists”: Napoleon III, sensing a growing threat from Prussia and unwilling to invest any more in the gamble in Mexico, pulled his support and his army. Within less than a year, it was over. Maximilano was executed (19 June 1867), New Virginia and the other scattered small “colonies” were all but abandoned, their lands soon expropriated by the restored republic. They were, to coin a phrase, gone with the wind.

Maury, like other Confederate leaders… willing to take an oath to never take arms against the United States again, returned home, Some like Shelby and Sterling Price would become living symbols of the “lost cause”, while the disgraced politicians among them would resume careers in the “Jim Crow” post-reconstuction era. John Newman Edwards, his short career as a land baron and owner of the “Mexican Times” behind him, would emigrate to Kansas City, founding the Kansas City Times, and making a name for himself as the spokesman for Jesse James. Matthew Fontaine Maury would become a professor at the University of Virginia, his statue among the heroes of the Confederacy in Richmond, mentioning him only as a pioneering oceanographer. It was removed in 2020.


Kinney, Emily Rose, “Leaving the United States for the ‘Land of Liberty’: Postbellum
Confederates in Mexico
” (MA Thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 2011)

Corbin, Diana Fontaine Maury. A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury. London: Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1888. on-line reprint

Drynan, “The Confederate ‘Invasion’ of Mexico,” El Oja del Lago” (September 2017).

Frazier, Donal S. Review of Davis, Edwin Adams, Fallen Guidon: The Saga of Confederate General Jo Shelby’s March to Mexico. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. February, 1996. URL:

Hanna, A.J., The Role of Matthew Fontaine Maury in the Mexican Empire. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography Vol. 55, No. 2 (Apr., 1947), pp. 105-125 (21 pages) Published by: Virginia Historical Society

Hulsey, Terry, “Confederates in Mexico” Abberyville Institute (24 July 2018).

Leatherwood, Art. “Shelby ExpeditionHandbook of Texas, 1952, 2015.

Lewis, Charles Lee. Matthew Fontaine Maury: The Pathfinder of the Seas (United States Naval Institute, 1927) Project Guttenberg).

Sherman, William Tecumseh. Letter to to John Sherman, November 7, 1866, in The Sherman Letters:
Correspondence between General and Senator Sherman from 1837 to 1891
, ed. Rachel Sherman Thorndike (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1894), 285-6.

New York Times, November 12, 1865, page 8

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