EXCERPT: The Southern Exodus to Mexico

9780803246348-JacketGray.inddAn excerpt from The Southern Exodus to Mexico: Migration across the Borderlands after the American Civil War (March 2015) by Todd W. Wahlstrom, new in the Borderlands and Transcultural Studies Series.


Isham G. Harris left for Mexico with a price on his head. As the former Confederate governor of Tennessee, Harris fled the country after the American Civil War. In mid-June 1865, “with my baggage, cooking utensils and provisions on a pack mule,” he wrote, “I set out for San Antonio, where I expected to overtake a large number of Confederate, civil and military officers, en route to Mexico.” He was too late. Having missed that group of Confederate migrants, he decided to head for Eagle Pass, Texas, which he reached “on the evening of the 30th, and immediately crossed over to the Mexican town of Piedras Negras.” The next morning he set out for Monterrey, Mexico, the meeting ground for Confederate exiles crossing the border away from Reconstruction.1

Harris was among the vanguard of white southerners who migrated to Mexico after the Civil War, one of the elite Confederates who composed the leadership of the southern migration movement and helped establish the first Confederate colony in Mexico. These Confederate officers were vital to defining southern colonization in the post–Civil War era. Indeed, the planning largely sprang from another top-ranking Confederate—Matthew Fontaine Maury, a renowned scientist and Confederate naval officer who came to the helm of this initiative. For Maury, Mexico represented an enticing opportunity for white southerners in the post–Civil War world. His fellow white countrymen could escape from U.S. Republican rule and make a fresh economic start by taking advantage of Mexico’s agricultural resources. These migrants were expected to contribute their farming skills and a labor force—especially their former slaves—to stimulate the Mexican economy through commercial agriculture. In return, they would secure a prosperous postemancipation life after their lifestyle predicated on slavery had vanished.

Important as these Confederate leaders were to southern colonization, they were ultimately not the backbone of the southern exodus to Mexico. Instead, they were soon eclipsed by a swell of enterprising white southerners of lesser socioeconomic standing. As Harris described, “Mexico presents the finest field that I have ever seen.”2 Thousands agreed with him—approximately five thousand white and black southerners migrated to Mexico from 1865 to the early 1870s. This population shift, while seemingly small, had the potential to substantially reconfigure the sparsely settled northern Mexican borderlands, a region reduced over the previous decades by Comanche and Apache raiding.3 Common white southern migrants (in economic and social terms) came to define southern colonization along lines that both supported the social and political outlook of the leadership and moved it in new directions.

While undertones of racial supremacy helped impel common white southern migrants across the border, the bulk of them were attracted more by the geographic and economic promise of Mexico. That is, more-average white migrants may have harbored a white supremacist perspective that coincided with the attitudes of the leaders of colonization, but they were not as driven by the fear of persecution and “Black Republican” rule. In seeking out Mexico, most migrants prioritized the transborder economic possibilities of the postwar era, even while sharing in the racialized prism that was central to the American South, and the United States, during the nineteenth century.4 They represent a key layer in redefining the dimensions of southern migration to Mexico after the Civil War, shifting away from an existing interpretation that views southern colonization only as an attempt to resurrect antebellum plantations on Mexican soil.

Southern colonization in Mexico began at the end of the Civil War but was actually embedded in a preexisting web of international power struggles. By the 1850s Napoleon III of France, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, plotted to establish a monarchy in Mexico in hope of advancing other monarchies in Spanish America and thereby strengthen France’s political and economic power on the world stage while brushing back U.S. influence and expansion. Napoleon III searched in earnest for an appropriate monarch to lead the imperial Mexican nation. Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph eventually accepted this position, landing in Mexico at the end of May 1864. The arrival of Emperor Maximilian von Hapsburg coincided with the French army successively gaining control over much of Mexico.5

Napoleon III came to see southern immigration as a key component of these imperial designs for Latin America, especially the idea of building the population base and establishing commercial outlets to the American South. By 1865 Emperor Maximilian had issued several decrees to make public lands ready for the anticipated influx of immigrants and had established a commission on immigration. These were the initial steps toward opening an extensive colonization enterprise.

In the summer of 1865 Emperor Maximilian teamed up with Matthew Fontaine Maury to formally launch a colonization initiative in Mexico with the goal of attracting white southerners from the failed Confederate States of America. Maximilian sponsored southern colonization as a means to establish control over the country and invigorate the Mexican economy, and he subsequently appointed Maury the imperial commissioner of colonization. Maury proved to be the key facilitator of an enterprise that promised to aid his fellow white southerners while contributing to the rise of the Mexican Empire.6

Past studies about the migration of Confederates to Mexico after the American Civil War have emphasized the movement’s inherent flaws and concluded that their attempts to resurrect an Old South in Mexico were doomed from the start. As historian Andrew Rolle has claimed, “The exodus was striking for its futility, the depth of delusion of its participants, and the inevitability of its failure.”7 Such arguments, however, ignore the degree of planning that went into colonization and the scope of the vision behind it. The colonization plans coalesced around firm ideas about how to develop agriculture, industry, railroads, and markets within advantageous geographical surroundings. The initial plans also included a very specific proposal to use former slaves as the main labor force in order to make these visions a reality. This “intriguing episode” had the potential to reshape the Mexican economy and put the American South on an entirely different course of Reconstruction, one not solely bent on Lost Cause delusions.8

  1. [Isham G. Harris], “The Rebels in Mexico: Interesting Letter from Ex- governor Isham G. Harris, of Tennessee,” New York Herald, December 18, 1865, Proquest Civil War Era, 1 (quotes); Elliott, Isham Harris of Tennessee, 182–86.
  2. [Harris], “Rebels in Mexico,” 1.
  3. For two recent studies that reveal the impact of raiding on northern Mex- ico, see DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts; and Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire.
  4. For an account that underscores the ways in which white supremacy and reconciliation based on racial exclusion provided the common bond to reunite northern and southern whites after the Civil War, see Blight, Race and Reunion.
  5. For an overview of the French intervention in Mexico and the reasons be- hind it, see Cunningham, Mexico and the Foreign Policy of Napoleon III; Wasser- man, Everyday Life and Politics, 112–16; Ridley, Maximilian and Juárez; Hanna and Hanna, Napoleon III and Mexico; Corti, Maximilian and Charlotte of Mexico.
  1. Ridley, Maximilian and Juárez, 102–10, 121–31, 158–75; Hanna and Hanna, Napoleon III and Mexico, xiii–xv, 7, 85–89, 108–9, 133–35; Hanna and Hanna, “Im- migration Movement of the Intervention.”
  1. Rolle, Lost Cause, 211. Similarly, William C. Davis concludes, “The Confed- erates failed due to their own inabilities, illusions, and poor adaptability to the wild country in which they settled.” Davis, “Confederate Exiles,” 43.
  2. Robert C. Black III supports Rolle’s conclusion when he writes that “the Confederate hegira to Mexico was no more than an intriguing episode in the disintegration of the southern effort at independence, of no lasting importance to the South, to Mexico, or to the emigrants themselves.” Black, “Review of The Lost Cause,” 702. A recent study of ex-Confederate Charles Swett’s journey to Brit- ish Honduras recounts the existing interpretation of Confederate migration to Latin America after the Civil War. The authors frame the movement to Mexico as an effort by “diehard ‘Chivalrics,’” politicians, and other Confederate elites who were engaged in a doomed enterprise from the star See Strom and Weav- er, Confederates in the Tropics, 23–25, quote on 23.

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