By this month, French forces had invaded Mexico due to non-payment of debts owed to France. French Emperor Napoleon III installed Maximilian I of Austria as the new Mexican emperor under a French protectorate. The Lincoln administration opposed this move because European powers interfering in the affairs of Western Hemisphere nations violated the U.S. foreign policy as stated in the Monroe Doctrine. But with war raging against the Confederacy, there was little the administration could do about it.
Napoleon had hinted at recognizing Confederate independence in the past, and as such, the Confederacy tried to cultivate friendly relations with France. The Confederates also hoped that a French-controlled Mexico would facilitate the passage of much-needed imports into Texas.
Lieutenant-General Edmund Kirby Smith, who commanded the Confederate Trans-Mississippi Department that included Texas, hoped to offset the loss of the Mississippi River (and thus his access to goods from the east) by negotiating an arrangement with the French. He wrote John Slidell, the former Confederate envoy to France:
“The action of the French in Mexico and the erection of an empire under their auspices makes the establishment of the Confederacy the policy of the French Government. The condition of the States west of the Mississippi, separated from the General Government, at Richmond; the exhausted state of the country, with its fighting population in the armies east of the Mississippi; the vast preparations making by the enemy to complete the occupation and subjugation of this whole Western Department, are all matters which, if properly brought before the French Emperor, should influence him in hastening the intervention of his good services in our behalf. This succor must come speedily, or it will be too late. Without assistance from abroad or an extraordinary interposition of Providence, less than twelve months will see this fair country irretrievably lost, and the French protectorate in Mexico will find a hostile power established on their frontier, of exhaustless resources and great military strength, impelled by revenge and the traditional policy of its Government to overthrow all foreign influences on the American continent.”
According to Smith, if the French were going to colonize Mexico, it would be in their best interests to have the Confederacy neighboring them to the north because the U.S. would be hostile toward their presence. Therefore, it only stood to reason that Napoleon should recognize Confederate independence and aid the Davis administration in its war against the U.S.
Smith stressed that France had to act quickly, because his department had only “the aged, the infirm, and the lukewarm” left to stop the growing number of Federal forces. He warned that without France’s help, the Federals would control the Mississippi “with their southern and western frontier open for extension toward Mexico and the Pacific.”
Smith declared that “the forced impressment of our slaves into their army, to wage a ruthless war against their masters, all in the name of humanity call for the interposition of those powers who really hold the destiny of our country in their hands.” He concluded:
“The intervention of the French Government can alone save Mexico from having on its border a grasping, haughty, and imperious neighbor. If the policy of the Emperor looks to an intervention in our affairs, he should take immediate military possession of the east bank of the Rio Grande, and open to us the only channel by which supplies and munitions of war can be introduced into the department. The whole cotton trade west of the Mississippi will thus be secured to the French market, and the enemy will be anticipated in making a lodgment on the Rio Grande, from which he could not be driven without great difficulty.”
Smith then wrote President Jefferson Davis explaining that he had called on Slidell to negotiate with Napoleon on his department’s behalf. Smith conceded that he cast the department “in a gloomy light,” but it “wasn’t a too exaggerated picture of what may occur.” Federals were expanding their control over Louisiana and beginning to threaten the Texas coast. They were also threatening Fort Smith and Little Rock, two of the most important points in Arkansas.
Smith had only 30,000 effectives in his department, but he told Davis that more might be encouraged to enlist if he had weapons to give them. He wrote, “Sixty thousand rifles could, I believe, this moment be well disposed of throughout this department.”
But Davis had no such arms to send Smith, and Napoleon ultimately refused to recognize the Confederacy.
- Kerby, Robert L., Kirby Smith’s Confederacy: The Trans-Mississippi South, 1863-1865. University of Alabama Press, 1991.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 22, Part 2. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.