Share This Article

The Civil War had not even ended when U.S. leaders began contemplating another war. A few days after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, Union General Ulysses S. Grant reportedly joked to a member of his staff, “Now, on to Mexico!” But was Grant really joking?

The United States and Mexico had fought each other two decades before —Grant was a part of that war— and diplomatic relations had not been completely normalized since. This time the fight would not be with Mexico but with Archduke Maximilian, the Austrian naval hero Napoleon III of France had installed as puppet emperor in April 1864; Mexico would only be the battleground. The United States had enjoyed good relations  with France since before the War of 1812. Many Americans still warmly regarded France as the ally in the American Revolution, and as the home of Lafayette, Alexis de Tocqueville and Victor Hugo. But that historic friendship was now in jeopardy.

Maximilian had reluctantly assumed power in Mexico City, even turning aside an initial overture by Mexican monarchists in 1861, but finally consented two years later. He would be backed principally by Napoleon III, who had been trying to establish a foothold for France on the other side of the Atlantic for several years and had sent thousands of his own troops to occupy large sections of Mexico. For the Lincoln administration, friendly with Mexican President Benito Juárez, Maximilian’s presence across the Rio Grande was troubling. It was also an affront to the Monroe Doctrine, which since 1823 had declared the Americas off-limits to European meddling. But until now the United States had never needed to back it up.

Opinion about the best course of action was divided. On one side was Secretary of State William Seward, who favored a low-key, diplomatic response. On the other were interventionists such as Grant, Phil Sheridan and even President Lincoln. A war at this point would serve two purposes, they maintained: The stated objective was to eject France from Mexico. Unstated was their belief that it would reunify North and South; finding a common enemy had worked to unite warring entities throughout history.

The idea of using a combined Union and Confederate army to unseat Maximilian occurred to leaders on both sides at about the same time. In January 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace suggested to Grant—who was still trying to find a way to get past Robert E. Lee into Richmond—that Confederates in Texas might be pried away from the Confederacy if they were offered a chance to invade Mexico and depose Maximilian—partnered with U.S. troops, of course. It seemed to be a win-win proposition: Texas would be spared the sort of crushing Union onslaught other Southern states had experienced, the Rio Grande border would be secured and an Old World colonial power would be sent packing. Members of Lincoln’s administration pressed him to broach the subject of a joint military operation when he met Confederate representatives at the Hampton Roads conference in February 1865. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens beat him to the punch, proposing the arrangement first. Lincoln rejected the scheme for his own reasons, but that did not mean it was completely dead. Lincoln just wanted to deal with one enemy and one war at a time.

Grant, meanwhile, had dispatched Wallace on a cloak-and-dagger mission to Texas to assess the border situation and meet with sympathetic Confederate officers. Wallace arranged a clandestine meeting with Brig. Gen. James Slaughter, commander of the Confederate eastern sub-district of Texas, and Colonel John S. “RIP” Ford to discuss what was euphemistically termed “the Mexican proposal,” or simply “the enterprise.” They met on March 9 under a flag of truce at Point Isabel, and Wallace found the Confederates surprisingly receptive to the idea of joint action, particularly Ford, whom Wallace called “the most politically influential Confederate soldier in Texas.” Unfortunately, Ford’s commander, General Edmund Kirby Smith, was in contact with Maximilian seeking diplomatic recognition and an alliance. Wallace’s scheme died when a few high-ranking Confederates shot it down. A month later Lee surrendered at Appomattox, for all practical purposes ending the war. General Joseph Johnston surrendered his Army of Tennessee two weeks later, leaving only Smith and his dilapidated Army of the Trans-Mississippi in the field.

While most in the North were focused in May 1865 on Lincoln’s assassination and the Grand Review of the Army in Washington, Grant dispatched Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan and 50,000 troops to the Rio Grande border on May 23, on the pretense that the Army of the Trans-Mississippi remained a threat (Smith surrendered on May 26). Grant, of course, was still looking for a way to force Maximilian and the French out of Mexico but had to do it without launching an official military action. The general-in-chief mused to Sheridan that plenty of arms had been left in Texas by soldiers of both sides, and if those arms happened to find their way into Juárez’s hands, so be it.

In the event of open conflict, Grant was not as concerned with the quixotic Maximilian and his unmotivated Mexican troops as he was with Marshal Achille Bazaine’s French regulars and the reported 2,000 Confederate refugees who had joined Maximilian’s cause. Bazaine was a professional who had arrived as a division commander and won his marshal’s baton in just two years, and some of his American allies were former Confederate general officers who had given Union forces fits for four years. But Sheridan was entirely confident he could handle that bunch if push came to shove.

In Texas, Sheridan stayed on his side of the Rio Grande but marched his men up and down the river in a show of force, trying to put the fear of Uncle Sam into French and Austrian hearts. He also dispatched agents into northern Mexico to gather intelligence and open secret communications with Juárez. At one point, Sheridan even ordered a pontoon train sent to Brownsville to trick Bazaine into thinking an invasion was imminent. The prospect of 50,000 battle-hardened American troops led by the hard-charging Sheridan no doubt got the French commander’s attention.

What Bazaine didn’t know was that most of Sheridan’s troops were fought out and ready to go home. Some of Maj. Gen. George Custer’s men openly refused to turn out on parade when they learned they might be going into combat again. That was part of the appeal of using a volunteer force of Union and former Confederate soldiers to eject Maximilian.

And Sheridan did not realize that while Grant was a warhawk on the Mexican question, he did not want it to be a United States war. Considerations of diplomacy and international good will required that any Americans going into Mexico must fight under the flag of the Republic of Mexico. Call them “volunteers” or call them “filibusteros” but don’t call them U.S. soldiers.

 While Sheridan tugged at his leash, Grant secretly authorized Wallace to begin recruiting volunteers for the Mexican enterprise. Wallace had already proved that, unlike Sheridan, he could get along with diehard Confederate officers. And, Grant figured, with thousands of unemployed veterans of the Blue and the Gray to choose from, Wallace would have no trouble collecting an army of freebooters. Wallace made his second trip to Texas in July 1865, intent on stirring up mischief on the Rio Grande. He managed to assemble a motley crew of soldiers at Brazos de Santiago, Texas, and hoped to attract a lot more. Sheridan was not much impressed with either Wallace or his efforts, and he said as much. “Their services are not required….I doubt if they can do much good,” he sniffed.

What Sheridan knew and Wallace was either unaware of or chose to ignore was that the crisis was fading without military action. Imperial forces had already pulled out of most of northern Mexico and would shortly be leaving all of Mexico. Meanwhile, Wallace was called back to Washington to head up the military commission trying Captain Henry Wirz, the “Beast of Andersonville.” He went, but his mind was still on Mexico, as he told his wife.

Even with Sheridan and Wallace in play, Grant advanced a third pawn: General John M. Schofield, who was on occupation duty in North Carolina in June 1865 when he received a top-secret communique from Grant. Schofield had not heard from Grant since the Vicksburg Campaign two years before. Now he was informed that the commanding general wanted him to lead a mixed force of American volunteers into Mexico against Maximilian. If Schofield was interested, he should immediately come to Washington “for consultation on the subject.” Schofield went, expecting to sit down with Grant and plan another grand Vicksburg-style operation. Instead, he found himself part of a high-level discussion not just with Grant but with Secretary of State Seward, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, President Andrew Johnson and Matías Romero, Juárez’s minister to the U.S. Johnson was the wild card in the deck. As president, Lincoln had been clear about wanting the French out of Mexico even if it meant using military force. Johnson, as Lincoln’s accidental successor and a Democrat surrounded by Radical Republicans, was hardly in a position to take the same kind of decisive action.

As the junior member of what amounted to a secret war council, Schofield let the others do most of the talking. But he agreed with the results: He was “to organize in Mexican territory an [American] army corps under commissions from the government of Mexico [with] the officers and soldiers to be taken from Union and Confederate forces.” He understood that men from both sides in the “Late Unpleasantness” were “eager to enlist in such an enterprise.” Once he had assembled his army in Texas and crossed the border, Juárez’s government would pay the troops and underwrite their operations—probably with the help of a covert loan from Washington.

Grant issued orders to Sheridan July 25, 1865, directing him to release all volunteers (cf. regulars) who wanted to join the “Mexican enterprise.” Sheridan was not to interfere with Schofield, who would arm and equip the volunteers with “surrendered ordnance and ordnance stores” that once belonged to the Confederacy. Grant’s orders were purposely vague, telling Sheridan “Schofield will explain to you the object more fully than I could do in the limits of a letter.” But he made it clear that Schofield had President John son’s full backing and that he would be recruiting ex-Confederates to his “standard.” Grant explained his own support for the scheme in blunt terms:

“It will be better to go to war now, when but little aid given to the Mexicans will settle the question, than to have in prospect a greater war, sure to come if delayed, until the [French empire in Mexico] is established.”

In November 1865, Grant also secretly authorized R. Clay Crawford, a Tennessean and unemployed former Confederate, to raise a company of filibusteros and invade Mexico. Grant never met with Crawford, depending on Wallace to make all the arrangements, and Wallace managed to convince Crawford that he had unlimited funds to bankroll the operation. First, however, Grant had to get Crawford out of a New Orleans jail where Sheridan had locked him up as a troublemaker. Crawford’s little band crossed the river from Port Isabel and attacked Bagdad, but the Imperialist garrison routed them, capturing 17. Crawford was among the lucky ones who escaped back to Texas, but when he learned that his men were to be executed, he regrouped and went back after them. This time they routed the garrison and started looting, which was more fun than fighting Imperialists. At this point, General Godfrey Weitzel, commander of the all-black XXV Corps, Department of Texas, and a subordinate of Sheridan, decided to enter the fray. He crossed to Bagdad, a town that, by any spelling, has never been good to the American Army, and led his U.S. Colored Troops into action. Whether they were protecting the people of Bagdad from Crawford or supporting Crawford against the Imperialists is not clear. When Sheridan in New Orleans learned of the affair, he ordered Weitzel back immediately to the Texas side. Weitzel brought Crawford with him under arrest, but a few days later the filibusteros conveniently escaped, and Maximilian was too busy trying to save his own skin at that point to create an international incident.

 Even as signs pointed to Maximilian’s fall, Sheridan—true to his nature—kept the pressure on. Late in 1866, he enlisted the help of one of his most trusted subordinates, Major Henry H. Young, a long-serving former infantryman from Powhattan, R.I. Young had spent the final year of the war as an undercover cavalry “ranger” and had gotten the better of vaunted Confederate cavalryman Col. John Singleton Mosby more than once during Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. Only 24, Young was asked by one of Juárez’s fighters to form a force of filibusteros and slip into Mexico to aid the Juaristas. While crossing the Rio Grande, Young’s band was hit hard by a combined force of Mexican imperialists and ex-Confederates, with the major and more than half his men killed or drowned. Sheridan seethed at the treachery of the former Rebels who took part in the ambush—the war was over, after all— but he did not try to send any more rangers to Juárez’s aid. And he was now more determined than ever to put an end to fugitive Rebels slipping across the border to join Maximilian.

But while the Americans schemed, the situation in Mexico resolved itself by the spring of 1867. During the winter of 1866-67, Napoleon III had been slowly withdrawing French troops from Mexico. He had finally pulled them all out by April, leaving Maximilian to fend for himself. Maximilian was finally caught after Mexico City fell on May 15, and was executed a month later.

Juárez was back in power, and with the French gone, the Mexican population in general no longer needed Yankees on their soil. Meanwhile, the firebrands on the American side were neutralized or sidetracked. Seward, who had never favored military action in the first place, sent Schofield off to Paris to negotiate a diplomatic solution. Wallace, now retired, found himself out of the loop when it came to international intrigues but with plenty of time to write his magnum opus, Ben-Hur. Grant, the Svengali who had been pulling the strings all along, became preoccupied with the politics of Reconstruction. The American army would stay on its side of the river until 1915, and the Rio Grande border would remain quiet until Mexicans turned the table and Pancho Villa invaded American soil in 1916.

In the end, nothing came of all the huffing and puffing in 1865-66. No one above department level in the Confederate chain of command ever favored the scheme; it was one of those desperate ploys that sounded plausible near the end of a long war, like arming the South’s slaves. Still, in the spring of 1865 the Mexican enterprise seemed almost unstoppable.


Richard Selcer is a professor of history at Weatherford College in Texas.

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.