September 5, 1863 (Saturday)
For the most part, the Confederacy had long ago given up hope that either France or England would weigh in on their side. To be sure, England was still giving nominal aid through blockade running and a final attempt to build a few rams for the Rebels, but for the most part, the South knew they were on their own.1 That is, all but Kirby Smith, Confederate commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department.
Smith, however, had a slightly different angle, as was true with many things into which he threw himself. In writing to John Slidell, the Confederate envoy to France – the same envoy who was captured by Federal authorities in the early war – Smith focused upon Mexico. It might seem a bit of a stretch, contacting Slidell to talk to France about Mexico, but it was clearly worth the effort.
What did Mexico have to do with the Confederate Department of the Trans-Mississippi? For that matter, what did France have to do with either? To shorten the lengthy story, Mexico owed France a great deal of money. When they didn’t pay, France took action, landing with the British and Spanish on the shores of Mexico in early 1862. They fought a few battles, held a siege or two, and by this time, the crown was about to be offered to the Austrian Maximilian I, who would soon accept it at the prodding of Napoleon III.
How France and Mexico were to be concerned over the happenings in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, Kirby Smith explained in great and weirdly vague detail:
“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.”
Basically, Smith was threatening Mexico and thus France with the threat of the United States government. No, it wasn’t a very convincing argument in the 1860s, though perhaps he hoped that the Mexican War of the 1840s would still be fresh in their thoughts.
In his long letter to John Slidell, Smith brings up several key points. The land in his department had been utterly exhausted. The men had almost all joined or been conscripted into the army, all that remained were “the aged, the infirm, and the lukewarm.” The policy of the Union army was clearly one of conquest. They wanted all of the states under his command, but would hardly stop there. Now that they had taken the Mississippi River, they would control it, “with their southern and western frontier open for extension toward Mexico and the Pacific.”
As with many such letters written by Southern officers to their fellow aristocrats, the issue of slavery was sapped any hint of irony from the conversation. Among the typical accusations of barbarity, Smith argued 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.”
In closing, he gave the true reason for his plea – shipping and commerce – and made the French a tempting offer:
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 (since the loss of the Mississippi) 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.
Though Kirby Smith was bombastic, he did have some points, which he explained to President Jefferson Davis. Shipping and commerce were essential, of course, but the military state of affairs was in grave danger of collapsing. Smith admitted that he had painted the situation “in a gloomy light,” but warned that it “wasn’t a too exaggerated picture of what may occur.”
He brought up not only the Federal force under Frederick Steele that was drawing ever closer to Little Rock, Arkansas, but also James Blunt’s troops in Indian Territory [Oklahoma], and portions of Grant’s Army of the Tennessee that appeared to have designs upon Texas and Louisiana. He predicted that 100,000 Yankees could soon be brought to bear upon his department. He had but 30,000 men. What could he do?
Not only did he need men, but he needed arms as well. Richmond had tried, but ships had been seized at sea and weapons lost at Vicksburg. Though he had only 30,000 troops, he predicted that more would fall into the ranks if he had ways of arming them. “Sixty thousand rifles could, I believe, this moment be well disposed of throughout this department.”
While Smith waiting for something to happen, Union General Steele inched closer to Little Rock, and Confederate General Sterling Price tried to figure out how to stop him. In a letter to Price, Smith fell back on one of his old pet peeves. When he saw his armies, the one thing that always stuck in his crawl was how white men were working at teamsters and laborers. Wasn’t this what slaves were for?
“The urgency is immediate,” cautioned Smith, and urged Price to force the people to hand over their slaves. “The temper of the people is now favorable for such a step; there is a feeling of distrust in the loyalty of their slaves, and an anxiety to have the able-bodied males in the service of the Government; especially is this the case in the exposed portions of the country, and I think there large numbers could be obtained without difficulty.” If more slaves were doing the work that the white men were doing, “a large number of men would by this measure be added to the effective force in your district.”
This was hardly anything new. General Beauregard was saying the same thing in Charleston. But in a few weeks, Smith would make a very different and fairly controversial connection.2
- Incidentally, today is also the 150th anniversary of when the “Lair Rams,” built by private British shiprights for the Confederacy, were detained by Royal authorities before leaving England. However, I’m chose to continue the narrative rather than introduce that bit of drama. [↩]
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 22, Part 2, p993-995; Kirby Smith’s Confederacy by Robert L. Kerby. [↩]