The Union Blockade and Mexico—Part 1

We are excited to welcome guest author Caroline Davis. Caroline is a graduate of Ball State University with a BA in History and minors in Political Science and Philosophy. She currently is finishing her second internship at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. In the fall she plans on attending Georgia State University, where she will enter the Masters in Historical Preservation Program, with a concentration in Public History.

Part I


The Civil War has been closely studied for so many years and by so many different people that perhaps one of the hardest tasks when writing about the War Between the States is finding a new angle –a fresh look at an old topic. Two years ago I wrote a generic essay about the effects of the Union Blockade on the Civil War. Throughout all my research I found only one article that mentioned the relationship between the Confederacy and Mexico. It was not until later that the lack of information about trade along the Texas-Mexico border struck me as odd. But I had found my fresh look at an old topic.

President Abraham Lincoln quickly established the Union Blockade of the confederate coastline after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861. The blockade – a key Union strategy – hampered the Confederacy in several ways. Most significantly, it cut off the Confederacy’s trans-Atlantic supply lines and limited trade on cotton, the South’s most important export. It wasn’t long before the effects of the blockade spilled over the Texas-Mexico border. Prior to the American Civil War, Mexico struggled to maintain a stable economy after a civil war of its own. Due to Mexico’s economical situation and proximity to the US, the Union Blockade would have a much different effect on it than on other fronts in the international market.

As the war raged on and the Confederates suffered on both the home and war fronts, they waited with unprecedented high hopes to see what global repercussions the blockade would cause.  Confederate president Jefferson Davis thought that the consumer hindrance caused by the blockade would force England and France to come to the Confederates’ aid. However, by 1863 it was clear the anticipated world wide “cotton famine” was not going to spur the South to victory over their northern enemy. Egypt and India soon dominated the cotton market and even developed new fabrics as substitutes. Although a shortage of cotton and other southern exports may have made things difficult for those across the Atlantic, it did not bring them stumbling to the Confederacy’s door. And as the demand for cotton fell, so did the hope that cotton would be the South’s saving grace.

Maximilian I
Maximilian I 

One area of the Confederacy that is vastly overlooked by historians is the state of Texas. Many Texans fought for the Confederacy, but unlike soldiers from other states such as, Virginia and Georgia, little fighting was seen back home.  Of the five battles fought in Texas, four were fought in or near the port of Galveston and all were located along the coast. Using the Brazos River as a dividing line, the majority of East Texas felt the effects of the blockade much like the rest of the confederacy though West Texas did not. Miniscule in comparison to pre-war activity, trade along the Texas-Mexico border remained open for the majority of the war; a slow trickle of supplies flowed into the Confederacy and a small amount of cotton was exported. Trade routes in West Texas were known as the “Matamoros Trade.”

Small towns located along the Rio Grande moved cotton supplies across the river to Mexico. From there, the cotton journeyed to an outlying coastal port and onto ships bound for England or other European nations. Author Thomas Schoonover describes the role Mexico played in the American Civil War when he writes, “…the United States Civil War, for its entire tragic course north of the Rio Grande, was apparently to have a beneficial effect upon the Mexican economy in several aspects.”[i] Mexico was in a state of anarchy during the years leading up to the Union Blockade. The increase in trade between the US and Mexico after 1860 helped alleviate the political tension. The two countries had never before enjoyed lucrative trade relations because tensions were still strained from their fighting between 1846 and 1848. After that conflict, Mexico’s leadership went through multiple hands. For example, Mexican civilians saw ten different presidents between the years 1848 and 1858. Eventually, conflicts between conservative and liberal parties erupted into the war known today as the Mexican Reform War. Traditionally, the Mexican Reform War is considered to have ended in 1860 when the conservative military forces surrendered; however, guerrilla warfare continued for many years. The conservative party would go on to conspire with the French government to install the European prince Maximillian I as emperor of Mexico following the French Intervention. Mexico was weak and vulnerable at the time, which allowed for the French invasion to take place – under the pretense that Mexico was indebted to France. In order for Mexico to improve its failing economy, it decided to take advantage of the trading opportunities presented by the Confederacy.


By February 1862, trade operations across the Texas-Mexican border were strained because troops from the North were guarding the mouth of the Rio Grande. The unwelcome Union troops made things difficult for the Confederates, but the limited trade between Texas and Mexico continued and the Matamoros Trade went uninterrupted during the first few years of the war. The Union could do very little to stop goods that were transported to the Mexican coastline by way of the Rio Grande at an inland location, despite having slowed trade along the Texas shoreline. The Rio Grande had been deemed neutral territory open to citizens from both countries in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, making it virtually impossible for the Union to block all Confederate trade via Matamoros.[ii]

[i]  Thomas Schoonover. “Mexican Cotton and The American Civil War” The Americas, Vol. 30 No.4 (April. 1974) 429-447.

[ii] James W. Daddysman. The Matamoros Trade: Confederate Commerce, Diplomacy, and Intrigue. (Newark: University of Delaware, 1984.)  16

4 Responses to The Union Blockade and Mexico—Part 1

    1. The main substitute that would have been developed by Egypt, would have actually been developed in the 1820’s. However it isn’t until the American Civil War when the product actually takes off. The new fabric is known today as Egyptian Cotton, though in the 1800’s it had been called “Moha” a name given to it by Mohammad Ali. The fabric is still made of cotton, but is of higher quality than what Europe was use to importing from the United States prior to the civil war.

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