Bagdad – Back Door to the Confederacy

by Fred Ray on September 15, 2014 · 0 comments

In my reply to Spengler I noted the difficulties of making a land link with Mexico to supply the Confederacy. After doing a bit more research I found that there really was a land link, although subject to all the difficulties I mentioned.

When the Union blockade went into effect Southern cotton became both scarce and valuable, making it worthwhile to go to considerable lengths to smuggle it out. Soon after the outbreak of the war the port of Bagdad, or the port of Matamoros, assumed great importance. Established in 1848, it was on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande at its mouth, some 65 miles downstream of Matamoros. Nothing much happened there because there wasn’t much of a harbor – the water was shallow and filled with sand bars, making navigation treacherous even for shallow draft vessels. Ocean-going ships had to stand miles off shore and have cargo off- and on-loaded to lighters. When the war began, however, its proximity to the Confederacy made it a very attractive place, and the sleepy fishing port soon bustled with activity. If you wanted Southern cotton it was the only neutral unblockaded port where it could be had in quantity.

Bagdad, whose population eventually reached 20,000 souls, was where the money was and soon became a typical boom town full of speculators, hustlers, gamblers, prostitutes and anyone looking for a fast buck. At one point some three hundred ships from all over Europe were anchored there waiting to load cotton. This might be a lengthy wait – it could take up to three months to take on a full cargo, given the vicissitudes of weather and current, not to mention political and business uncertainties. Still, it was worth the risk and difficulties because the cotton could be sold for a small fortune to the mills of Europe.

The trade also provided desperately needed hard currency for the Confederacy and served as the port of entry for people and supplies of all kinds. While its location just across the border solved the problem of transportation through Mexico, it did nothing for moving goods through Texas and the rest of the South. As I mentioned in the previous post, there were less than 900 miles of railroad in Texas, none of which ran to the southern border or connected with railways further east. Cotton, mostly from east Texas and southwest Arkansas, had to be hauled overland by cart or freight wagon thorough rather desolate territory, which severely limited quantities. The Confederacy tried camels, but found the plan unworkable. Goods had to go first to Matamoros and then down the river to Bagdad, a lengthy and dangerous journey, and of course return the same way.

Then there was the political situation. Even though the French were ostensibly in charge they proved unable to exercise effective control – much of the time the port was under the sway of various warlords and bandit chieftains, who took a hefty slice of the action, not to mention the Juaristas. You would think that if the French were in on some nefarious sort of plot to support the Confederacy they’d have done a better job of it, but it simply confirmed their rather tenuous hold on the Mexican countryside. Napoleon III was interested in Texas – enough to worry Lincoln – but proved singularly inept in exploiting the crisis. In plain terms, the French emperor had bitten off far more than he was ever able to chew, much less swallow. Had he been more adept at the game the rich income from the cotton trade might have gone far to pay for his Mexican venture.

All this naturally attracted the attention of the United States, which was not happy about an open cotton port so near its borders. Matters came to a head in February, 1862, when a US Navy warship seized a British cotton vessel off Bagdad and claimed it as a blockade prize. Both the British and French dispatched warships to investigate, but neither side really wanted a fight (Lincoln’s policy was “one war at a time”) and the matter was settled with a series of conciliatory messages. The Americans backed down and agreed to respect the port’s neutrality, and there was no further interference.

One of the more amusing sidelights is that a substantial part of the cotton went to mills in the North via New York. Ever on the lookout for a lucrative business opportunity, merchants in the Big Apple sent ships to Bagdad using a variety of ruses and sold the cotton domestically for a substantial profit.

While the “back door to the Confederacy” did provide badly needed materiel (most of which stayed in the Trans-Mississippi) and money to the hard-pressed South, it was a trickle rather than a flood – the transportation obstacles were just too daunting. By way of comparison, historians estimate that some 320,00 bales of cotton were exported during the entire war from Bagdad. This is certainly a substantial amount (especially at wartime prices), but compare it to prewar Mobile, which shipped 685,00 bales in 1859 alone.

Bagdad did not long survive the war. Ship traffic evaporated with the surrender of the Confederacy, and three years later a hurricane severely damaged the town. By 1880 it was abandoned. Another hurricane a few years later wiped out anything that was left, and today it is an isolated stretch of beach much like it was in the 1830s.

Further reading: Waters of Discord: The Union Blockade of Texas During the Civil War by Rodman L. Underwood



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Sharpshooter Shorts

by Fred Ray on September 10, 2014 · 0 comments

Couple of short sharpshooter items. First from Berry Benson, South Carolina sharpshooter and scout;

To each brigade in Jackson’s corps, – and also, I believe, in all of the corps of Lee’s army – was attached a body of sharpshooters; men picked from their regiments, not merely for skill in marksmanship, but also as best fitted for the most arduous and dangerous service. About one man in twenty was chosen. The Sharpshooters were held in honor; somewhat, I imagine, as were the Old Guard of Napoleon. Each battalion wore its own badge on the arm; ours was a green stripe – over it a red star.

The following extract from my diary was written in quarters at Petersburg, in the winter of 1864.

“Under command of Capt. Dunlop, McGowan’s Sharpshooters, a battalion consisting originally of 160 men, but continually depleted by losses in battle, took, in the campaign of 1864, by actual count, 830 prisoners.”

And from Charles Usherwood’s Service Journal regarding the siege of Balaklava:

16 Oct l854 From the 2nd till the 16 Oct, the troops before Sebastopol worked with energy constructing batteries and entrenchments, repulsing sorties by night and skirmishes by day, scarcely ever taking off their clothes to rest, being as they were constantly on the alert for any attack which the enemy might make whom to speak well of lacked nothing in defending their position.

In order to assist the operations more fully the Commander in Chief adopted a voluntary measure consisting of sharpshooters of 10 men from each Regiment of the various Divisions, to be under charge of 1 Captain and 2 Subs and one Non Comd Officer from each corps, with directions that each man should select the spot that suits him best, and be guided only in that choice upon the cover it may give him of an effectual fire on the embrasures, Captain Bright of the 19th Foot having charge of the sharpshooters from the Light Division.


24 Oct 1854 In General orders of today when fresh meat is issued the ration to be 1 lb each man, and in the same orders the number of sharpshooters were desired to be augmented, while too as an encouragement to the men to collect the shots that were thrown by the enemy, owing to the scarcity of these missiles in the British magazines, a payment of 4 pence for each small shot, and 6 pence for those of larger size was authorized to be paid to any soldier or seaman carrying the same to the camp of the Royal Artillery near the Light Division.

And a look a the NRA’s new National Sporting Arms Museum in Springfield. MO.

Not only the 100th anniversary of World War I but the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812′s Battle of Baltimore-which produced the “Star Spangled Banner”-and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battles to capture Richmond and Atlanta are being remembered this year. But one anniversary has (not surprisingly) gone mostly unnoticed by the mainstream media: the 200th birthday, in July, of gunmaker Samuel Colt.

Colt’s innovative early revolving pistols and John Browning’s semiautomatic Colt M1911 – the official sidearm of the U.S. military for seven decades and still considered one of the best handguns in the world-played important roles in U.S. history. And one of the best collections of Colt revolvers and M1911s is at the National Rifle Association’s National Sporting Arms Museum in the Bass Pro Shops’ flagship store here.

How true. Few men changed history like Colt. As the saying goes – “God made men, but Sam Colt made ‘em equal.”



Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!

What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.

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Reply to Spengler

by Fred Ray September 5, 2014

David P. Goldman is something of a polymath – scholar, investment banker, musicologist, and pundit. In the latter capacity, under the handle Spengler, he has written on a variety of subjects, including the Civil War. There, unfortunately, he comes off as being rather uninformed. Indeed one is tempted to use the characterization of Noam Chomsky […]

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Index for the Supplement to the Official Records

by Brett Schulte September 1, 2014

Several year ago I posted on Broadfoot Publishing’s hard to find set Supplement to the Official Records.  In that post, I linked to a very detailed index of the set, but when I went to click on the link recently, the site the index is on had exceeded its bandwidth.  In an effort to give this […]

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Short Takes

by Fred Ray August 29, 2014

Most students of the Civil War have at least heard of Clement Vallandigham, an Ohio lawyer who served in Congress and stood for governor of Ohio during the Civil War. Vallandigham was a prominent Copperhead Democrat who advocated a peaceful solution to the bloodshed, and was arrested, convicted by a military court martial, and eventually […]

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Some Nice Period Rifles On The Block

by Fred Ray August 21, 2014

Three very nice Civil War era rifles up for auction, but you’d better have some extra cash as I think all their estimates are rather low. Nevertheless these are fine examples of the British arms used by both sides but the more so by the Confederacy. However, none of these have any actual connection to […]

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Sheridan’s Ride…The Other One

by Brett Schulte August 11, 2014

Mention “Sheridan’s Ride” to a Civil War buff and they’ll inevitably think of Sheridan furiously riding the ten miles back to his retreating army at the Battle of Cedar Creek on October 19, 1864, rallying his army and saving the day.  It’s what I thought of when I ran across a poem entitled “Sheridan’s Ride” […]

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