Bagdad – Back Door to the Confederacy

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


6 responses to “Bagdad – Back Door to the Confederacy”

  1. Phil Leigh Avatar

    This is a good article. However, I wish to clarify a modest error, partly for accuracy and partly because it is a good story-within-a-story.

    The British ship captured in February 1862, was not caught off Bagdad. It was captured in the Danish West Indies, but was bound for Matamoros (Bagdad). Ironically it was first boarded by the *USS Alabama* and its seizure was ordered by Admiral Wilkes who was the same guy who captured the *Trent* thereby igniting the first British-USA diplomatic crisis.

    The name of the ship was *Peterhof*and a New York prize court ruled it a prize of the US Navy. She was armed and put into service as a blockading vessel but in March 1864 was sunk by a Union warship that mistook her for a blockade runner.

    After the War the US Supreme Court ruled that the seizure of *Peterhof* was illegal thereby overruling the wartime New York prize court.

    There is a considerable discussion of Bagdad, Brownsville, and Matamoros, in my new book *Trading With the Enemy*, which is about intersectional trade during the Civil War. Fortunes were made in the Rio Grande trade. One beneficiary was a Charles Stillman who became the largest shareholder in New York’s National City Bank, known today as Citicorp. His great-grandson was Board Chairman of Citibank. Two of his daughters married into the Rockefeller family.

  2. Fred Ray Avatar

    Thanks for your comment and addition, Phil, but I was referring to a different incident, in which the US sloop-of-war Portsmouth seized the British ship Labuan at the mouth of the Rio Grande. The British then dispatched the warship Phaeton (and the French the steamer-of-war Berthoullet) to investigate. The matter was eventually settled amicably.

    A more serious incident occurred at the end of April, 1862, when an American warship attempted to intercept Mexican-flagged lighters servicing the ships offshore. The USS Montgomery was confronted by the Phaeton, which threatened to “run out his guns” on it. Once again the Americans backed down.

    Thanks for mentioning the Peterhof, which I had not heard of.

  3. Phil Leigh Avatar

    Yes, I see you are correct.

    They both happened in the same month and I was anxious to tell a good (true) story.

  4. Donna Avatar

    I am writing a historical fiction book and read the post you made earlier about Southern cotton getting to New York through Mexico (Bagdad). I’ve found other information that in the early stage of the war (1861-62) Lincoln issued cotton broker permits thru. two New York lobbyist–Thurlow Weed and Hanson Risley, because of the economic impact the North would feel if thousands of mills closed. Do you know by what route this cotton would’ve taken since it was–in all respects–legal trade? Do you know how long this continued? I don’t think Lincoln allowed it for any length of time, since prohibited arms and ammo. was soon finding its way into the deal. And if a Southern politician, say a Quartermaster (fictional) got one of these permits, how would he get paid? Directly from the Union? And would he have to follow the cotton to market? Thanks for any help you can offer.

  5. Fred Ray Avatar

    Donna, I would suggest you read Philip Leigh’s new book Trading With The Enemy, which covers the topic in some detail, as well as the book I mentioned in the post. It’s a sorry tale of sin and corruption that went all the way to the top, and I should think rich fodder for the novelist. Also see my review of The London Confederates.

  6. Phil Leigh Avatar
    Phil Leigh

    Thanks for the recommendation, Fred.

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