History books tell us the American Civil War ended when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1965. But not quite. There was a sequel. A few thousand Confederates went south of the border to Mexico to continue the struggle.
They were supported to a degree by Mexico’s current ruler, Emperor Maximilian, who had been installed by European powers trying to collect their debts from Mexico. The French, above all, under Napoleon III, wanted to establish a presence in the Americas. Could all these forces somehow reverse the decision of the U.S. Civil War?
The fleeing Confederates, or rebels as they were called, had their hopes and some quality leaders like General Jo Shelby whose Iron Calvary Brigade had never known defeat. But they encountered an enemy of equal capacity, Indian leader Benito Juarez, who was determined to repel any invaders. While Maximilian urged Confederates to come to Mexico, the U.S. Government tried to stop them and sent arms to Juarez. There was fear of a revived Confederacy south of the border. General Shelby even considered seizing part of Mexico and setting up his own government.
Union General Philip Sheridan vigorously patrolled the border on the watch for straying Confederates, though they kept coming. Writes Andrew Rolle in his book “The Lost Cause”: “Many could not forget the smoke of battle, and some of the youngest, unable to settle down, thirsted for new excitement.” They yearned to restore the old South in its elegance and manners, though slavery was out – banned in Mexico.
Disease was as much an enemy as Juarez and sanitation nonexistent. Rolle notes the contradiction of “ladies, dressed in silken finery for some social occasion, picking their way through mud puddles in the middle of the night in order to reach an outside privy deep in a rain-drenched clump of canebrakes.” Adding to stress, robbery was frequent. The exiles also lacked energetic farmers to work the land and establish an enduing colony.
Many thought of going home but were deterred by harsh postwar reconstruction in the south. Yet soon they had no choice. Juarez’s forces defeated Maximilian’s and executed the emperor, ending Europe’s last grip on Mexico. In time, reconciliation was the word, and even the combative Shelby enjoyed a mellow return to postwar America. He was put to the test when he joined his old nemesis General Sheridan for dinner in Washington in 1882. Sheridan said one of his biggest disappointments was not to catch Shelby before he crossed the border and made trouble in Mexico. Shelby replied that he wished Sheridan had caught him. “We found it mighty lonesome over there for two years.”