william gwin invades mexico -- 8/1/22

Today's selection -- from Illusions of Empire by William S. Kiser. During the American Civil War, the U.S. citizen William Gwin tried to take over the Mexican state of Sonora:
"[Mexican governor] Ignacio Pesqueira had his hands full as the leader of Sonora. By 1863, his state had become a magnet for Confederate and U.S. agents seeking clan­destine arrangements in furtherance of their causes in the Civil War. Even though they suffered defeat on the battlefields of New Mexico, some Rebels still had not given up on their aspirations of acquiring northwestern Mexico, and numerous other threats remained. Despite American attempts to entice the regionalist statesman into treasonous acts, Pesqueira professed loyalty to the Mexican Republic and reiterated his patriotism in letters to Benito Juarez. The governor also informed his president that Indians, filibusters, and Frenchmen all posed immediate dangers to Mexican sovereignty in that part of the country. 'The war with the barbarous Apache makes its ravages felt in all the districts,' he lamented, noting that his soldiers remained on constant alert throughout Sonora. Pesqueira was also getting reports from California about looming Southern filibuster campaigns that might weaken his hold on power, and French conspirators were purportedly complicit in these external designs. Because he faced so many foreign enemies within his own state, Pesqueira had little to spare in the way of troops, arms, or cash to help Juarez fight imperialists elsewhere in Mexico. In neighboring Chihua­hua, Luis Terrazas reported much the same, telling the president on multiple occasions that he lacked the resources necessary to defend the capital and its hinterlands from American, French; and Apache threats. The porosity of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands continued to undercut state power, lending greater influence and autonomy to third-party actors seeking to capitalize on the transcontinental chaos wrought by the Civil War and the French Intervention.
"One of [the northern Mexico state of] Sonora's most pressing issues [during the American Civil War] involved the plotting of filibuster (pirate-like activity, literally 'freebooting') expeditions in California. An ostensibly free-soil state, it was barely carried by Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election because thousands of Southerners had immigrated there in the years leading up to the Civil War. In the early 1860s, those secessionists hatched multiple plans to take con­trol of Sonora. Most renowned among the California filibusters was William Gwin, believed to be an operative of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Orig­inally a lawyer from Mississippi, he rose to fortune through the Jacksonian spoils system, using a posh government appointment to profit from land sales in the Deep South following the removal of Chickasaw and Choctaw Indians in the 1830s. The wealthy slave owner moved to the Pacific Coast during the antebellum Gold Rush and served alongside John C. Fremont as one of California's first U.S. senators. An avowed agent of Manifest Destiny, Gwin built a reputation in Congress as a supporter of American expansion through territorial purchase, annexation, and even military conquest. With a personal background steeped in the proslavery ideology of Southern empire, the fifty-six-year-old politician winced at the fact that California remained in the Union and most of its troops wore blue uniforms.

William Gwin

"Gwin had already been eyeing northwest Mexico for geopolitical incorpo­ration into the United States for nearly a decade when the disruptive Civil War provided him with an opportunity to take independent action, free from the constraints of antislavery Northerners who opposed national expansion into Latin America. In November 1861, he was caught carrying secret documents that outlined a conspiracy to annex Baja California, Sonora, and Chihuahua to the Confederacy. General Edwin V. Sumner arrested Gwin for treason and conveyed him to New York City aboard the Pacific mail steamer Oriz­aba. President Lincoln eventually ordered Gwin's release from prison due to insufficient evidence for conviction, whereupon Gwin resumed his clandes­tine activities. Union soldiers occupied his Mississippi plantation in 1863 (just before the siege at Vicksburg), and later that year, as French imperialists cast their gaze toward northwest Mexico, he scored a meeting in Paris with Napo­leon III. 'If the northern boundary of Mexico is left in its present defenseless condition,' Gwin told the monarch, the U.S. government would likely encour­age its soldiers to colonize the region as a means of thwarting the imperial advance and preserving republican rule under Juarez. With an air of intrigue, Gwin tried to convince the French emperor that he must allow Southerners from California to settle in Sonora. Not only would such men profess loyalty to the regime, he argued, but they would also help defend the Mexican Empire from meddling U.S. operatives wishing to suppress monarchical rule.

"West Coast secessionists and their families had been fleeing through Mex­ico since the war began, some migrating as far to the southeast as Monter­rey, and Gwin hoped to concentrate them in a single state to pose a more formidable threat to Union operations. American capitalists -- many of them Californians -- already owned eighteen mining companies in Sonora and were producing millions of dollars in silver and copper ore, providing a potential funding source for Gwin and his followers. By June 1864, Gwin was en route back to Mexico 'to colonize Sonora with persons of Southern birth or pro­clivities,' and he carried a letter from the emperor 'warmly recommending his enterprise' to imperial commandants in Mexico City. John Slidell, the Confederate minister in Paris, felt confident that the project would bene­fit the Southern war effort, adding that French leaders 'fully examined and approved' the scheme. If all went as planned, according to Enrique A. Mejia, Sonora would become 'a barrier to any aggression of the United States . . . sufficiently formidable to resist all attempts against Maximilian.' An anony­mous newspaper correspondent reported that Gwin 'is not a man to fail' and predicted, with clear bias toward the Southern cause, that the colony would soon provide 'those who are tired of revolutions, and of mobocracies, and political corruptions' with a bright and hopeful future in Mexico. Gwin's col­onization represented the latest in a long line of filibustering operations dating back to the early 1850s. At the height of the Civil War, Southerners were still transfixed on these illusions of empire, seeking to create colonies on Mexican soil that would perpetuate the plantation aristocracy and create a pathway for the future territorial expansion of the Slave South.

"Gwin reached Mexico City in the summer of 1864 -- just as the new emperor arrived from Europe to claim his throne -- and easily enlisted the support of imperial Mexico's two leading officials, foreign minister Marquis Charles Francois Frederic de Montholon and commander in chief Marshal Prancois Achille Bazaine. Both men saw Gwin's plan as a logical step for­ward for the Mexican Empire in two respects. First, it would fulfill the French desire to populate the country with industrious foreign immigrants boasting experience in mining and agriculture. Second, Napoleon III, Montholon, and Bazaine all believed that Sonora's fabled mineral wealth, if properly exploited, could help to replenish the French treasury. After Maximilian I accepted the appointment to rule Mexico, he agreed to terms in the Treaty of Miramar that included gradual payment of 270 million francs (roughly $3 billion in 2020) to Napoleon III in recompense for the costs incurred during the French military invasion and subsequent occupation. Sonoran mining seemed like one of the surest ways to repay this astronomical sum in a reasonable period of time, and the French monarch bluntly told Maximilian that Gwin 'is the man best able to be of service in the Sonora area.' But Maximilian proved unenthusiastic about the idea and rejected his benefactor's advice. Besides his general lack of trust in Gwin, the Mexican ruler sensed that a permanent settlement of seces­sionists near the border would undermine the legitimacy of his regime and prompt a hostile response from the United States.

"Ignoring the Mexican emperor and acting instead on the blessings of Montholon and Bazaine, Gwin approached Pesqueira with an idea to estab­lish the 'Dukedom of Sonora; a pro-French colony of American immigrants who supported slavery and espoused the Confederate cause. Having experi­enced these types of schemes before -- most notably Henry Crabbs expedi­tion in 1857 -- the Sonora governor must have been stunned when a designing foreigner actually asked permission to act as a filibuster, but he flatly refused Gwins gesture and reiterated his allegiance to the Mexican Republic under Juárez. If nothing else, Pesqueira was consistent in his deflection of Ameri­cans who sought power and control over his state, because Gwin's entreaties elicited the same negative response as those of Colonel James Reily in 1862 and Major David Fergusson in 1863. After decades of unsavory experiences involv­ing American aggression, Mexicans could scarcely have mistaken the irony in these jingoistic plans. Confederate secretary of state Judah Benjamin and his diplomatic agents repeatedly assured foreign counterparts that the South would protect Mexican territory from Yankee aggression. But zealous South­ern expansionists also posed a direct threat to Mexico's territorial sovereignty, and few men understood this better than governors in the border states.

"Back in Washington, D.C., charge d'affaires Matías Romero continuously apprised military officers and even President Lincoln of Gwin's plan to attract 'all the discontents of this country' to northern Mexlco. The State Depart­ment also received updates from William Corwin, who replaced his father Thomas as foreign minister to Mexico in April 1864. From his station in Mexico City, the younger Corwin wrote that 'the great majority of the Mexi­cans are decidedly opposed to this scheme of Immigration' owing largely to their lingering fears of American filibustering. Secretary of State William Seward feared that secessionists, with French assistance, would use a colonial foothold in northwest Mexico as the staging ground to invade and capture southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico, and he denounced Gwin as 'a menace against the United States.' At Seward's insistence, U.S. envoy to France John Bigelow confronted Minister of Foreign Affairs Edouard Drouyn de Lhuys in Paris, explaining that American agents had captured secret cor­respondence proving Napoleon Ill's complicity in Gwin's scheming. Bigelow warned the French diplomat that the United States looked upon this collu­sion as an act of hostility and would pursue countermeasures if necessary. Drouyn de Lhuys took umbrage at Bigelow's threatening tone, denied the authenticity of the incriminating letters, and explained in vague terms that France remained committed to neutrality, all while dodging the bigger ques­tion about Sonora colonization."

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William S. Kiser


Illusions of Empire


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2022 University of Pennsylvania Press


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