South of the Border: Ulysses S. Grant and the French Intervention

By Hardy, William E. | Civil War History, March 2008 | Go to article overview

South of the Border: Ulysses S. Grant and the French Intervention


Hardy, William E., Civil War History


As the fifth year of the U.S. Civil War dawned, all indications pointed to the immediate collapse of the Confederacy. At seventy-three years of age, the veteran Jacksonian Democrat Francis P. Blair Sr. whose political ties stretched across party lines, was eager to play an instrumental role not only in arranging a peace between the North and South but also in devising a plan to oust the French army of occupation from Mexico. Having received a pass from President Abraham Lincoln to cross Union lines, Blair met with Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Richmond on January 12, 1865. Blair suggested that Davis lead a joint expedition of Union and Confederate forces to liberate Mexico. Blair's plan had two purposes. First, the Union and Confederate governments could achieve peace and unite in common victory. Second, the principles of the Monroe Doctrine would be upheld. Davis was receptive to the idea of peace talks and a joint military venture but expressed doubts about the nation's ability to mount such a campaign. Lincoln, whose only interest in the elder statesman's mission was to gauge the despondency of the rebel leader, rejected Blair's Mexican scheme as a viable option to end the war. (1)

Nevertheless, the idea of a war with France to preserve the Monroe Doctrine and restore peace between the North and South lingered. In the summer of 1865, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant took up the issue and devised a scheme to expel the French from Mexico. Although recent studies of Grant illuminate his active role in policymaking to protect blacks, Unionists, and army personnel from the hands of vengeful southerners as well as his efforts to preserve the North's victory during Reconstruction, Grant's actions in regard to the French intervention in Mexico remain understudied. (2) Following the cessation of hostilities in April 1865, Grant directed his attention southward to the U.S. border with Mexico along the Rio Grande River. With the Americans entangled in a civil war, French emperor Napoleon III had established a colonial empire in Mexico in 1862. Under the pretense of collecting debts owed by the Mexican government, France, along with Britain and Spain, ordered a few units to land on Mexican soil as a show of force. But the British and Spanish severed their joint operation with the French when they discovered that Napoleon sought to establish a monarchy in the "New World." Grant was eager to enlist a seasoned army of Union soldiers to aid Mexican president Benito Juarez and his liberal anti-French forces, otherwise known as the Juaristas, in toppling Napoleon's puppet regime headed by Austrian prince Ferdinand Maximilian. Acutely aware that Secretary of State William H. Seward opposed U.S. military intervention, Grant sought to undermine Seward's course of diplomacy with the French government by issuing secret orders to the army to prepare for war. He kept his commander in chief and the secretary of state in the dark about his motives in increasing the number of American soldiers near the Texas-Mexican border to fifty thousand and placing the bellicose Maj. Gen. Phillip Sheridan in command of this army. Grant's Mexican policy escalated tensions between the U.S. and French governments and threatened to embroil a nation already devastated by war in another war, this one with a major European power.

Was Grant willing to take the risk, on the heels of the most costly conflict in the nation's history, to expel a European power on Mexican soil that he believed posed an immediate threat to national security or was he merely trying to bluff the French into withdrawing from Mexico? Publicly, Grant revealed little. As in all matters related to Reconstruction and political office, Grant retained an inner circle that included his wife; his most ardent political supporter, Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, his staff; and a few generals whose friendship he cherished. However, when journalist John Russell Young posed the question of the French occupation of Mexico to Grant during a world tour following his presidency, the war hero turned politician replied, "No one dreaded war more than I did. …

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