“Trouble? Well, let’s see…We got Maximilian on one hand and Juarez on the other, and bandits in between. And on top of that, we’re Americans in Mexico taking a cavvy of horses to a very unpopular government. Why should we expect trouble?” To the degree that the subject ever entered the popular imagination, this must be it: John Wayne playing Union Col. John Henry in The Undefeated (1969).
Wayne’s character is Hollywood fiction, but his accomplice in the expedition south of the Rio Grande, ex-Confederate Col. James Langdon, played by Rock Hudson, is based on Joseph O. Shelby, a Confederate cavalry commander whose theatre of operations was Missouri and Mississippi.
A Lost Cause
Shelby was a deft tactician, the sort of wily backwoodsman who repeatedly countered the North’s superior numbers through through wit and resourcefulness that Southerners still like to celebrate. Over the course of six weeks in the fall of 1863, Shelby led his “Iron Brigade” of Missouri volunteers on a 1,500-mile campaign across Missouri, killing nearly 1,000 Union soldiers; it was the longest cavalry raid of the war to that time.
From there, Shelby went on to play a significant role in thwarting Union Gen. Frederick Steele’s attempt to drive from Arkansas to Shreveport, Louisiana. Shelby went on to capture and sink a Union gunboat, then he retook half a dozen towns in Missouri from the Union. In the spring of 1865, Shelby’s commander submitted papers promoting him to general, but Lee surrendered before the promotion came through.
A month later, in June of 1865, Shelby and about 1,000 of his men started riding south. Shelby’s defiance would later be captured in a verse added to the Reconstruction-era song “The Unreconstructed Rebel”:
I won’t be reconstructed, I’m better now than then.
And for a Carpetbagger I do not give a damn.
So it’s forward to the frontier, soon as I can go.
I’ll fix me up a weapon and start for Mexico.
At this point, the saga intersects with a chapter in history the Mexicans have just as nearly forgotten: the short-lived reign of Emperor Maximilian. Maximilian, the younger brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, hatched a plan with Napoleon Bonaparte III whereby France would invade Mexico. Conveniently, he would serve as Maximilian I of Mexico, the logic being that because the Habsburg’s ruled Mexico prior to country’s independence Maximilian had a more legitimate claim to a Mexican throne than other European royals. After a three-year military campaign, the title was officially conferred on April 10, 1864.
Fifteen months later, Shelby and his men appeared on Maximilian’s doorstep, couching their offer as best they knew how: they would serve the French emperor as a “foreign legion.” Maximilian demurred, though he did offer them title to some land around Veracruz.
However, while officially he had gained the title he sought and Shelby had not, it came with a dear price for Maximilian. The Mexicans toppled Maximilian, who fled to Santiago de Queretaro. There he held out for three months until being captured, sentenced to death, and shot by a firing squad on June 19, 1867. Nearly all of Maximilian’s decrees, including the land grants, were immediately nullified. The Mexicans promptly turfed Shelby off the land, and he was back in Missouri by year’s end.
A Lost Colony?
At this point, Shelby’s story more or less ends. He spent the rest of his years in law enforcement in Missouri and Kansas. And the story of the Confederates who fled to Mexico becomes diffuse, with various stragglers settling in northern Mexico, Texas, and here and there across the southern U.S.
Yet, the time of Shelby’s return from Mexico marks the emergence of an even more paradoxical wave of Confederados. Reconstruction visited years of hardship on the Southern economy, the effect of the destruction of the region’s infrastructure during the war and a reordering of the economy away from slave labor. Congress soon withdrew the citizenship of an estimated 3.5 million Southerners. “Many Southerners who wished to regain their fortunes—or just feed their families—were pessimistic about their future,” write Cyrus Dawsey and James Dawsey in The Confederados: Old South Immigrants in Brazil. Dawsey and Dawsey note, “The idea of living and working alongside of their freed black labor frightened many Southerners.”
Somewhere between 9,000 and 20,000 Southerners—from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Arkansas—including many who traced their family estates back multiple generations, sailed for Brazil.
The Marmion was among the early ships to set sail for Brazil, departing New Orleans, with 350 aspiring colonists on board, on April 16, 1867. A month later, it docked in Rio de Janeiro. As the trips to Brazil became more common in the late 1860s, the most popular disembarkation point was Charleston, SC. But in subsequent decades ships would sail for Rio from Galveston, Texas, and New York City.
In fact, several Latin American governments had bid for U.S. émigrés after 1865, including Mexico and Venezuela. However, the offer by Brazil’s Dom Pedro held unique appeal: the prospect of owning slaves. Although it had been illegal to import slaves from Africa since 1850, the institution of slavery would linger on in Brazil until 1888. The Brazilian emperor was all too eager to capitalize on this fact to draw in ex-Confederates.
Auburn University Library’s Digital Archives
A good many Southerners no doubt tried for a time to keep up appearances. “[T]here is no character I abhor so much as that of a flirt,” wrote “Celina M.” to John Ridley Buford on April 16, 1866. But it simply proved too hard for families like Buford’s. Shortly after this missive, his correspondence took a dramatic shift—by February 1867 the lifelong Alabamian and onetime Confederate soldier would be tending to a farm in Santa Barbara, Brazil
Some of the early letters hint at frustration with conditions in the colonies of Sao Paulo state, which apparently fell short of expectations. After all, Dom Pedro had frequently appeared at the port in Rio to personally welcome the Americans, occasionally ordering the bands to play “Dixie” as the passengers came ashore. He then foot the bill for them to stay in Rio hotels as the Americans worked out the details of title to their free land. Now, many were falling sick in an inhospitable outpost. And when people started dying, the community had to set aside separate land, lest Protestants be buried in a Catholic cemetery.
The vast remove from the sordid state of the Southern economy may have sparked defiance in some, but in combination with the tropical heat it stirred outright delusion in others. According to The Confederados, some settlers in Brazil came to believe that the war had not, in fact, ended.
The largest body of correspondence in Auburn’s digital collection traces the migration of the Norris family. After serving with Stonewall Jackson’s brigade in every battle except the final one, when Jackson was killed, Robert Cicero Norris was taken prisoner and held at Fort Delaware. Shortly after his release in June 1865, he fled to Brazil, becoming the first American to move to what would soon become known as Villa Americana in the state of Sao Paulo. Remarkably, in 1890 Robert returned to attend medical school in Mobile, Alabama, while his wife and ten children remained in Brazil. Once he completed medical training, Robert returned to Brazil, where he practiced medicine until 1911.
The correspondence of the Norris family is frequently charming. Here is a letter from Charles Norris in Nova Friboga:
My Dear Brother,
As I have not written to you in a long time will write now. well Tom have you quit chewing tobacco yet? if you have not it would be best to stop it. We have music on the band here every night. do you ever hear the band there? how much work do you do now? If you want that ____ there is the little mat that I planted you gather it and then you can have it. you must be a good boy and help with the work. Tell Amy I have written to her lately and will write to her the next time. well Tom as I have nothing else to say to you will close with love to all from
June 2nd 1896
PS I received Papas and Toms letter to day and another from Papa the other day
Echoes of the music that Charles refers to can still be heard today. The Festa Confederada, put on by descendants of the Confederados, gets going every year with the raising of the Brazilian flag and singing of the national anthem; it’s followed by the rising of the U.S. flag and singing of “America the Beautiful.” Then comes the raising of the Stars and Bars, at which time the crowd sings “Dixie.”