Matamoros boomed into a refuge for rebels, killers and cotton
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
Today, Matamoros is a bustling industrial town known for its maquiladora factories across the Texas border along the Gulf of Mexico. A tourism town, its trade has been badly hurt in recent years by drug violence and dramatic shootouts.
But during the American Civil War, Matamoros was a bizarre and turbulent trading town dominated by the Confederacy — like an 1860s version of Mos Eisley.
It was a city of Mexican resistance fighters hiding out from French armies to the south. There were German-Texan exiles loyal to the Union on the run from Confederate hangmen. Spies. British merchants buying Southern cotton and selling weapons in exchange.
Nearly every adult male in Matamoros carried a six-shooter.
“Matamoros is to the rebellion west of the Mississippi what New York is to the United States — its great commercial and financial center, feeding and clothing the rebellion, arming and equipping, furnishing its materials of war and a specie basis of circulation that has almost displaced Confederate paper,” the New Orleans Times noted in 1865.
“The entire Confederate Government is greatly sustained by resources from this port.”
The city’s importance derived from the Union’s naval blockade of the Confederacy, which relied on plantation slavery on a massive scale to produce cotton, which it exported in exchange for manufactured goods, including British rifles.
Without the ability to export cotton on a huge scale, the South simply could not continue the war. Mexico, however, was neutral and embroiled in its own war with France. That opened up Matamoros and the nearby port of Bagdad — which no longer exists — as a major cotton export terminal.
For hundreds of miles, mule-powered wagons weighed down with cotton lumbered south across the humid Texas brush plains and coastal prairies. In Mexico, European merchant ships could dock safely, load up on the cotton and sail home.
Arthur Fremantle, a British Army officer, arrived on the Mexican coast in April 1863 as a private citizen and tourist interested in the war. The population had swelled to more than 20,000 people — many of the inhabitants from Europe and the Confederacy.
In his diaries published as Three Months in the Southern States, Fremantle described first entering Bagdad which consisted of “a few miserable shanties, which have sprung into existence since the war began. For an immense distance endless bales of cotton are to be seen.”
He crossed into Texas proper, where he encountered the skeleton remains of a lynched “renegado” — a pro-Union rebel fighting the Confederacy. The Southern troops on the Texas side of the border spoke of fighting off raids by Unionists — mostly German draft resisters who fled the Texas Hill Country early in the war.
For the next several days, Fremantle hopped back and forth between Brownsville and Matamoros — mostly socializing and getting drunk with Confederate officers and British merchants. It was common to see stagecoaches with their blinds drawn shut — a sign that the travelers had been robbed of their clothes.
One British merchant in Brownsville had his house burned down in a Unionist attack, and he “always ready to produce his six-shooter at a moment’s notice, at any insult to the Queen or to England,” Fremantle wrote.
Arguably, Brownsville was worse.
“[The Confederates] were obliged to confess that Brownsville was about the rowdiest town of Texas, which was the most lawless state in the Confederacy,” Fremantle wrote. “But they declared they had never seen an inoffensive man subjected to insult or annoyance, although the shooting-down and stringing-up systems are much in vogue, being almost a necessity in a thinly-populated state, much frequented by desperadoes driven away from more civilised countries.”
The fortunes of the city fell with the Confederacy. In November 1863, Union troops landed on the Texas Gulf Coast and captured Brownsville — which the Confederates burned and evacuated.
The cotton trade routes shifted further west. But it was a major blow until the Confederates reoccupied the city the following summer. The war, of course, ended in 1865 — as did the Confederacy’s blockade-skirting cotton trade.
But when Matamoros was in business, it kept the South’s war machine alive.