The second Mexican empire, a paradise for the American Southerners

At the beginning of 1865, new colonization bases were announced, recognizing the Mexican Empire's goal of attracting North American settlers eager to relocate to Mexico and cultivate uncultivated territories.

The second Mexican empire, a paradise for the American Southerners
Coat of arms of the Second Mexican Empire, 1865. Credit: AGN, Second Empire, box 2, exp. 39.

The American attrition, a product of the Civil War (1861-1865), meant for the French Empire of Napoleon III, the beginning of a favorable panorama in Mexico for the expansion of its dominion in Latin America. However, Maximilian of Habsburg differed by considering the northern neighbors and the Confederate States as protagonists of the colonization plan.

One of the objectives of the French intervention in Mexico was to counteract the influence of the United States of America over the Latin American nations by envisioning it as a power in the making that was gradually expanding territorially. The Civil War (1861–1865) was the opportunity awaited by Napoleon III to begin his invasion of Mexico, a nation that would serve as a bridge to expand French dominion over Latin America.

As a consequence of this second French intervention, the second Mexican empire was established, headed by Maximilian of Habsburg. Unlike Emperor Napoleon III, Maximilian considered it very opportune to rely on the North American government for his cause. At the beginning of 1865, the new colonization bases were published, which openly recognized the Mexican Empire's interest in attracting North American settlers who were willing to leave their country to emigrate to Mexico and cultivate the uncultivated lands. This could be seen as a message to the Confederate States of America since the Union had said from the start that it opposed the French invasion and Maximilian's empire because they were a direct threat to the American republican system and the Monroe Doctrine.

After the end of the Civil War and the capitulation of the Confederate side, the first American emigration companies began to arrive to start negotiations with Maximilian's government and were willing to work on a colonization plan that would be attractive to the Southerners. The American Company of Emigration to Mexico, represented by Bernard G. Caulfield, was one of the first to raise its hand and was received and protected by the empire. Soon after, several colonization offices were created in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Texas, Missouri, California, and New Orleans. As can be seen, these regions were part of the Confederate army.

To organize the colonization project, in March 1865, a Colonization Board was established, made up of foreigners and nationals, to found colonies throughout the Mexican territory, particularly in lands that would be appropriate and rich. During the meetings of the Colonization Board, interesting ideas were shared about settling the southern United States on land that was then part of Mexico.

One of the meetings, which resulted in heated opinions, was held on August 24, 1865, when members E. Masseras, N. Davidson, and F. Pimentel discussed the convenience of attracting the population of the southern United States to the colonization projects. In this discussion, it was stated that it would be opportune for the empire to take advantage of the outcome of the war between the south and the north to gain the support of the defeated southern side for three reasons: first, because it was a population close to the Mexican border, which would avoid a great cost to the immigration companies; second, it was recognized that the southerners possessed ample knowledge in agricultural matters, which they could take advantage of in Mexico; and third, the large southern landowners and generals would seek a new homeland to avoid the anti-slavery policies.

Despite these supposed advantages of U.S. Southern immigration, the more sensitive issue was slavery, a system that had been defended by the Confederate flag during the Civil War. Many Southerners were willing to immigrate to another country as long as they could maintain their archaic economic systems, so Brazil and the English East Indies were attractive to some Confederates because of the prevailing conditions of slavery.

In Mexico, slavery had been abolished with the consummation of independence and ratified in 1829. However, the Junta de Colonización ("Colonization Board") proposed that enslaved people who were brought into the country should remain with their masters, with the promise that the slaveholder would not abuse them.

Nevertheless, on September 5, 1865, Emperor Maximilian issued the basic laws and regulations for immigration, which established that all "men of color" would be free by the simple fact of setting foot on Mexican territory. However, enslaved people who had arrived with an employer were obliged to continue providing labor services for a minimum period of five years and a maximum of ten. Doralicia Carmona Dávila, a historian, says that these rules about African Americans during the Second Mexican Empire were like a form of slavery.

Thus, the measures established were enough to attract the attention of Southerners who had fought on the Confederate side, as was the case of Governor Isham Harris, a strong defender of slavery who led the state of Tennessee to secession and who, along with other former Confederate generals, was appointed as colonization agent in his former states by Emperor Maximilian and whose mission was to formulate a colonization project in the area of Veracruz, Tepic, and the Pacific coasts.

However, these projects of southern American migration into our territory, praised at the time by exiled Confederates in Mexican territory such as the slave owner Henry Watkins Allen, never materialized due to the political instability of the second Mexican empire, which promised rich and fertile lands to colonize, but not the peace of a nation that was struggling to regain its freedom.