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Mexican-Confederate War 1877-1879:
In the years following the Civil War, the Confederacy actively supported the French in their efforts in Mexico to establish a French-allied monarchy. They established diplomatic relations with Emperor Maximilian I who seized on the opportunity an alliance with a friendly America would bring. Unfortunately for Maximilian, the French, and the CSA, the Mexican Republic under the leadership of former president Benito Juarez overthrew the monarchy leading to French withdrawal and the execution of Maximilian.
Following the re-establishment of the Mexican Republic and the re-installation of Juarez as president, the CS President, Alexander Stevens, established diplomatic relations with the Republic – but it was all a smoke screen as preliminary plans for occupying the country were already underway – all the Confederate government needed was an excuse.
In 1876, a coup placed former Mexican Republic Army general Porfirio Diaz in power – supplanting the legitimately elected president. When word reached Richmond, CS President Judah Benjamin launched a year long mobilization of the Confederate military – dramatically increasing the number of cavalry and artillery regiments and new recruiting with the goal of creating a 100,000 man force for the main invasion and a 20,000 man force to be landing on the Mexican Gulf Coast.
On March 20, 1877, one month after Diaz assumed power, the invasion began. Confederate forces under General James Longstreet quickly overwhelmed the disorganized Republic Army – still in disarray following the coup. Within three months, the Confederates had overrun the northernmost Mexican states with the exception of Baja, but gradually, resistance stiffened and progress was slowed greatly.
Meanwhile, the US had almost immediately condemned the invasion and pledged to support Mexico – but what form that support would take was unclear. The new US President, Samuel Tilden, was at first unwilling to commit the country militarily even if Congress would support him – which was in doubt.
While the US debated what to do, the second phase of the Confederate Mexican Campaign was launched. Although the War was primarily a ground conflict, it did provide the CS Navy with valuable experience operating as a wartime fleet and in coordinating with the Army in joint operations.
This was critical when in April of 1878 the First Assault Regiment under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Shelby was successfully landed at Veracruz by troop ships escorted by a squadron of ships under Rear Admiral Isaac Brown. This squadron – which consisted of nearly the entire active Confederate Navy save for the Civil War-era casemate rams unable to make the journey – was commanded by Brown from the new armored frigate CSS Savannah
and would spend the majority of the War suppressing coastal forts as Mexico’s small navy was in as much disarray as the army and was considered a non-factor.
Shelby’s forces made good progress and the Republic Army was forced to shift substantial manpower south to protect the capital of Mexico City and try and dislodge the Confederates in Veracruz. This was a classic, albeit unavoidable error, and the main CS force quickly broke through the thinly defended Mexican lines and by the beginning of 1879 were marching to Mexico City in an attempt to lay siege to the capital. By July of that year, a breakout from Veracruz and steady progress by Longstreet saw the Confederates reaching the Federal District containing Mexico City from three directions while a small detachment had secured most of Baja – the furthest territory Confederate troops were able to occupy.
The Battle of Veracruz:
July of 1879 also saw the first (and only) true ship to ship battle of the War. A brilliant young captain, Hector Alejandro Martinez, had spent the previous eighteen months in a desperate effort to mobilize the Republic Navy. Now he was finally able to go on the offensive.
By this point in the conflict, the CS Navy had grown somewhat complacent, and although completely outclassed by the Confederate squadron, Martinez planned to use his four gunboats in a nighttime ambush. Shortly after midnight on July 13, 1879, the attack was launched, hastily promoted Commodore Martinez’s flagship – the Democrata
– leading the Independencia, Libertad,
into Veracruz Harbor where they confronted Admiral Brown’s ships.
Although the Confederates were caught by surprise, the outcome was predictable, but Martinez fought well – using his ships small size and maneuverability to his advantage. Another factor in the Mexicans favor was the fact that one of the two CS frigates present, CSS Memphis
, had been detached back to Mobile a week earlier with engine trouble. This still left the Savannah, North Carolina, Mississippi,
present, however, leaving the Mexican force severely outgunned. Within two hours, all of Martinez’s ships had been sunk or severely damaged in exchange for a minor to moderate damage to the Confederate ships. Martinez then took Democrata’s
helm himself, ordered all but the engineering crew to abandon ship and swung toward Savannah
intending to ram the Confederate flagship. Lashing the helm, Martinez and the remaining crew jumped overboard as every weapon on Savannah that could be brought to bear cut loose – but it was too late. The collision touched off Democrata’s
powder stores annihilating the Mexican ship, but heavily damaging her opponent in the explosion. Brown was forced to transfer his flag to Mississippi
and the next day – despite the Herculean efforts of her crew – Savannah
capsized and sank.
The loss of a brand new armored frigate was an embarrassment for the CS Navy and Brown was immediately recalled to face a board of inquiry – being replaced by Commodore James Forrester. As for Martinez, he and his men evaded capture and headed south. He became a hero in Mexico overnight and when the story reached the United States, almost a celebrity. Called the Mexican John Paul Jones, Martinez would continue to serve in the postwar Republic Navy and eventually became the Naval Attaché for Mexico in Washington DC following the normalization of relations.
End of the War and aftermath:
Despite the Pyrrhic victory at Veracruz, the outcome of the War seemed a foregone conclusion when the United States – fearful that a CSA conquest of Mexico would lead to further “adventures” even into South America – decided finally to intervene. An ultimatum was delivered to CS President Benjamin stating simply that unless the Confederacy agreed to an immediate cease-fire and peace negotiations – the US would “Finish what was begun eighteen years ago”. Lacking the political and military will to take on the US again, Benjamin agreed to the proposal. A cease-fire was enacted August 3, 1879 with peace negotiations sponsored by the US beginning in Baltimore two months later.
The resulting Treaty of Baltimore, signed January 12, 1880, ceded control of the six northernmost Mexican states to the CSA in exchange for a promise not to attempt to invade or occupy the remainder of Mexico and a requirement to pay reparations to the Republic government for the next fifty years.
US Navy 1870-1880:
Although the US government would have preferred to slash military spending following the Civil War, the presence of a now independent Confederacy made that impossible. Instead, the US would capitalize on her greater industry and economy to try and stay ahead of the CS.
The greatest change this decade would be the acquisition of new construction armored frigates to replace the Civil War-era wooden steam frigates still in commission. At the same time, the number of monitors and steam sloops of war was kept more or less constant while gunboats were pared down to include only the newest ships.
By 1880, the US Navy comprised a total of 88 active combatants; 26 monitors, 14 armored frigates of the Brandywine
and Oliver Perry
classes, 23 steam sloops, and 25 gunboats.
CS Navy 1870-1880:
As the 1870’s began, the CS Navy was determined to become a viable blue water force, but the state of the Confederate shipbuilding industry was still too immature to allow a massive increase in the size of the fleet. In addition, although the CS Navy had 17 ironclads in commission, most were the war-built casemate rams that were unsuited to anything other than harbor and river duties.
To address these issues, in 1869 the Secretary of the CS Navy sought authorization for two long-term projects. First, a new class of sea-going ironclads would be contracted with local shipbuilders in order to expand domestic warship construction and procurement, and second, assistance would be sought from the CSA’s two principle allies in Europe, Britain and France, for technical help in designing and building state of the art warships, with most to be built overseas until the Confederacy’s own shipbuilders could take over.
The first program was approved immediately, and in late 1870, design work began on what would become the Memphis
class of armored frigates. This was an ambitious project for the period, and would lead to protracted design and building times for the new ships.
As the decade continued, older raiding cruisers (including Alabama
– which was retained as a museum ship in Mobile) and casemate rams were decommissioned but this was balanced by the eventual commissioning of the Memphis
class and the first product of the foreign assistance and acquisition program – the A Class torpedo boats.
By the end of the decade the Confederate fleet consisted of 29 active combatants; 4 armored frigates, 4 ironclads, 10 casemate rams, 3 cruisers, and 8 torpedo boats.