Imperial Mexico

Project participants have identified key locations in the Rio Grande Valley that played significant roles in the Civil War history and place these on a physical map/brochure. Each of these locations are associated with an audio podcast that will explain the site’s significance and share interesting details about the action that took place there. These podcasts are accessible on this website and are accessible via cell phones through QR codes and by dialing (956) 847-3002.

Benito Juarez

For many Mexican citizens, Benito Juarez remains the most highly regarded of presidents and to this day is the only Mexican president honored with the title of Benémerito de las Americas (Hero of the Americas). Born 1806 to Zapotec Indians, he received a basic seminary education and later graduated with a law degree from the Oaxacan Institute of Sciences and Arts. Juarez became known as an educator, lawyer, and member of the Oaxacan state legislature. After being elected to the national Chamber of Deputies, he emerged as a prominent Liberal leader, helping to draft the Constitution of 1857 that extended rights to Mexican people. One provision of that charter, known as the Ley Juarez, abolished the legal privileges of the Church and the military. When Conservatives initiated a civil war aimed at annulling this constitution, Juarez led the Liberal forces to victory in the ensuing War of the Reform (1857-1860). When the subsequent French invasion reached Mexico City, he refused to surrender and instead retreated to the north of México. Juarez and Abraham Lincoln shared much in common, sympathizing with each other’s cause during the civil wars faced by their respective nations. After the defeat of the French and the execution of Maximilian, Juarez resumed his duties as president in 1867. He was reelected to that post and served until his death in 1872.

Juan Cortina and the American Civil War

In July, 1864, Union Forces abandoned Brownsville, leaving Juan Cortina facing hostile Confederates to his north and equally hostile Austro-French imperialists advancing on Matamoros from the south. Cortina made plans to cross some 1,500 men of his Cortina Brigade to the north bank of the river where they could join Union forces. As many as 300 of Cortina’s Exploradores del Bravo with three pieces of artillery did successfully cross the river on September 8, 1864, where they joined with Federal forces in an attack on Confederates near Palmito Ranch. In the fighting, twelve Cortinistas were captured and held as prisoners of war. The presence of the Cortinista army in the United States touched off a firestorm of diplomatic protests from the French. After surrendering Matamoros and a brief stint in the Imperial Army, Cortina turned against the French in April 1865, and once again opened friendly relations with the Federals, who were holding Brazos Island and a sliver of the Rio Grande. With the conclusion of the Civil War, Cortina even opened a recruiting office in Brownsville. While on a tour of the Rio Grande frontier in the summer of 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman met with Cortina in Brownsville and war materials began flowing into Mexico to support the Liberals and Benito Juarez in the bloody struggle against the Imperialistas. By late June 1866, the remnants of the once grand Imperial army evacuated Matamoros and Cortina rode triumphantly into the city. For years to come, as the Liberals fought one another for power in Mexico, Cortina continued to compete for the hearts and minds of the people of Tamaulipas and South Texas.

Juan Cortina and the Second Cortina War

With the outbreak of Civil War in both the United States and Mexico, the notorious Juan Nepomuceno Cortina returned to the north bank of the Rio Grande. In May 1861, he splashed across the river with about thirty of his Cortinistas and sacked Carrizo, the county seat of Zapata County. In a forty minute fight on May 22, 1861, however, Confederate Captain Santos Benavides decisively defeated Cortina, killing or capturing several of his men and driving what remained across the river into Mexico. Eleven of Cortina’s men who were captured appear to have been shot or hanged by the Confederates. Still seeking power and revenge, Cortina joined with Benito Juarez’s forces in opposition to the Austro-French army then occupying Mexico. Promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, Cortina returned to the border in 1863 where he encouraged and cheered the Union Army’s occupation of Brownsville. A number of Cortinistas even enlisted in the Union Army where they received a bounty and were able to strike at their old enemies in Texas. Cortina even allowed the Federals to take control of three of Mifflin Kennedy and Richard King’s steamboats that had been under Mexican registry. Only weeks after occupying Brownsville, the commander of the Union Rio Grande Expedition, General Nathaniel Banks, crossed the river to be warmly welcomed by Cortina in Matamoros.


The city of Matamoros, home to some 490,000 people, lies on the south bank of the Rio Grande twenty miles from the Gulf of Mexico. The community was founded in 1774 by José de Escandon, who issued land grants to 113 families. Because of its proximity to the fertile lands along the Rio Grande and northeastern México, Matamoros grew steadily. By the late 1850s, about 40,000 people lived there. Among its residents were Mexicans with substantial land holdings, as well as several hundred Anglo merchants. These included Mifflin Kenedy, Richard King, and Charles Stillman, men who shaped the history of the river's north bank. In the 1850s, the enormous commerce generated after the establishment of a free trade zone, and the presence of nearby Bagdad as a Confederate port, allowed Matamoros to prosper until the end of the U.S. Civil War. John Warren Hunter, who transported cotton to Matamoros, described it as a “great commercial center” filled with “ox trains, mule trains, and trains of Mexican carts, all laden with cotton coming from almost every town in Texas.” But the town’s population declined rapidly after the Civil War ended. By 1880, Matamoros' economy had stagnated, with barely 8,000 people remaining

Mexico and the US Civil War

While Union and Confederacy fought from 1861 to 1865, the supporters of Benito Juarez, known as Juaristas, fought the French and Austrian imperialists from 1862 to 1867. The Rio Grande Valley became important in these struggles for several reasons. The U.S. blockade of Confederate ports limited the South’s ability to ship cotton and consequently limited the South's ability to import cannon, medical supplies, and other needed war materials. To circumvent the U.S. Navy, Confederates utilized the small Mexican port of Bagdad, a place the Union could not attack without risking a war with France. Bagdad soon emerged as the Confederacy’s major remaining port. To end this trade, Union landed forces at Brazos de Santiago, marched inland to Brownsville, and subsequently headed northwest along the north bank of the river. The Confederates responded by moving the crossing points westward and later drove Union forces back to Brazos de Santiago. The tax revenue generated by the trade at Bagdad provided substantial revenue for the Mexican government. Although the Liberal commander of that part of México, Juan Cortina, favored the Union, he could cooperate with both northern and southern forces as needed. When Matamoros briefly passed into the imperialists' hands, the French and the Confederates cooperated as well. Although numerous hostile actions occurred on both sides of the river, no international war ever erupted between either of the American or Mexican sides.

Mexico From 1846 to 1876

During this thirty year period, the great struggle between Conservatives and Liberals dominated the life of the Mexican nation. That struggle resulted in multiple wars. Conservatives believed that leadership of government should be restricted to an educated few, and advocated limited suffrage, civil liberties, social services, a strong central government, and a state religion to guard the country's moral fiber. By contrast, Mexican Liberals advocated universal male suffrage, wide civil liberties, a weak and decentralized national government, and religious freedom. Following the loss of half of the nation’s territory to the United States in 1848, Mexicans fought three civil wars. The first from 1853 to 1855 ended with the overthrow of the conservative government of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna by liberal forces under Juan Alvarez and Benito Juarez. The second conflict, known as the War of the Reform from 1857 to 1860, was a failed conservative effort to overthrow the Juarez government and the liberal Constitution of 1857. The third conflict, the War of the French Intervention from 1862 to 1867, saw French and Austrian forces invading México and joining with Mexican conservatives to reverse the outcome of the War of the Reform.

Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz remains one of the most despised and enigmatic figures in Mexican history. Born in the state of Oaxaca and later a pupil of Benito Juarez, Diaz distinguished himself as a soldier in the Liberal armies. Already a general during the War of the French intervention, he became nationally famous after leading the charge that routed the French at Puebla. But following two unsuccessful presidential campaigns, Diaz abandoned liberalism and worked to overthrown the Mexican government. He began with an 1875 visit to New York City to enlist the support of U.S. investors who wanted greater access to investment opportunities in Mexico. Diaz then proceeded to south Texas, where he raised several hundred thousand dollars from private supporters to train a small army. With this army, Diaz crossed the river and took Matamoros with little resistance on April 1, 1876. From then until 1910, a period known as the Porfiriato, Diaz ruled México with an iron fist. Although he took pride in the massive construction of railroads and development of mines, that growth was achieved at fearsome cost. Diaz suppressed the civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution of 1857, and evicted literally millions of Mexicans from their lands and homes to make way for commercial developments. By 1910, most Mexican citizens were poorer than they had been forty years earlier. This paved the way for the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

The Franco-Austrian Invasion

Mexican conservatives would not accept their defeat in the War of the Reform in 1857. They remained convinced that México should best be governed by an authoritarian monarch and sought a European aristocrat for that role. They settled on Emperor Napoleon II of France (irreverently known as Napoleon le Petite), who tried to expand France’s overseas possessions and influence. Motivated by power and profit, Napoleon II had cultural reasons as well, viewing France as the natural leader of the Latin nations which he considered superior to English-speaking nations. Napoleon II waited until the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, when Lincoln's government was preoccupied with the Confederacy, to make his move. In 1862, France landed an army at Veracruz and began a march towards Mexico City. On May 5, 1862, his forces were defeated by the Mexican Army at the famous Battle of Puebla. This victory is now celebrated as the Cinco de Mayo. The French, chastised by their defeat, increased the size of their forces and succeeded in capturing Mexico City a year later. There, they presided over the installation of Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, as emperor of México. Benito Juarez’ government fled north to the city that now bears his name, Ciudad Juarez. French forces pursued Juarez and his supporters into the north of the country, and in 1864, that pursuit brought them to the Rio Grande Valley.