By Dean Knight
Confederate Naval Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury was lionized as the “Pathfinder of the Seas” for his work in oceanography along Richmond’s Monument Avenue for decades until his statue came down Thursday.
But less well known is that at the conclusion of the American Civil War, Maury was one of the die-hard Confederates who went to Mexico to try to continue the Southern and Confederate lifestyle there, complete with plantations and a system as close to slavery as was possible.
Mexico at the time was run by Imperial France through a hapless Austrian Archduke puppet emperor named Maximilian, as part of French Emperor Napoleon III’s scheme to try to take over a chunk of North America and turn it into a kind of French-ruled imperial monarchy over the Mexican people. Maximilian took the job because he believed that he was heading out “to establish an American empire, and that it is his divine mission to slay the dragon of democracy” according to U.S. ambassador to Austria John Motley.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and Maximilian very much wanted a French/Mexican-Confederate alliance during the Civil War — and so did Maury, who carried on a warm and friendly correspondence with the puppet emperor while he was serving the Confederacy in Europe. It never happened largely because Napoleon III was a wily politician shrewd enough to know that angering the United States with such an alliance would have been potentially catastrophic. United States Secretary of State William Seward famously warned that he would “wrap the whole world in flames” if Britain sided with the CSA or provoked war with the USA, and that certainly went for France as well.
Immediately after the Civil War, Maury was made the imperial commissioner of colonization of Mexico, with the goal of replicating Southern life throughout Mexico, essentially colonizing the whole country with emigrating Confederates and their now-former slaves. He firmly wanted to establish a “New Virginia” in the soil of Mexico, seeding it with the old, according to “Napoleon III and Mexico,” by Alfred and Kathryn Hanna.
“The wreck of the Southern Confederacy is rich in the materials of Empire. It is in the power of the Emperor Maximilian to transfer these people with their emancipated Negroes to Mexico and to convert them instantly into the most loyal, true and devoted subjects: and through their instrumentality to establish firmly and at once his empire. It is for this that I am here. If the Empire were sprinkled with settlements consisting of not more than a dozen or so of these Southern families they would leaven the agricultural industry of the whole country. Every settlement would be an agricultural school of the first class, teaching by example…[and they] would at once surround the throne with the elements of an elegant aristocracy such as few sovereigns have ever found themselves able to create.”
These enslaved peoples just freed by the war would then find themselves “bonded to employers for periods of not less than five or more than 10 years; they could not change employers without consent; if they ran away, they could be returned legally.”
Not only did Maury whole-heartedly support and work for the Confederacy throughout the war, as soon as it ended he tried his best to replicate Confederate culture, including near-slavery, in a forcibly colonized country, which he would re-colonize with his own people.
The U.S. House of Representatives asked President Andrew Johnson for a report on the “re-establishment of slavery or peonage in the Republic of Mexico” as the U.S. Senate made similar inquiries. Mexican French-language newspaper L’Ere Nouvelle said of Maury that this “illustrious scholar left in the United States singularly lively animosities. … One sees in him one of the most irreconcilable personifications of the antagonism between the North and the South” and referred to his “back-handed attempt to revive slavery on Mexican soil for the benefit of Confederates.”
The Mexican Times wrote that the “attempt made last year under Mr. Maury to promote colonization on a large scale proved…abortive, mainly because it was controlled by incompetence and conducted in utter defiance of common sense and with not much regard for truth and common honesty”.
Maury left Mexico in February 1866; soon afterwards Maximilian politely told him that his position had been abolished and thus that there was no need to return. In 1867 Maximilian was deposed and executed — Mexico was back in the control of the Mexican people, and the scheme to destroy democracy and establish monarchy in North America which Maury had so staunchly supported died with the puppet-emperor.
Dean Knight grew up two blocks away from the Maury monument. He is a Richmond stage actor and was the supervisor of the White House of the Confederacy from 2002 to 2013.