Let’s Invade Mexico! Outbreaks of Filibuster Fever

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William Walker
  • William Walker

In the last half of the 19th Century, aliens eagerly crossed the U.S./Mexico border — into Mexico. Burning with what historian William B. Scroggs calls “filibuster fever,” they felt entitled “to swallow up every few years a province as large as most kingdoms of Europe with aggressive individualism.”

“Filibuster” comes from the Dutch, vrijubtier — a freebooter — and referred to pirates of the 15th and 16th centuries. After the Mexican war of 1846–’48, the Mexican government had to coin the term filibusteros for the armed invaders convinced that conquering vast territories was their manifest destiny.

The Knights of the Golden Circle

One of the most ambitious and least known filibusters, George W. Bickley, organized this secret society July 4, 1854, in Lexington, Kentucky. Within six years, branches of the Knights of the Golden Circle, called “castles,” grew throughout the South, Texas, and California.

Their name was their cause. They envisioned a vast empire with Havana, Cuba, in the center. Like a “great golden circle,” it would extend south from Maryland, through Texas, Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, down to the Amazon. Historian C.A. Bridges: “They wanted to build “a gigantic slave empire that would rival the power and prestige of ancient Rome.” This would give them a “near monopoly on the world’s supply of tobacco, cotton, sugar, rice, and coffee.” If annexed by the United States, it would “preserve slavery in the South from constant attacks by Northern Abolitionists.”

A member had to be American-born, Protestant, and “able to prove he is imbued with Southern sentiments.” As part of his initiation, he pledged to “participate in the wild, glorious, and thrilling adventures of a campaign in Mexico,” where they would exclude every Roman Catholic and priest from office and give the nation a “new and vigorous voice.”

Capturing and annexing Mexico, Bickley said in a speech, would add 25 new Southern states and 50 Southern senators to the Union. And if the North and South should separate, the South would “dominate the great dream-empire.”

In 1860, the Knights made two moves toward the Mexican border. In March, locals at Brownsville, Texas, noticed tall dust clouds from three caravans. “No doubt, a large army,” wrote the Galveston Telegraph, “well organized and equipped and moving in scores to their rendezvous.” Each night more campfires flickered on the outskirts of town.

“There are three or four hundred men encamped near here,” an unnamed Army officer wrote in April 18. “Supposed to be K.G.C.’s or filibusters. I don’t know what their designs are. I presume we will receive orders to prevent them from going into Mexico.”

Bickley never arrived and the force broke up. Reasons vary: volunteers grew impatient (many had been on the road without pay more than three months); lack of funds; rivalry over leadership. One that stuck: Sam Houston, governor of Texas, ordered them to disband. Though said to be a Knight himself, Houston rejected their anti-Union stance. He had his own ideas about a “protectorate” for Northern Mexico.

Word went out that Bickley changed the plan. They would invade Mexico in the fall with 16,000 armed men, each “immigrant” promised 640 acres of prime land. Not only that, Bickley signed a treaty with Manuel Doblado. The governor of the Mexican state of Guanajuato would join the Knights at the border with 16,000 more troops. They would “Southernize” Mexico, rule by a “limited monarchy,” and “reduce the peon system to perpetual slavery.”

Bickley named September 15 for a rendezvous with Doblado at the Rio Grande River near Brownsville. On October 1, a small group would march on nearby Matamoros, the main one inland to Monterrey, where they would establish headquarters. Bickley chose October 1 because he ordered a large shipment of arms delivered to Matamoros on that date.

On October 10, Bickley arrived at Galveston, Texas, almost 400 miles from Brownsville. Word had it pockets of Knights were scattered from Goliad to the border. Bickley sent messages assuring everyone that the main body, over 1000 men, had been “unavoidably delayed” at New Orleans, as had the shipment of arms from Boston. No one had seen Governor Doblado or knew if he was coming. No one crossed the river.

Bickley called off the campaign. Those waiting at Brownsville who never got the word stayed for a while, then trailed home in disgust. The “Golden Circle” either disbanded or went underground. Some say Jesse James and John Wilkes Booth were members.

“What the knights might have done if the Civil War had not come can never be known,” writes Bridges. “As it was, the election of Lincoln, secession, and the Civil War were more than the knights could survive… the order had attracted not more than a few thousand champions. It was poorly financed, and even more poorly led.”

They did have the distinction, wrote the New York Times, of devising “a plot which, for audacity and wickedness has rarely been surpassed in the long history of conspiracy.”

Count Gaston de Raousset-Boulbon

Count Gaston de Raousset-Boulbon

Count Gaston de Raousset-Boulbon: The Sultan of Sonora

Mexico’s northern territories, depleted by the war of 1846–’48, made them vulnerable to raiding parties of rustlers and Apaches. To create a buffer zone to keep invaders out and secure abandoned mines, the Mexican government encouraged colonization of Sonora, Sinaloa, and Lower (Baja) California by non-Americans. Count Gaston Raoul de Raousset-Boulbon (1817–1854) saw colonization as an excuse to invade Northern Mexico. He was not the first filibuster to cross the border with a private army, or even the first Frenchman.

In 1850, it was said that every tenth man in California came from France, often the result of the Revolution of 1848. Most had military training and refused to become American citizens. When they heard tales of Sonoran mines richer than California’s, they banded in large groups and headed south. Marquis Charles de Pindray — who left France “under a cloud for dueling and other less scrupulous doings” — led the first in 1851. The second group, led by Lepine de Signoids, found little gold and disbanded. Raousset headed the third in 1852. They called him “Le Petit Loup,” the “little wolf.”

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