The Cotton Road to Matamoros

Evading the Union Blockade in the Civil War 

In 1862, the Civil War was in full swing. The Rio Grande River defined the border between Texas and Mexico, ultimately spilling into the Gulf. The south-to-north flow of the Gulf Stream waters and the prevailing east-west winds combined to create heavy seas and treacherous sandbars at the mouth of the river. Yet it was here that the Confederacy implemented a key strategy designed to help win the war—a strategy based on “King Cotton.” 

Prior to the Civil War, cotton was the United States’ number one export, and it grew primarily in the South. The British were the largest customers, because Southern cotton fueled England’s chief industry—the textile mills. France also wanted its share of cotton. Confederate leaders hoped that holding back cotton from European markets would cause Britain and France to support the Confederacy during the war in order to ensure the flow of cotton. With this “cotton diplomacy,” the Confederate government wanted to create a scarcity, so it burned more than a million bales of cotton. However, Britain had stockpiled several months’ worth of cotton. Historically, they made significant wheat purchases and carried on industrial trade with northern states, which they did not wish to disrupt. So, politically, they walked the line and favored neither the Union or the South. France followed suit.

However, it wasn’t long before the stockpiled cotton supplies in England were consumed. Alternate sources in India, Brazil, and Egypt were not in full production. In 1862, the British “Cotton Famine” began. With an estimated twenty percent of the British population directly or indirectly employed by the cotton industry, the sudden lack of the South’s high quality cotton was a significant economic event, especially in the spinning factories of Manchester and the weaving factories of Lancashire. In Lancashire alone, 430,000 people were employed during the peak of production. With no cotton, production stopped. Mills closed. Mass unemployment led to poverty. Soup kitchens opened, and the government  provided relief in the form of tokens for the purchase of goods. They also offered emigration to America. Riots popped up across the region, resulting in the government offering paid employment in urban renewal programs.

Britain needed the South’s cotton. And the South needed to sell its cotton in order to fund the war. However the Union had blockaded the Confederate ports, shutting down both the receiving and shipping of goods. The Confederacy had two options. Try to run the blockade in small, fast ships—attempts which often failed. Or find a back door for shipments both in and out of the Confederacy.

The Rio Grande, an international waterway, and the twin cities of Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville,Texas became the Confederacy’s backdoor and the greatest cotton market in the world began. Mexicans refer to the years of the Civil War as “the time of cotton.” 

Cotton was the lifeblood of the Confederacy. It was acquired from growers in a variety of ways, including cotton tithes (growers pledged to give 10% of their crop to the confederate government), conscription, and purchase. Cotton was hauled overland to Brownsville, then transported across the Rio Grande River to Matamoros. There, it sold for gold and was exchanged for military supplies, then transported to the Port of Bagdad at the mouth of the river. It was loaded on foreign flag ships, and transported to mills in Europe or to other buyers. 

A flood of cotton from Texas (and other trans-Mississippi states), flowed to Brownsville. The Cotton Road was—as one participant said, “. . .one vast and almost unbroken line of mule or ox-drawn wagons carrying cotton to the gulf shore.” 

Not just one road, the cotton road was actually a network of historic Spanish colonial trails across western Texas known as El Camino Real or The King’s Highway. This network of dirt trails stretched hundreds and hundreds of miles.Traffic on parts of the cotton road was so heavy that, at some points, the trail was a mile wide. Plains Indians, Mexican bandits, military deserters, and other desperados plagued caravans on the road. One portion of the cotton road, “The Big Sands,” was an ordeal of 120 miles of desert sand with no water, searing heat, whirlwinds, scorpions, and snakes. Littered with broken carts, dead and dying draft animals, and abandoned cotton bales, it told a story of hard travel. What little vegetation existed, reached out to scratch, cut, or impale anyone who got too close. 

Depending upon point of origin, cotton caravans could choose from several paths to Brownsville. Many passed through San Antonio, Banquete, and Richard King’s Ranch, where they could buy supplies, repair or buy carts and new animals, even hire Mexican freighters with heavy-duty carts. For a fee, the freighters would deliver cotton across the Big Sands to Brownsville. Other portions of the cotton road traveled through Alleytown, Roma, Laredo, and Eagle Pass. Which ever trail one chose, it would be busy with hundreds of wagons hauling thousands of bales. Returning from Brownsville were more caravans loaded with gold and important supplies for the Confederacy. For years after the war, the trails of the cotton road were marked with cotton fibers snagged on bushes and flying like tiny flags.

A good heavy-duty cotton wagon measured twenty-four feet long, four-and-a-half feet wide and had sides rising almost five-and-a-half feet. It had iron running gear and could carry sixteen tarp-covered bales or eight thousand pounds. The Mexican carts were even stronger and could carry twenty bales or ten thousand pounds, with wheels squeaking as they rolled. Freighters pushed Prickly pear cactus leaves into their carts’ groaning wheel hubs as lubrication.

Caravans varied in size but generally had a master, a couple of section leaders, a dozen or more teamsters, several armed outriders, a person to ride herd on twenty or thirty extra draft animals (mules or oxen), and a cook. Loaded with cotton, caravans were slow going, often delayed, and trips to Brownsville could take months. For example, caravans crossing the Brazos River could be delayed for weeks by high water at the river fords. 

Here’s a simplistic description of the very complex process which occurred upon the cotton’s arrival in Brownsville. From Brownsville, small steamboats carried cotton across the river to Matamoros. Ownership was registered by a Mexican “straw man” to turn it into Mexican-owned cotton. A cotton agent would negotiate the sale with a buyer’s agent. Over the course of the war, cotton sold for an average of fifty cents a pound for a 450-500 pound bale, (it sold for less early in the war) Instead, it might be bartered for merchandise. Import-export taxes were collected. Small-draft boats would carry the cotton down the twisting, shallow river to the Port of Bagdad where it would be loaded on large foreign ships, waiting at anchor in international waters. Union blockade ships would not interfere with these foreign-registered ships flying their countries’ flags, since the Union wanted to avoid any international incidents. Arriving merchandise would be off-loaded from foreign-flag ships and delivered up river to buyers in the same fashion. 

On an interesting note: Savvy men made vast fortunes in the cotton market. For example, in 1862, an owner could sell cotton in the Matamoros market for $.30 per pound or $135 per 450 pound bale. With the right contacts, the buyer could then turn around and, using agents in Mexico and New York, negotiate a sale to New York mills for as much as $1.50 per pound, or $675 per bale. A difference of $540 per bale. If a seller had one hundred bales to sell, the gross would total $54,000 before expenses, compared to a Matamoros purchase of $13,500. A reinvestment of $40,500 in gross revenue could generate more profit. 

Strange as it seems, it’s true that Northern textile mills were a major market for Matamoros cotton. The justification for selling to the enemy was that the Confederacy benefited more from northern gold and military materials than the north benefited from textiles. Nor was it illegal. The Confederate legislature did not prevent states from doing business with the North.

During the Civil War, cotton was critical to the Confederacy’s ability to fund its government and support the war effort. Thousands of wagons traveled the Cotton Road to the Rio Grande cities of Brownsville and Matamoros, site of The “World’s Largest Cotton Market,” where trade boomed, despite the Union blockade. These wagons traveled back to the Confederate states loaded with guns, ammunition, other tools of war, critical civilian supplies, and gold. Without the Matamoros Cotton market, it would have been a very different Civil War, yet many Texas history books don’t mention it all.

This is Texas Brave and Strong, If you’ve enjoyed this tidbit of Texas history, please share it with a friend. There’s a new Texas Brave and Strong episode every other week. Also check out my historical novel, GONE TO DALLAS: The Storekeeper 1856-1861. Find the paperback and ebook on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other bookish sites. 

—Laurie Moore-Moore