Bagdad and the American Civil War


by Terry Hogan


It has been a while since I have done a genealogy article on “lessons learned”. This is one.  It demonstrates, once again, that the assumptions you make unknowingly are the ones that get you into trouble. This article is about my continuing effort to “put meat on the bones” of the story of my great grandfather Jasper Newton Hogan, and one of those assumptions that had led me astray into unproductive research. 


Jasper was only 18 years old when he joined the Company H of the 91st Illinois Infantry in Green County, Illinois.  Two other companies of the 91st were recruited in Henderson County and the Regiment had Lt. Colonel Harry S. Smith of Knox County until he resigned on October 20, 1864. I have Jasper’s Civil War military records from the National Archives.  I have his 91st Adjutant General’s (AG) published unit history.  I have miscellaneous documents relating to various battles that Jasper and his unit fought between 1862 and the end of the Civil War in 1865. Jasper is buried in Galesburg with a Civil War monument.


But I was really interested in a brief mention of a battle that Jasper was involved with along the Rio Grande in Texas.  The Rio Grande was strategically important during the war, but little is noted about the area in Civil War histories.  As the Rio Grande was the border between the U.S. and Mexico, it was an international river and thus could not be blockaded by the North as the Southern ports were.  The North needed to block the shipment of the South’s cotton through Texas, across the Rio Grande to Mexico and then down the Rio Grande. The cotton was listed as Mexican goods and was transported to awaiting foreign ships to carry the cotton to England and France.  These countries badly needed the cotton to support their domestic cotton mill industry.  The South needed the foreign currency to buy guns, ammunition and other war materials that it could not produce domestically.


On November 3, 1863, the 91st Illinois Infantry became part of the North’s efforts to block the shipment of cotton across the Rio Grande. On that date, it arrived at Point Isabell, Texas, via the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. On November 6, the unit began moving across land from Point Isabell to Fort Brown at Brownsville, Texas on November 9.  In the unit’s published Adjutant General’s Report, a brief mention is made of the report of French troops crossing the Rio Grande to support Confederate troops in battle with the 91st.  The battle occurred near Bagdad on September 11, 1864.  The report records:


“…until the 11th day of September, 1864, when the Regiment had quite a fight with the rebels near Bagdad, on north side of Rio Grande River, and it was said at the time a squadron of French troops forded the Rio Grande to help the rebels, but all to no use, for they were driven back and over the old battle field of “Palo Alto” of 1846.  Rebel loss, 20 killed and left on the field.  Our loss, two wounded.”


I have spent much time and effort searching for information about this battle near Bagdad and any information about French troop involvement.  During the Civil War, the French set up the Austrian, Maximilian, as ruler over Mexico.  The Mexicans and the Americans were not pleased with the French presence. Searches about the battle and for Bagdad, Texas did not prove very productive.  References indicated that Bagdad no longer existed, but that its former site was near Leander, Texas.  It neither made mention of the 91st Illinois Infantry nor of the presence of French troops.


My Unknown Assumption:

I assumed that Bagdad was in Texas.  It was made without real thought.  The 91st was in Texas; the battle was in Texas. It seemed to be a “no brainer”.  But it was an incorrect assumption. Bagdad was not in Texas. It was located across the Rio Grande in Mexico. With this discovery, via a $1 clearance book on the history of Texas and Texans, this information became available to me.


Bagdad was located across the Rio Grande from Clarksville, Texas.  Cotton from East Texas and other parts of the South was transported to the Rio Grande to Bagdad.  At Bagdad, the cotton was loaded on to shallow draft boats that carried the cotton to the mouth of the Rio Grande, choked with sand bars and shallow waters, where the cotton bales were loaded on to waiting ships in the Gulf of Mexico.  It has been reported that as many as 300 foreign ships were anchored waiting for the South’s cash crop – cotton.


As the New York Herald wrote in May of 1863 in a large front page article, complete with a map of Texas, it was crucial for the North to stop the cotton trade to dry up the South’s ability to buy war goods.


But the story, like most Civil War stories, is more complex than this.  Neither the North nor the South wanted France in Mexico.  Mexico didn’t want French troops in Mexico.  There was even a trial balloon floated to create a cease fire between the North and the South so that they could join forces and fight the French in Mexico.  Advocates of this plan hoped it would bind the American wounds by fighting a common enemy and bring an end to the American bloodletting. Obviously, this did not happen and the loss of life continued for a couple more years.  In fact, the Rio Grande saw a battle between the North and the South occur over a month after Lee surrendered to Grant.


Gotta a Map?

So, you might wonder why I didn’t just look on a map of Texas and/or Mexico and see Bagdad Mexico along the Rio Grande.  I did look at maps but there was no Bagdad Mexico.  Bagdad was destroyed by a hurricane in 1867.  Even the nearby town of Clarksville, Texas no longer exists.  Its few remains were buried under sand when the Rio Grande shifted its channel.  The effective disappearance of Bagdad maybe can be better appreciated by the fact that at its peak of the cotton shipping business, Bagdad had changed from a sleepy little fishing village of wood and mud huts to a town of approximately 15,000 folks.  The inhabitants spoke many different languages but shared two things in common – a desire to make lots of money off the war, and participation in political, military, and economic intrigue.


One could almost see a “divine intervention” in the eradication of Bagdad shortly after the end of the Civil War.


The French?

So now I have lots of information about why my great grandfather, Jasper, was in Texas, fighting Confederates in late 1863 and 1864.  I know from published descriptions of the battles and the local environs, what his life was like in 1863. Nevertheless, I find nothing to support the brief reference of French troops crossing over into the United States to fight with the South against the North.  It must not have occurred, as it is unlikely that historians would have ignored a battle between Union and French troops.



The Moral

If you have hit the “brick wall” in genealogical research, take a step back and carefully look for the unknown assumption that may have led you astray. (Just because “Bagdad” doesn’t sound Mexican, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t in Mexico).