150 Years Ago - “Undefeated” Rebel General Sinks His Battle Flag, Goes to Mexico
Rather than surrender his command let alone give up his battle flag, 150 years ago General Joseph Orville Shelby sank his banner in the Rio Grande and took his men to Mexico, where he hoped to lead them as mercenaries serving the French-installed Emperor Maximilian.
Shelby made his career commanding cavalry, first in “Bleeding Kansas” and then at Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge. The scourge of the Trans-Mississippi, in 1863 Shelby took his “Iron Brigade” of horsemen on a 1,500-mile rampage through Union territory, a feat for which he earned his promotion to brigadier general. He is also one of the few cavalrymen in history to be able to boast of having captured a warship – the Union tinclad river gunboat USS Queen City. Shelby raided and battled his way through Arkansas and Missouri which such distinction that in May 1865 his commanding officer General Kirby Smith, promoted him to major general. Unfortunately for Shelby, as Lee, Richmond and Davis by then had all surrendered, the war was over and the promotion was never confirmed. That did not stop Shelby, however, who convinced most of his brigade to march to Mexico rather than surrender – or go home.
Shelby's column paused as it reached the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas in July. There with great ceremony the general took the signature plume from his hat and the Confederate battle flag under which he had marched and ordered them sunk and buried “in the river's rushing tide,” or so one of his followers the military poet Brevet Colonel Alonzo W. Slayback immortalized in a poem dated July 4, 1865. The poem concludes with the farewell line: “The glorious flag of the vanquished brave, No more to rise from its watery grave.”
The poem is entitled “The Burial of Shelby's Flag” and the spot where the flag was sunk is known locally as “The Grave of the Confederacy.”
Shelby and his men crossed into Mexico – but Maximilian, though embattled, thought better of taking the ex-Confederates into his service as it might worsen his already strained relations with Washington. After all, Mexico had been a haven for blockade runners for four years. The French, however, did agree to allow Shelby and his men to settle around Vera Cruz, provided they would defend the land from the Mexican rebels. When Maximilian fell, however, Shelby and most of his men finally went home, with the general settling in Missouri in 1867. Twenty-six years later he was appointed as the U.S. Marshal for the Western District.
Not all of Shelby's men made it home. One group of Missouri cavaliers led by Brigadier General Monroe Parsons did join up with the Imperial forces and fought the Juaristas on the Chino River, where Parsons was killed 150 years ago - on August 15, 1865.
John Wayne drew inspiration from Shelby's Mexican expedition for the 1969 movie The Undefeated, where Rock Hudson played the Shelby-esque Colonel James Langdon.
The role played by Mexico and its French-installed emperor in the Civil War is represented in GMT's strategic naval game, Rebel Raiders on the High Seas by the Mexican port of Vera Cruz – where blockade runners can load cargo to smuggle into the Confederacy and by Confederate Card 61 – Maximilian.