The letter sent to Texas Gov. Francis Lubbock in August 1862 — perfectly innocent, its author claimed — unwittingly sparked fears of a French plot afoot.
Benjamin Theron, the French consular agent and Spanish vice consul in Galveston, had written an identical letter to former Gov. Sam Houston, who never bothered to reply.
The consul posed three questions, the last of which asked: “The re-establishment of the old Republic of Texas will or will not be beneficial to our beloved adopted country?”
Theron went on to thank the governor in advance and said Lubbock’s answers would help the consul advise the French government. The question, and the closing remark, aroused the suspicions of intrigue brewing in Versailles.
Lubbock replied on Sept. 9.
“In reply to your third inquiry, I have to say ‘the re-establishment of the old Republic of Texas will not be beneficial to our beloved adopted country,’” he wrote.
“Texas has linked her fate with that of her sisters of the South. She will be true, steadfast and victorious.”
Yet, Lubbock was taking no chances, firing off a letter to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, marked “private and confidential,” and enclosed Theron’s query and his own response.
“As the proceeding of the said Consul would seem to indicate an incipient intrigue, I have deemed it proper to advise you thereof on the threshold,” he told his president.
Theron by then already had earned Confederate enmity by shielding from conscription immigrants from nations he represented, which tenuously also included Italy. The foreigners he aided had stayed on in Texas after having been told to leave or face induction into the Confederate army.
Davis, with a war to wage, passed the correspondence on to his secretary of state, H.H. Benjamin, who, like Lubbock, also smelled a rat.
At the time, the French were attempting to conquer Mexico to recover sizable debts owed to Paris.
Napoleon III’s troops — 7,500 men under arms — landed in Veracruz in December 1861 and soon had begun making their way inland. They got so far as Puebla before Mexican defenders routed them on May 5, 1862, the resounding victory celebrated as Cinco de Mayo.
Napoleon responded by sending another 23,000 soldiers. The French emperor did so knowing that despite the Monroe Doctrine — a U.S. vow to resist any and all foreign invaders in the Western Hemisphere — the Civil War forestalled any immediate challenge to his actions.
Napoleon’s invasion seemed to support the notion that something nefarious indeed might be afoot in Texas.
Benjamin, a steady albeit suspicious sort, also saw opportunity in the supposed machinations and on Oct. 17, 1862, wrote to John Slidell, his European envoy, hoping the alleged French intrigue might spur London to support the Confederacy, something the English had heretofore declined to do.
“In plain language, we feel authorized to infer that the French Government has, for some interest of its own, instructed some of its consular agents here to feel the way, and if possible to provoke some movement on the part of the State of Texas which shall result in its withdrawal from the Confederacy,” Benjamin wrote.
“The Emperor of the French has determined to conquer and hold Mexico as a colony, and is desirous of interposing a weak power between his new colony and the Confederate States, in order that he may feel secure against any interference with his designs on Mexico.”
He then got to the point: “The knowledge of a secret attempt on the part of France to obtain separate advantage of such vast magnitude may perhaps induce a change in the views of the British Cabinet.”
Nothing came of it.
On Oct. 17, Benjamin sent Theron a letter of expulsion and wrote, too, to Confederate Major Gen. John Magruder, whose command included Texas, ordering him to see that the Galveston consul be removed to Mexico.
Magruder was convinced that the attention paid to the consul’s query to Lubbock had conferred “the letter of Mr. Theron to the Governor of Texas with a gravity, which it would not have otherwise possessed.”
He stalled, and eventually, on May 13, 1864, Theron died in Galveston at 58.
A year later, the relentless Civil War at last ground to a halt, and Napoleon, fearing U.S. retribution, withdrew from Mexico.
The puppet he had installed, an Austrian who dubbed himself Maximilian I, fought on with the help of a few Mexican loyalists, but soon enough was captured, convicted and, on June 19, 1867, was stood up in front of a firing squad, his monarchy gone up in smoke.