I first read the term in the printed diary of British Army officer Arthur J.L. Fremantle. In 1863, he had debarked from HMS Immortalite (a sailing frigate) at Bagdad, Mexico, which sat at the mouth of the Rio Grande River. Brownsville, Texas lay just across the Rio Grande. The squibs and crackers were fireworks. Ever exacting in language and meaning, Fremantle, a high-born Briton, distinguished between firecrackers that explode (crackers) and those that are duds (squibs, that fizz, but don’t pop).
In his diary, he wrote that letters, introducing him, were sent by both British Consulates and British Generals, in advance of his trip, an attempt to gain support for him during his journey, which was planned to range from Texas to New York (during the War Between the States). He was sent to observe activity in the southern states, which had seceded out of the union of the United States. In his diary, he wrote of his experiences, giving an extraordinary account of daily life, the high born, those who had nothing, and many folks in between. He observed the squibs and crackers during a Mexican celebration of a recent victory of the Mexican Army over the French Army.
The Republic of Mexico was formed in 1824 after its successful bid for independence from Spain, but it was dominated by strong military autocrats, such as Santa Anna, who attempted to crush an organized revolt of American émigrés in Texas in 1846. In that, Santa Anna failed and the United States quickly invited Texas in to become a state (which led to the two-year Mexican-American War). By 1848, Mexico’s land mass was cut in half and they were very weak. The British were interested in world affairs, and especially in the affairs of the United States (after having lost the American colonies in 1783 and the stalemate of the War of 1812). The British got more interested when France invaded Mexico in 1861.
The British noted the timing of French intervention, parallel with the weakening of the United States by the secession of the southern states, also in 1861. They had reason to be concerned: many intelligence gains suggested France’s intent to establish a monarchy in Mexico (Emperor Maximilian) and through that monarchy, establish an alliance with the seceded American southern states, which had been compelled to Confederate since President Lincoln was able to hold the remaining Union states together as a political (and military) force.
Even with all of this history stirring around him, Fremantle was able to capture in his diary the real essence behind conflict: the surprising behavior of individual human beings. Plus, he preserved the time-honored tradition of British humor (deliver an insult disguised as a compliment). For example, he thought the Mexicans to be crude in their dance, and when asked to take part in a dance he said, “Europeans are unable to dance in the graceful Mexican fashion.”