Mexico – the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867 (8/1)


Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
The threat that the U.S. poses has always been hanging as a sword of Damocles over the intervention. Only the Civil War had made it possible, and, from its start, Napoleon has sought to support the Confederacy against the Unionists. According to John Slidell, the South’s commissioner to France, the Emperor was “convinced of the propriety of the general recognition of the Confederate States by European Powers, but that the commerce of France and the success of the Mexican Expedition would be jeopardized by a rupture with the United States, that, in case of trouble with that country, no other Power than England possessed a sufficient navy to give him efficient aid in a war on the ocean which, however, he did not anticipate, if England would join with him in recognition.” The English were not prepared to do so, and Napoleon never dared to openly support the South, though warships were built in Bordeaux for the Confederate navy.

For reasons we’ve seen before, the Union was fiercely opposed to the establishment of an empire in Mexico. On April 4, 1864, the Senate and the House of Representatives had passed a resolution in opposition to the recognition of it, and, although no action could be undertaken at the moment, Napoleon was repeatedly informed of the position of the United States by its Secretary of State, William Seward. Maximilian’s envoy, Señor Arroyo, sent to Washington with a view to obtain this recognition, wasn’t even received.

And now, things take a turn for the worse. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrenders to the Union Army, and the Civil War comes to an end. Suddenly the scene of military interest shifts to the Rio Grande. 60,000 Union soldiers are massed upon the frontier. And although the support is as yet official nor open, the ranks of the Liberals are reinforced by volunteers from the U.S.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867But there is also another side, which might offer a chance to stem the tide. On June 28 U.S. General Sheridan reports to General Grant: “Kirby Smith, Magruder, Shelby, Slaughter, Walker and others of military rank have gone to Mexico. Everything on wheels -artillery, horses, mules etc.- have been run over into Mexico. Large and small bands of rebel soldiers and some citizens, amounting to about 2,000, have crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico (…) The rebels who have gone to Mexico have sympathies with the Imperialists, and this feeling is undoubtedly reciprocated.”

The Imperial government, as well as individual landowners, encourages refugees from the north to come and develop the agricultural resources of the country. A plan is devised for a colony of Confederates in the province of Sonora which, obviously, would form a formidable bulwark against a threat from the north. Napoleon is all for it, and promises every facility and assistance. All that is missing is the signature of Maximilian. But the Emperor who, for no intelligible reason at all, is still hoping on a recognition of his empire by the U.S., is against it, and so another chance of salvation is thrown away.

“God helps that our sovereign opens his eyes, because by keeping them closed, everything goes wrong”, sighs the Grand Marshal Almonte. But as his empire is going downhill, the sovereign closes them even firmer.

“We are here, I can assure you, my good father and dear mother, in a miserable country, completely different from what one imagines in France (…) Not at all wanting to be pessimistic, one is forced to recognise that it goes wrong. Between them, the emperor and the empress make mistakes as if vying with each other and one hears words that may be translated and summarised in one only: ‘leave!’ Every day, they lose in consideration. I was going to say prestige, but it is a long time since they had any left and that surprises me not at all (…). They have no wish and no understanding except for childish things, for regulating the style of the breeches and the dress one wears at court. The only functionary that is very occupied, and really very seriously, is the master of ceremonies. Everything that touches on etiquette is of an unequalled importance and regulated, most of the time, by the emperor and the empress themselves. On top of that, he makes a fuss about little trifles that vexes and irritates the feelings by throwing a certain ridicule on those who commit them. Certainly, everything is not lost, but there is a lot to do if one wants to regain the ground lost.” The Comte de Béarn is not the only one to speak such harsh words.

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867
To raise the spirits, the sovereigns decide to make a big thing of Independence day, 15 September. A promenade in the capital on a carpet of flowers, followed by a Te Deum in the cathedral, a grand ceremony on the Plaza Mayor, and a ball, the most brilliant since their arrival in Mexico. It is a complete failure. On their “Champs Elysees” from Chapultepec to the city only a handful of people could be bothered to come and watch the imperial coach pass by. When they arrive at the vast and almost empty Plaza Mayor, small separate groups, under the windows of the palace and in the shadow of the cathedral, start crying “Death to the Emperor! Death to Carlotta! Death to the French!”.

That evening, in a magnificent robe set with precious stones, the Empress presides over the ball. Without a smile. She probably didn’t hear it, but she must certainly have guessed what was whispered: “What an insolence, what a clumsiness, above all. I bet that tomorrow, the courier leaving for Europe will be laden with acrid remarks on the inconsiderate sovereigns that parade about while people die at the foot of their palace”..

Mexico - the French Intervention and the 2nd Empire, 1862-1867And the day holds yet another surprise for the sorely tried Empress. With his taste for the symbolic, and regardless of his wife’s feelings about the matter, Maximilian has chosen independence day to sign the adoption papers of two grandsons of the liberator and first emperor of Mexico: the 2-year old Augustín and the 15-year old Salvador de Iturbide. The first one to be raised in Chapultepec to be the heir to his throne, the second one assumedly to be kept in reserve.

If the Emperor expects to regain the enthusiasm of his people by linking his name to that of the freedom fighter and establish a “Mexican” dynasty, he is wrong again. But the American newspapers are happy to inform their readers of yet another crime of the Austrian usurper: kidnapping. Poor Maximilian simply can do no good.

©2010, M.S.F. Wick


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