The French Invasion and the Empire of Maximilian
The withdrawal of Santa Anna from the control of affairs in Mexico was followed by the appearance of an abler and wiser man, Benito Juarez, who had another invasion of Mexico to deal with, more threatening in its effects than that of the Americans. While the star of Santa Anna had been declining, that of Juarez had been rising. He was born an Indian, of pure Aztec descent, and it has even been said that he was a descendant of the royal family of the Montezumas. However that be, he was born to extreme poverty, and at twelve, it is said, he had not learned to read or write. Yet the power to advance was within him and it quickly showed itself.
A rich citizen of Oaxaca became his friend, sent him to school, where he made rapid progress, and assisted him in the study of law. He showed both legal and political ability, became a member of the state legislature, afterwards presiding judge of the court, and finally a member of Congress during the American war. Here he took a firm stand in favor of the State in its demand for aid from the Church. His next office was that of governor of Oaxaca, in which he manifested excellent capacity. Santa Anna was evidently afraid of him, for he banished him from Mexico during his term as dictator. But he returned after the exile of his enemy, became governor again, and afterwards rose to be secretary of state in the cabinet, and president of the Supreme Court of the nation. In January, 1858, he gained the highest position in the power of the Mexican people, that of President of the Republic.
Juarez was liberal in politics and had a powerful conservative faction to deal with, with the clergy at its head. A movement of great importance was taken in 1857, that of the adoption of a new constitution for the republic, replacing that of 1824. This was based upon the model of that of the United States, which it followed somewhat closely in its provisions. Excellent in intention, it was ineffective to a great extent in the Mexico of that date.
The country had long been desolated by civil war. Comonfort, the preceding President, had taken part in the disorders and been driven from the country, Juarez, as head of the Supreme Court, succeeding him as President. But the disorders continued, and Juarez again had to seek safety in exile. Then the Liberals once more regained their ascendency, Juarez returned, landing at Vera Cruz, and here, on July 12, 1859, at his instigation, there were passed a series of Reform laws which decisively curbed the political power of the Church, and reduced it to its true function as a religious organization. The property of the Church was confiscated and nationalized; the clergy, charged with a scandalous abuse of their influence in instigating the sanguinary wars which had brought desolation to the country, were forbidden to become members of Congress or take part in political affairs; all religious orders and institutions were abolished, and marriage was later declared a civil contract. In short, the Church was disestablished and religious freedom instituted; and all this at the behest of a man who remained throughout a devout member of the Roman Catholic Church.
Meanwhile momentous events were near at hand and the liberty of the Mexican Republic was threatened as never before. The financial resources of the commonwealth had been exhausted by the incessant outbreaks; the sources of revenue were paralyzed; not a dollar was left in the treasury; funds had to be in some way obtained, and in July, 1861, Congress passed an act suspending the payment of Mexico's foreign debt. Repudiation was not intended, only suspension during a temporary state of monetary distress, but the act was looked upon as one of fraud and robbery in the European capitals and steps were quickly taken to force Mexico to live up to its obligations.
On the 8th of December, 1861, a squadron of war ships, floating the flags of three European governments, Spain, England and France, appeared in the harbor of Vera Cruz. It bore commissioners from the three governments concerned, and also forces of Spanish and French troops. England sent only some sailors. This expedition was intended for the two purposes of demanding guarantees for the safety in Mexico of citizens of the three powers concerned, and of urging the claims of these powers to the moneys on which payment had been suspended. So far as England and Spain were concerned this was the only purpose of the expedition. France, however, had other purposes, not yet revealed, a project of conquest devised by the astute Napoleon III.
The commissioners took possession of Vera Cruz, no resistance being offered, and then repaired to Orizaba, where an interview with President Juarez had been arranged. The correctness of the demand for payment was readily acknowledged by the President, and assurances were given that fully satisfied the commissioners from England and Spain, who thereupon withdrew with the forces they had brought. The English and Spanish governments had acted in good faith, and when they found that France had other objects in view they refused to join in them, took to their ships and sailed away from the country. But the French remained. They had come for conquest, not for redress.
The ambitious Napoleon III, who apparently had a consuming desire to rival his great uncle in military fame, had chosen a crucial moment for his act of invasion, that in which the hands of the great republic to the north were tied by the exigencies of its civil war. The Monroe Doctrine stood decidedly in the way of such an aggression upon American soil. But circumstances at that period prevented its enforcement, while it was thought in Europe that the United States were in great danger of disruption, and that now or never was the time to gain a footing on the American continent.
A plan of action had been formed by Napoleon at Paris, in the concoction of which certain refugees of the Conservative party of Mexico took part. It was designed in this to overthrow the Juarez government, establish a monarchy in Mexico, and place at the head of it some European prince. The desired monarch was found in Maximilian Joseph, brother of the Emperor of Austria, who was led by ambition to accept the flattering offer of Napoleon III to make him Emperor of Mexico, and to put him on the throne by aid of the money and troops of France. The demands of the commissioners, so far as France was concerned, were simply intended to give that country a footing on Mexican soil, from which it did not propose to withdraw. All this, with many of its minor details, had been arranged before the expedition left Europe. Napoleon, however, was not working for the advantage of Austria, but for his own power and glory, as the empire in Mexico would largely depend upon his support and be under his control.
The conciliating terms offered by Juarez had left the commissioners no just warrant for remaining, but the French troops maintained their position in Orizaba. Here they were soon reinforced by new forces, made an advance towards Puebla, and were joined on the way by a strong body of the Conservative faction, who had risen in their support.
President Juarez was meanwhile in the field, actively enlisting troops in defense of his country. Puebla was hastily garrisoned by about two thousand men under General Zaragoza. The French made a vigorous assault on the defenses, but it was as vigorously repulsed, and the invaders soon found themselves obliged to retreat. This repulse took place on the 5th of May, and the Cinco de Mayo is now kept in Mexico as a national holiday. A handsome street in the capital city also bears this name.
A month later a brilliant act of a young French officer in a measure atoned for this defeat. The French, who had retired to Orizaba, found themselves in an awkward situation, a body of several thousand Mexicans having placed themselves on a high hill overlooking the town, whence it might be bombarded and the supply of food cut off. In this dilemma the officer in question observed a Mexican woman daily climbing a steep path to the hill top, carrying water in a jar on her head for the use of the troops above. Obtaining permission to make an attempt to dislodge the enemy, the captain, one dark night, led a party of one hundred and fifty men up this path. Reaching the summit without an alarm being given, he began lustily to cry "A moi les Zouaves! A moi la Legion!" and to shout directions for movement as of a large body of troops. The suddenly awakened Mexicans, fancying that the whole French army was upon them, leaped from their beds and fled in wild panic, several hundred of them falling before the vigorous onslaught of the assailing force.
The movements here spoken of were preliminary to the real war. The French army waited in Orizaba for reinforcements, which in early 1862 increased its force to forty thousand men. It was joined in addition by a considerable body of men enlisted by the clerical party of Mexico. Puebla was now again attacked, Marshal Bazaine leading the French. The defense was obstinate, but lack of food and the loss of a convoy of provisions forced the garrison to yield after holding out for two months. An advance was next made upon the capital city. Juarez, who retained the presidency and was at the head of the defense, was too weak in men to maintain it, and withdrew to San Luis Potosi, which he made his temporary seat of government.
For two years succeeding the French held the capital and made various efforts to put down the Liberal forces. Juarez retreated step by step and established his seat of government in successive northern towns, gradually nearing the United States boundary. In the south Porfirio Diaz, a young protégé of Juarez, led a force to his native city of Oaxaca and defended himself with determined valor against Bazaine's army, until want of food and ammunition forced him to surrender. He was taken and imprisoned, but made his escape, turned upon his foes, and succeeded in recapturing the city from which he had been driven. Thus time went slowly on until May, 1864, the French making no decided progress, while Napoleon had begun to fear that his scheme of conquest might prove a failure.
On the 28th of that month the long awaited Maximilian made his appearance at Vera Cruz. He was greeted with a great show of enthusiasm. The priests had taught the Indians that the coming ruler would give them back their lost liberty and they crowded hopefully upon his pathway. The imperialist party, much strengthened by his coming, met him with welcome. The youthful prince and his young bride were everywhere greeted with cheers and welcoming displays, and upon the surface of things it seemed as if the new empire had come to stay. On reaching the capital a splendid reception was given the new sovereign and his consort, the society of Mexico crowded to welcome them, and they established themselves in the palace with imperial surroundings, the Castle of Chapultepec being fitted up as their summer residence. Napoleon had promised to support Maximilian with troops for six years, or until he could train a national army of sufficient strength, and Bazaine actively began the work of army organization preliminary to the time when he and his forces would be recalled.
Society gathered around the imperial court. The city of Mexico was at its liveliest. Maximilian entered upon the business of legislation and government, though with very little conception of the difficulty of the task before. him. A dreamer by nature, not a skilled man of affairs, he was ill fitted for the work which Napoleon had laid upon him. He offended the clerical party by his refusal to rescind the Reform laws. He showed himself in sympathy with the Liberals and sought to win them away from Juarez. He listened favorably to schemes for internal improvement without heed to the great expense they would involve. He acted as if Mexico was still in its primitive state and was to be built up by him from its foundation. As for a practical effort to win the favor of the people as a whole, he troubled. himself little about it. A loan negotiated in Paris and London had supplied him with plenty of money, one after another cities and states had yielded to his authority, all seemed moving smoothly with the exception that Benito Juarez still called himself President of Mexico and remained in the field, though driven to take refuge in the mountains. His cause was supported by numerous bands of daring guerrillas, who infested roads and villages, and frequently came into collision with the imperial troops.
All this, doubtless, seemed to Maximilian but a passing form of resistance to the growth of his power and dominion. But suddenly there came a voice from the north that woke him rudely from his dream of imperial rule. It was that of the great United States, inspired by that insistent Monroe Doctrine which had so long stood in the way of European designs upon American territory. A pestilent doctrine it was regarded in Europe, but there it stood. The Civil War in the great republic had ended and the powers which had been playing at empire in Mexico found themselves sternly called upon to stand and deliver.
More than once during the war the government at Washington had given France to understand that no monarchy in Mexico would be recognized by that government. The war ended, this statement became an ultimatum. It indicated in plain words that Louis Napoleon must withdraw his troops or he would have the United States to answer. And as an object lesson in case of obstinacy on his part a powerful body of the hardened veterans of the recent war was stationed on the Rio Grande, under the command of the impetuous General Sheridan.
Napoleon assented slowly and reluctantly to this demand. He put off on various pretexts the time of withdrawal until the latest possible moment. But there stood the Monroe Doctrine; there on the Rio Grande waited Sheridan's veteran corps; the French dictator was obliged to take the dose of bitter medicine offered him. The glory that he was to gain from the founding of an empire in Mexico had sadly lost its lustre. Napoleon advised Maximilian to abdicate. The national army which Bazaine was organizing was likely to prove a feeble reed to lean upon. Yet the emperor could not be made to see the intimate peril of his position. He made a strong appeal to Napoleon for support in the summer of 1866. The reply was decisive. The French troops must be withdrawn and without delay. Maximilian was at last brought to see that only one safe course, that of abdication, remained to him.
Yielding to the hard necessity, Maximilian reluctantly prepared to sign a decree of abdication. But the ambition of Carlotta and her strong will prevented. She offered to go to Europe and make a personal appeal to Napoleon. This she did, but in vain. In fact, it was impossible for the French emperor to yield; but the bitter disappointment turned the brain of the poor empress. She lost her reason.
When the tidings of failure reached Maximilian he prepared to leave Mexico, seeking to hide his intention under the statement that he was going to Vera Cruz to meet the empress on her return. A trifle changed his intention. On reaching Orizaba he was met by a body of horsemen and a throng of Indians, while the ringing of bells and firing of guns welcomed him to the city. This seemingly warm welcome caused him to hesitate. Bazaine waited impatiently for his decision, but he still wavered, listening to the persuasions of agents of the clerical party, who urged him not to abandon their cause. While influenced by these, two leaders of the Conservative party, Miramon and Marquez, who had just returned from exile, joined their persuasions to those of the priests, promising to raise an army and lead it to victory. The weak will and poor judgment of the emperor led him to yield to these persuasions, and he returned with new hope to Mexico City, where he issued a manifesto to his people.
This act dismayed and angered Bazaine. If the Emperor would not go, the French must. Insistence of the United States and repeated orders from France made this necessary. As Maximilian persisted in his new resolution, the vanguard of the French army, at the end of January, 1867, left the Mexican capital on its march to Vera Cruz. On February 5th the French flag was lowered, and the city was freed from foreign domination. The Belgian and Austrian troops brought by Maximilian went also. He proposed to trust himself wholly to his Mexican subjects.
It was a hopeless trust. While this was going on Diaz had again captured the city of Oaxaca, driving out its imperial garrison. From there he marched to Puebla and captured that Conservative stronghold. His next movement was against the city of Mexico. In the north Juarez, encouraged by the approval of the United States and reports of the success of Diaz, had began a southward advance, while the greater part of the states and cities in that region, their French garrisons withdrawn, became Liberal in sentiment. General Escobedo had made a conquering march as far south as San Luis de Potosi, and Juarez marched to Zacatecas, which he made his temporary capital.
While his foes were thus gathering around him Maximilian proceeded to Queretaro and made this his headquarters. Miramon thence made a hasty march to Zacatecas, which he took by surprise, Juarez and his cabinet barely escaping capture. The campaign was now rapidly approaching its end. Diaz, after his capture of Puebla, had met and utterly routed the force under Marquez, and thence marched to Mexico, which on June 27th yielded to him. Maximilian, by the aid of Miramon and the clericals, had gathered an army of over eight thousand men, ably commanded, though a considerable part of the troops were raw Indian levies, in whose fighting qualities little trust could be placed. Thus supported, he was invested in Queretaro by the army of General Escobedo and the last act in the Maximilian drama began.
The city was not well provisioned and the sallies of the imperial troops in search of food led to many sharp encounters in which daring was shown on both sides. But after each attack the Liberal lines were drawn closer. For two months this continued, provisions daily growing scarcer. On the night of May 14th the end came, General Lopez turning traitor and admitting two battalions of the enemy into the citadel. Quickly the besieging army spread to all parts of the city, terror and confusion everywhere prevailed, and all was soon at an end. Maximilian was captured in an endeavor to escape, his generals, Miramon and Mejia, being also taken.
For the succeeding two months the emperor and his generals were held as prisoners of war in Queretaro while Juarez was deliberating on their fate. Plans for the escape of Maximilian were made, but always at the last moment he failed to take advantage of them. Nothing could shake Juarez in his determination that the traitors, as he called them, should be tried by court-martial and abide the result. Maximilian was eloquently defended by his counsel, but the trial resulted in a sentence of death against the three captives, a sentence that was quickly put into effect. It is said that Juarez wavered when the time came to sign the death warrant, but that his stern comrade Lerdo appeared at the door and uttered these fateful words: "Ahora o nunca se salva la patria!" (Now or never for our country's salvation.) Juarez signed.
Taken from his cell at six o'clock in the morning of June 19, 1867, Maximilian said to his faithful attendants: "Be calm; you see that I am so. It is the will of God that I should die; against that we cannot strive."
On meeting his fellow victims he embraced them warmly; then looked around him and said: "What a beautiful day. On such a one I have always wished to die."
His last words to the surrounding people were:
"May my blood be the last spilt for the welfare of the country, and if more should be shed may it flow for its good and not by treason. Viva Independencia! Viva Mexico!"
The shots rang out on the morning air and the three fell dead. Thus ended the futile effort of Louis Napoleon to found an empire in Mexico.