Mad Max for Mex? … and the Russians are coming!
Continuing the saga of the French intervention:
To save the “Latin” people, [Napoléon III’s] choice [for a Mexican Emperor] would fall on a German-speaking prince: Archduke Maximilian von Hapsburg of the Austria-Hungarian Empire.
It is fairly simple to understand Napoléon’s reasons for backing the Mexican monarchists. Making sense of the belief that Maximilian was the right person to assume the Mexican crown is a bit more difficult. Although he could claim direct descent from the first Carlos, and had none of the obvious mental or physical defects that plagued another ancestor, Carlos the Second, he lacked the energy of the Bourbon Carlos III. Given tendency to neglect affairs of state while pursuing scientific and artistic interests he might, at best, follow in the tradition of the hapless Carlos IV.
As the second son, Maximilian’s prospects for any sort of meaningful position disappeared when his older brother, the Emperor Franz Josef had a son in 1858. No longer the next in line for the throne, Max tried to find something meaningful. His birth entitled him to command the Austrian navy, but Austria had very little need for a navy Maximilian’s only important naval assignment had been a visit to Brazil. , where he was supposed to be married off to a Brazilian princess, and — with any luck — have a son who might be in line to inherit the Brazilian throne1. That ended tragically when the Brazilian princess died on the voyage back to Austria. But, based on his visit, and having been the fiance of a Brazilian, Maximilian decided he was an expert on the Americas. He’d even written a book about his adventures and had no trouble finding a publisher.
His next assignment, meant to keep him occupied, had been as viceroy of Austrian-ruled northern Italy. The several different nations that had existed on the Italian peninsula at the beginning of the century had been consolidating throughout the century, and a sense that Italy should be ruled by Italians had turned to guerilla warfare against the Austrians by the time Maximilian arrived in 1857. Although he and his wife Charlotte had managed to make themselves personally popular with the local elites, learning Italian, inviting Italians to join his government and encouraging Italian artists and writers, his subjects saw him as well-meaning, but inept. Not having the stomach to crack down on the dissidents, and ignoring growing threats to his realm (Austria and the largest of the Italian States, Sardinia, would go to war in 1860), the Austrian government wanted to replace him. But, as the Emperor’s brother, he couldn’t just be recalled, but something had to be done about the Italian problem.
Moreover, Franz Josef recognized that his brother had “issues”. Specifically, he couldn’t control money—he was continually overspending his extremely generous allowance from the Imperial treasury on building projects or by buying up artwork—and he seemed to have trouble dealing with stress. Maximilian had what appeared to be nervous breakdowns or just become uncommunicative when forced to make difficult decisions. And, it was whispered, there was something physically wrong. Although he had been married since 1857 to his cousin, Charlotte of Belgium, there were no children from the marriage and it was rumored they slept in separate beds.
Charlotte, the daughter of the ambitious king of Belgium, Leopold, granddaughter of the last queen of France and Queen Victoria of England’s first cousin was not happy being only the sister-in-law of the Emperor of Austria, and at most expected to breed a few spare aristocrats. She believed she should be at least a queen. An empress would be even better.
Charlotte longed to be a queen; Franz Josef wanted his brother eased out of the Austrian ruling circles; Napoléon III wanted a patsy. And there was one more European player: Pope Pius IX. The Pope was fighting his own war against Italian guerrillas. The once important Papal States held on only because the French Army was stationed in Rome, and would soon disappear from the map. Although considered a liberal and political reformer, when it came to the Church, Pius was dead-set against any regime that might curtail the Church’s traditional rights. The French revolution having nearly destroyed the Church, and only the first Emperor Napoleón had saved it; France, and another Napoleón had to come to the Pope’s rescue when the short-lived Roman Republic ran Pius out of his own kingdom. The Mexican Republic and the Juárez government had radically reduced the Church’s power, not only separating Church and State but seizing the Church’s properties. Having seen monarchs as the defenders of the faith, and France willing to commit troops to the Church’s defense, the Pope was more than willing to assist Napoléon III’s scheme.
The Mexican conservatives wanted a strong central government that would restore them to power. The Pope and Eugenia wanted to strengthen the Church. Charlotte wanted a crown. Franz Josef wanted his younger brother eased out of Italy and out of a possible future as ruler of Austria. Napoleón III wanted to make money out of his occupation of México. Maximilian wanted an election!
The French occupation was much more expensive and bloody than Napoleón expected. Winfield Scott had invaded with ten thousand men, and the United States Army of the 1840s was considered one of the world’s worst by the standards of the time. The French Army in the 1860s was the world’s best, and four thousand soldiers should have been more than enough. The army bogged down attempting to capture Puebla, which Archbishop Labastida had assured Napoleón was overwhelmingly conservative and would welcome the French without a fight. On 5 May 1862, Mexican troops, led by Ignacio Zaragoza surprised themselves and beat the best army in the world.2 The French replaced their commander and sent thirty thousand reinforcements. It would take them another year to subdue Puebla, and then only after fierce house-to-house combat.
Although Juárez would declare Cinco de Mayo a holiday in commemoration of Zaragoza’s surprise victory in the first battle of Puebla, its real importance was in the United States. In May 1862, the United States’ civil war was going very badly for the Union. France and England had been giving serious consideration to granting the Confederacy full diplomatic recognition and even mulling over the possibility of providing military support. With the Mexican Republic forcing the French to commit more and more troops to Mexico, they couldn’t send men and equipment to the Confederates. Prussia, and Russia, both rivals to England and France, offered support to the Union, and the Russians even sent a naval fleet to protect San Francisco and New York, and to keep the British from even considering giving naval support to the Confederacy. With the possibility of a Russian confrontation with the British or French only a decade after the two had been at war in the Crimea, with the possibility of the Prussians joining in on the Russian side, ended any consideration of military intervention in the American civil war.
And, although the Battle of Puebla is better known, perhaps more important was the action in the small village of Camarón de Tejada (in present day Veracruz State), in the build-up to the French re-invasion of Puebla. On 30 April 1863, the rag-tag Mexicans gave the French invaders a taste of what they could expect in the way of resistance to the invaders. A French Foreign Legion detachment was annihilated by villagers armed with a mixture of weapons from the previous thirty years of warfare and ordinary farm tools. The Foreign Legion was (and still is) an elite “Special Forces” unit recruited from foreigners who need or want to change their identity and become French citizens. The angry Mexicans cornered sixty-four of the elite fighters in a barn, set fire to it and shot the invaders who refused to surrender. They wiped out all but four of the Legionnaires. The French officer had an artificial hand; the French Foreign Legion preserves the hand as a precious relic. The Legionnaires are probably the only fighting force to celebrate a defeat. Every 30 April, the Legion—with solemn military pomp—displays their fallen leader’s artificial hand and holds a parade in honor of the Poles, Italians and other non-Frenchmen who were slaughtered by Mexican villagers while fighting to install an Austrian emperor for the greater glory of France.
With still more troops, the French were finally able to claim control. Only after Zaragoza died of typhoid were they able, in March 1863, to capture the supposedly conservative, pro-church Puebla, and the city was nearly destroyed in house to house combat. Once more, President Juárez had to ask for emergency power, and once more, Congress had fled the capital. With the foreigners in control of most of the major cities, the French organized Maximilian’s elections, with voting limited to “notables”. Not surprisingly, Maximilian was elected Emperor of México.
1 When the first Napoléon invaded the Iberian peninsula, the entire Portuguese government fled to Brazil. At the end of the French occupation, the Brazilians declared independence, but kept the monarchy. Emperor Pedro’s only son died as an infant. As in most European monarchies, a male heir, even if only a nephew, takes precedence over female heirs.
2 Some discount the Mexican victory, giving credit not to Zaragoza, but to either a timely rainstorm or “Montezuma’s Revenge”. Both sides suffered from dysentery, but Zaragoza’s military tactics are still considered a classic defensive strategy.