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  • James Houser

June 19, 1867 - The French Intervention in Mexico & the Death of Emperor Maximilian

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

June 19, 1867. Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico and brother of the Emperor of Austria, is executed by a firing squad near Queretaro. His French allies have abandoned him, the Americans want him gone, and Mexicans on both sides of the political aisle have rejected him. How did it all come to this? How did an Austrian nobleman backed by French troops end up ruling Mexico, only to be killed with American rifles? The story is stranger than you’d think.

For the first few decades of its existence, Mexico was what you might call a “hot mess.” After crazy wars, in crazy debt, and under the thumb of a powerful Conservative government, Mexico was not only regressive and backwards but heavily in debt. The Conservatives spent lavishly on the Army and the Catholic Church, and mainly served the interests of a small, white, Spanish-descended elite in Mexico City. The Liberals of the outlying provinces wanted more civil liberties and an expansion of democracy. In 1854, under the charismatic Indian-descended Benito Juarez, the Liberals rose up in revolt and overthrew the Conservative faction. They proposed the “Plan of Ayala,” a new scheme to reform and revitalize Mexico along the lines of the United States’ government, which they took as a model.

Juarez and his new Liberal government attempted to build a new republic along modern, decent lines. There was just one problem: the massive debt that still dragged Mexico down. Juarez and his ministers made the necessary decision: they had to default on the debt, if only for a short time, so they could get their house in order for the future. Maybe their creditors would understand: we can’t pay you now, but we WILL pay you.

Creditors are notoriously bad at understanding this, whether they’re mob bosses, Wells Fargo, or the IRS. In this case, though, Mexico’s creditors were Britain, Spain, and France, who wanted their ****** money back. When November 1861 rolled around and Mexico still couldn’t pay its debts, these three countries got a little expedition together and sailed off for the coast of Mexico. Britain and Spain, for all that they were basically shaking down a broke little country, at least ONLY wanted their money back. France had other motives.

Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, dreamed of repeating his uncle’s great military conquests and building a world empire. He never failed to get into any war he could, no matter how bad an idea. So when Mexican conservatives approached him and asked him for help in defeating the Liberals that had defeated them, Napoleon III said “Sure!” France wasn’t just going to shake Mexico down for debts – the French were coming to stay. The defeated Mexican conservatives enlisted France to come install a reactionary monarchy that would restore the power of the Church and the Army, and get that nasty (brown guy) Juarez out of power.

So when Britain, Spain and France all arrived off the coast of Mexico in 1861, the British and Spanish did what European countries did in the 19th Century: they bombarded some forts, landed some troops, and waited for the Mexicans to come out hat in hand. When they looked over at the French, though, the French weren’t doing that. They were landing whole armies and trying to advance inland. This was NOT what London and Madrid had signed up for: their partner had gone off the rails. So the British and Spanish representatives met with Juarez’s diplomats, who said “we’re super sorry, guys, we promise we’ll pay you off,” and the Brits and Spanish said something to the effect of “you know what? You’re good. Pay us back later. Let’s get out of this dump” and left.

The French did not leave. By 1862, the French were marching inland to try and occupy Mexico City. Juarez’s government was fighting a big, tough European power, and they were obviously not going to win a long war against a France that meant business. So it came as a complete shock to everyone – even the Mexicans – when on May 5, 1862, a Liberal Mexican army defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla. This victory is celebrated every year as “Cinco de Mayo,” an emblem of Mexican patriotism and remembrance that most white people know as an excuse to drink tequila and Dos Equis. The French retreated back to the east coast of Mexico, and spent the rest of 1862 building up their forces.

Where was America in all of this? Is the United States really going to let European powers invade and overthrow Mexico’s government? Well, we were…a bit busy. American Civil War busy. It’s one of the main reasons the French even tried this project: they knew that the United States would have had a lot to say about it if we weren’t *extremely* distracted with our Shilohs and Gettysburgs and stuff. Abraham Lincoln was furious at the French for invading a fellow American republic, but couldn’t do a lot about it with Robert E. Lee less than a hundred miles away from the White House. So America wasn’t involved – yet.

In 1863, more French troops arrived under Marshal Achille Bazaine, and finally the French marched into Mexico, defeated Juarez’s army, and captured Mexico City itself. One of the notable battles of this campaign involved the French Foreign Legion on one of its earliest campaigns, and it was here that the Foreign Legion’s reputation was born. But that’s not what we’re talking about today. The Mexican conservative dream was about to come true: Mexico was about to be a monarchy again! One slight problem…who was going to be the new Emperor of Mexico? That was never a question they had really thought about until now, but before they could come up with somebody France answered for them.

Maximilian was the brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, a genial and mild nobleman with a desire for adventure. He was a Habsburg, so he had connections with virtually every royal family in Europe, and Napoleon III wanted to patch up ties with Austria after a recent war. So he offered Maximilian the option to become Emperor of Mexico, with French backing, but only if he gave up all claim to his Austrian titles. Maximilian agreed, and sailed for the New World; by 1864, he was residing in Mexico City and had assumed the role Emperor of Mexico.

You may be asking: why? Why is France so worried about a monarchy in Mexico? Yeah, good question. It’s not 100% clear what Napoleon III thought he was going to get out of all of this besides expanding French glory and influence across the Atlantic – and that was probably most of the reason. It seemed like a cool idea. Why did Maximilian accept the offer? Well, that one’s easier. It can’t be a lot of fun watching your brother be Emperor while the most you’ve ever done is Commander of the Navy – it’s the Austrian Navy. It’s basically a bunch of toy boats on the coast of Croatia. It’s hardly like being an EMPEROR.

But now Maximilian was an Emperor. Hooray! Well, there was one little problem. (There’s always one little problem.) Benito Juarez and his Liberal government were still out there. With 40,000 French troops in Mexico trying to pacify the country, Juarez and his government had withdrawn to Chihuahua, and would eventually make their headquarters just south of El Paso on the American border. His campsite would eventually become the city that bears his name: Ciudad Juarez.

Juarez and his Liberals refused all offers of peace from Maximilian – especially since they still held most of the country. They began to fight a guerrilla war of resistance against the French, and even though the French won some major victories in 1864 and 1865 they never managed to pin down and destroy Juarez’s armies. Mexico is a big country, and it proved far too big for 40,000 Frenchmen to hold down.

As for Maximilian, he quickly became unpopular. The Conservatives, who had invited the French in the first place, were disappointed to find that Maximilian was actually a mild liberal who left most of Juarez’s democratizing reforms in place. He respected freedom of religion, tried to introduce modern legal practice, and in general wanted to bring Mexico into the modern age and turn it into a liberal enlightened monarchy like Napoleon III’s France. This was exactly what the Conservatives had NOT wanted a monarch for, and soon they were souring on Maximilian. And, of course, the Liberals hated him. The only thing keeping Maximilian on the throne at this point was the French Army.

As the guerrilla war dragged on, Maximilian got more and more frustrated with Juarez and his resistance. This wasn’t what it was supposed to be like to be an Emperor! People were supposed to do what he said! Out of frustration and bitterness, on October 3, 1865, Maximilian issued the “Black Decree,” which said that any Mexican caught bearing arms against the Empire would be immediately executed. By October 21, several of Juarez’s top lieutenants had been caught and killed; almost 11,000 Liberal fighters were executed under the Black Decree. It was one of Maximilian’s worst decisions, and among the most self-destructive. It only made the Mexican resistance more bitter and dedicated, and came back to bite its creator less than two years later.

By 1865, after all, the United States had finally sorted out its personal business, and immediately started making noise at France and Maximilian’s Empire. Having just finished the Civil War, the United States had a LOT of soldiers, and just as importantly a LOT of spare weapons. General Philip Sheridan marched with 40,000 battle-hardened veterans of Grant’s army to the Mexican border, and the United States began selling massive quantities of arms to Juarez’s army. Soon the tide was beginning to turn against the French; Juarez’s Liberals began to retake their cities and towns, making progress against the puppet government.

Napoleon III looked at the United States, looked at Mexico, and decided that this just wasn’t worth it anymore. He had a very strong and angry Prussia breathing down his neck right about now – and almost 15% of the French Army was in Mexico. Napoleon also valued his financial and political relationship with the United States far more than a puppet government in Mexico that had already proven to be way more trouble than he expected. Under the circumstances, and with news of defeats coming back across the ocean, Napoleon decided to end “the Mexican adventure.” On May 31, 1866, Napoleon III announced the beginning of French withdrawal from Mexico.

The troops still fighting Juarez’s men now were the Mexican Imperial troops, and they proved to be unmotivated to die for a French-supported Austrian. Juarez began winning more victories, including the capture of most of Mexico’s major cities. Maximilian’s empire was clearly crumbling, and by 1867 the last French troops were priming to leave Mexico.

Maximilian, though, chose to stay. He believed that the Mexicans loved him, and wanted to honor his duties to “his” Empire. Even though Napoleon III himself urged Maximilian to get out while the getting was good, Maximilian still had some supporters among the Mexican conservatives who promised they could rally the people and win the war. Even as the French withdrew, then, Maximilian rallied his small core of loyalists and led them to fight to the bitter end.

In February 1867, Juarez’s army surrounded Maximilian in the city of Queretaro. Maximilian had a sudden change of heart and tried to escape the city after several months, but on May 16 was captured by the Liberals. He probably did not expect what happened next. The Liberals had never forgotten the Black Decree, by which Maximilian had had many of their allies and friends executed. They determined to pay like unto like. Maximilian was put in front of a court-martial and sentenced to death.

Despite the protests from people like Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi, who sent telegrams and letters urging that he be spared, Juarez refused to commute Maximilian’s sentence. Though he liked the Austrian personally, Juarez believed that he had to pay for the actions of his government, and he had to send a signal to the European powers that Mexico would not tolerate another puppet being placed over them. Maximilian had to die.

At 6:40am on June 19, 1867, Maximilian was led in front of a firing squad. He spoke only in Spanish and gave each of his executioners a gold coin not to shoot him in the face, so that his mother could look upon him at his funeral. His last words were, "I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood, which is about to be shed, be for the good of the country. Viva Mexico, viva la independencia!"

Maximilian, last Emperor of Mexico, was laid to rest in Vienna on January 18, 1868, where his bier can still be seen today.

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