Confederates in Mexico

A review of Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico by Mary Margaret McAllen (Trinity University Press, 2014).

Leaving forever the land of your fathers is painful, yet many Southerners turned further south, contemplating that choice on the eve of their destruction by the North. With most of their wealth bound to the land, what resource could they find to re-establish themselves elsewhere? And where was that sanctuary, when country after country was hostile to them in language, culture, government, and climate? Many Southerners emigrated to Mexico.

The prospect of life in Mexico at that moment was truly a daunting proposition. Not only was Mexico embroiled in a civil war, but it was entering one of its most dramatically chaotic periods, one that would permanently shape its national character. Oddly, most American historians have ignored this chapter in Mexican history, in spite of its relevant context for both nations, leaving the accretion of its enormous bibliography to the Europeans.

Maximilian and Carlota fills this missing context, thanks to M.M. McAllen’s scholarship that navigates the several languages required to understand it. Furthermore, she does so in highly readable fashion, approachable by the casual reader. The book’s focus is on that larger historical context. However, readers of Confederate history can sample the wealth of detail on their subject by typing “Confederate” into the Google text search for the book, here.

The Mexican civil war pitted the ostensibly liberal democratic forces of Benito Juárez (designated Liberals or Juaristas by McAllen) against the conservatives – the hacendados (big estate owners) and the clergy. This War of Reform (La Reforma) that had already been raging for a decade at the time of Appomattox, had seen the land of the conservatives threatened with expropriation by the Constitution of 1857. Seeing that there was no native leader powerful enough to restore their privileges, the conservatives decided to restore the Mexican monarchy through a foreigner, the archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of Austria, with the sponsorship of the French monarch, Napoléon III – nephew of the well-known Napoléon Bonaparte. These supporters of Maximilian (designated Imperialistas by McAllen) had in fact triumphed: In May, 1865, their 60,000 men under the French commander François Achille Bazaine ruled three-quarters of the country, and Juárez controlled not a single state capital or a single seaport [p183-184]. Juárez was little better than a bandit leader, hiding in northern Mexico and slipping into the United States when the French came too close.

Then the United States government stepped in.

General Philip Sheridan, the great innovator of war on civilians in the Shenandoah and future genius of Indian genocide on the Great Plains, began supplying arms to the Juaristas, with the full knowledge and encouragement of General Grant [p187]. Former Yankee officers set up a recruiting station at Fort Brown on the Rio Grande, paying mercenaries $50 a month to join the Liberals. In New York Yankee General Lew Wallace of Shiloh infamy, helped Juaristas float a $30 million bond offering for the purchase of weapons from army surplus and from former Union arms dealers. When few investors bought in, the arms dealers bought it themselves [p205]. Wallace and another former Union General, R.C. Crawford, would actually invade Mexico in January, 1866, and lead Juaristas in the sack of the port of Bagdad, near the Rio Grande [p229]. In November of that year, William T. Sherman and Lewis D. Campbell, the American minister to Mexico, brazenly showed up in Veracruz with the offer of military and naval assistance to the Juaristas [p313].

Beaten and broke in the summer of 1865, these noble Juarista patriots of Mexico joined hands with the vultures of the North. Juárez himself wanted to sell mining concessions in Sonora, rail and telegraph easements, and even the entire Baja peninsula to the Nortes in exchange for their support [p44]. Juarista General Plácido Vega sold Mexican mining leases to them for $600,000, with which he bought arms and ammunition; Californians Mason and Alfred Green persuaded San Francisco bankers to offer $10 million in bonds, the proceeds of which bought Henry repeating rifles, cannon, and other munitions for Juarista armies [p249]. Secretary of State William Seward countenanced all this, as well as the establishment of seven recruitment centers in New York City and one in Washington, DC [p237], all the while keeping up a front of neutrality.

These interventions were acts of war, and demonstrations of the Union government’s greed and its hypocrisy toward its claim to being defenders of democratic self-determination.

Indeed, Maximilian did not immediately accept the offer of the throne from the Mexican delegation of conservatives that arrived at Miramar, his estate near Trieste on the Adriatic, on October 2, 1863 [p98]. He waited for six months until he received the result of a plebiscite that convinced him that a majority of Mexicans wanted him as emperor. Considering that acceptance of the crown meant giving up all future claims to the crown in Austria, and considering the danger and uncertainty of Mexico, his idealism, and that of his Belgian wife Carlota, was truly remarkable.

Maximilian was six feet tall, slender, with expressive blue eyes and pale skin, blonde hair, and a short beard parted in the middle. Though McAllen does not say so, he had inherited the Habsburg prognathous lower jaw, whose drooping lower lip gave him something of a hound dog look – or would have, without the beard. Nevertheless, his geniality and natural bearing never failed to impress those in his presence. He spoke at least ten languages, including Spanish, and could converse in German, French, Flemish, Italian, Latin, English, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, and Croatian [p140]. He and Carlota conversed in German, but Carlota was also fluent in Spanish, French, English, and Italian. Maximilian was a good horseman and something of a botanist, collecting samples wherever he went. His training was in the Austrian navy, so on military matters he deferred to others, particularly Bazaine, the commander of all the French forces that had conquered Mexico for him.

These forces were quite a motley. In addition to Mexican soldiers, there were contingents from Austria, Belgium, and all over the French empire from Turkey to Algeria, representing twenty-two nations in all [p110]. From all of this was supposed to emerge an army capable of holding together the recreated Mexican monarchy once the French protectorate had left. Under pressure from the United States, as well as from Prussia, especially after it crushed the Austrians at Sadowa (Königgrätz) in the summer of 1866, the French left early, leaving behind no reliable defense for Maximilian and Carlota.

Without this protection, the new royal couple, who were sincerely dedicated to the welfare and prosperity of Mexico and its people, had a space of only three years to accomplish something. It is impressive what they did accomplish. Most of all, Maximilian wanted peace. To the dismay of the conservatives, he left in place the land reforms of the Constitution of 1857, which should have stolen the Liberal thunder and thus led Juárez to accept Maximilian’s surprising offer to make him prime minister [p116]. Maximilian converted the currency to decimal based, created new highways and railroads despite their constant sabotage by Liberal guerrillas, imported thousands of books, encouraged the arts and sciences through the establishment of imperial awards for the young in those fields, restored some of the Mexican artifacts stolen by European powers, kept the foreigners out of the Sonoran silver mines [p193], regularly met with indigenous tribes to address their grievances and bring them into the social order, and lavished money on hospitals and other charities [p166]. Carlota worked to end peonage [p194], which bound poor Mexican farmers to the haciendas in perpetual debt – in fact, slavery in all but the name – but failed. And, to the consternation of his officers in the field, Maximilian was generous to a fault with pardons and amnesties for captured Liberals, mistakenly thinking it would turn their hearts to him.

Support from such a benign government might have turned the tide in favor of the South. As it was, over 320,000 bales of cotton passed through Matamoros during the course of the War Between the States [p159], sustaining the Confederacy through the Union blockade, and enriching Mexico, which relied almost exclusively on customs duties to sustain government. Although both Maximilian and Carlota wanted Confederates to come to Mexico both as colonists and as defenders of the realm, they publicly discouraged their immigration, foolishly believing that the United States might one day recognize their government.

Nevertheless, by late spring of 1865, some 8,000 to 10,000 Confederates had relocated to Mexico [p185]. These included John B. Magruder, James E. Slaughter (defender of Mobile, and later, Galveston with Magruder), Edmund Kirby Smith, and the governors of Louisiana and Texas (Henry Watkins Allen and Pendleton Murrah, respectively, though not named by McAllen).

The most prominent Confederate immigrant of all was Matthew Fontaine Maury, something of a genius in creating navigational charts for open sea sailing, and a man unafraid of putting the most daring ideas into action. At the start of the War Between the States he had gone to Europe to encourage governments to either intervene to end the war, or to recognize the Confederacy. After the war he thought of a scheme to have Brazil buy Southern slaves and thus provide compensation for ridding the South of slavery. When that plan failed, he approached Maximilian in June, 1865, with a detailed scheme to colonize Mexico with 100,000 Southerners and their slaves. Because slavery (but not peonage) had been abolished in 1829, their slaves would enter Mexico under an indenture of seven years and then be set free. He must have been persuasive, for he was naturalized as a Mexican citizen and given the title “Imperial Commissioner of Immigration” [p192].

Maury’s plan concentrated Confederate colonists along Maximilian’s new Mexico City railroad. At one site, diplomatically named Carlota, the former governor of Tennessee Isham Harris and General Joseph O. Shelby with 50 members of his Iron Brigade settled. The prospect of its success even had American businessmen petitioning Congress for recognizing Maximilian’s government. Colonization at Carlota credited 640 acres per family, or 320 acres for single men, for purchase at a dollar an acre. The colony quickly jumped to 500 members, with most of the colonists not bringing slaves with them. By autumn of 1865, an additional 2,000 Confederates had entered the country [p193].

In spite of this initial success, attacks by Juaristas on the colonists and threats from the United States discouraged further settlement. Exasperated by Maximilian’s dithering support of Confederate colonization, Maury left for England, never to return to Mexico, and the emperor disbanded his office of immigration in April 1866 [p241].

With the departure of the French on March 16, 1867, and with Juaristas enjoying the full support of the United States –economic, military, naval, and even the support of American leadership on the battlefield – Maximilian’s days were numbered. He had wanted to abdicate, but only with guarantees of safety for those left behind. This Juárez refused. Although the Constitution of 1857 forbade capital punishment, he insisted on his own selectively applied “law of January 25, 1862,” which called for death to any armed opponent of the Liberal republic. Primarily on the advice of his wife and mother, Maximilian took a stand at Querétaro, where he was betrayed and captured without a final battle.

Standing before a firing squad at seven in the morning of June 19, 1867, alongside faithful Generals Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía, Maximilian said in Spanish:

Mexicans: Men of my class and origins are appointed by God to be the happiness of people or their martyrs. Called by some of you, I came for the good of the country; I did not come for ambition, but animated by the best wishes for the future of my adoptive country, for the brave who died before in the glorious sacrifice. Mexican people, I hope that my blood will be the last to be spilled and I pray that it regenerates this unhappy country. ¡Viva México! ¡Viva la Independencia! [p387]

Juárez withheld the return of Maximilian’s body for five months, hoping to extort Austria into recognizing his government. Although Carlota had earlier been sent away to Europe to plead for support of her husband, she suffered a paranoiac breakdown a short time before her husband’s execution. She lived until 1927.

McAllen’s account abounds with colorful and outrageous characters: Zouaves and Algerians in native costume; Colonel Du Pin, the brutal Imperialista counterguerrilla commander of the tierra caliente, or northern interior, wearing “a vast Mexican sombrero and a long white beard, […] white pants with large folds, yellow riding boots with large Mexican spurs” and leading a band of rag-tag desperados from a dozen nations; Father Augustin Fischer, a German adventurer and California gold seeker, returned to the cloth while yet consorting with Mexican girls, making a living flattering the two royals; the honorable Juarista intellectual Vicente Riva Palacio, whose father defended Maximilian before the rigged “trial” before his execution; the jug-eared Juarista Mariano Escobedo, whose gentlemanly patience was constantly exasperated by Princess Agnes, wife of Félix Salm-Salm, the daring Prussian who put aside his royal titles to become a soldier of fortune. Agnes was a red-haired American girl from Vermont who had once worked in a circus – beautiful and every bit the match of her husband in fearlessness and brass, following him into war in a half dozen countries. In Mexico her repeated approaches to Benito Juárez in person after traveling alone over dangerous country moved him to spare her husband’s life, and likely many officers of the Imperialistas as well. When caught by Escobedo trying to arrange the escape of her husband, one officer tried to grab her arm to escort her away. As she relates it:

As quick as lightning, I drew from under my dress my little revolver, and pointing at the breast of the terrified captain, I cried, ‘Captain, touch me with one finger and you are a dead man.’ [p376]

Several lessons abide from the book. One is its demonstration of how people can act in ways diametrically opposite to their rationally stated goals. For example: The entire Mexican clergy, led by one Antonio de Labastida, was willing to turn their congregations against their own chosen defender, Maximilian, when he would not return to them all of their vast original lands, even though that would have meant putting decades of established land titles in chaos. French commander Bazaine, who needed all the military help he could get, repeatedly thwarted the creation of a viable Mexican army, and even spiked cannon and put down horses before his final return to France [p312]. Most glaring of all was Juárez, who was willing to risk his own destruction rather than become second to the man who had given up his homeland to guarantee the Liberal ideals that supposedly meant everything to Juárez himself. Another lesson is the legacy of this period for present-day Mexico. One sees its perpetuation in the violence, in the racism toward its indigenous peoples, in the imperial pretenses, in the neglect of its citizens by its leaders, all cynically mouthing the ideals of La Revolución while enriching themselves and their corrupt friends, and in the touchy inferiority complex that longs for the comeuppance of the Europeans.

The book could have profited from a few good maps, and there was some disappointment in finding nothing about the Knights of the Golden Circle, Southerners who wanted to conspire or collaborate with Maximilian much in the way that Matthew Fontaine Maury did. Also, while there is some mention of the brutality of the Liberals – for example the mutilation and rape of railroad passengers near Veracruz that led to the infamous Black Decree of October 3, 1865 – the reader doesn’t come away with a real experience of their routine savagery. Just one description of the cases of wholesale slaughter of indigenous Indians who supported Maximilian might have brought this home. On a more mundane level, an editor might have struck the word “passel” [p64] and changed “absolution” to “pardon” [p206], “except” to “accept” [p233], and “courtesans” to “courtiers” [p291] – but these are peccadillos.

McAllen’s book is probably the best read you will find on this period of Mexican history, and it can’t be too highly recommended for Southern history readers looking for the “big picture” south of the border.

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