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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 7

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Bonapartes in America

Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance

published by
Dorrance and Company,
Philadelphia, 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 9

 p178  VIII
Napoleon III and the Mexican Crisis

When Napoleon was in New York as a young man in 1837, he had written in his sketch on American institutions and customs that in the discussions then prevalent over slavery the United States had for the first time in its history given its attention to a moral issue. But when The War Between the States broke out, his sympathies as Emperor were strongly with the Southern Confederacy. In April, 1862, he tried to have England join him in some kind of demand on the United States. Slidell, of Slidell and Mason and Trent fame, the Confederate agent at Paris, assured Napoleon that even if war came with the United States, the French battle­ships Gloire and Normandie could lay Boston and New York under contribution. But Napoleon feared to move as his sympathies dictated.

The Confederate reverse at the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, with the subsequent preliminary Proclamation of Emancipation by Lincoln, was a great disappointment to Napoleon. Two weeks after that battle he formally invited England and Russia to join with France in requesting the North and the South to agree to an armistice for six months. Great Britain declined, and Russia was non‑committal. In January, 1863, Napoleon made another proposal: this time that commissioners from the North and the South meet on neutral ground. Seward, our Secretary of State, taking  p179 some liberties with the truth, in rejecting Napoleon's proposal replied that there were really no North and no South, and no Northern and Southern states, but "only an insurrectionary party," and that the government would soon rally its great resources to crush the revolt. Then Seward added one of those noble sentences which were the glory of his conduct of the Department of State during that crisis of our history: "It is a great mistake European statesmen make, if they suppose this people are demoralized."

Lincoln's Proclamation of Emancipation in January, 1863, gave the war an anti-slavery character in the minds of the peoples of Europe, and effectually spiked the guns of intervention on the part of either England or France, for the masses of the people of Europe were now in sympathy with the North. Vicksburg and Gettysburg, the great Union victories of the summer of 1863, were a sufficient demonstration to all European statesmen that the nation was not to be divided.

Among Louis Napoleon's schemes of empire, none was more tragic and ill‑fated than his intervention in Mexico. French exiles who came to the United States after Waterloo had schemed for an empire in Mexico with Napoleon as emperor, or Joseph, then at Bordentown, New Jersey, perhaps as a temporary emperor, until Napoleon could be brought from St. Helena. This enterprise was wrecked in the disasters which befell the French exiles in their settlement in Texas at Champ d'Asile.​a It fell to the great emperor's nephew, Napoleon III, to revive the dream of a French empire in the realm of Montezuma and Cortez.

 p180  The series of revolutions in Mexico and the struggles between the clerical faction and the party of that remarkable Indian, Benito Juarez, had wrought considerable injury to the interests of foreign powers, and in 1861 England, Spain and France sent troops and ships to Vera Cruz to seize the Customs and exact satisfaction for their claims. England and Spain soon came to an agreement with Mexico and withdrew their forces in April, 1862; but France made demands which she knew Mexico could not meet, and the French army marched on Mexico City. The French were repulsed at Puebla; then, heavily reinforced to the number of thirty-five thousand, they entered Mexico City in June, 1863. General Forney was the French commander, with Bazaine, afterwards Marshal Bazaine, who commanded the French troops in the final disasters of the War of 1870, as his chief subordinate. When Forney withdrew, Bazaine became his successor. Forney set up a provisional government whose leaders were opposed to republic headed by Juarez. This was followed by an Assembly of Notables which declared Mexico an Empire and offered the crown to the likable and attractive Maximilian, Archduke of Austria, and younger brother of the Austrian Emperor, Francis Joseph. Maximilian said he would accept the crown if the Empire were confirmed by a plebiscite. This confirmation was never secured. Nevertheless, in June, 1864, Maximilian made his entry as Emperor into Mexico City.

This intervention by France in the affairs of Mexico, and the setting up of an empire across our borders was, of course, viewed with great apprehension by the  p181 government and the people of the United States. But the nation was then in the death grapple of The War Between the States, and in no position to prosecute a war with France. Seward, the Secretary of State, in a cautious way let it be known to Napoleon that the course of events in Mexico was repugnant to the United States, but he made no demand or threat. The negotiations of Seward at this time show him at his best. The main objective was to avoid European intervention in the struggle then raging in the United States. Among our people there was much popular resentment towards France. McDougal, Senator from California, introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that the United States by force of arms should drive the French troops out of Mexico; and the Republican National Convention of 1864 adopted a plank which stated that "the people of the United States view with extreme jealousy, as menacing to the peace and independence of their own country, the efforts of any European power to obtain new footholds for monarchical governments, sustained by military force, in near proximity to the United States."

The Resolutions dealing with the situation in Mexico were laid on the table in the Senate on the motion of Charles Sumner, who said that if the Resolutions meant anything at all, they meant war. In the House of Representatives, however, a Resolution was passed stating that the members of the House were unwilling by their silence to "leave the world under the impression that they were indifferent spectators of the deplorable events transpiring in the Republic of Mexico, and  p182 thought fit to declare that it did not accord with the policy of the United States to acknowledge any monarchy erected in America upon the ruins of any Republic under the auspices of any European power."

This action by the House aroused the French Government, which inquired directly of our minister, "Do you mean peace or war?" Partisans of the Confederacy in Paris rejoiced at the passing of the Resolution and hoped that it would bring war with France. But the wise Seward instructed the American Minister to inform the French Government that the question of the recognition of a monarchy in Mexico was a purely executive one, and belonged "not to the House of Representatives, or even to the Congress, but to the President of the United States," and that although the House of Representatives was within its rights in expressing its opinion, the President did not contemplate any change in the policy hitherto followed with regard to France and Mexico.

Despite popular clamor, Seward pursued his wise and patient policy, biding his time until the United States could speak to Napoleon with the accents of invincible authority. In one of his sage comments on the situation, Seward said, "Nations no more than individuals can wisely divide their attention upon many subjects at the same time." In other words his sane and safe policy was, "One fight at a time."

Seward's policy towards Mexico, however, was almost shipwrecked by Lieutenant General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Grant, at the end of the Civil War. The action of Grant reveals how almost unconsciously in great crises the civil government  p183 is replaced by the military. Grant regarded the French operations in Mexico as an act of war against the United States. "I myself," he wrote in his Memoirs, regarded this as a direct act of war against the United States by the powers engaged, and supposed as a matter of course that the United States would treat it as such when their hands were free to strike."

Accordingly, after the surrender of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lee, Grant, as Commander of the Army, sent Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sheridan to Texas and the Rio Grande to force the surrender of the Confederates under General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Kirby Smith. At the same time he told Sheridan that there was another motive in sending him to Texas, and that was to assist Juarez in expelling the French from Mexico. He told Sheridan he would have to act with great circumspection since Secretary of State Seward was opposed to any display of force on the border that would be likely to involve the United States in war with France. Without waiting even to lead his command in the Grand Review at Washington, May 23 and 24, 1865, Sheridan set out for Texas and the Rio Grande. There he proceeded to do all he could to bring on hostilities and to assist the Mexican forces under General Juarez. He called upon the Maximilian General Mejia, commanding at Matamoras, to return munitions of war which had been turned over to him by ex‑Confederates. He opened communications, too, with President Juarez, and in such a public way that it created the impression among the followers of Maximilian that Sheridan was about to cross the Rio Grande and join the rebels under Juarez. This led to the abandonment of much territory  p184 in Northern Mexico by the Imperialists. A Mexican colonization scheme was being planned at Cordova. Promoters of the enterprise were ex‑Confederate Generals, Price, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Magruder, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Maury, and other prominent persons. Sheridan nipped this in the bud by prohibiting the embarkation from ports in Louisiana and Texas for ports in Mexico of any person without a permit from his headquarters. During the winter and spring of 1866 Sheridan covertly supplied munitions of war in large quantities to the army of Juarez, 13,000 muskets being sent from the Baton Rouge Arsenal alone. Sheridan, commenting on the part he played in the final drama in Mexico, said: "I doubt very much whether such results could have been achieved without the presence of an American army on the Rio Grande, which, be it remembered, was sent there, because in General Grant's words, 'the French invasion of Mexico was so closely related to the rebellion as to be essentially a part of it!' "1

General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Sherman also played a part in the last scenes in Mexico. President Johnson, perhaps to get rid of Grant, ordered him in September, 1866, to escort the newly appointed Minister, Lew Campbell of Ohio, to the headquarters of Juarez, the President-elect of Mexico. Grant sent for Sherman and said that he would not obey the order, for he regarded it as a plot to get rid of him. Sherman informed President Johnson of this, and advised him not to break with Grant, and volunteered to go in his place. Taking over Grant's  p185 instructions, Sherman and the newly appointed Minister set sail for Vera Cruz, where they made ineffectual attempts to contact Juarez. Sherman thought that under the pretext of Grant's well-known antagonism to the French occupation of Mexico, Johnson hoped to be rid of Grant, who was looming up as a candidate for the Presidency.

During the last months of the Civil War, that veteran and shrewd negotiator, Francis Blair, Sr., received from Lincoln this pass, "Allow the bearer, F. P. Blair, Sr., to pass our lines, go South and return. A. Lincoln. Dec. 28, 1864."

Armed with this pass, Blair took his carpet bag and made his way to Richmond, where he had a long interview with Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Jefferson Davis. In this interview Blair revived the idea, which was now so far from the mind of Seward, but which he himself had suggested to Lincoln at the beginning of the conflict — that is, uniting the North and South by a foreign war. Blair reminded Davis of the schemes of Napoleon III to make the Latin race supreme in the Southern section of North America. He told Davis that he was "the fortunate man who now holds the commanding position to encounter this formidable scheme of conquest and whose fiat can at the same time deliver his country from the bloody agony now covering it with mourning." Blair's plan as suggested to Davis was, first of all, an armistice between the North and the South, and then the transfer of a part of the Southern army to Texas, thence to enter Mexico and drive out Maximilian and the French. Jefferson Davis could even be made Dictator of Mexico.  p186 If Davis took the lead in this expedition, delivered Mexico out of the hands of the French, and united the North and the South, he would go down in history with a fame not second to that of Washington and Jackson.

Blair found Davis in a soft and accessible mood, for Davis spoke of his devotion to the old flag, and how when he was present at the battle of Bull Run and saw the United States flag unfurled in the breeze he thought for a moment that it was his own flag. He told Blair, too, that no circumstances could have a greater effect than to see the "arms of our countrymen North and South united in a war upon a foreign power," and he was convinced that the Northern and Southern States should exhaust their energies and destroy their governments in fighting each other, "thus making them a prey to potentates of Europe." But one of the chief obstacles in the way of reconciliation, Davis said, was the bitterness engendered by the outrages of the North armies in their invasion of the South.

The result of this interview was the famous Fortress Monroe Conference on the River Queen between Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, and David Hunter, representing Davis; and Lincoln and Seward on the Northern side. At this interview Stephens revived the proposed crusade against the French in Mexico. Once the States ceased to fight each other, he thought the Union could be restored. But Lincoln was adamant on the question of an armistice, and nothing came of the Conference.

 p187  In December, 1865, Seward politely told France to get out of Mexico or fight. Napoleon tried in vain to secure recognition of Maximilian by the United States as a condition of the withdrawal of the French troops. On April 5, 1866, Le Moniteur, Napoleon's official organ, announced the scheduled withdrawal of the troops in three detachments, November, 1866, and March and November, 1867. But when the time came for the first third to be called back to France, Napoleon announced that he had decided to postpone the withdrawal until the spring of 1867. To this Seward would not consent. The troops of Juarez were steadily winning in northern Mexico and the fall of Maximilian's Empire was only a question of time. On January 18, 1867, Napoleon made a final proposal of a provisional government, with both the Maximilian faction and the Juarez faction excluded. This also was rejected by the United States. The next month the French evacuated Mexico City. This sounded the doom of Maximilian and his short-lived Empire. He was captured by the troops of Juarez, and on June 19, 1867, "carrying a cross,"​2 fell before a firing squad at Queretaro, murmuring as he fell, "Poor Carlotta!" The United States through Seward had made a half-hearted attempt to secure clemency for the Emperor, and when the fall of Maximilian's kingdom was imminent, Napoleon sent a special envoy, General Castellane, to Mexico to plead with Maximilian to abdicate his throne.

Carlotta, the Archduchess, and daughter of the King of the Belgians, had gone to France in 1866 to plead  p188 with Napoleon to uphold the throne of her husband. Repulsed by Napoleon, she went to Rome and sought an audience with the Pope. There she declined to leave the Vatican and created amo embarrassing scene. Obviously deranged, the unfortunate woman later on shut herself in her apartments and refused the food that had been prepared for her, convinced that the emissaries of Napoleon were trying to poison her. She was afterwards removed to a villa near Brussels, where her long agony came to an end only on January 19, 1927. She had endured the World War in Belgium, survived all the chief actors in her own great tragedy, and outlived her dead love by three score empty, mercifully beclouded years.

In the negotiations which finally led to the withdrawal of the French troops from Mexico in 1867, a prominent part was played behind the scenes by Napoleon's old New York acquaintance, General James Watson Webb. At the outbreak of the War Lincoln appointed Webb our Minister to Austria. The appointment was not confirmed by the Senate, and Webb was then appointed Minister to Brazil. On his way to Rio de Janeiro, Webb was instructed by Lincoln to wait on Napoleon at Paris and ascertain his views as to the blockade of Southern ports which the United States had established. The Emperor at that time took no exception to the methods being pursued by our government.

In 1863 General Webb, as an old friend of the Emperor, wrote Napoleon pointing out the mistakes of his policy in Mexico, and telling him that the United States would never consent to a Roman Catholic empire across  p189 our borders. To this Napoleon, writing under date of March 22, 1863, replied as follows:

"My dear General:

"I received your letter of March 8 and the intimate note enclosed therein; which, after perusal, I burned immediately, according to your wishes, and without mentioning the subject to anyone.

"The questions you treat of are very important and very delicate; still I will answer them in all frankness. You are greatly mistaken if you believe that any motive of ambition or cupidity has led me to Mexico. Engaged in this enterprise by Spain, and led by the doings of Juarez, I reluctantly sent, first, ten thousand men; afterwards, the national honor being compromised, my troops were increased to eighteen thousand; finally, the repulse at Puebla having engaged our military honor, I sent over thirty-five thousand men.

"It is, therefore, much against my inclination that I am compelled to wage war at such a distance from France; and it is in no way for the purpose of taking possession of the mines of Sonora that my soldiers are fighting. But now that the French flag is in Mexico, it is difficult for me to foretell what may happen. At all events, it is my intention to withdraw as soon as honor and the interests now engaged allow me. It would be wrong in the United States, therefore, to make my being there a matter of dispute; for a menace would then change all my plans, which now are disinterested.

"As regards the war which desolates your country, I profoundly regret it; for I do not see how and when  p190 it will end; and it is not the interest of France that the United States should be weakened by a struggle without any good results possible. In a country as sensible as America it is not by arms that domestic quarrels should be settled, but by votes, meetings, and assemblies. Be persuaded, my dear General, of my interest in your country, as well as my friendship, not high esteem which I professor for your character.

"With these sentiments, I remain

Yours, etc.,


Webb showed this letter to Lincoln, who relied on Napoleon's promise to withdraw. What Napoleon wrote to Webb about a "menace" on the part of the United States changing the attitude of France was evidently in the mind of Seward as he carried on his cautious negotiations with the Emperor in the crisis over the French intervention in Mexico. When The War Between the States had come to a close, and the United States was able to back up its demand with force, Seward took a more positive stand. Yet even then he was careful not to irritate France, for a war with her had in it the dread possibility of the breaking out again of the still smouldering flames of the American Civil War.

At the time of the crisis over Mexico, General Webb had a memorable interview with Napoleon at St. Cloud on November 10, 1865. At this conference Napoleon  p191 agreed to withdraw his troops in twelve, eighteen, and twenty-four months. One condition was that Dayton, our minister to France,​b should know nothing of the agreement, and that even Seward was to have no official knowledge of it. Webb was to notify President Johnson and wire Johnson's assent. The next April Napoleon publicly announced the withdrawal of his army from Mexico. The settlement of the Mexican and French crisis was thus not so much a triumph of the State Department under the leader­ship of Seward as it was an interesting and dramatic illustration of the influence of a personal friendship in the affairs of nations. Little could either Napoleon or General Webb have foreseen, as they went about New York City together in 1837, that their friendship was to play a great part in the peaceable settlement of a difficult and dangerous dispute between the United States and France, and at a crucial point in America's history.

Grant had a poor opinion of Napoleon III, and rightly blamed him rather than France for the scheme to erect a monarchy upon the ruins of the Mexican Republic. That, Grant says,

"was the scheme of one man, an imitator without genius or merit. He had succeeded in stealing the government of his country, and made a change in its form against the wishes and instincts of his people. He tried to play a part of the first Napoleon without the ability to sustain that role. He sought by new conquests to add to his empire and his glory; but the signal failure of his scheme of conquest was the precursor of his own overthrow.

 p192  "Like our own War Between the States, the Prussian War was an expensive one; but it was worth to France all it cost her people. It was the completion of the downfall of Napoleon III. The beginning was when he landed troops on this continent. Failing here, the prestige of his name — all the prestige he ever had — was gone. He must achieve a success or fall. He tried to strike down his neighbor, Prussia, and fell.

"I never admired the character of the first Napoleon; but I recognize his great genius. His work, too, has left its impress for good on the face of Europe. The third Napoleon could have no claim to having done a good or just act."​4

The Authors' Notes:

1 Sheridan, Personal Memoirs, II, p228.

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2 Life, April 11, 1938.

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3 Jerrold, Napoleon III, v. 3, p343.

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4 Grant, Memoirs, II, p547.

Thayer's Notes:

a See chapter 10.

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b So the printed text: but William L. Dayton, minister to France under Lincoln, died in 1864. In November 1865 the minister to France was John Bigelow. I hesitate to make the correction in the text itself since something else might have been meant.

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