The Story of Mexico/Chapter 36
In 1861, four years after the declaration of the Constitution of 1857, on the 8th of December, there appeared in the waters of Vera Cruz a foreign squadron, over which floated the colors of three European powers. It was a combined expedition from the governments of Spain, England, and France. The commissioners from these three powers were accompanied by a body of Spanish troops, a smaller force of French ones, and some English sailors. Why were they there? Did they come to demand something? Had they an ultimatum to present?
The three powers had signed a treaty in London by which they agreed to send this threefold expedition to Mexico to demand guaranties for the safety of their subjects living there, and further to urge their claim to sums borrowed by the Mexicans during their difficulties, on which a law had been lately passed suspending payment. This was the pretext for the expedition; its real cause was below the surface.
The commissioners took possession easily of Vera Cruz, and then proceeded to Orizaba, where a conference was opened with Juarez. The demand for payment was readily acknowledged, and the commissioners for Spain and England at once withdrew their troops. But the French remained. The proclamation issued by the commissioners, declaring their presence in Mexico was for no other purpose than that of settling vexed questions, had served as a reason for introducing their troops. The expedition was undertaken in good faith by the English and Spanish governments, but when their commissioners found that a deeper question was involved, they extricated themselves and their governments from the affair and went away.
A plan had been formed in the court of the Tuileries, by Napoleon III., encouraged and even instigated by Mexican refugees who had sought the court of France, disgusted with the liberal turn of affairs in their own country. Among these were Gutierrez de Estrada, the ex-President Miramon, and others of the clergy party, who were opposed entirely to the supremacy of Juarez, and wanted above all things to bring back a monarchy to Mexico. At the same time the Archbishop of Mexico, robbed as he said of the property of his Church, warmly advocated the same cause at Rome.
The plan was to select a prince of some European house, and place him upon the throne left vacant since the abdication of Agustin I. in the capital of the Aztec Emperors. Estrada, indeed, was living in exile, on account of his pamphlet proposing this scheme. Napoleon III. accepted these overtures with alacrity, and at once furnished troops, money, and influence to the alluring idea of "opposing the Latin race to the invasion of Anglo-Saxons" in the New World—that is, to check the supremacy of the United States upon the western continent, and establish an Empire in Mexico, which, nominally independent, would be under his own control, and thus add to the glory of the French nation.
The time was opportune, for the United States were then engrossed in a civil war, which absorbed all their resources. The government at Washington could not give its attention to affairs in Mexico, and Napoleon hoped, in the not improbable event of the success of the Southern States, that there would be no danger of interference from that quarter.
The demands of the commissioners, therefore, were but an excuse for entering the country. Relying on the representatives of the Mexican émigrés, which promised cordial support from the clerical party at home, the French advanced towards the capital of Mexico.
Meanwhile, the future Emperor had been found. Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph, Archduke of Austria, of the house of Hapsburg Lorraine, accepted the proposition secretly made him by Napoleon, to become Emperor of Mexico.
He was brother of the reigning Emperor of Austria, and they were descended from the royal house of Charles V. of Germany and I. of Spain. Maximilian was born in 1832; in 1857 he had married the daughter of the King of Belgium, Carlotta Maria Amalia. These two young persons, for the prince was but little over thirty, were at Miramar, their archduke maximilian.
palace near Trieste, where they received the overtures of the Mexican conspirators. For many months the Archduke hesitated over so startling a proposal; finally he decided to accept the crown which was offered him, but "on the condition that France and England should sustain him with their guaranty, moral and material, both on land and sea." England, as we have seen, early withdrew from the alliance, with a loyalty to honorable principles greatly to its credit, well aware that the United States would look upon the scheme with no favor, and less confident than the French Emperor in the success of the Southern Confederacy.
Maximilian was a dreamer. The scion of the stock of kings, he believed firmly in the "right divine," which he persuaded himself to fancy, by tortuous ways might now be hovering over him. Ardently religious, he attached the highest importance to the preservation of the Church, and believed that he was an instrument to this end. The vision of Mexico snatched from the hands of impious rebels and restored to the prestige of an ancient Empire, fascinated him, and with a vivid imagination, he pictured himself, and his Carlotta, whom he dearly loved, as the central figures of the great restoration. His expression of this thought at Naples, in 1857, so often quoted, proves how far he was carried by the vividness of his dreams.
"The monumental stairway of the palace of Caserta is worthy of majesty. What can be finer than to imagine the sovereign placed at its head, resplendent in the midst of those marble pillars,—to fancy this monarch like a god graciously permitting the approach of human beings. The crowd surges upward. The king vouchsafes a gracious glance, but from a lofty elevation. All powerful, imperial, he makes one step towards them with a smile of infinite condescension.
"Could Charles V., could Maria Theresa appear thus at the head of this ascending stair, who would not bow the head before that majestic power God-given! I too, poor fluttering insect of a day, have felt such pride throb in my veins, when I have been standing in the palace of the Doges of Venice, as to think how agreeable it would be, not too often, but in rare solemn moments, to stand thus at the height of such an ascent, and glancing downward over all the world, to feel myself the First, like the sun in the firmament."
All this had been arranged, as is now known by the dates of the preliminary correspondence, before the French commissioners were sent to Vera Cruz. The conciliating attitude of Juarez towards them took away the pretext under which they had entered the country, but they had no orders to retire. On the contrary, reinforcements soon arrived, and the Mexican President found himself obliged to put an army in their way.
The expedition, whose object, no longer concealed, was "the triumph of the Latin race on American soil," advanced towards the capital. Mexico was divided by its two great parties for and against the invasion. The ultra-clerigos, secretly aware of the action of their party abroad, encouraged it; but there were many amongst them who paused before the innovation of a foreign ruler on Mexican soil.
French troops under the command of General Lorencez advanced upon Puebla, joined before they arrived there by a strong Mexican force of the clerical party under Márques, so that they had a large and effective army. The resisting force in Puebla was much smaller, not more than two thousand strong, but the defence under General Zaragoza was brilliant against a vigorous attack. The French were driven off and had to retire to Orizaba.
This is the victory of the Cinco de Mayo, or 5th of May, which the Mexicans celebrate as one of their best holidays. The battle was not in itself very important, but its moral effect upon the Mexicans was great, encouraging them to continue their gallant defence of their country. They fought to resist foreign intrusion. At that time they scarcely knew why it was thrust upon them, and could not have dreamed of the extent to which imperial audacity on the other side of the ocean had dared to go. To impose upon a free and able-bodied people a sovereign of foreign birth, without the slightest sign of inclination on their part, was hardly justified by the argument that this party constituted an important minority. The extent of the enterprise dawned upon the people gradually, as the scheme of the French Emperor unfolded itself. Meanwhile, there was fighting in Puebla, and the long-suffering Mexicans again took up arms.
The Indians, over whose villages peace for a few years had stretched her fostering wing, once more heard the noise of cannon and the call to arms. The old troubled life had come back again. Repose was only a dream.
On the 5th of May, every year, there are great rejoicings all over Mexico, but especially in the capital, where a broad handsome street, well paved and lighted, is called the Cinco de Mayo. All the troops are reviewed on that day by the President. The buildings are hung deep with flags and decorations, and the streets crowded with a joyous population swarming to and fro, crying Vivas! over the long procession of regiments marching through the city to the stirring sound of the Mexican national march.
An adventure of which the French are very proud occurred in the following month. After retreating from Puebla, the army of Lorencez was quartered in Orizaba where they were closely watched by Zaragoza's men. A body of four or five thousand Mexican troops placed themselves upon the Cerro de Borrego, high above the town, whence they threatened to bombard it. The condition of the French within the town grew more and more uncomfortable, food was giving out, and the presence of the overlooking enemy was, to say the least, annoying.
A young captain, lately promoted, watched and followed a Mexican woman whom he saw day by day, as she climbed a steep path to the height, carrying a water jar upon her head to supply the Mexican army. The French officer entreated permission of his general to attempt the dislodgement of the enemy. This granted, in the deep darkness of night one hundred and fifty soldiers crept cautiously up the narrow path, unconsciously betrayed by the Indian woman, close to the edge of the cliff. Suddenly, as they arrived at the top, the officer called out "A moi les Zouaves!" "A moi la Légion!" giving such a volley of directions that the Mexicans imagined the whole French army was upon their traces. Startled from secure slumber, they were easily overcome. The French claim the destruction of three hundred men, a general, three colonels, and two lieutenant-colonels, with all the arms and the colors of the Mexicans, who, if they survived the weapons of the small attacking party, fled and were lost in the steep slopes of the precipice.
Fresh troops came from France, and by the beginning of another year the army of invasion, commanded by Marshal Forey, numbered forty thousand men, not counting the Mexicans on that side, whose numbers increased as the magnitude of the enterprise became known.
Puebla again was the scene of the struggle. For two months General Ortega defended it obstinately, but food became scarce. A convoy bringing provisions, under charge of General Comonfort, was seized by the French under Marshal Bazaine, and on the 17th of May the besieged army was obliged to succumb, without capitulating. The French advanced towards the capital, and the Mexicans abandoned it, Juarez withdrawing towards the north, where he re-organized his government at San Luis de Potosi. He never relinquished his office during the whole of the French intervention, and remained all the time, in the minds of loyal Mexicans, and also in the language and opinion of the government of the United States, President of the still existing Mexican Republic.