Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Foreign Influence in the Mexican Empire

The foreign forces involved in Mexico during the period of the Second Empire were truly a diverse lot. Few people realize just how diverse. All too often the conflict is regarded as a contest between the Mexicans on one side and the French on the other. In fact, the armies fighting for Mexican President Benito Juarez and those fighting for Mexican Emperor Maximilian were each quite diverse, though those supporting Maximilian were infinitely more so. Most of the non-Mexican forces among the republicans of Benito Juarez were Americans, predominately former U.S. Army troops from north of the Mason-Dixon line who viewed the French Emperor Napoleon III as their enemy because of his perceived sympathy with the Confederacy of southern states. The establishment of a monarchy in Mexico was also seen by many in the northern states as a challenge to American republicanism and a threat to U.S. domination of North America. A large percentage of those Union troops who went to Mexico to fight for Juarez were African-Americans who tended to be even more sympathetic to Juarez than their other comrades in blue, seeing him, a Zapotec Indian, and his fight against the Austrian Maximilian as a struggle by a dark-skinned native against White, European domination. The only Union troops who, as a group, were most ill-disposed toward Juarez were the many Irish Catholics in the U.S. Army who objected to the anti-clericalism of Juarez.

Although thousands of American veterans served with Juarez, the greatest support from the United States was not in men but in weapons, uniforms, equipment and the diplomatic pressure they brought to Paris to force Napoleon III to withdraw his support for Maximilian and his struggling empire. After 1865, when the Confederacy was firmly defeated, American support poured into northern Mexico without hindrance. It must have seemed a strange sight given the long history of antagonism between the United States and Mexico to see so many Mexican troops who could have been mistaken for U.S. Army regulars, wearing complete U.S. Army uniforms, carrying American rifles, complete with ammo boxes and belt buckles stamped “US”. Because of this support, in the days when the Mexican Imperial forces were at their weakest due to the withdrawal of the French, the Mexican republicans were at their peak with far superior weaponry and greater stores of supplies. While the troops of Maximilian fought with outdated muskets and antique artillery (some dating back to the Spanish army) many republicans carried the latest American-made Henry repeating rifles and state-of-the-art rifled artillery. When the final clash of arms came, despite popular perceptions, it was the republicans who were better armed, better equipped with more supplies and more money than the monarchists.

However, it was the forces fighting for and on behalf of Emperor Maximilian that were, by far, the most diverse. There were Mexicans, native Indians, French, Belgians, Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Poles and even a troop of Sudanese Africans sent by the Khedive of Egypt. The French also made use of colonial troops from their Caribbean islands, most of whom were of African origin. Americans also fought for Emperor Maximilian after 1865, almost invariably these were former Confederates who had no desire to live under ‘Yankee rule’ in their own homeland. They were not, however, anywhere near as numerous as the Americans who fought for Juarez, partly because U.S. forces moved quickly to seal off the border and prevent southerners fleeing to Mexico where they would doubtlessly aid the side that Washington was against (namely the Emperor).

General Tomas Mejia
The diversity of the Mexican Imperial Army was seen even at the highest levels. Among the top commanders were General Miguel Miramon, a Mexican of Spanish blood; General Raul Mendez, a Mexican of mixed blood and General Tomas Mejia, a Mexican of pure Indian blood. This shocked some in Mexican society but Emperor Maximilian was adamant that Mejia was a talented general who deserved a rank that reflected his achievements. He was also fond of saying that his Indian general most likely possessed an older bloodline than any of his European counterparts. There were also, of course, Marshal Achille de Bazaine and his French generals, the Austrian General Franz Count von Thun-Hohenstein (born in what is the Czech Republic today), the Belgian Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Baron Van der Smissen, the American General John B. Magruder, the German Prince Felix zu Salm-Salm and others. Some could even confuse those doing the classifying such as the eventual turncoat Colonel Miguel Lopez who was a Mexican born and raised but whose skin was so fair and hair so blonde many mistook him for a European officer.

The Sudanese Battalion
They may have lagged behind their republican enemies in state-of-the-art weaponry but the imperialists were certainly a much more colorful bunch. The Sudanese wore baggy white uniforms with red sashes and fezzes while their officers wore red uniforms almost totally covered in gold braid. They were quite a unique unit by themselves with Black African soldiers, led by Turkish or Egyptian officers sent by a Khedive whose family was Albanian and under the religious authority of a Sultan who was a quarter French and whose mother was Wallachian. The Hungarian hussars favored uniforms that resembled their national colors of green, red and white which was probably popular being the same as the national colors of Mexico. There were the Red Hussars who took their name from their bright outfits, the Belgians in their braided tunics and tall hats and French zouaves outfitted in the Algerian style which was very popular at the time. Their languages were equally diverse. The Mexicans spoke Spanish of course but some officers could speak French just as some French officers who had served in Spain could speak Spanish. The Belgian officers spoke French while many of their troops spoke Dutch and amongst the Austrian Corps the infantry spoke German, the lancers spoke Polish and the hussars spoke Hungarian. The Americans spoke English of course but luckily the families of southern plantation owners usually taught their children French, the language of “civilization”. Some veterans of the Mexican-American War had picked up at least a little Spanish as well during their service south of the border.

A totally foreign observer would be forgiven for thinking that Mexico was the scene of some sort of world conflict during the mid 1860’s. Of those European monarchies not represented on the battlefield, most were at least supportive of the Mexican Empire. The British Empire could make or break almost any overseas adventure, and Britain was not thrilled about anything that would rock the boat and possibly disrupt trade but they were not adamantly opposed either. Whatever was thought of the establishment of a monarchy, there was no doubt that the would-be emperor was popular. Queen Victoria was positively effusive in her praise of Maximilian when her uncle Leopold sent him to London for her inspection prior to Max marrying his daughter. After listing a number of his wonderful attributes, Queen Victoria bestowed upon him the greatest compliment possible for her, saying he seemed “so English”. When the couple were on their way to Mexico years later the British garrison at Gibraltar fired a thunderous salute as their vessel passed. The Spanish, as was becoming habitual, were too busy trying to see which faction could get rid of their own monarch first to worry much about Mexico. King Victor Emmanuel II of Italy, when Empress Carlota met him at Padua on her way to Rome, impressed on her his great admiration for Emperor Maximilian. According to the galantuomo he was ‘kind and good’ and Carlota proudly wrote to her husband, “He asked me to tell you how much he loved you, for, he added, ‘He has such good ideas…’” It is worth remembering that the Italians had only recently been given a drubbing by the Austrian fleet that Maximilian had prepared in his prior occupation as a Grand Admiral. However, regardless of politics, everyone seemed to adore Maximilian. Even his enemies in Mexico had a hard time hating the man himself.

Hungarian troops in Mexico
About the only foreign country solidly on the side of the Mexican republicans was the United States but, of course, that was the one country that mattered the most for Mexico. By 1865 the U.S. had the largest army and the largest navy in the world, the very latest weapons and freshly victorious, battle-hardened troops. No government in Mexico that failed to gain the approval of Washington DC could hope to survive. Perhaps more than all of the men and guns and supplies the U.S. sent to the rebels it was Secretary of State Seward who brought the full diplomatic weight of the U.S. against both the presence of French troops in Mexico and the sending of any other European forces to Mexico to aid Emperor Maximilian. Thousands of Austrian (not all “Austrians” of course) were ready to set sail when Seward threatened Vienna with war if they did so and the Kaiser backed down. Napoleon III did as well, recalling all of his forces just as they were on the cusp of victory and in spite of agreements signed with Maximilian. Seward invoked the “Monroe Doctrine” which claimed the western hemisphere as America’s exclusive sphere of influence and a “republics only club”. Ironically, this was the same man who had, earlier in his career, advocated that the United States annex Canada or Mexico or perhaps even both. From London to Paris to Vienna there were grumbles but no one would ever dare to challenge the might of the United States. This is important to remember since the conflict in Mexico is so often portrayed as “Mexico versus the foreigners” (which it was not, it was a Mexican civil war as much as anything). While it is true that the Empire of Maximilian had the most help from foreign countries it is no less true that the ultimate victory of the republic of Benito Juarez is owed entirely to the United States. Mexican patriots would do well to give that some serious thought even today.

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