Friday, November 9, 2012

French Imperial Army in Mexico, Part II

Continued from Part I

Marechal de France Bazaine
Bazaine had started out as a private and worked his way up through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant while serving with the legion in Algeria. He had distinguished himself in Crimea, Italy and at the battles of San Lorenzo and the siege of Puebla. He was popular and well respected by his men but over time problems did develop between him and Emperor Maximilian. Even some on the French side feared that he was going too native and might have had aspirations toward local power after he married an obscenely young girl from the Mexican aristocracy. Bazaine was quickly promoted to Marshal of France and set out on a campaign to crush the remaining resistance under Juarez who was driven from San Luis Potosi to Saltillo, four hundred miles farther north. With every French victory more Mexicans defected to what seemed to be the winning side and soon Juarez was reduced to little more than a fugitive on the run in the barren deserts of northern Mexico. By the spring of 1864 the French controlled most of Mexico and had a force of 38,000 men plus 1,800 Mexican auxiliaries.

However, the situation was not as good as it seemed on paper or as sunny as the reports Marshal Bazaine was sending home to his Emperor in Paris. The French could not effectively garrison every area and the Juaristas were quick to flee before them only to return as soon as the French marched away. After suffering so many defeats Juarez adopted a guerilla warfare policy and Mexican republicans were reduced to behaving more like bandits than regular soldiers, avoiding confrontations with the French unless the odds seemed extremely stacked in their favor. The French also suffered from having small arms that were quite behind the times. At first this was not of very great consequence as the Mexican liberals were even more poorly armed. However, after 1865 the United States was able to send large numbers of the latest weapons to their republican allies in Mexico including repeating rifles and rifled artillery. French artillery was very good but none was left behind for the benefit of the Mexican Imperial Army once the French pulled out of Mexico.

By the fall of 1864 the French army reached the northern border with Texas and was able to benefit from the lucrative trade with the embattled Confederate States of America in the Civil War north of the Rio Grande. Also, in the far south, Bazaine defeated and forced the surrender of 8,000 republican troops in Oaxaca in early 1865. Juarez was, by that time, living constantly on the run in the northern reaches of Chihuahua just south of the Arizona border. Still, bandits were running rampant throughout the country acting in the name of the republicans to give legitimacy to their age old occupation. Bazaine also had to juggle a bad relationship with Emperor Maximilian and with disgruntled subordinates like General Felix Douay. The Mexican Emperor resented the power the French held in the country as well as what he saw as the effort to strengthen their own position at his expense. As an example, one dust up involved the case of Colonel Charles Dupin, commander of the fearsome contra-guerillas. Maximilian objected to the colonel and his brutal tactics and obtained his transfer back to France. However, once there Dupin was able to convince Napoleon that with a few troops and a free hand he could clean out the bandits in northeast Mexico. Napoleon was convinced and sent him back which Maximilian (mistakenly) believed to be the work of Bazaine and an affront to his authority. It did not help that Dupin considered Maximilian a vacillating weakling and was not hesitant to say so. General Douay also argued that Bazaine did not understand the country and was not doing enough to reduce republican harassment.

Time was also against him as, ever since mid-1864 when things seemed pretty much under control the French public had begun to call for the troops to come home. There was also the typical problems of an overseas force dealing with guerilla warfare. There were fewer smashing victories to proclaim in the newspapers yet a small but steady stream of casualties from raids and ambushes as well as disease and desertion. As time went on morale also dropped as the French forces were marched back and forth across the country through often inhospitable terrain with seemingly no end in sight. All of that being said, it is often overlooked just how much the French military accomplished and especially how much good they did while deployed in Mexico. Even people who opposed the whole enterprise had to admit that even the most backward villages deep in the wilds of Mexico received hitherto unknown gifts of law, order and government efficiency thanks to the French forces. They erected telegraph lines between Queretaro and Veracruz (and, more miraculously, kept them running), built a railroad along the gulf coast and established a reliable postal service.

Emperor Napoleon III
It is sadly true that many of these advances receded as Emperor Maximilian took firmer control of the government and was eager to place more responsibility in the hands of native Mexicans. He had the best intentions in doing so, but the corruption and selfishness of the Mexican governing class was a major reason for the country being in so dilapidated a condition in the first place and few, if any, saw fit to change their ways. The tensions between the French army and Mexico City were also exacerbated by the arrival of the foreign volunteers from Austria and Belgium. Maximilian wanted them under his own control, Bazaine wanted them under his and the Austrians wanted an independent command of their own. The French troops were also torn as the threat of war with Prussia grew and most were more eager to defend France from the Prussians than to defend Mexico from liberal republicans. Morale began to drop and even the famed Foreign Legion, which suffered a higher casualty rate than any other unit, began to be plagued with desertions. On one march along the Texas border the Legion lost 93 men in one day to desertion.

Despite his earlier assertions of victory Bazaine had been forced to restrict himself to defensive operations as French forces simply held their fortified outposts in strategic areas. In the end though, it was no decisive defeat that evicted the French from Mexico but rather the diplomatic pressure and threat of military forces from the United States after 1865. A huge American army, fresh from victory in the Civil War, was dispatched to the border and the U.S. all but ordered Napoleon III to withdraw from Mexico or face the consequences. The Emperor bowed to the inevitable and ordered his forces to begin their evacuation. Despite the popular perception, this was not always popular with the Mexican public. In some small villages, the people begged the French to stay, even the presence of just one man in uniform would save them from the ravages of marauding (but cowardly) bandits and their common practice of extortion. But, this was not possible and the French army contracted its position further and further and began pulling out and marching to the coast. It is also noteworthy that the Mexican republicans were content to let them leave in peace. They shadowed the French army but never made any effort to actually do battle with them. Emperor Maximilian was offered safe conduct out of the country but, of course, refused and once the French had gone he bravely marched out with his loyal Mexican brigades to make his last stand at Queretaro.

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