Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Maximilian of Austria and His Empire in Mexico

It is interesting, in view of the total conquest and submission of the Indians in Mexico, that the final blow for freedom in that country should have been made by an Indian of pure native blood. His name was Benito Juarez, and his struggle for liberty was against the French invaders and Maximilian, the puppet emperor, put by Louis Napoleon on the Mexican throne. In the words of Shakespeare, "Thereby hangs a tale."

For many years after the Spanish colonies had won their independence the nations of Europe looked upon them with a covetous eye. They would dearly have liked to snap up some of these weak countries, which Spain had been unable to hold, but the great republic of the United States stood as their protector, and none of them felt it quite safe to step over that threatening bar to ambition, the "Monroe Doctrine." "Hands off," said Uncle Sam, and they obeyed, though much against their will.

In 1861 began a war in the United States which gave the people of that country all they wanted to do. Here was the chance for Europe, and Napoleon III., the usurper of France, took advantage of it to send an army to Mexico and attempt the conquest of that country. It was the overweening ambition of Louis Napoleon which led him on. It was his scheme to found an empire in Mexico which, while having the name of being independent, would be under the control of France and would shed glory on his reign.

At that time the President of Mexico, the Indian we have named, was Benito Juarez, a descendant of the Aztec race, and, as some said, with the blood of the Montezumas in his veins. Yet his family was of the lowest class of the Indians, and when he was twelve years old he did not know how to read or write. After that he obtained a chance for education, and in time became a lawyer, was made governor of his native state, and kept on climbing upward till he became secretary of state, president of the Supreme Court, and finally president of Mexico.

He was the man who had the invaders of his country to fight, and he fought them well and long. But the poor and undisciplined Mexicans were no match for the trained troops of France, and they were driven back step by step until the invaders were masters of nearly the whole country. Yet Juarez still had a capital and a government at San Luis Potosi, and all loyal Mexicans still looked on him as their president.

When Napoleon III. found himself master of Mexico, he looked around for a man who would serve him as a tool to hold the country. Such a man he found in Ferdinand Joseph Maximilian, the brother of the emperor of Austria, a dreamer rather than a man of action, and a fervent believer in the "divine right of kings." This was the kind of man that the French usurper was in want of, and he offered him the position of emperor of Mexico. Maximilian was taken by surprise. The proposition was a startling one. But in the end ambition overcame judgment, and he accepted the lofty but perilous position on the condition that France should sustain him on the throne.

The struggle of the Mexicans for freedom was for the time at an end, and the French had almost everywhere prevailed, when in 1864 the new emperor and his young wife Carlotta arrived at Vera Cruz and made their way to the city of Mexico. This they entered with great show and ceremony and amid the cheers of many of the lookers on, though the mass of the people, who had no love for emperors, kept away or held their peace.

House of Maximilian


The new empire began with imperial display. All the higher society of Mexico were at the feet of the new monarchs. With French money to pay their way and a French army to protect them, there was nothing for Maximilian and Carlotta to do but enjoy the romance and splendor of their new dignity. On the summit of the hill of Chapultepec, two hundred feet above the valley, stood the old palace which had been ruined by the American guns when Scott invaded Mexico. This was rebuilt by Maximilian on a grand scale, hanging gardens were constructed and walled in by galleries with marble columns, costly furniture was brought from Europe, and here the new emperor and empress held their court, with a brilliant succession of fetes, dinners, dances, and receptions. All was brilliance and gayety, and as yet no shadow fell on their dream of proud and royal reign.

But the shadow was coming. Maximilian had reached Mexico in June, 1864. For a year longer the civil war in the great republic of the north continued; then it came to an end, and the government of the United States was free to take a hand in the arbitrary doings on the soil of her near neighbor to the south.

It was a sad blow to the ambitious schemes of Napoleon, it was like the rumble of an earthquake under the throne of Maximilian, when from Washington came a diplomatic demand which, translated into plain English, meant, you had better make haste to get your armies out of Mexico; if they stay there, you will have the United States to deal with. It hurt Louis Napoleon's pride. He shifted and prevaricated and delayed, but the hand of the great republic was on the throat of his new empire, and there was nothing for him to do but obey. He knew very well that if he resisted, the armies of the civil war would make very short work of his forces in Mexico.

Maximilian was strongly advised to give up his dream of an empire and leave the country with the French. He changed his mind a half-dozen times, but finally decided to stay, fancying that he could hold hip throne with the aid of the loyal Mexicans. Carlotta, full of ambition, went to Europe and appealed for help to Napoleon. She told him very plainly what she thought of his actions; but it was all of no avail, and she left the palace almost broken-hearted. Soon after Maximilian received the distressing news that his wife had lost her reason through grief, and was quite insane. At once he made up his mind to return to Europe, and set out for Vera Cruz. But before he got there he changed his mind again and concluded to remain.

At the end of January, 1867, the French army, which had held on until then, with one excuse after another, left the capital city, which it had occupied for years, and began its long march to the sea-shore at Vera Cruz. Much was left behind. Cannon were broken up as useless, horses sold for a song, and the evacuation was soon complete, the Belgian and Austrian troops which the new emperor had brought with him going with the French. Maximilian did not want them; he preferred to trust himself to the loyal arms of his Mexican subjects, hoping thus to avoid jealousy. As for the United States, it had no more to say; it was content to leave this shadow of an empire to its loyal Mexicans.

It cannot be said that Maximilian had taken the right course to make himself beloved by the Mexicans. Full of his obsolete notion of the "divine right of kings," a year after he had reached Mexico he issued a decree saying that all who clung to the republic or resisted his authority should be shot. And this was not waste paper, like so many decrees, for a number of prisoners were shot under its cruel mandate, one of them being General Orteaga. It has been said that Maximilian went so far as to order that the whole laboring population of the country should be reduced to slavery.

While all this was going on President Juarez was not idle. During the whole French occupation he had kept in arms, and now began his advance from his place of refuge in the north. General Escobedo, chief of his armies, soon conquered the northern part of the country, and occupied the various states and cities as soon as they were left by the French.

But neither was Maximilian idle. Agents of the Church party had finally induced him to remain, and this party now came to his aid. General Miramon, an able leader, commanded his army, which was recruited to the strength of eight thousand men, most of them trained soldiers, though nearly half of them were raw recruits.

With this force Maximilian advanced to Querétaro and made it his head-quarters. Juarez had meanwhile advanced to Zacatecas and fixed his residence there with his government about him. But the president and cabinet came very near being taken captive at one fell swoop, for Miramon suddenly advanced and captured Zacatecas by surprise, Juarez and his government barely escaping.

What would have been the result if the whole Mexican government had been taken prisoners it is not easy to say. Not unlikely, however, General Escobedo would have done what he now did, which was to advance on Querétaro and invest it with his army. Thus the empire of Maximilian was limited to this one town, where it was besieged by an army of Mexican patriots, while, with the exception of a few cities, the whole country outside was free from imperial rule.

Soon the emperor and his army found themselves closely confined within the walls of Querétaro. Skirmishes took place almost daily, in which both sides fought with courage and resolution. Provisions grew scarce and foraging parties were sent out, but after each attack the lines of the besiegers became closer. The clergy had made liberal promises of forces and funds, and General Marquez was sent to the city of Mexico to obtain them. He managed to get through the lines of Escobedo, but he failed to return, and nothing was ever seen by Maximilian of the promised aid. Such forces and funds as Marquez obtained he used in attacking General Diaz, who was advancing on Pueblo. Diaz besieged and took Pueblo, and then turned on Marquez, whom he defeated so completely that he made his way back to Mexico almost alone under cover of the night. It was the glory gained by this act that later raised Diaz to the presidency, which he held so brilliantly for so many years.

The hopes of Maximilian were dwindling to a shadow. For two months the siege of Querétaro continued, steadily growing closer. During this trying time Maximilian showed the best elements of his character. He was gentle and cheerful in demeanor, and brave in action, not hesitating to expose himself to the fire of the enemy. Plans were made for his escape, that he might put himself at the head of his troops elsewhere, but he refused, through a sense of honor, to desert his brave companions.

Daily provisions grew scarcer, and Maximilian himself had only the coarse, tough food which was served to the common soldiers. Day after day Marquez was looked for with the promised aid, but night after night brought only disappointment. At length, on the night of May 14, General Lopez, in charge of the most important point in the city, turned traitor and admitted two battalions of the enemy. From this point the assailants swarmed into the city, where terror and confusion everywhere prevailed. Lopez had not intended that the emperor should be captured, and gave him warning in time to escape. He attempted to do so, and reached a little hill outside the town, but here he was surrounded by foes and forced to deliver up his sword.

Juarez, the Indian president, was at length full master of Mexico, and held its late emperor in his hands. The fate of Maximilian depended upon his word. Plans, indeed, were made for his escape, but always at the last moment he failed to avail himself of them. His friends sought to win for him the clemency of Juarez, but they found him inflexible. The traitors, as he called them, should be tried by court-martial, he said and abide the decision of the court.

Tried they were, though the trial was little more than a farce, with the verdict fixed in advance. This verdict was death. The condemned, in addition to Maximilian, were his chiefs in command, Miramon and Medjia. The late emperor rose early on the fatal morning and heard mass. He embraced his follow victims, and as he reached the street said, "What a beautiful day! On such a one I have always wished to die."

He was greeted with respect by the people in the street, the women weeping. He responded with a brief address, closing with the words, "May my blood be the last spilt for the welfare of the country, and if more should be shed, may it flow for its good, and not by treason. Viva Independencia! Viva Mexico!"

In a few minutes more the fatal shots were fired, and the empire of Maximilian was at an end.