Why did France invade Mexico in 1862? | Why Did France Invade Mexico?
One of these unusual and curious conflicts was the unexpected and theatrical French invasion of Mexico… Before we get into this peculiar timeline, we must first take a look at what led up to it. Back in the late 1850s, Mexico had become entrenched in a civil war. Benito Juarez, a Liberal reformist, and his supporters were at odds with Felix Zuloaga’s Conservatives, with the neighboring United States throwing their support behind the former.
During this time, Mexico had been deeply indebted to multiple foreign powers, but as Juarez rose to authority, he put a pause on all payments for two years as there wasn’t much of an alternative option for Mexico at the time. This was deeply dissatisfying for the Europeans who were owed money by the Mexicans nevertheless. So, on October 31, 1861, the governments of Great Britain, France, and Spain met in London to discuss possible reactions to the new Mexican government’s decision.
The ultimate conclusion was that a tripartite agreement would be necessary, as would joint intervention into Mexico to retrieve the money that the three nations were owed. This agreement was eagerly signed by all, but at this time, no one had yet realized that France had an ulterior motive… You see, France was currently under the command of Napoleon III, and this was a man motivated by more than just money. Napoleon, instead, wanted to expand the influence of his empire and this was simply the perfect excuse to see if Mexico could become part of that influence.
Again though, this was not known to either Spain or Britain, at least, not yet… Throughout December of 1861, the Europeans would all make landfall at the port of Veracruz, but from there, chaos began to erupt. At first, the intention was for the three European powers to work together to take Veracruz and force the Mexican government into talks so a real solution could be found for the debt disaster. The tripartite nations insisted that they had no intentions of conquering Mexico or anything of the like, but Juarez was strongly resistant to their presence. His conservative opponents, on the other hand,
were actually somewhat welcoming to the Europeans, as they viewed this as a possible advantage in their fight against the reformists. Nonetheless, by the start of 1862, it was becoming clear to the Europeans that one amongst their ranks may not be on the same page. By January, France had begun to float the idea of establishing a monarchy in Mexico, but this was shot down by Britain and Spain, and it was not yet clear to the latter two how serious the French really were.
In fact, in February, the Europeans reiterated that they recognized the current Mexican government as it was and were only there to discuss the issue of unpaid debt. The Convention of La Soledad was then signed and later ratified by the Mexican government. Negotiations shortly began, but they would fall apart by Spring, as the French were now clear about their aims and would not compromise on anything less.
Now realizing that they had been duped, Britain and Spain arranged their own agreements with Mexico and withdrew their troops altogether. Contrarily, France put the pedal to the metal… The French had already taken multiple cities such as Cordoba, Orizaba, and Tehuacan, and a declaration of war was issued as they continued to push further. They would eventually get held up at Puebla after multiple attempts to seize the city were repeatedly repelled by the Mexican defenders.
One of these Mexican victories, on May 5, 1862, is still celebrated today as Cinco de Mayo, recognizing the valiant effort of the Mexican forces that inflicted nearly 500 casualties against the French as compared to only about 230 killed, wounded, or unaccounted for Mexican troops. Promised French reinforcements came much later than expected, which had pushed the French back from Orizaba to Amozoc and beyond until their backup finally arrived. Now, the French advance could continue and they were slowly regaining the upper hand.
France would eventually take Puebla after all and they would soon capture Mexico City as well. Finally, on July 10, 1863, the French had achieved their goal and a Proclamation of Empire was issued – officially establishing a Mexican monarchy. Hoping to appease not only the strongly religious local conservatives but also the Austrian Habsburgs with whom France had not always been on great terms, Napoleon invited the Austrian Archduke, Maximilian, to become the new Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian wasn’t necessarily excited about this proposal,
nor was he actually as conservative as the locals were hoping for, but the Austrian eventually succumbed to the pressure from France and accepted. Just across the border, the United States was neither satisfied with the current endeavors. Having a powerful European puppet next door was at the detriment to the U.S.’s sphere of influence, and the Secretary of State issued a clear statement of disapproval, although nothing more would be done for now due to the ongoing civil war in the States. Furthermore, President Lincoln was determined not to take any chance of dragging France into the war on the side of the Confederacy.
Luckily for the Americans, as the U.S. Civil War came to an end, so would Napoleon and Maximillian’s luck… It didn’t take long for the Conservatives to realize that Maximillian was much too liberal for their liking, and Napoleon had failed to prepare the Austrian for the role at hand with this fact in mind. For the Liberals though, Maximilian was no better – he was just a French puppet that they could never trust. Not only this, but the French public back home was growing more and more upset with their nation’s involvement so far off in Mexico, which was costing France more than it seemed to be worth.
The U.S. was also becoming braver now that the Civil War had come to a close, and despite the Secretary of State maintaining the nation’s stance of disapproval without action, two Generals, Philip Henry Sheridan and Ulysses S. Grant decided to take matters into their own hands. They began to offer secret aid to the troops in Mexico, mainly along the Texas border. With all of this in his favor, Juarez began to lead his men back into direct conflict with the French and their local supporters. Finally, Napoleon realized that his time was up here, and his goals had been achievable but short-lived.
On January 31, 1866, all French troops were ordered to withdraw from Mexico in a three-stage approach over the next year. Whether Austria had ever intended to send troops in place of the French to maintain their Archuduke’s Mexican crown is not known for certain, but caution from the United States to refrain from such actions was headed nonetheless. With the Liberal troops closing in, the U.S. at their backs, and France on their way out the door, Maximilian was advised to leave Mexico and return to safety in Austria. Either for pride or naive optimism,
Maximilian chose to remain in his crumbling empire and sealed his own fate… After being betrayed by one of his trusted Colonels, who opened the gate at La Cruz to grant the offensive Liberal forces entry, Maximillian was taken into custody and after a symbolic trial, the first and only emperor was sentenced to death. On June 19, 1867, the monarch and his loyal generals were prepared for execution by firing squad. Maximillian, content with the decision he had made and the consequences he would now suffer, handed each member of the firing squad a Maximillian d’Or before pointing to his heart and inviting them to “aim well, and aim right here”.
His final words were recorded as follows: “Mexicans! persons of my rank and origin are destined by God either to be benefactors of the people or martyrs. Called by a great part of you, I came for the good of the country. Ambition did not bring me here: I came with the best of intentions and sincerest wishes for the future of my adopted country and for that of my soldiers, whom I thank before my death for the sacrifices which they have made for me.
Mexicans! may my blood be the last which shall be spilled for the welfare of the country; and if it should be necessary that its sons should still shed theirs, may it flow for its good, never by treason. Long live Independence; long live Mexico!”… With those final words of hope, the unlucky Austrian and his men were put to death. Maximillian would soon be laid to rest in his home country of Austria, and with this,
the French invasion of Mexico had finally come to an end. Though unusual, and in the eyes of many unjustified, this brief intervention and establishment of the Mexican Empire as a French puppet-state was nevertheless a fascinating and important time in history. And of all the battles and wars fought throughout time, this may be one of the most intriguing….
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