General Bazaine attacks the fort of San Xavier during the siege of Puebla, 29 March 1863.


The victory over the conservatives allowed Mexico to hold elections. Three candidates presented themselves-Acting President Juarez, Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, author of the Lerdo Law, and General Jesus Gonzalez Ortega, a war hero. Due to his reputation achieved during the War of Reform, as well as rising anti-military sentiment, Juarez defeated Gonzalez Ortega. Lerdo de Tejada died of natural causes just before the election.

Even after the defeat of the conservative army, turmoil continued. There were several peasant uprisings in central Mexico. In June 1861, U. S. Ambassador Thomas Corwin sent a dispatch from Mexico City describing the conservative irregulars who continued to attack Juarez’s forces:

Since my last dispatches the country has been in a state of great disorder. Bands of armed men, in numbers varying from fifty to four thousand, have been ravaging the country in this and two or three adjoining States, pushing their operations to the very suburbs of this city.

Given the unrest and destruction, Mexico could not make payments on its public debt. In July 1861, the Mexican Congress recognized this and, as an emergency measure to permit internal reconstruction, it unilaterally suspended payments on its foreign and domestic debts for two years, but it did not repudiate the debts. This act, coming as it did during the U. S. Civil War (which prevented the United States from enforcing its Monroe Doctrine and keeping Europeans out of Latin America), gave Europe the pretext for massive intervention in Mexico.

Spain, England, and France formed an alliance to collect the debt, including the amount due on the Jecker bonds approved by conservatives battling Juarez’s forces in the War of Reform. Representatives of the three creditor nations met in England and signed the Tripartite Convention of London. Its signatories declared that they would occupy Mexico’s customs houses so they could collect funds to retire the debt owed them. However, they pledged not to “interfere in Mexico’s internal affairs in such a manner as would impair that nation’s right to freely elect and constitute its own government.”

The French, who were already expanding their empire into Algeria and Indo-China, had the most far-reaching plans. French Emperor Napoleon III planned to impose a monarchy that would provide France with markets and raw materials and prevent the spread of U. S. influence into Latin America.

Mexican conservatives welcomed France’s monarchical pretensions. Having lost in the War of Reform, they were more than willing to allow foreigners to restore them to power. They felt the early 1860s were an ideal time to install a monarchy since the United States, preoccupied with its own civil war, could not oppose an empire to its south. Also, as long as the United States remained at war, it would not compete with Mexico for European investment capital. Conservatives felt the circumstances were finally at hand to fulfill Lucas Alaman’s dream of a monarchy that would produce stability-the key to attracting foreign capital for development.

In December 1861 and January 1862, Spain landed 6,000 troops and Britain sent 800 marines. As occurred with the U. S. invasion fifteen years earlier, Mexicans failed to oppose the landing. Unlike their American predecessors, though, the European invaders remained on the coast too long and fell victim to yellow fever.

The British and Spanish soon realized that the French, the Tripartite Convention of London notwithstanding, were planning a much greater undertaking than debt collection. After the Mexican government pledged to resume debt payments as soon as possible, the British and Spanish departed. 57 The French commander, General Charles Latrille, Count of Lorencez, began an advance on Mexico City. On April 25, 1862, he wrote his minister of war, “We are so superior to the Mexicans in race, organization, morality, and devoted sentiments that I beg your Excellency to inform the Emperor that as head of 6,000 soldiers I am already master of Mexico.”

Ten days after this was written, the French force fought its first major battle at Puebla, where its advance was blocked by two forts, Loreto and Guadalupe, perched on hilltops connected by a 3,500 foot-long ridge. The 4,500-man French force had to traverse a two-mile wide plain. Then they faced withering Mexican cannon fire as they scrambled up the hills. Eventually combat extended along the ridge connecting the two forts. The French approaching the ridge were exposed to crossfire from both forts. After 475 of the attackers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, the French force withdrew. Mexican casualties totaled 227.

The battle fought on May 5, 1862, brought together diverse elements of Mexico’s population. Not only did units come from numerous states but indigenous units from north Puebla towns fought alongside mestizos, distinguishing themselves in bitter hand-to-hand combat. The victory at Puebla remains the outstanding military victory in Mexican history. Each year Mexicans, and many Americans, celebrate the Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May), and Ignacio Zaragoza, who commanded the defending forces, is widely honored.

This defeat affected the outcome of the intervention since the French had to await reinforcements before they could advance. This delayed the establishment of a puppet government by a year, which left relatively little time for that government to consolidate itself before the end of the U. S. Civil War. After its own civil war ended, the United States could credibly threaten France for violating the Monroe Doctrine.

After their defeat at Puebla, the French retreated and awaited the arrival of additional troops. By January 1863, the interventionist force totaled 30,976. Then the French advanced and besieged Puebla for seventy-four days. Its residents were reduced to eating house pets and small animals that they trapped. After a lack of food and ammunition forced Puebla to surrender to the French, starving children stole corn from the fodder bags of French cavalry mounts.

As the French approached Mexico City, Juarez abandoned the practically defenseless capital and moved his government north to San Luis Potosi. For the next three years, he would govern by decree, using the extraordinary powers Congress had granted him to prosecute the war.

After arriving in Mexico City, the French created an interim government. Its officials invited all Mexicans to unite around it and urged them to cease considering themselves liberals or conservatives. Conservatives forming the interim government felt a foreign Catholic monarch would bring Mexico’s polarized society together. As a result, they invited the Austrian archduke, Ferdinand Maximilian, to become emperor of Mexico.

The person invited to assume the throne was the brother of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph and the son-in-law of King Leopold of Belgium. His invitation resulted from pressure exerted on Napoleon’s wife Eugénie by conservative Mexican exiles in Europe who had engaged in a prolonged lobbying effort to have a European power install a monarchy in Mexico. Eugénie influenced her husband, who insured that Maximilian received the invitation.

Maximilian did insist that a plebiscite be held in Mexico to determine whether he should assume the throne. The French obliged, allowing individuals favoring the monarchy to act as local representatives who could “vote” for the rest of the population. Sometimes the French claimed that voting, which only occurred in a state capital, represented the entire state’s population. Ultimately the French claimed that all important Mexican cities and towns had accepted the empire, even though the French had yet to extend its control to many areas.

The future emperor of Mexico accepted the plebiscite at face value. However, a somewhat more skeptical Sir Charles Wyke, the former British chargé d’affaires in Mexico City, remarked that Maximilian had been “elected” to the throne by a “majority vote from places inhabited by two Indians and a monkey.”

In April 1864, Maximilian signed a secret treaty with the French, making Mexico a virtual French colony. He agreed to pay not only the inflated debt claims of the French but also the cost of French troops occupying Mexico. Napoleon agreed to keep French troops in Mexico until 1870.

Before leaving Europe, Maximilian received the personal blessings of Pope Pius IX. The pope felt Maximilian would restore the Church to its former position in Mexico. Pius commented, “Although the rights of nations are great and must be respected, those of religion are much greater and holier.”

Even before arriving in Mexico, Maximilian began courting liberals by granting pardons to republican prisoners and reducing their prison sentences. To broaden his support, he shifted tax burdens to the rich and ended debt servitude. He also showed his moderate European liberalism by refusing to return to the Church the property it had formerly owned and by allowing freedom of worship. He abolished corporal punishment, limited hours of work, and guaranteed a minimum wage to agricultural workers. He mandated that those employing more than twenty families should provide free primary education and that Indian schools should be bilingual. He anticipated twentieth century land reform efforts by ordering that unused government land should be provided to the landless. Maximilian’s failure to embrace the conservative agenda reduced his conservative backing and won him few liberal supporters. His enactments might have been sound policy. However, quite often imperial hegemony did not extend beyond the edge of Mexico City, leaving his decrees unenforced.

Leave a Reply