The Battle of Puebla, 1862.
Maximilian attempted to hold himself above the liberal-conservative fray and invited all Mexicans to join his government. Moderate liberals did accept appointments to serve as ministers of foreign relations, interior, and justice. Again, this cost him conservative support and did little to attract other liberals.
In 1863, French General François Bazaine, who had learned counter-guerrilla tactics while imposing French colonial rule in Algeria, assumed command of imperial forces in Mexico. The next year, he wrote Napoleon to say that Maximilian was “putting on airs; that he fails to remember that he is still dependent-dependent on France, dependent on General Bazaine, and dependent on General Bazaine’s army.”
After occupying Mexico City, the French moved north, taking Saltillo and Matamoros. Juarez retreated, eventually taking refuge in Paso del Norte (today, in his honor, Ciudad Juarez). By mid- 1864, French-installed governments controlled eighteen of the twenty-four Mexican states. By the following year, all state capitals flew the imperial flag. Imperial forces totaled 60,000 troops, of whom 30,000 were French, 24,000 Mexican, and the rest Austrian and Belgian. These forces con – fined Juarez’s regular forces to a small area bordering on west Texas and New Mexico. In December 1865, the U. S. consul in Paso del Norte reported that Juarez’s forces numbered only 300. In addition, 200 to 300 men in Guerrero and Oaxaca, led by the wily guerrilla fighter Porfirio Diaz, supported Juarez. Unlike Santa Anna in the Mexican-American War, Juarez realized that guerrilla warfare was the only way to confront a powerful foreign army.
The French occupation made elections impossible when Juarez’s presidential term expired in 1865. Juarez used the extraordinary powers granted him by Congress in 1861 to simply extend his term. Some liberals, especially those seeking power themselves, criticized this as a violation of liberal principles. Undaunted, Juarez continued to rule by decree.
Even though Juarez’s regular forces verged on annihilation, the French could not extend their control into the countryside. As soon as their troops withdrew, popular uprisings occurred. The French-organized counter-guerrilla forces were effective, but lacked sufficient numbers to dominate an area as large as Mexico.
The imperial government’s fragmentation prevented it from implementing policies that might have won it adherents. The French dominated the military and occupied the customs houses. Maximilian’s cabinet contained both conservatives and liberals and had to share power not only with Maximilian’s European-dominated private cabinet but with the French ambassador and the head of the French financial mission.
Maximilian established a royal court complete with what he considered fitting pomp and ceremony. The manual describing court etiquette, the Relgamento para el servicio y ceremonial de la corte (Regulations for Court Service and Ceremony), filled almost four hundred pages. His elaborate lifestyle made previous Mexican presidents seem positively frugal. Guadalupe Victoria had a pair of carriages, while Maximilian had thirty-three. During his last presidency, Mexicans had widely criticized Santa Anna for his spending some 8,000 to 10,000 pesos a month to maintain himself in regal style. Maximilian and his wife Carlota received an annual allowance of 1.7 million pesos for living expenses and maintaining the court, palace, and grounds.
Feeling the republican forces were almost defeated, on October 3, 1865, Maximilian signed the infamous black flag decree, published in Spanish and Nahuatl and posted throughout the empire. It decreed that any person apprehended bearing arms against the empire would be executed within twenty-four hours. Despite its widespread application to prisoners of war, this measure drove more Mexicans into the arms of the republic.
In 1866, Napoleon decided to withdraw French troops from Mexico. His decision resulted from: 1) the high cost of the war in Mexico; 2) its unpopularity in France; 3) Maximilian’s failure to develop an independent base; 4) the fear that the United States would support Juarez after its own civil war ended; and 5) Napoleon’s need for troops in Europe to respond to the threat posed by an increasingly militarized Prussia.
Upon learning that the French had decided to withdraw their troops, Carlota returned to Europe to persuade Napoleon and the pope to continue supporting her husband’s empire. Before leaving, she appealed to Maximilian to stay in Mexico and uphold Habsburg honor. The empress not only failed to rally support in Europe but suffered a mental breakdown there from which she never recovered.
At the time, Maximilian felt he could end the raging civil war by convening a national Congress that would invite both liberals and conservatives to sit down and amicably resolve their disputes. However, any chance of Juarez’s compromising with his foe had vanished, since the French departure opened the way for a liberal victory without compromise.
Bazaine sailed from Veracruz with the last French forces in March 1867-three years earlier than the departure date agreed to by Napoleon. After the French departure, Maximilian’s empire began to disintegrate with increasing rapidity. Juarez’s forces, taking heart at the French withdrawal, moved south, aided by U. S. arms and veterans who appeared in Mexico after the end of the U. S. Civil War. In January 1867, liberal forces took Guadalajara, San Luis Potosi, and Guanajuato. They occupied Cuernavaca, Morelia, and Zacatecas the following month.
The imperial forces made their final stand at Querétaro. In February, General Mariano Escobedo besieged the city with 30,000 liberal troops. Maximilian had already come north from Mexico City to personally lead his 9,000-man force. The siege lasted until May, when liberals captured the city and took Maximilian prisoner. Shortly afterward, Porfirio Diaz came from the east and captured Mexico City for the liberals.
Juarez ordered that Maximilian be tried by court martial. The former emperor faced the same criminal charges of rebellion that he had decreed Juarez’s supporters captured in battle should face. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to be executed by firing squad, along with two of his generals, Tomas Mejia and Miguel Miramon. Juarez resisted intense pressure from around the world to issue a pardon, feeling that a live Maximilian would only serve to promote further uprisings and prolong internal strife. Juarez knew that conservatives pardoned after the War of Reform had supported the empire. Liberal journalist Juan José Baz wrote, “This example will ensure in Europe we are respected and will remove any desire on the part of any other adventurer to come here.”
In July 1867, after an absence of four years, Juarez returned to Mexico City. His wife Margarita Maza de Juarez, who had spent the war years in the United States, soon rejoined him. During these years she had not only rallied support for the liberal cause in Washington but had done her best to keep her family together. Despite her efforts, two of her children died while in exile, one of dysentery and one of cholera.
Compared to Mexican resistance in the Mexican-American War, resistance to the empire was, as historian Alan Knight noted, “more prolonged, dogged, and above all, successful.” Liberal strongmen provided Juarez with crucial support at the regional level, just as they had in defeating the conservatives during the War of the Reform. Rural people generally supported the liberal cause, feeling liberalism offered greater local autonomy. Much of Juarez’s appeal was based not on his program but on his once having been a poor Indian who rose through the ranks to govern the country.
Another reason for the fall of the empire was the less than total support from France. In 1808, Napoleon I had sent more than 200,000 French troops to support his brother Joseph in Spain. Since these troops failed to keep Joseph on the throne, it is not surprising that 27,000 French troops failed to keep Maximilian on the throne in Mexico-a nation twice as large as Spain. The effectiveness of these troops was greatly reduced because guerrilla forces opposing them refused to fight the set-piece battles the European-trained military expected. Rather, they simply outlasted the French in a prolonged war of attrition.
The forging of a Mexican national identity, a spirit sorely lacking in 1847, forms a lasting legacy of the struggle against the French. After the collapse of the empire, Creoles no longer defined Mexican nationality. This role shifted to Juarez’s generation of mestizo politicians, journalists, writers, poets, legislators, and historians. They created republican institutions and a wide range of newspapers, magazines, and scientific and literary academies. They felt that history and education should form national character and wrote novels with mestizo characters and scenes.
The enhanced national identity resulting from the war came at a high cost. Approximately 300,000 died as a result of the French intervention. In addition, Mexico’s already abused and neglected infrastructure suffered extensive damage, and marketing arrangements were once again disrupted.