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12: The Mexican Episode

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That French demagogue whom Victor Hugo aptly called Napoleon the Little was a prime factor in the history of the Union and the Confederacy. The Confederate side of his intrigue will be told in its proper place. Here, let us observe him from the point of view of Washington.

It is too much to attempt to pack into a sentence or two the complicated drama of deceit, lies, and graft, through which he created at last a pretext for intervention in the affairs of Mexico; it is enough that in the autumn of 1862 a French army of invasion marched from Vera Cruz upon Mexico City. We have already seen that about this same time Napoleon proposed to England and Russia a joint intervention with France between North and South—a proposal which, however, was rejected. This Mexican venture explains why the plan was suggested at that particular time.

Disappointed in England and Russia, Napoleon unexpectedly received encouragement, as he thought, from within the United States through the medium of the eccentric editor of the "New York Tribune". We shall have occasion to return later to the adventures of Horace Greeley—that erratic individual who has many good and generous acts to his credit, as well as many foolish ones. For the present we have to note that toward the close of 1862 he approached the French Ambassador at Washington with a request for imperial mediation between the North and the South. Greeley was a type of American that no European can understand: he believed in talk, and more talk, and still more talk, as the cure for earthly ills. He never could understand that anybody besides himself could have strong convictions. When he told the Ambassador that the Emperor's mediation would lead to a reconciliation of the sections, he was doubtless sincere in his belief. The astute European diplomat, who could not believe such simplicity, thought it a mask. When he asked for, and received, permission to pass the Federal lines and visit Richmond, he interpreted the permit in the light of his assumption about Greeley. At Richmond, he found no desire for reunion. Putting this and that together, he concluded that the North wanted to give up the fight and would welcome mediation to save its face. The dreadful defeat at Fredericksburg fell in with this reasoning. His reports on American conditions led Napoleon, in January, 1863, to attempt alone what he had once hoped to do supported by England and Russia. He proposed his good offices to the Government at Washington as a mediator between North and South.

Hitherto, Washington had been very discreet about Mexico. Adroit hints not to go too far had been given Napoleon in full measure, but there was no real protest. The State Department now continued this caution and in the most polite terms declined Napoleon's offer. Congress, however, took the matter more grimly, for throughout the dealings with Napoleon, it had been at odds with Lincoln. It now passed the first of a series of resolutions which expressed the will of the country, if not quite the will of the President, by resolving that any further proposal of mediation would be regarded by it as "an unfriendly act."

Napoleon then resumed his scheming for joint intervention, while in the meantime his armies continued to fight their way until they entered Mexico City in June, 1863. The time had now come when Napoleon thought it opportune to show his hand. Those were the days when Lee appeared invincible, and when Chancellorsville crowned a splendid series of triumphs. In England, the Southern party made a fresh start; and societies were organized to aid the Confederacy. At Liverpool, Laird Brothers were building, ostensibly for France, really for the Confederacy, two ironclads supposed to outclass every ship in the Northern navy. In France, 100,000 unemployed cotton hands were rioting for food. To raise funds for the Confederacy the great Erlanger banking-house of Paris negotiated a loan based on cotton which was to be delivered after the breaking of the blockade. Napoleon dreamed of a shattered American union, two enfeebled republics, and a broad way for his own scheme in Mexico.

In June an English politician of Southern sympathies, Edward Roebuck, went over to France, was received by the Emperor, and came to an understanding with him. Roebuck went home to report to the Southern party that Napoleon was ready to intervene, and that all he waited for was England's cooperation. A motion "to enter into negotiations with the Great Powers of Europe for the purpose of obtaining their cooperation in the recognition" of the Confederacy was introduced by Roebuck in the House of Commons.

The debate which followed was the last chance of the Southern party and, as events proved, the last chance of Napoleon. How completely the British ministry was now committed to the North appears in the fact that Gladstone, for the Government, opposed Roebuck's motion. John Bright attacked it in what Lord Morley calls "perhaps the most powerful and the noblest speech of his life." The Southern party was hardly resolute in their support of Roebuck and presently he withdrew his motion.

But there were still the ironclads at Liverpool. We have seen that earlier in the war, the carelessness of the British authorities had permitted the escape of ship 290, subsequently known as the Confederate commercedestroyer, Alabama. The authorities did not wish to allow a repetition of the incident. But could it be shown that the Laird ships were not really for a French purchaser? It was in the course of diplomatic conversations that Mr. Adams, speaking of the possible sailing of the ships, made a remark destined to become famous: "It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war." At jest, the authorities were satisfied. The ships were seized and in the end bought for the British Navy.

Again Napoleon stood alone. Not only had he failed to obtain aid from abroad, but in France itself his Mexican schemes were widely and bitterly condemned. Yet he had gone too far to recede, and what he had been aiming at all along was now revealed. An assembly of Mexican notables, convened by the general of the invaders, voted to set up an imperial government and offered the crown to Napoleon's nominee, the Archduke Maximilian of Austria.

And now the Government at Washington was faced with a complicated problem. What about the Monroe Doctrine? Did the Union dare risk war with France? Did it dare pass over without protest the establishment of monarchy on American soil by foreign arms? Between these horns of a dilemma, the Government maintained its precarious position during another year. Seward's correspondence with Paris was a masterpiece of evasion. He neither protested against the intervention of Napoleon nor acknowledged the authority of Maximilian. Apparently, both he and Lincoln were divided between fear of a French alliance with the Confederacy and fear of premature action in the North that would render Napoleon desperate. Just how far they comprehended Napoleon and his problems is an open question.

Whether really comprehending or merely trusting to its instinct, Congress took a bolder course. Two men prove the antagonists of a parliamentary duel—Charles Sumner, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Henry Winter Davis, chairman of the corresponding committee of the House. Sumner played the hand of the Administration. Fiery resolutions demanding the evacuation of Mexico or an American declaration of war were skillfully buried in the silence of Sumner's committee. But there was nevertheless one resolution that affected history: it was a ringing condemnation of the attempt to establish a monarchy in Mexico. In the House, a joint resolution which Davis submitted was passed without one dissenting vote. When it came to the Senate, Sumner buried it as he had buried earlier resolutions. None the less it went out to the world attended by the news of the unanimous vote in the House.

Shortly afterwards, the American Ambassador at Paris called upon the imperial Foreign Secretary, M. Drouyn de L'huys. News of this resolution had preceded him. He was met by the curt question, "Do you bring peace or war?" Again, the Washington Government was skillfully evasive. The Ambassador was instructed to explain that the resolution had not been inspired by the President and "the French Government would be seasonably apprized of any change of policy...which the President might at any future time think it proper to adopt."

There seems little doubt that Lincoln's course was very widely condemned as timid. When we come to the political campaign of 1864, we shall meet Henry Winter Davis among his most relentless personal enemies. Dissatisfaction with Lincoln's Mexican policy has not been sufficiently considered in accounting for the opposition to him, inside the war party, in 1864. To it may be traced an article in the platform of the war party, adopted in June, 1864, protesting against the establishment of monarchy "in near proximity to the United States." In the same month Maximilian entered Mexico City.

The subsequent moves of Napoleon are explained elsewhere.1 The central fact in the story is his virtual change of attitude, in the summer of 1864. The Confederate agent at Paris complained of a growing coolness. Before the end of the summer, the Confederate Secretary of State was bitter in his denunciation of Napoleon for having deserted the South. Napoleon's puppet Maximilian refused to receive an envoy from the Confederacy. Though Washington did not formally protest against the presence of Maximilian in Mexico, it declined to recognize his Government, and that Government continued unrecognized at Washington throughout the war.

1Nathaniel W. Stephenson, The Day of the Confederacy. (In The Chronicles of America).

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