The Fall of Maximilian


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The design of Napoleon to establish French influence in Mexico was connected with his attempt to break up the United States by establishing the independence of the Southern Confederacy, then in rebellion, through the mediation of the great Powers of Europe. So long as the Civil War in the United States lasted, it seemed likely that Napoleon's enterprise in Mexico would be successful. Maximilian was placed upon the throne, and the republican leader, Juarez, was driven into the extreme north of the country. But with the overthrow of the Southern Confederacy and the restoration of peace in the United States in 1865 the prospect totally changed. The Government of Washington refused to acknowledge any authority in Mexico but that of Juarez, and informed Napoleon in courteous terms that his troops must be withdrawn. Napoleon had bound himself by treaty to keep twenty-five thousand men in Mexico for the protection of Maximilian. He was, however, unable to defy the order of the United States.

Early in 1866 he acquainted Maximilian with the necessities of the situation, and with the approaching removal of the force which alone had placed him and could sustain him on the throne. The unfortunate Prince sent his consort, Carlotta, daughter of the King of the Belgians, to Europe to plead against this act of desertion; but her efforts were vain, and her reason sank under the just presentiment of her husband's ruin. The utmost on which Napoleon could venture was the postponement of the recall of his troops till the spring of 1867. He urged Maximilian to abdicate before it was too late; but the Prince refused to dissociate himself from his counsellors who still implored him to remain.

Meanwhile the Juarists pressed back toward the capital from north and south. As the French detachments were withdrawn toward the coast the entire country fell into their hands. The last French soldiers quitted Mexico at the beginning of March, 1867, and on May 15th Maximilian, still lingering at Queretaro, was made prisoner by the Republicans. He had himself while in power ordered that the partisans of Juarez should be treated, not as soldiers, but as brigands, and that when captured they should be tried by court-martial and executed within twenty-four hours. The same severity was applied to himself. He was sentenced to death and shot at Queretaro on June 19th.

Thus ended the attempt of Napoleon III to establish the influence of France and of his dynasty beyond the seas. The doom of Maximilian excited the compassion of Europe; a deep, irreparable wound was inflicted on the reputation of the man who had tempted him to his treacherous throne, who had guaranteed him protection, and at the bidding of a superior power had abandoned him to his ruin. From this time, though the outward splendor of the Empire was undiminished, there remained scarcely anything of the personal prestige which Napoleon had once enjoyed in so rich a measure. He was no longer in the eyes of Europe or of his own country the profound, self-contained statesman in whose brain lay the secret of coming events; he was rather the gambler whom Fortune was preparing to desert, the usurper trembling for the future of his dynasty and his crown.


In the morning of June 16th, at eleven o'clock, Colonel Miguel Palacios came, accompanied by General Refugio Gonzales, with a detachment of soldiers, and the latter read the death-warrant to the Emperor and the two generals. The Emperor heard it with a calm smile, and, looking at his watch, he said to Doctor Basch: "Three o'clock is the hour; we still have more than three hours, and can easily finish all."

The fatal hour came, and the three condemned waited in the passage for the officer charged with their execution. They waited a whole hour, and the Emperor conversed as usual with his confessor and two of his counsellors. At last came, at four o'clock, Colonel Palacios with a telegram from San Luis Potosi, ordering the postponement of the execution until June 19th. This news produced a most disagreeable impression upon the Emperor, for he had done with life, and looked on this delay rather as a cruelty, knowing the Mexicans too well to believe in grace. The troops who had been placed near the Alameda, to be marched thence to the Cerro de la Campaņa, where the execution was to take place, were discontented also, fearing that they might be deprived of their victim. They had arrived with merry music, but returned home silent and sullen.

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