I laugh every time I think about the French invading Mexico. I know I shouldn’t—a lot of people died in the “intervention,” which began when Napoleon III used Mexico’s debt to France as a pretext for invasion. Napoleon III made the mistake of listening to conniving Mexican aristocrats who had insinuated themselves into the French court. The Mexicans in France wanted to see Benito Juarez’s democracy crushed and the return of their former power and property. To that end, they assured Napoleon that Mexico was gnashing under the yoke of its liberal oppressor and that monarchist “liberators” would be welcomed with open arms. They also told him that that Mexico was still very rich, which was a lie. Bolstered with false information and yearning to make his mark, Napoleon III decided to invade Mexico. How crazy it must have been to live in an era when countries invaded one another without bothering to verify obviously suspect intelligence reports! (Oh, wait…)
At the time, Benito Juarez (a Zapotec Indian who is often called “Mexico’s Abraham Lincoln”) was doing his best to establish Mexico’s first democracy. He refused to curtail the freedom of speech of his opponents, and he established, in the words of my hero Henry Bamford Parkes, “a congress that had more freedom from the executive than any other Mexican congress before or since.” Unfortunately, the treasury was bankrupt after years of civil war. Juarez declared a two year suspension in the payment of debts to foreign governments while he attempted the monumental task of getting the Mexico’s affairs in order (something no one as actually ever managed to do).
In search of allies for their proposed invasion, the French set about manipulating the British and Spanish. France and Britain shared a vendetta against Juarez, because Juarez supposedly owed both nations money for damages incurred against French and British property during the war and, in the case of the French, for a loan that had actually been taken out by Juarez’s conservative rival, Miramon; the Spaniards were disgruntled because Juarez had expelled their minister (who was in cahoots with Miramon). Unified in their disgruntlement, the three governments agreed that together they could pressure Juarez into capitulating. They landed on the shores of Mexico in 1862.
Once the delegations landed, it became clear that the three countries were really not on the same page at all. The British merely wanted to put some pressure on Mexico to repay a list of damages incurred against British merchants during Mexico’s recent wars. Napoleon III, on the other hand, wanted Mexico as a star in his crown. When the British and Spanish commanders learned they had been tricked into lending support to the French Emperor’s delusional ambitions, they departed with their troops.
The French pushed onward into Mexico. Ignoring the signs that Mexico was not welcoming them with open arms, and again operating on false intelligence, they made the mistake of storming Puebla. The French commander Laurencez had the audacity to (in the words of Parkes) “fling his Men at the centre of the Mexican fortifications, over a ditch and a brick wall and up the steep slopes of the Cerro de Guadalupe.” Like many foreigners before and since, he underestimated the Mexicans, and the battle went badly for him. On May 5, 1862, after losing at least a thousand men, the French army retreated ignominiously to the coast. This rout resulted in every gringo’s favorite Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo.
(Unfortunately, the Mexicans were not so successful in later battles. The French eventually occupied Mexico City and succeeded in crowning the sentimental Viennese prince Maximilian in his short-lived reign as emperor of Mexico. However, the French never got much out of the occupation and three years later Maximilian was executed by firing squad outside Querétaro.)
(image courtesy of The Getty Museum)