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The Operator And The Emperors
An exile from his own land, ex-Senator William Gwin dreamed of lostmines in Sonora, an Eldorado for unreconstructed Confederates, and a title in Maximilian’s Mexico
April 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 3
E arly in 1863 there appeared in the cozy circle of Confederate agents and sympathizers in Paris a southern gentleman whose looks were fully as distinguished as his reputation. Erect and tall—he stood six feet two—with a massive head crowned by a backswept plume of iron-gray hair, he had aquiline features, a penetrating glance, and a hard, resolute mouth. He carried himself with an air of authority; though he was the son of a Tennessee frontier preacher, he had the bearing and manners of a born aristocrat.
This arrival from the seceded states was William McKendree Gwin, a man who had been in his remarkable and wide-ranging lifetime a lawyer, a doctor, a land speculator, a wealthy cotton planter, a congressman from Mississippi, a founder of the state of California, and one of its first two senators. Now he was about to embark on an enterprise more grandiose than any so far—lor Gwin would not only grasp at a dukedom in Maximilian’s Mexico and a fortune beyond reckoning, bul he would attempt to provide a faltering Confederacy with a sanctuary in a new country.
The Doctor, as he was called, although he had abandoned medical practice years before, had reached ihe French capital after a long, circuitous, and often hazardous journey. When his Senate term had expired in March, 1861, Gwin had deemed it ihe better part of wisdom to retire to his San Francisco home, out of the public—eye. In the frantic: clays before Suinter, he had acted as a go-between in a clandestine correspondence carried on by fellerson Davis and Lincoln’s Secretary of Slate, William Henry Seward: trying to play both sides, he had ended being trusted by neither. If his sympathies were with the South, he had little taste for secession and open warfare. Gwin was too much a man of the world to become a rabid partisan.
Gwin had not remained in California long. In October, lie had returned to the East for a reunion with his family. But his southern affiliations proved his undoing: during the lengthy sea journey by way of Panama, Union officers sailing with him had accused the ex-Senator of having treasonable communications with the enemy, and had arrested him. Upon his arrival in New York, Gwin was imprisoned for ten days, but the charges were too vague to stick, and after a hearing in Washington, he had been released.
Still professing to be neutral in the national struggle, the Doctor had headed south for the plantation he owned in Mississippi, and there he remained all through 1862; ostensibly he was occupied in cataloguing his extensive collection of congressional documents. Late that year, however, Grant had begun his thrust toward Vicksburg; the Cwin plantation lay directly in the path of the advancing Union army. Its owner did not tarry to welcome the Yankees. In the winter of 1863, he took passage aboard the blockade runner Robert E. Lee , which slipped nut of the harbor of Wilmington, North Carolina, and outdistanced a pursuing federal cruiser. Thus William McKcndree Gwin arrived safely in Paris, to take up residence on the fashionable lïoulevard Malesherbes.
He found life in the glittering, light-hearted capital of Napoleon III’s Second Empire brisk and pleasant; the colony of Confederates which he joined was popular with society as well as with the government. Still, the Doctor had more serious concerns than attending soirées and dinner parties. At fifty-nine, he was a man without a country, in search of a new career. But he was also a master of political finesse, and the web of intrigue in which he soon became enmeshed was entirely to his liking. It was not long before he spotted an opportunity that promised adequate employment for his abundant gifts of leadership and organization.
Paris just then was agog over recent events in Mexico, where Napoleon III had embarked upon a grandiose scheme: stage-managing an empire. Ever since the overthrow of Spanish rule, Mexico had been racked by revolutions and wars. Its treasury was bankrupt, its foreign debts unpaid. Then, in 1861, Great Britain, France, and Spain lost patience and sent a joint expeditionary force to occupy Veracruz. But Napoleon had more far-reaching plans than a punitive seizure of one port, and when the British and Spaniards caught his drill, they hastily withdrew. The French army remained, and under the pretext of “pacifying” the land, routed the ragged troops of Mexico’s President Benito Juàrez. Napoleon’s ambition was to create a sphere of French influence in Central America which would eventually extend from Texas to Peru; Mexico would be an immediate source of needed raw materials and a rich market for French manufactures. His choice for the throne of this new empire was the handsome, mild-mannered Hapsburg prince, Archduke Maximilian, brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria.