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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
It was now September, 1864. For Maximilian’s further consideration, Gwin embodied his plan in a mem orandum that read like a draft on the Hank of Golconda. Being a supple politician, the Doctor knew exactly how to appeal to the Archduke’s vanity, his highmindcdness, and his self-interest all at once. The memorandum spoke of “mines of fabulous richness—especially of silver” that had been worked in Spanish times. “One mine,” Gwin specified, ”… produced a solid piece of silver of the value of $4,700, which was sent as a present to the King of Spain. I cannot trust my memory to give the full details, and I have only my memory to rely upon, as the authorities and data of my researches were destroyed, with my whole Gongressional library of about 2,000 volumes, at my plantation on the Mississippi River, by the army of General Grant during the siege of Vicksbtirg.” Hut he was certain the Mexican archives would bear out everything he said; and in this he was on solid ground.
M aximilian was apparently dazzled, and on January 5, 1864, Gwin addressed a letter to Napoleon, formally soliciting military assistance. The Doctor also cautiously uncovered an aspect of the venture which hitherto had not been stressed, and which bore upon Napoleon’s position in the game of power politics he was playing. If the North succeeded in suppressing the Rebellion, it would be in a position to send an army of formidable strength and high morale to expel the French—and probably Maximilian with them. Acting in concert with Great Britain, Napoleon had pledged to observe strict neutrality in the American conflict; secretly he favored the Confederates and was covertly aiding them, for he regarded the Richmond government as a probable future ally. Gwin understood the explosive elements in the situation, and he offered Napoleon a means ol insurance against a future Yankee attack. He did not belabor the issue, but merely pointed out the desirability of having Sonora, which borders on the United States, peopled with settlers who could be relied upon to defend their homesteads against any sudden thrust. Stich a population in Sonora, Gwin observed, would present “an impregnable barrier to hostile attacks upon that portion of the Empire.”
The growing tension in his relations with Washington was giving Napoleon some uneasy moments, and the notion of that “impregnable barrier’ oi tough fighting men appealed to him—especially since many ol them were likely to be pro Confederate. The Emperor graciously signified that he was considering the plan. But, cautious and secretive by nature, Napoleon let the matter drift until March, when Gwin applied pressure by a second memorandum, which contained phrases that would have caused the eyebrows of Secretary of State Seward to shoot upward in startled concern.
“Let the Civil War in the United States cease,” Gwin had written, “and thousands of discharged soldiers, inured to hardship and camp life, and who will not go back to their former homes it they can help it, would overrun the country, subdue the Indians, and hold it against any force Mexico could bring into the field to expel them. This is the main reason why it should be occupied now …”
The thought of a horde of American adventurers, northern or southern, swarming into Sonora and appropriating those wonderful mines for themselves, with neither IVapolcon nor Maximilian benefiting, was a horrid prospect, and the French Emperor was stirred to action. Gwin’s proposals were laid before his cabinet: there, article by article, they were debated in the Emperor s presence, and article by article, they were approved.
Meanwhile, Morny and Gwin had reached a private arrangement between themselves whereby Morny became Gwin’s silent partner. The Duke agreed to provide the capital not only to work the mines but to set tip railroads, steamship lines, banks, and other commercial ventures as rapidly as Sonora was populated.
On April 14, 1864, with pomp and misgiving, Maximilian and his consort, Carlota, daughter of the King of the Belgians, set sail from their Adriatic dream villa, Miramar, for their new world. Two weeks later Doctor Gwin quitted Paris for England, where he was to take ship for Veracruz. With him went an autograph letter from Napoleon to General Achille Bazaine, commanding the French army of occupation in Mexico, ordering Bazaine to supply all necessary military assistance to put Gwin’s plan into effect. The outlook could not have been brighter, and at the Tuileries it was whispered that upon his return, if the enterprise proved a success, Doctor Gwin might expect to receive a title. “Duke of Sonora’ seemed fitting. The American newspapers, waiting for no imperial sanction, invested the former senator with this badge of nobility at once.
It was June before the Doctor finally sailed from Southampton, and the Civil War had entered its bloodiest phase. Grant was clawing his way toward Richmond, while Lee and his armies performed prodigies of resistance. The Battle of the Wilderness had unfolded in May; the slaughter at Cold Harbor almost coincided with Gwin’s departure. The Confederates were being driven toward defeat, but they had not lost heart or hope. One straw at which Jefferson Davis still clutched was recognition by England and France—and if those nations would not admit the Confederacy’s sovereignty, then recognition by some government, somewhere. Could that be obtained, the wherewithal to go on fighting might flow into southern ports, and the North’s will to continue the struggle might be broken.