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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
Maximilian seemed to offer such an opening. Although Washington sternly refused to accept his upstart Empire and recalled its minister to Mexico, President Davis had appointed an envoy to the new court, General William Preston of Kentucky, even before Maximilian and Carlota had landed. Preston set out at once, and at Havana encountered an old friend, Doctor Gwin, on his way to Veracruz. Preston reported their conversation in a private note to Davis on June 28, 1864; in this the southern complexion of the settlers Gwin proposed to draw to Sonora was made clear.
“Doctor Gwin … has identified himself with the new Empire,” Preston advised the Confederate President, “and has just gone on to Sonora to undertake its colonization under flattering auspices. … It is expected that fifteen or twenty thousand colonists thoroughly acquainted with mining can be procured from Southern men in California. …”
Gwin continued the journey to Mexico City. There the French ambassador, Montholon, took him at once to meet General Bazaine. The General, a pudgy little man who had proved adept at guerrilla warfare in Algeria, accepted the letter Gwin brought from Napoleon but, fearing open negotiations, insisted on a secret interview. When that first clandestine meeting was held soon after, the Doctor speedily gathered that a serious estrangement existed between the French army and the civilians, both Mexican and European, who surrounded Maximilian.
Bazaine approved Gwin’s project and promised military support, but hinted at unforeseen difficulties. He did not wish to discourage the Doctor, he said—in fact, Bazaine might command the expedition into Sonora himself; but the Doctor would be well advised to have no communication with the Mexican authorities. Indeed, it might be better not to attempt to see Maximilian, certainly not just then, for his advisers were intensely jealous of French influence and doubtless were already poisoning his mind against any scheme emanating from the Tuileries.
Ignoring the General’s advice, Gwin requested an interview with Maximilian; he received a courteous reply saying that the Emperor was setting out on a trip through the interior, but would receive him upon his return. Like Bazaine, Maximilian seemed to be stalling for time.
Before leaving France, it seemed, Maximilian had demurred at signing a treaty that would place Sonora under the protection of France for fifteen years in return for payment of a royalty on all metals mined there. This was a prerequisite for Gwin’s operations: since he would be dependent upon French military protection against the Indians, the area must be firmly under France’s control. Maximilian’s scruples against signing such a treaty “in a hurry” had nettled Napoleon, but, impatient to get his puppet emperor started toward America, he waived the signing temporarily.
Upon arriving at the seat of his Empire—a remote, half-primitive, half-sophisticated city high in the mountains—Maximilian found his Mexican advisers dead set against Gwin and his scheme. They remembered Texas, and the war of 1846, when they had lost half their territory to voracious Yankees: and they grumbled that Gwin’s settlers would simply take over Sonora. Too, they hinted that Gwin’s secret intention was to foment a war between Mexico and the United States, to the advantage of the Confederacy. Maximilian was susceptible to these insinuations. To escape this and the many other dilemmas he faced, the Emperor set out upon a royal progress through the countryside, viewing ruins and practicing taxidermy.
Meanwhile, in Mexico City, the Doctor practiced patience. Though Maximilian had gone a-gadding, the Empress remained in the capital, and Gwin enlisted her support; he was encouraged to find her more capable and clear-headed than her airy-minded husband, and in letters to his family in France he evinced no loss of confidence.
… I prepared the argument in favor of the policy [he wrote], and Montholon the treaty. Mr. Corta [Napoleon’s fiscal agent in Mexico] read them at large to her Majesty. The work was all well done. General Bazaine, although approving all, stood aloof, so that if the Emperor and Empress refused to make the treaty he might not be embarrassed. … The last time I saw him, I said I was “getting tired of inaction, and believed if he would furnish me with an outfit and an escort, I would join the army en route for Sonora between Durango and Mazatlan.” He agreed to furnish me with everything I wanted at once, but advised me to wait, and go with him. … In fact, the roads are now impassable everywhere. There have not been such rains for years. … I must, therefore, wait on the seasons. If the treaty is made I shall be fully repaid for the delay. I am more and more satisfied, as I collect information, of the enormous richness of the gold and silver mines of Sonora, and that the climate is the most healthy and delicious.
Maximilian returned to his capital, and Gwin awaited a call to discuss business; instead, he received an invitation to a wedding. Julia, daughter of the Marquis de Montholon, was the bride, and although her Parisian wedding gown was stuck in the mud somewhere between Veracruz and Mexico City, the Emperor decreed that the wedding should be celebrated forthwith; he and Carlota stood as sponsors of the bridal pair.
During the nuptial mass Gwin was placed close to the imperial couple, in a position to study them carefully; his impression was favorable, he wrote to his daughter, though his verdict on Maximilian was tepid: “very polite, kind, and amiable”—hardly the essential qualities for a ruler.