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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
The sociable Doctor was treated to another picturesque spectacle during October, an alfresco military mass celebrated in the camp of the French army. In his account to his family he told of being welcomed in the camp by Bazaine, who had just been made a marshal of France and was infatuated with his new honor.
As I walked among the little Frenchmen, they looked at me with curious eyes, as if they thought me a giant [Gwin recounted]. Upon the arrival of the royal cortege, the Emperor and Empress were properly received and escorted to their tents. Shortly afterwards they both came out and walked about admiring the prospect. She ran about with evident delight, like a schoolgirl on a holiday … dinner was soon announced. Three bands of music played at intervals during the repast, which lasted about two hours. …
Just as day broke, the next morning, I was aroused by the most heavenly music I ever listened to. The three bands were playing a solemn anthem … preparatory to the celebration of mass. When the music ceased everybody was in motion, and we all began to wash and dress right out in the open air, Emperor and all. … We were soon dressed, and the bugles on all sides of us called the troops into ranks. Officers galloped rapidly about, and in a short time the whole of the army had assembled around the altar, where mass was to be celebrated. …
It was very imposing, with the bands playing and the troops presenting and grounding arms at given signals. After it was over, the Emperor and Empress stepped into their carriage and drove slowly off … at eleven o’clock, we sat down to breakfast with the Marshal, his staff, and principal officers. It lasted nearly two hours. I sat on the Marshal’s right, and the theme during the whole meal was Sonora. The Marshal, it seemed, wished his staff and officers to hear me on this subject, and they were enthusiastic when he said he might take them all there. …
But social amenities did nothing to forward the Doctor’s plans. Maximilian remained friendly, but no word of business escaped the imperial lips. Bazaine, swaggering and sly, offered excuse after excuse for not putting the Sonora expedition in motion, while Gwin awaited some sign from Paris.
Worse yet, the progress of the war in the United States was more and more disquieting, and as the year drew to a close it seemed inevitable that the Confederacy would crumble. In November, Lincoln had been re-elected President, while Sherman in Georgia and Grant in Virginia were smashing the South’s last defenses. Should the North be victorious, Gwin suspected that Maximilian might shy away from the Sonora project for fear of angering Washington. Time was running out; Napoleon must act. Convinced that no one could present the impending danger as forcefully as himself, Gwin sailed for France early in January, 1865.
By this time Napoleon had become disillusioned with his Mexican glory hunt. In Europe, events had moved toward a crisis since Prussia’s seizure of the Danish provinces of Schleswig and Holstein, and there was a popular outcry among the French against the ruinous expense of maintaining the army in Mexico. As his disenchantment grew, Napoleon flirted with the temptation to liquidate the whole affair, providing French pride could be saved. Trial balloons were lofted. Thus, on February 8, while Doctor Gwin was at sea, the United States consul general in Paris, John Bigelow, read in the court newspaper, the Moniteur , that “all reports circulating in the journals relative to a cession made to France by the Mexican government of certain provinces of Sonora, Chihuahua, etc., etc., are absolutely unfounded.” Seward had been prodding Bigelow to ferret out Gwin’s objective in Mexico; might it not be, suggested the Secretary of State, to create a refuge there for unregenerate Confederates—or perhaps to provide a foothold for a Confederate government in exile?
Bigelow forwarded the Moniteur extract with this note: “Last evening at the palace … before the opening of the ball, His Majesty said to me, ‘I am sorry those reports got into the journals about Sonora; there is nothing whatever in them.’ … His Majesty then added laughingly, ‘What I want is to get out of it altogether.’ ”
Gwin reached Paris about March 6—and found Morny, his mainstay, desperately ill, unable to receive visitors. On March 10, the Duke died.
With this prop knocked out, the whole edifice of Gwin’s hopes threatened to topple. Yet Napoleon might still save the project. Gwin obtained an audience, and, determined that the Emperor should understand the catastrophe building up in Mexico, he employed language seldom heard by emperors. Maximilian he described as an honest man, well-intentioned, a patron of the arts, a connoisseur of painting—“but of all men living, probably the least qualified to govern Mexico.” He squandered his annual salary of a million and a half dollars on pageantry, while the people perished of famine; he surrounded himself with guards gorgeously caparisoned, while every highway teemed with beggars and brigands; he had produced nothing but blunders, and had brought nothing except more discord into a country already hopelessly divided. In sum, said Gwin, Maximilian was “a paper emperor,” and should be dealt with as such: he must be told to approve the Sonora treaty, and Bazaine must be compelled to take the field. Further delay would mean disaster.