- Historic Sites
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
Napoleon replied that whatever Maximilian’s shortcomings might be, he was an emperor and must be accorded respect. However, he added, the Doctor was correct in maintaining that the mineral wealth of northern Mexico should be tapped; and he requested Gwin to redraft the colonization scheme on a broader, more ambitious scale, to take in not only Sonora but such surrounding territory as might be advantageously included.
An imperial request is a command; Gwin submitted the enlarged plan, and the estimates of potential gains rekindled Napoleon’s languid enthusiasm. Pledging all necessary military assistance, he urged Gwin to hasten back to Mexico. Rendered doubly cautious by past experience, Gwin put his terms on record. In a letter to Napoleon dated March 25, he stated categorically: “I am willing to return to Mexico, to put my plan of colonization into operation, provided the French troops occupy the State and aid me in my enterprise.” To fortify the Emperor in his resolve, Gwin stressed anew that the “right sort” of colonists in Sonora would provide a bulwark against armed intervention by the United States; he made clear that by the “right sort” he meant southerners and their political allies.
On March 31 Napoleon provided Gwin with a letter of endorsement dictated by himself, written on the embossed stationery bearing the imperial crown and the initial “N,” and signed by the Emperor’s chief of cabinet, Conti.
Armed with this, Gwin left Paris about April i, and John Bigelow—now the United States minister to France—posted a “very confidential” warning to Secretary of State Seward to take the threat of southern colonization of Sonora seriously: “I understand that Gwin has obtained the promise of the Emperor to furnish him as many soldiers as he requires. …”
This message was written on April 19, 1865—ten days after Appomattox, and five days after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
On Gwin’s second trip to Mexico, his son accompanied him. They found the Empire’s capital in turmoil, shocked by the hue and cry being raised in Washington against all who sympathized with the side that had “killed Lincoln.” Gwin took up quarters at the Hotel Iturbide, where, gloomy and perplexed, he wrote to his wife—still in Paris—on May 11:
We arrived here at a fearful crisis in the affairs of this continent. Everything is shaken here, as elsewhere, by the surrender of Lee, and the death of Lincoln. … This country is paralyzed by the news. The Liberals are rejoicing at the prospect of the speedy appearance of the Yankees to exterminate the Empire and restore them to power. … Marshal Bazaine, aged fifty-five, is soon to be married to a mature damsel of seventeen. There is much fun made of this marriage, but I fear it will not be fun to those who want business transacted in the Empire. The time spoken of for the marriage is just the time the Marshal should be on his way to Sonora. With the Marshal courting, and the Emperor wandering through the country stuffing birds, public business is at a standstill.
Publicly the Doctor appeared sanguine, and his air of confidence led the Mexican correspondent of the New Orleans Times to make positive predictions in his June newsletter. “The Confederates still continue to flock to Mexico,” this observer reported.
There is no doubt Doctor Gwin will get his project through. It only awaits the signature of Maximilian to become a law. He goes out as director general of emigration for the States of Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango, and Tamaulipas, with extraordinary powers and eight thousand French troops to back him. The emigration is to be strictly Southern, or Confederate. Ten thousand Confederates are to be armed and paid by the empire, but kept in the above-mentioned States as protection to the emigrants on the frontier. … The Southerners are elated, and golden visions float before them. …
But already Gwin’s few remaining hopes were being clouded not only by events on the highest level of diplomacy, but by subterranean intrigues.
While travelling from Mexico City to the United States under a safe-conduct pass, a certain Colonel Don Enrique A. Mejia, who was a member of the Liberal ( juarista ) party—with friends in Maximilian’s camp—was arrested at Veracruz by French military authorities and his papers seized. After eight days he was released, the papers restored, and he was politely told he might continue his journey.
Upon examining the returned papers, the Colonel found several that had not been among them before. These included two letters written by Doctor Gwin and his son, addressed to Mrs. Gwin at Paris, under cover of an outer envelope addressed to Messrs. Van den Broeck et Cie., Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin—Gwin’s Paris bankers. There was also a letter signed “Massey,” addressed to the “Hon. B. Wood,” editor of a paper that had vigorously opposed the late war, the New York Daily News , and brother of the notorious Copperhead and former mayor of New York, Fernando Wood.
Almost certainly these documents had been planted by someone who wished to sabotage Gwin’s Sonora venture; if so, they produced the desired effect. Upon reaching Washington, Colonel Mejia handed the letters to the juarista minister, Matias Romero, who passed them along to Secretary of State Seward. The Secretary read them, ordered Ben Wood arrested on charges of sedition, and dictated urgent instructions to Bigelow in Paris to lodge a vigorous protest with the government of Napoleon III.