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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 elder Gwin’s letter, undated but obviously written about the middle of May, soon after his return from France, was emotional, for in view of the South’s disaster Sonora now appeared to offer his best, if not his sole, chance of political and even personal survival.
My dearly beloved Wife and Daughters, [he had begun]. The startling news from the United States has made the blood of every Southern sympathizer run cold with horror. No one will be safe in our native country. How I thank Providence that I have cast my lot elsewhere, and that very soon I will have a home for my wife and children where they will be safe from oppression, and where we have every prospect of immediate and permanent prosperity. My policy is on every man’s lips as the only one that will save this Empire. The Emperor remains unaccountably away from the capital, but his minister having charge of this matter considers it so pressing that he has gone to him with it more than a week ago. … The delay is unpleasant, but the certainty of success that will follow … is a great consolation, especially when everything is so dark for us everywhere else. Never have a doubt of my success. I have less now than ever.
The intercepted letter to Ben Wood, signed “Massey,” proved to be from a disaffected American, Doctor Thomas C. Massey, whom Maximilian’s government had empowered to open agencies for the recruiting of emigrants for Mexico. “You see I have been cautious but positive about Dr. Gwin,” his letter read. “They have all they want from the French Emperor. … Marshal Bazaine has certain orders anyhow; the thing will be carried out, and Gwin will go out as ‘Directeur-Général, etc.’ … There are fortunes in it, and a very peculiar kind of colonization permitted. …”
Behind Seward’s order to Bigelow to remonstrate with the Tuileries lay the Secretary’s desire to avoid hostilities with Mexico. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox had determined that both Maximilian and the French must clear out, but Seward believed diplomatic pressure—backed by the postwar military might of the United States—would accomplish this without fighting. Yet General Grant was massing troops on the Texas border, and a clash might be precipitated at any moment. Seward told Bigelow to move swiftly and firmly.
On August 1, 1865, Bigelow addressed a strongly worded protest to Napoleon’s foreign minister, Edouard Drouyn de Lhuys, accompanied by copies of the intercepted correspondence—which, Bigelow said, plainly showed that “Dr. William M. Gwin and family, although citizens of the United States, are disloyal to its government.” Gwin’s Sonora scheme, he complained, envisaged large-scale emigration “from parties in rebellion against the United States,” and the exSenator and his associates were assuring both Napoleon and Maximilian that “their contemplated proceedings … will inure to the injury of the United States.” Moreover, they claimed to have the French Emperor’s promise of military support. This posed a threat of such gravity, the Minister said, that he had been instructed “frankly to state that the sympathies of the American people for the Republicans of Mexico are very lively, and that they are disposed to regard with impatience the continued intervention of France in that country; that any favor shown to the speculations of Dr. Gwin by the titular Emperor of Mexico, or by the imperial government of France will … be regarded, perhaps justly, as importing danger to the United States. … It is unnecessary … to say,” the note closed, “that, having expelled the insurgents from our own borders, the United States could not look with satisfaction upon their reorganization … on the opposite bank of the Rio Grande. …”
All this was extremely embarrassing to the potentate in the Tuileries. He had been caught assisting a conspiracy against the peace and security of the United States, in violation of his solemn pledge to observe neutrality in the American conflict. A protest of such dimensions could not be ignored, and on August 7, Drouyn de Lhuys returned a peevishly phrased acknowledgment of the American minister’s “mention of some plans for the colonization of Mexico deemed to have been conceived with intentions hostile to the government of the United States. It is not for me to enlighten you concerning the speculations of such and such a person who has emigrated to Mexico,” Napoleon’s spokesman rejoined. “But what I know of the intentions of the Mexican government enables me to say that it proposes to let the emigrants from the Southern States enter upon its territory only individually and without arms. They … will be immediately dispersed through the provinces of the empire and bound to abstain in their conduct from anything which might awaken the just susceptibility of neighboring nations.”
Convinced he had hit the bull’s-eye, Bigelow abstained from further communications during the rest of August. But on the thirty-first he had a long interview with Drouyn de Lhuys and reported the conversation in a confidential dispatch to Seward. The French minister, Bigelow said, had explained that the Tuileries resented not the American protest, but the imputation of being somehow accessory to “conversations … between Gwin, the Emperor, and General Bazaine which could never have occurred.” True, the Emperor had seen the Doctor “two or three times, as he sees all persons who are specially acquainted with any subject in which he is interested,” and Drouyn de Lhuys himself had seen Gwin twice; but he denied that there were “any engagements whatever of the character referred to with Dr. Gwin.”