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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
Although he did not know it, Bigelow was belaboring an all-but-defunct issue. His letter to Seward crossed one written by the Secretary on August 24, announcing that advices received from Mexico indicated “the schemes of Dr. Gwin and other rebel emissaries in Mexico … have altogether failed.”
In the Mexican capital, the final act of the drama was unfolding in a champagne foam of unreality. On June 28 Marshal Bazaine had married his pretty heiress, Doña Josefa Peña, with all the panoply the capital could muster; the Emperor and Empress attended. (Exchanging court gossip with Eugénie, Carlota wrote that the Marshal was really smitten, for he had taken up dancing again and boasted he never missed an habanera !) The festivities were prolonged for weeks, and effectively distracted Bazaine from all thought of martial exploits. Maximilian let affairs of state glide along while he devoted his energy to pet projects like establishing an academy of sciences and attempting to assemble the portraits of all the rulers of Mexico back to Moctezuma. Meanwhile, the Sonora treaty continued to gather dust.
The Doctor’s enemies at court grew bolder, and a rumor percolated through the capital that Gwin was not backed by Napoleon at all. Even as Bazaine was prancing toward the bridal bed, the government journal El Diario del Imperio officially sealed this rumor by publishing a repudiation of Gwin and all his schemes. Indignantly the Doctor hunted out Bazaine, who knew the truth, and urged the Marshal to exact a retraction by El Diario . But the bridegroom-warrior shrugged that Napoleon was involved personally, and he would not presume to meddle.
Gwin realized at last that his plan had been scuttled once and for all. Even his life was no longer safe: the juaristas would be delighted to shoot him, while the intriguers around Maximilian would be relieved should he be eliminated by some timely accident. There was no choice but to try to make his peace with the United States—if not for his own sake, then for his family’s future.
Happy to behold the troublesome Doctor departing, Bazaine provided a military escort to convoy Gwin safely through the bandit-infested countryside to the Texas border; late in August, he crossed the line and soon after arrived at San Antonio. Reporting to the military commandant, he requested permission to travel to New York, there to take ship for France. He was passed along to the departmental commander at New Orleans, Major General Philip Sheridan, who greeted him affably and relayed the request to Washington. Back came an order to arrest the former senator; and for eight months Gwin was confined at Fort Jackson, in the soggy jungle of the Mississippi delta south of New Orleans. No charge was preferred, and he was not told who had ordered his imprisonment, but Gwin always suspected that Seward was responsible. After the first few weeks he was allowed to have certain comforts, and upon his release in April, 1866—still by whose order and because of what circumstances he was not told—he proceeded to New York and sailed to rejoin his family in Paris.
Meanwhile, the juarista forces had come to life; in January, 1866, while Gwin was still a prisoner, Napoleon, harassed by European pressures, by illness, and by increasingly acerbic remonstrances from Washington, ordered his army withdrawn from Mexico. By the time Gwin left Fort Jackson, Bazaine had started the evacuation. It sounded Maximilian’s death knell.
In July, Carlota hastened to Paris and beseeched Napoleon not to desert his puppet, but the Emperor was helpless. Carlota then appealed to the Pope, piteously begging that her husband should not be sacrificed and filling the Vatican with her cries, but Pius IX could do nothing. In March, 1867, the last French troops sailed for home—where, after a brief interval, they would endure the ignominy of Sedan and Metz, witness the collapse of the Second Empire, see Eugénie and Napoleon in exile, and Bazaine tried and convicted of treason. (With the help of his young wife, however, he would escape from prison and spend the rest of his life in exile in Spain.)
Left defenseless, Maximilian botched an amateurish attempt to escape, then took the field against Juárez. At Querértaro, on May 15, 1867, he was betrayed and taken prisoner; and there, on June 19, he was shot. Carlota was not with him. Her mind had given way, and she was confined in a château near Brussels, incurably insane. It was her misfortune to live on for another sixty years; she did not die until January 19, 1927.
Gwin was more fortunate. Reunited with his family in Paris, he tasted the hectic gaiety of the foundering Empire’s last years (when everything seemed to have gone awry since Morny’s death), giving parties that “ex-Confeds” voted almost as sumptuous as those stately entertainments for which he had been famous in Washington before the war. In 1868 Gwin returned to the United States and lived quietly in California, where he had preserved some mining properties. So completely did he subside into obscurity that the news of his death on September 4, 1885, at the age of eighty, startled old-timers. The end came in a New York hotel while he was on a trip east, trying to promote a railroad across Nicaragua.