French intervention in Mexico

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Franco-Mexican War
Dates 1861-67
Place Mexico
Result Mexican victory
Initially British and Spanish
Some Austrian and Belgian volunteers
Mexican imperial forces
Mexico Republican Mexico

38,493 (French soldiers),
7000 Austria-Hungary,
2000 Belgian volunteers
6,654 French
killed and wounded
12,000 Mexican
killed and wounded
Military history of France History of Mexico
Emperor Maximilian
Emperor Maximilian
Napoleon III of France
Napoleon III of France
Juárez, republican leader and President
Juárez, republican leader and President

The French intervention in Mexico was an invasion of Mexico by the army of France, and supported in the beginning by the British and Spanish. It followed President Benito Juárez's suspension of payments of interest on loans to foreign countries made by previous governments on 17 July 1861, which angered Spain, France and Britain. Napoleon III of France was the leader of this operation, and the three powers signed the Treaty of London on 31 October, to unite their efforts to receive payments from Mexico. On 8 December the Spanish fleet and troops from Spanish-controlled Cuba arrived at Mexico's main Gulf port, Veracruz.

The presidential terms of Benito Juárez (185871) were interrupted by the Habsburg monarchy's rule of Mexico (186467). Conservatives tried to institute a monarchy when they helped to bring to Mexico an archduke from the Royal House of Austria, known as Maximilian of Habsburg (wife Carlota of Habsburg) with the military support of France, which was interested in exploiting the rich mines in the north-west of the country. Many historians believe that the French established the monarchy when they did due to the fact that the United States was in the middle of its Civil War (1861–1865). Had the Americans not been fighting at the time, they would have invoked the Monroe Doctrine, which stated that the United States would interfere if a European nation attempted to conquer a New World Nation, as justification for a war.


1862: Arrival of the French

The British and French fleets arrived at Veracruz between the 6 and 8 January 1862. The city of Campeche surrendered to the French fleet on 27 February, and a French army arrived led by General Lorencz on 5 March. When the Spanish and British realised the French had ambitions of colonising Mexico, they withdrew their forces on 9 April, their troops leaving on 24 April.

Although the French army, then considered one of the most efficient in the world, suffered an initial defeat in the Battle of Puebla on 5 May 1862 (now commemorated as the Cinco de Mayo holiday) they eventually defeated the Mexican government forces led by the general Ignacio Zaragoza. The pursuing Mexican army was contained however by the French at Orizaba on 14 June. More French troops arrived in Mexico on 21 September, and General Bazaine with more reinforcements arrived on 16 October. Tampico was occupied by the army of France on 23 October, with Xalapa taken with no fighting on 12 December.

1863: French take the capital

The French bombarded Acapulco on 15 January 1863. Then, on 16 March, General Forey and the French army begins the siege of Puebla.

On 30 April, the French Foreign Legion earned its legendary status when the small infantry patrol unit led by Capitaine Danjou numbering 62 soldiers and three officers was attacked and besieged by Mexican infantry and cavalry units numbering three battalions, and was forced to make a defense in Hacienda Camarón. Danjou was mortally wounded in the defense of the hacienda, and the last of his men mounted a desperate bayonet attack. They fought to nearly the last man, with three survivors. 'Camerone Day' is a day of celebration for Legionnaires in years afterwards.

The French army of General Bazaine defeated the Mexican army led by General Comonfort in their attempt to relieve the siege of Puebla, at San Lorenzo, to the south of Puebla. Puebla surrendered to the French shortly afterward, on 17 May. On 31 May, President Juárez with his cabinet fled the city, retreating northwards to El Paso del Norte, and taking the treasure of the state with them.

French troops under Bazaine entered Mexico City on 7 June 1863. The main army enters the city three days later led by General Forey. General Almonte is appointed the provisional President of Mexico on 16 June, by the Superior Junta (which had been appointed by Forey) The Superior Junta with its 35 members meets on 21 June, and proclaims a Catholic Empire on 10 July. The crown was offered to Maximilian, due to Napoleon's efforts. Maximilian accepted the crown on 3 October, at his castle Miramar near Trieste, having being offered it by the Comisión Mexicana, sent by the Superior Junta.

1864: Maximilian arrives

The French under Bazaine occupied Guadalajara on 7 January 1864, and troops under Douay occupied Zacatecas on 6 February. Further French victories continued with the fall of Acapulco on 3 June, occupation of Durango on 3 July, and the defeat of republicans in the states of Sinaloa and Jalisco in November.

Maximilian landed at Veracruz on 28 May (or possibly 29 May) 1864 in the SMS Novarra and accepted the crown formally on 10 April, signing the Miramar Convention. He was enthroned Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian of Habsburg favored the establishment of a limited monarchy sharing powers with a democratically elected congress. This was too liberal to please Mexico's Conservatives, while the liberals refused to accept a monarch, leaving Maximilian with few enthusiastic allies within Mexico.

1865: Beginning of republican victories

The French continue with victories in 1865, with Bazaine capturing Oaxaca on 9 February (defeating the city's defenders under General Porfirio Díaz). The French fleet lands soldiers who capture Guaymas on 29 March. However on 11 April, republicans defeat Imperial forces at Tacámbaro in Michoacán. In April and May the republicans have many forces in the states of Sinaloa and Chihuahua. Most towns along the Rio Grande are also occupied by republicans. The Belgians defeated the republicans at the Second Battle of Tacámbaro on 11 July.

The decree known as the "Black Decree" was issued by Maximilian on 3 October, which threatened any Mexican captured in the war with immediate execution. This was the later basis of his execution. Several of the high ranking officials of the republicans were executed under this order on 21 October.

U.S. reaction

When the American Civil War ended in 1865, the United States began supplying the republicans with arms. The US Congress and Senate had unanimously passed a resolution which opposed the establishment of the Mexican monarchy on 4 April 1864. On 12 February 1866, the US demanded the French withdraw their forces from Mexico. The US officially protested to Austria about the Austrian volunteers in Mexico on 6 May.

1866: French withdrawal and republican victories

In 1866 Napoleon III announced the start of his withdrawal on 31 May. The Republicans begin a series of victories, occupying Chihuahua on 25 March, taking Guadalajara on 8 July, further capturing Matamoros, Tampico and Acapulco in July. Napoleon III urged Maximilian that he should abandon Mexico. The French evacuated Monterrey on 26 July, Saltillo on 5 August, and the whole state of Sonora in September. Maximilian's French cabinet members resigned on 18 September. The Republicans defeated Imperial troops at Miahuatlán in Oaxaca in October, occupying the whole of Oaxaca in November, as well as parts of Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato. On 6 December the Austrian and Belgian volunteers were disbanded and were supposed to enter the Mexican Army, however 3500 of the 4648 did not, and tried to leave the country.

1867: Republicans take the capital

Execution of Maximilian, painting by Manet
Execution of Maximilian, painting by Manet
Drawing of the execution of Maximilian published shortly after the event in 1867
Drawing of the execution of Maximilian published shortly after the event in 1867

The Republicans occupied the rest of the states of Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Guanajuato in January. The French evacuated the capital on 5 February.

On 13 February 1867, Maximilian withdrew to Querétaro. The Republicans began a siege of the city on 9 March, and Mexico City on 12 April. An imperial sortie from Querétaro failed on 27 April.

On 11 May Maximilian resolved to attempt an escape through the enemy lines. He was, however, intercepted before he could carry out this plan on 15 May and, following a court-martial, was sentenced to death. Many of the crowned heads of Europe and other prominent figures (including Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi) sent telegrams and letters to Mexico pleading for Maximilian's life to be spared, but Juárez refused to commute the sentence, believing that it was necessary to send a message that Mexico would not tolerate any government imposed by foreign powers.

Maximilian was eventually captured and executed on 19 June (along with his generals Miguel Miramón and Tomás Mejía) on the Cerro de las Campanas, a hill on the outskirts of Querétaro, by the forces loyal to President Benito Juárez, who had kept the federal government functioning during the French intervention. Juárez's position was further strengthened when the United States deployed troops to the Rio Grande, and threatened an invasion. Mexico City surrendered the day after Maximilian was executed.

The republic was restored, and a new constitution was written that, amongst other things, confiscated the vast landholdings of the Catholic church (which had been acting as landlord over half the country), established civil marriages and forbade the participation of priests in politics (the separation of Church and State).

After the victory, there was resentment by Conservatives against President Juárez (whom they thought had concentrated too much power and wanted to be re-elected) so one of the army's generals, named Porfirio Díaz, rebelled against the government and issued the proclamation of the Plan de Tuxtepec in 1876.

See also

  • Pastry War, an earlier invasion of Mexico by the French


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