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The Operator And The Emperors

July 2024
26min read

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

E arly in 1863 there appeared in the cozy circle of Confederate agents and sympathizers in Paris a southern gentleman whose looks were fully as distinguished as his reputation. Erect and tall—he stood six feet two—with a massive head crowned by a backswept plume of iron-gray hair, he had aquiline features, a penetrating glance, and a hard, resolute mouth. He carried himself with an air of authority; though he was the son of a Tennessee frontier preacher, he had the bearing and manners of a born aristocrat.

This arrival from the seceded states was William McKendree Gwin, a man who had been in his remarkable and wide-ranging lifetime a lawyer, a doctor, a land speculator, a wealthy cotton planter, a congressman from Mississippi, a founder of the state of California, and one of its first two senators. Now he was about to embark on an enterprise more grandiose than any so far—lor Gwin would not only grasp at a dukedom in Maximilian’s Mexico and a fortune beyond reckoning, bul he would attempt to provide a faltering Confederacy with a sanctuary in a new country.

The Doctor, as he was called, although he had abandoned medical practice years before, had reached ihe French capital after a long, circuitous, and often hazardous journey. When his Senate term had expired in March, 1861, Gwin had deemed it ihe better part of wisdom to retire to his San Francisco home, out of the public—eye. In the frantic: clays before Suinter, he had acted as a go-between in a clandestine correspondence carried on by fellerson Davis and Lincoln’s Secretary of Slate, William Henry Seward: trying to play both sides, he had ended being trusted by neither. If his sympathies were with the South, he had little taste for secession and open warfare. Gwin was too much a man of the world to become a rabid partisan.

Gwin had not remained in California long. In October, lie had returned to the East for a reunion with his family. But his southern affiliations proved his undoing: during the lengthy sea journey by way of Panama, Union officers sailing with him had accused the ex-Senator of having treasonable communications with the enemy, and had arrested him. Upon his arrival in New York, Gwin was imprisoned for ten days, but the charges were too vague to stick, and after a hearing in Washington, he had been released.

Still professing to be neutral in the national struggle, the Doctor had headed south for the plantation he owned in Mississippi, and there he remained all through 1862; ostensibly he was occupied in cataloguing his extensive collection of congressional documents. Late that year, however, Grant had begun his thrust toward Vicksburg; the Cwin plantation lay directly in the path of the advancing Union army. Its owner did not tarry to welcome the Yankees. In the winter of 1863, he took passage aboard the blockade runner Robert E. Lee , which slipped nut of the harbor of Wilmington, North Carolina, and outdistanced a pursuing federal cruiser. Thus William McKcndree Gwin arrived safely in Paris, to take up residence on the fashionable lïoulevard Malesherbes.

He found life in the glittering, light-hearted capital of Napoleon III’s Second Empire brisk and pleasant; the colony of Confederates which he joined was popular with society as well as with the government. Still, the Doctor had more serious concerns than attending soirées and dinner parties. At fifty-nine, he was a man without a country, in search of a new career. But he was also a master of political finesse, and the web of intrigue in which he soon became enmeshed was entirely to his liking. It was not long before he spotted an opportunity that promised adequate employment for his abundant gifts of leadership and organization.

Paris just then was agog over recent events in Mexico, where Napoleon III had embarked upon a grandiose scheme: stage-managing an empire. Ever since the overthrow of Spanish rule, Mexico had been racked by revolutions and wars. Its treasury was bankrupt, its foreign debts unpaid. Then, in 1861, Great Britain, France, and Spain lost patience and sent a joint expeditionary force to occupy Veracruz. But Napoleon had more far-reaching plans than a punitive seizure of one port, and when the British and Spaniards caught his drill, they hastily withdrew. The French army remained, and under the pretext of “pacifying” the land, routed the ragged troops of Mexico’s President Benito Juàrez. Napoleon’s ambition was to create a sphere of French influence in Central America which would eventually extend from Texas to Peru; Mexico would be an immediate source of needed raw materials and a rich market for French manufactures. His choice for the throne of this new empire was the handsome, mild-mannered Hapsburg prince, Archduke Maximilian, brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria.

A ll this was of great interest to the Doctor. As a senator, Gwin had studied the history and topography of Mexico, and one evening at the home of a fellow expatriate he spoke at length of the supposedly vast and hardly touched mineral riches of the state of Sonora. In that mountainous, sparsely populated, and almost unexplored region lying to the south of the Arizona Territory, Gwin said, fabulous wealth could be found in a maze of forgotten or abandoned mines. A fascinated listener was the Marquis de Montholon, former French consul in New York and Napoleon’s newly appointed minister to Mexico. Montholon was a member of the inner circle at the Tuileries, and like most educated Frenchmen spoke English fluently, that language being the current idiom of sport, dandyism, and high fashion. Gwin, relieved of the necessity of relying upon the scanty provincial French he had acquired in Xcw Orleans, talked freely and eloquently.

In the eighteenth century, he told the Marquis, Sonora had been reconquered from the Spaniards by roving bands of warlike Indians—Yaquis, Apaches, and other tribes—who since that time had defied both Spanish and Mexican authority. In the colonial period the mines of Sonora, especially those yielding gold and silver, had ranked among the richest known: but when the Indians took over the country, the mines had been abandoned, the very location of some being lost to record. The almost incalculable wealth of the Sierra Madre might be estimated from colonial account books. For instance, there was the legendary Iayopa (“the mine with the iron door”), lost somewhere in the Sonora wastelands: it was believed to be the richest single deposit of precious metals in the world. In the same region lay the Minas Prietas, and their location was ascertainable: in the eighteenth century, Spanish priests had worked these veins to enormous profit, but they had been abandoned for years. Still another legendary example was the lost Naranjal mine, which was so prodigally rich its owner paved the path from his hacienda to the nearby church with bricks of pure silver. Gwin’s stories went on and on, and Montholon’s eyes glistened as the Doctor assured him that these sources of wealth could be tapped again. The Marquis left murmuring that exalted personages might be interested in so dazzling a prospect.

A few days later Doctor Gwin received a caller in the person of Count Mercier, who until recently had been Napoleon’s minister to the United States and was now attached to the Foreign Office. Mercier was a staunch supporter of the Confederate cause, and he and Gwin were able to converse frankly; they had been friends in Washington. At Mercier’s suggestion, Gwin outlined a plan tor colonizing and opening up Sonora, one calculated to enrich both the French and Mexican governments and to prove highly profitable as well to the entrepreneurs in charge. The plan seemed to hold stupendous possibilities, and the Count left in a state of excitement. Shortly thereafter a gorgeously liveried lackey delivered at Number 55 Boulevard Malesherbes a gilt-edged card which invited Doctor Gwin to confer with the president of the Corps Législatif, the Due de Morny.

Morny was not only Napoleon’s illegitimate halfbrother but the Emperor’s most influential adviser, and was largely responsible for France’s intervention in Mexico; it was a speculation from which he expected to reap millions. The boldest and least scrupulous speculator in Europe, Morny was credited with being the brains of Louis Napoleon’s Second Empire.

Gwin and Morny met in the Duke’s library and took to each other at once. The interview was private and confidential, which suited them both. They shared a number of traits: both thought on a grand scale, and both were prepared to risk much when the odds seemed in their favor. They were men who united bold imagination with cold calculation—a rare and usually winning combination—and who temperamentally preferred to do business by backstairs jockeying.

Gwin told Morny that the prestige of his reputation in California alone would attract thousands of miners to Sonora—the kind of rough, hardy men who would stop at nothing to get gold. After them would come farmers, merchants, artisans, educators—many of them, presumably, with Confederate leanings—anil, as in California, cities, towns, and a framework of government would be created. Naturally those who got in on the ground floor would benefit most; but Gwin need hardly have pointed this out to so shrewd an operator as the Duc de Morny.

There was, however, one prerequisite which France alone coidd provide, and luckily she could provide it easily: military protection for the first emigrants against the bitterly hostile Indians. As soon as colonists arrived in sufficient numbers, they could defend themselves and the Indian problem would cease. Thus, if the French army in Mexico would provide the necessary initial assistance, Gwin was prepared to promote a large-scale coloni/ation effort.

Shortly after his interview with Morny, Doctor Gwin was summoned to an audience with the Emperor himself. He found Napoleon III poring over geological maps of Mexico. The Emperor’s English was probably better than his French (brought up in Germany and Switzerland, he spoke both tongues with a thick German accent), and he responded eagerly to Gwin’s proposals. Maximilian had to be consulted, of course, and he happened to be in Paris. A meeting was arranged, at which the Archduke listened to the American’s proposals graciously and gave hearty encouragement.

It was now September, 1864. For Maximilian’s further consideration, Gwin embodied his plan in a mem orandum that read like a draft on the Hank of Golconda. Being a supple politician, the Doctor knew exactly how to appeal to the Archduke’s vanity, his highmindcdness, and his self-interest all at once. The memorandum spoke of “mines of fabulous richness—especially of silver” that had been worked in Spanish times. “One mine,” Gwin specified, ”… produced a solid piece of silver of the value of $4,700, which was sent as a present to the King of Spain. I cannot trust my memory to give the full details, and I have only my memory to rely upon, as the authorities and data of my researches were destroyed, with my whole Gongressional library of about 2,000 volumes, at my plantation on the Mississippi River, by the army of General Grant during the siege of Vicksbtirg.” Hut he was certain the Mexican archives would bear out everything he said; and in this he was on solid ground.

M aximilian was apparently dazzled, and on January 5, 1864, Gwin addressed a letter to Napoleon, formally soliciting military assistance. The Doctor also cautiously uncovered an aspect of the venture which hitherto had not been stressed, and which bore upon Napoleon’s position in the game of power politics he was playing. If the North succeeded in suppressing the Rebellion, it would be in a position to send an army of formidable strength and high morale to expel the French—and probably Maximilian with them. Acting in concert with Great Britain, Napoleon had pledged to observe strict neutrality in the American conflict; secretly he favored the Confederates and was covertly aiding them, for he regarded the Richmond government as a probable future ally. Gwin understood the explosive elements in the situation, and he offered Napoleon a means ol insurance against a future Yankee attack. He did not belabor the issue, but merely pointed out the desirability of having Sonora, which borders on the United States, peopled with settlers who could be relied upon to defend their homesteads against any sudden thrust. Stich a population in Sonora, Gwin observed, would present “an impregnable barrier to hostile attacks upon that portion of the Empire.”

The growing tension in his relations with Washington was giving Napoleon some uneasy moments, and the notion of that “impregnable barrier’ oi tough fighting men appealed to him—especially since many ol them were likely to be pro Confederate. The Emperor graciously signified that he was considering the plan. But, cautious and secretive by nature, Napoleon let the matter drift until March, when Gwin applied pressure by a second memorandum, which contained phrases that would have caused the eyebrows of Secretary of State Seward to shoot upward in startled concern.

“Let the Civil War in the United States cease,” Gwin had written, “and thousands of discharged soldiers, inured to hardship and camp life, and who will not go back to their former homes it they can help it, would overrun the country, subdue the Indians, and hold it against any force Mexico could bring into the field to expel them. This is the main reason why it should be occupied now …”

The thought of a horde of American adventurers, northern or southern, swarming into Sonora and appropriating those wonderful mines for themselves, with neither IVapolcon nor Maximilian benefiting, was a horrid prospect, and the French Emperor was stirred to action. Gwin’s proposals were laid before his cabinet: there, article by article, they were debated in the Emperor s presence, and article by article, they were approved.

Meanwhile, Morny and Gwin had reached a private arrangement between themselves whereby Morny became Gwin’s silent partner. The Duke agreed to provide the capital not only to work the mines but to set tip railroads, steamship lines, banks, and other commercial ventures as rapidly as Sonora was populated.

On April 14, 1864, with pomp and misgiving, Maximilian and his consort, Carlota, daughter of the King of the Belgians, set sail from their Adriatic dream villa, Miramar, for their new world. Two weeks later Doctor Gwin quitted Paris for England, where he was to take ship for Veracruz. With him went an autograph letter from Napoleon to General Achille Bazaine, commanding the French army of occupation in Mexico, ordering Bazaine to supply all necessary military assistance to put Gwin’s plan into effect. The outlook could not have been brighter, and at the Tuileries it was whispered that upon his return, if the enterprise proved a success, Doctor Gwin might expect to receive a title. “Duke of Sonora’ seemed fitting. The American newspapers, waiting for no imperial sanction, invested the former senator with this badge of nobility at once.

It was June before the Doctor finally sailed from Southampton, and the Civil War had entered its bloodiest phase. Grant was clawing his way toward Richmond, while Lee and his armies performed prodigies of resistance. The Battle of the Wilderness had unfolded in May; the slaughter at Cold Harbor almost coincided with Gwin’s departure. The Confederates were being driven toward defeat, but they had not lost heart or hope. One straw at which Jefferson Davis still clutched was recognition by England and France—and if those nations would not admit the Confederacy’s sovereignty, then recognition by some government, somewhere. Could that be obtained, the wherewithal to go on fighting might flow into southern ports, and the North’s will to continue the struggle might be broken.

Maximilian seemed to offer such an opening. Although Washington sternly refused to accept his upstart Empire and recalled its minister to Mexico, President Davis had appointed an envoy to the new court, General William Preston of Kentucky, even before Maximilian and Carlota had landed. Preston set out at once, and at Havana encountered an old friend, Doctor Gwin, on his way to Veracruz. Preston reported their conversation in a private note to Davis on June 28, 1864; in this the southern complexion of the settlers Gwin proposed to draw to Sonora was made clear.

“Doctor Gwin … has identified himself with the new Empire,” Preston advised the Confederate President, “and has just gone on to Sonora to undertake its colonization under flattering auspices. … It is expected that fifteen or twenty thousand colonists thoroughly acquainted with mining can be procured from Southern men in California. …”

Gwin continued the journey to Mexico City. There the French ambassador, Montholon, took him at once to meet General Bazaine. The General, a pudgy little man who had proved adept at guerrilla warfare in Algeria, accepted the letter Gwin brought from Napoleon but, fearing open negotiations, insisted on a secret interview. When that first clandestine meeting was held soon after, the Doctor speedily gathered that a serious estrangement existed between the French army and the civilians, both Mexican and European, who surrounded Maximilian.

Bazaine approved Gwin’s project and promised military support, but hinted at unforeseen difficulties. He did not wish to discourage the Doctor, he said—in fact, Bazaine might command the expedition into Sonora himself; but the Doctor would be well advised to have no communication with the Mexican authorities. Indeed, it might be better not to attempt to see Maximilian, certainly not just then, for his advisers were intensely jealous of French influence and doubtless were already poisoning his mind against any scheme emanating from the Tuileries.

Ignoring the General’s advice, Gwin requested an interview with Maximilian; he received a courteous reply saying that the Emperor was setting out on a trip through the interior, but would receive him upon his return. Like Bazaine, Maximilian seemed to be stalling for time.

Before leaving France, it seemed, Maximilian had demurred at signing a treaty that would place Sonora under the protection of France for fifteen years in return for payment of a royalty on all metals mined there. This was a prerequisite for Gwin’s operations: since he would be dependent upon French military protection against the Indians, the area must be firmly under France’s control. Maximilian’s scruples against signing such a treaty “in a hurry” had nettled Napoleon, but, impatient to get his puppet emperor started toward America, he waived the signing temporarily.

Upon arriving at the seat of his Empire—a remote, half-primitive, half-sophisticated city high in the mountains—Maximilian found his Mexican advisers dead set against Gwin and his scheme. They remembered Texas, and the war of 1846, when they had lost half their territory to voracious Yankees: and they grumbled that Gwin’s settlers would simply take over Sonora. Too, they hinted that Gwin’s secret intention was to foment a war between Mexico and the United States, to the advantage of the Confederacy. Maximilian was susceptible to these insinuations. To escape this and the many other dilemmas he faced, the Emperor set out upon a royal progress through the countryside, viewing ruins and practicing taxidermy.

Meanwhile, in Mexico City, the Doctor practiced patience. Though Maximilian had gone a-gadding, the Empress remained in the capital, and Gwin enlisted her support; he was encouraged to find her more capable and clear-headed than her airy-minded husband, and in letters to his family in France he evinced no loss of confidence.

… I prepared the argument in favor of the policy [he wrote], and Montholon the treaty. Mr. Corta [Napoleon’s fiscal agent in Mexico] read them at large to her Majesty. The work was all well done. General Bazaine, although approving all, stood aloof, so that if the Emperor and Empress refused to make the treaty he might not be embarrassed. … The last time I saw him, I said I was “getting tired of inaction, and believed if he would furnish me with an outfit and an escort, I would join the army en route for Sonora between Durango and Mazatlan.” He agreed to furnish me with everything I wanted at once, but advised me to wait, and go with him. … In fact, the roads are now impassable everywhere. There have not been such rains for years. … I must, therefore, wait on the seasons. If the treaty is made I shall be fully repaid for the delay. I am more and more satisfied, as I collect information, of the enormous richness of the gold and silver mines of Sonora, and that the climate is the most healthy and delicious.

Maximilian returned to his capital, and Gwin awaited a call to discuss business; instead, he received an invitation to a wedding. Julia, daughter of the Marquis de Montholon, was the bride, and although her Parisian wedding gown was stuck in the mud somewhere between Veracruz and Mexico City, the Emperor decreed that the wedding should be celebrated forthwith; he and Carlota stood as sponsors of the bridal pair.

During the nuptial mass Gwin was placed close to the imperial couple, in a position to study them carefully; his impression was favorable, he wrote to his daughter, though his verdict on Maximilian was tepid: “very polite, kind, and amiable”—hardly the essential qualities for a ruler.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

And what of the fabulous mines of Sonora? Had Gwin been duped, or had he duped himself, with a dream of incalculable wealth lying in that wild and lonely region? No one knows. Old records may be read in many ways, and some rich deposits of silver, gold, copper, and iron have been found. But the legend of vaster fortunes somewhere amid the forbidding crags and canyons of the Sierra Madre persists and to this day lures the solitary treasure hunter.

Maximilian In Mexico

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