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Chapter XX

  • French intervention in Mexico
  • -- a plan to compel the withdrawal of the French army -- Grant's letter of instructions to General Sheridan -- Secretary Seward Advocates moral Suasion -- a mission to Paris with that end in view -- Speechmaking at the American Thanksgiving dinner -- Napoleon's method of retreating with dignity -- a presentation to the Emperor and Empress.

while the government of the United States was fully occupied with the contest for the preservation of the Union, Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, attempted to overthrow the republican government in Mexico, and establish in its stead all empire under the Archduke Maximilian of Austria. If the American conflict had resulted in the triumph of secession, so also might Napoleon have succeeded in reestablishing monarchical government on the American continent. But from the moment when the Union of the States became reassured, European interference in the political affairs of the American republic became impossible. Upon this subject there appeared to be no division of sentiment among the people of the United States. Certainly there was none among the responsible American statesmen of that time. It was their unanimous voice that the French intervention in Mexico must be speedily terminated; but there was naturally some division of opinion respecting the means by which this should be effected. Some favored [379] the most prompt and vigorous military action, while others, not unmindful of the long-existing friendship between the people of the United States and France, preferred more peaceful measures.

As the first and necessary step in either line of policy, whether for immediate active military operations or as conclusive evidence of ultimate military purpose in aid of diplomacy, General Sheridan was sent, with an army of about fifty thousand men, to the line of the Rio Grande. But Sheridan's troops were Union volunteers who had been enlisted especially for the Civil War, then terminated; and the necessity was at once recognized of organizing a new army for the express purpose of acting against the French army in Mexico, in case of need. It was proposed that this new army should be enlisted and organized under the republican government of Mexico, the only government recognized by the United States in that country. This course would avoid the necessity of any political action of the government of the United States in the premises. Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, then commander-in-chief of the armies of the United States, was requested to select an officer to organize and command the proposed army.

In June, 1865, at Raleigh, North Carolina, I received a message from General Grant informing me of my selection, and desiring me, if I was willing to consider the proposition, to come to Washington for consultation on the subject. Upon my arrival in Washington, I consulted freely with General Grant, Señor Romero (the Mexican minister), President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and Secretary of War Stanton, all of whom approved the general proposition that I should assume the control and direction of the measures to be adopted for the purpose of causing the French army to evacuate Mexico. Not much was said between me and the President or either of the secretaries at that time about the [380] means to be employed; but it appeared to be understood by all that force would probably be necessary, and for some time no other means were considered. The subject was fully discussed with General Grant and Señor Romero, and I then consented to take charge of the matter, with the understanding that I should have perfect freedom of action and choice of means and of time, so far as circumstances would permit. To enable me to do this, the War Department gave me leave of absence for twelve months, with permission to go beyond the limits of the United States and to take with me any officers of my staff whom I might designate. It was proposed to organize in Mexican territory an army corps under commissions from the government of Mexico, the officers and soldiers to be taken from the Union and Confederate forces, who were reported to be eager to enlist in such an enterprise.

The Mexican authorities proposed to furnish the means by which this army should be paid and the expenses of military operations defrayed, and to that end a loan was to be negotiated in the United States. To facilitate the enlistment and equipment of the proposed army corps, General Grant gave me a manuscript order, dated West Point, July 25, 1865, addressed to General P. H. Sheridan, then commanding the Military Division of the Gulf, with a large force near the Mexican frontier. The following is a copy of General Grant's order:

head quarters armies of the United States. West Point, N. Y., July 25, 1865.
Maj.-Gen. P. H. Sheridan, Commanding Mil. Div. of the Gulf.
General: Maj.-General J. M. Schofield goes to the Rio Grande on an inspection tour, carrying with him a leave of absence for one year, with authority to leave the United States. If he avails himself of this leave he will explain to you the object more fully than I could do in the limits of a letter, and [381] much more fully than I could do now, under any circumstances, because much that will have to be learned to fix his determination, whether to go or not, has yet to be found out in Washington whilst I shall be away. This, however, I can say: Gen. Schofield's leave has been given with the concurrence of the President, he having full knowledge of the object. I have both written my views to the President and had conversations with him on the subject. In all that relates to Mexican affairs he agrees in the duty we owe to ourselves to maintain the Monroe doctrine, both as a principle and as a security for our future peace.

On the Rio Grande, or in Texas, convenient to get there, we must have a large amount of surrendered ordnance and ordnance stores, or such articles accumulating from discharging men who leave their stores behind. Without special orders to do so, send none of these articles back, but rather place them convenient to be permitted to go into Mexico if they can be got into the hands of the defenders of the only Government we recognize in that country. I hope Gen. Schofield may go with orders direct to receive these articles; but if he does not, I know it will meet with general approbation to let him have them if contrary orders are not received.

It is a fixed determination on the part of the people of the United States, and I think myself safe in saying on the part of the President also, that an empire shall not be established on this continent by the aid of foreign bayonets. A war on the part of the United States is to be avoided, if possible; but it will be better to go to war now, when but little aid given to the Mexicans will settle the question, than to have in prospect a greater war, sure to come if delayed until the empire is established. We want, then, to aid the Mexicans without giving cause of war between the United States and France. Between the would-be empire of Maximilian and the United States all difficulty can easily be settled by observing the same sort of neutrality that has been observed toward us for the last four years.

This is a little indefinite as a letter of instructions to be governed by. I hope with this you may receive them—instructions— in much more positive terms. With a knowledge of the fact before you, however, that the greatest desire is felt to see the Liberal Government restored in Mexico,—and no doubt exists of the strict justice of our right to demand this, and enforce the [382] demand with the whole strength of the United States,—your own judgment gives you a basis of action that will aid you.

I will recommend in a few days that you be directed to discharge all the men you think can be spared from the Dept. of Texas, where they are, giving transportation to their homes to all who desire to return. You are aware that existing orders permit discharged soldiers to retain their arms and accoutrements at low rates, fixed in orders.

Very respectfully, your obt. svt.,

U. S. Grant, Lt.-Gen.

In effect this order required General Sheridan to turn over to me all of his volunteer troops who might wish to take part in the Mexican enterprise, with their arms and equipments, and all ‘surrendered ordnance and ordnance stores,’ etc., thus making it easy for me to arm and equip at small cost the ex-Confederates and others who would join my standard. Soon after the date of General Grant's order to General Sheridan, and at the request of Secretary Seward, conveyed to me by Mr. Stanton, I met Mr. Seward at Cape May. He then proposed to me to go to France, under authority of the State Department, to see if the French emperor could not be made to understand the necessity of withdrawing his army from Mexico, and thus save us the necessity of expelling it by force. Mr. Seward expressed the belief that if Napoleon could be made to understand that the people of the United States would never, under any circumstances, consent to the existence in Mexico of a government established and sustained by foreign power, he would withdraw his army from that country. If this were done, the friendly relations between the people of France and the United States would not be disturbed, while the expulsion of a French army from Mexico by American volunteers would engender greet bitterness of feeling among the French people, even if it did not lead to war between France and the United States. [383]

This proposition from Mr. Seward seemed to put upon me the responsibility of deciding the momentous question of future friendship or enmity between my own country and our ancient ally and friend. I had, on the one hand, full authority from the War Department and the general-in-chief of the army, given with the knowledge and consent of the President of the United States, to organize and equip an army for the purpose of driving the French out of Mexico, and on the other hand a request from the State Department to go to France and try by peaceful means to accomplish the same end.

As the negotiation of the Mexican loan had not made great progress, the funds were not yet available for the support of an army. It was expected that the actual beginning of operations on the Rio Grande would stimulate subscriptions to the loan, yet the lack of ready money was a sufficient cause for some delay in making the proposed ‘inspection tour’ to the Rio Grande; and this fact, added to a natural love of peace rather than of war, and a due sense of the dictates of patriotism as contrasted with mere military ambition, determined the decision of that question. It is reason for profound thankfulness that the peaceful course was adopted.

In a letter dated August 4, 1865, I informed Mr. Seward of my decision, ‘after mature reflection,’ ‘to undertake the mission’ which he had proposed. Mr. Seward acknowledged my letter on August 9, and on the 19th I received a telegram from the War Department to ‘report at the State Department upon your [my] next visit to Washington.’ This order was promptly obeyed. On August 23 the Secretary of War sent a letter to the Secretary of State, accrediting me as an officer of the army, in which capacity, and unofficially, I was to be understood by the public as visiting Europe. A copy of this letter, inclosed in one from the State Department, was sent to Mr. Bigelow, United States [384] minister at Paris; and similar letters were sent to several other United States ministers in Europe. But time passed until November 4, and thus more than two months elapsed before the Secretary of State was ready for me to start for Europe. Mr. Seward then gave me a confidential letter, dated November 4, 1865, addressed to Mr. Bigelow, and a letter of credit on the Barings, and requested me to proceed on my mission.

In his letter to Mr. Bigelow he said: ‘General Schofield proceeds to Paris. He is, I believe, fully informed of the feelings and sentiments, not only of this government, but of the American people. I commend him to your confidence,’ etc. Mr. Seward explained to me several times during this period of delay that correspondence then going on with the French government rendered it advisable that my visit be delayed until he should receive expected answers from that government. The Atlantic cable did not then exist, and hence correspondence across the ocean was necessarily slow. The expected despatch—viz., that from the French Foreign Office to their minister at Washington, dated October 18, 1865, and communicated to Mr. Seward on the 29th of the same month—was no more satisfactory, though in better tone, than those which had preceded. In effect it demanded a recognition by the United States of the government of Maximilian in Mexico as a condition precedent to the recall of the French army. The time had evidently arrived when Napoleon must be informed in language which could not be misunderstood what was the real sentiment of the government and people of the United States on the Mexican question. It was difficult, perhaps impossible, to express that sentiment in official diplomatic language that an emperor could afford to receive from a friendly power. It was therefore desirable that the disagreeable information be conveyed to Napoleon in a way which would command his full credence, and [385] which he yet need not regard as offensive. Mr. Seward's explanation and instructions to me, after several long conversations on this subject, were summed up in the words: ‘I want you to get your legs under Napoleon's mahogany, and tell him he must get out of Mexico.’

In my visit to Paris I was accompanied by two officers of my staff, Brevet Brigadier-General William M. Wherry and Brevet Brigadier-General G. W. Schofield, who had been given leave of absence for the purpose of going with me to Mexico or elsewhere. We sailed from New York, November 15, 1865, on the Cunard steamer Java, and stayed a day in Liverpool and several days in London, where I explained to Mr. Adams, United States minister, the purpose of my visit.

Mr. Adams expressed hearty sympathy with the object of my mission, and gave cordial assent to my wish that I might feel at liberty to consult him in regard to it at any time.

Mr. Motley, United States minister at Vienna, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at the residence of Mr. Adams, assured me that the government of Austria was especially desirous of not being regarded by the United States as responsible in any manner for the attempt to establish an empire under the Austrian archduke in Mexico. Mr. Motley thought a visit by me to Vienna while the Mexican question was pending might produce undue excitement. Hence I limited my tour in that direction to Italy.

We proceeded to Paris on the 2d of December. Our arrival had been preceded by vague rumors of an official mission more or less hostile to the interests of France, which caused great excitement among the French people and the American residents in Paris, and serious depression of United States, Mexican, and French securities in the financial markets of Europe. It was also understood that no little anxiety was felt at the French court, then [386] at Compiegne. It was manifestly desirable to allay so far as possible this undue excitement in the public mind. Hence I availed myself of an early opportunity, given by the American Thanksgiving dinner at the Grand Hotel, to intimate in unmistakable terms that my mission, if any, was one entirely friendly to the people of France.

The following is a part of the account of that banquet given by the Paris correspondent of the ‘New York Herald,’ under date of December 8, 1865:

The American residents and transient sojourners in Paris celebrated the national Thanksgiving by a grand dinner at the Grand Hotel, which passed off in splendid style. . . . The next toast was the long-looked — for one of the evening, for it was known that it would call up a distinguished guest from whom all were anxious to hear. It was ‘The Army and Navy of the United States.’ When the band had ceased playing ‘Yankee Doodle,’ Major-General Schofield rose to reply to this toast, and was received with tremendous enthusiasm. The ladies rose and waved their handkerchiefs, and gentlemen shouted until they were hoarse. The general, after bowing his acknowledgments, said: ‘Fellow-countrymen—I want words to express to you the satisfaction which will be felt in the heart of every soldier and sailor when he learns the manner in which the names of the army and navy have been received by you to-night. I will at this time allude but briefly to one of the great lessons taught by the American war—the grandest lesson of modern times. A great people who have heretofore lived under a government so mild that they were scarcely aware of its existence have found, in time of war, that government to be one of the strongest in the world [cheers], raising and maintaining armies and navies vaster than any ever before known [cheers]. In point of character, in point of physical and moral qualities, in point of discipline and of mobility in large masses, the armies of the United States have never before been equaled [loud cheers]. Yet this, great as it is, is not the greatest wonder of the American war. This vast army, as soon as its work was done, was quietly disbanded, and every man went to his home, as quietly as the Christian [387] goes back from church on Sabbath morning; and each soldier reentered upon the avocations of peace a better citizen than he was before he became a soldier [renewed applause]. This was the grandest lesson of the war. It shows that the power of a nation to maintain its dignity and integrity does not result from or depend upon its form of government; that the greatest national strength—the power to mass the largest armies in time of war—is entirely consistent with the broadest liberty of the citizen in time of peace [enthusiasm]. Permit me, in conclusion, to propose a toast which I know will be heartily responded to by every true American— “The old friendship between France and the United States: may it be strengthened and perpetuated! ” ’ General Schofield's toast was drunk with great enthusiasm, and upon his taking his seat the applause which followed his remarks was deafening.

The situation of Napoleon's government at that time was extremely critical. The opposition was powerful and aggressive. The intervention in Mexican affairs was very unpopular in France, and yet the national pride of the people would not permit the Emperor to yield to menace even from the United States, nor allow his army to be driven by force from Mexico without a supreme effort to maintain it there. Napoleon could not have submitted to such humiliation without the loss of his throne. In short, forcible intervention by the American people in the Mexican question, or the public threat of such action, arousing the national pride of France, must have led to a long and bloody war, resulting, doubtless, in final success in America and probably in a revolution in France.

Such a result would have been a just punishment to Napoleon for his conduct toward the United States and Mexico during our Civil War. But why involve the people of France and the people of the United States in this punishment Why make enemies of our ancient friends? Our sister republic of Mexico must be relieved from foreign domination, at whatever cost; but strife and lasting enmity between the United States and France [388] would be a fearful price to pay for even so great a good as the freedom of Mexico. Manifestly such extreme measures should not be resorted to until all peaceful means had failed. Considerations of this nature determined my course while in Paris. I had sufficient opportunity in two interviews with Prince Napoleon, and in several conversations with officers of high rank on the Emperor's staff, to make known to the Emperor the views and purposes of the government and people of the United States in respect to Mexican affairs. Our conversation was without reserve on either side, and with the understanding that nothing said by me would be withheld from the Emperor.

The principal of these staff-officers was the distinguished Admiral de la Graviere, who had commanded the French squadron in American waters in the early part of our Civil War and in the capture of Vera Cruz. This gallant and honest old sailor had reported to his government the exact truth about the enterprise which Napoleon had undertaken when he ordered the bombardment and capture of the Mexican seaport for the alleged purpose of collecting a French claim-namely, that he was no better able to collect that claim after the city was in his possession than he had been before, and that the conquest of Mexico by the operations of a large army would be necessary before any financial return could be expected. This unwelcome report led to the admiral's recall to France, and he was sent to his home in disgrace. But in due time the Emperor learned that while all others had deceived him, the admiral had told him the truth, whereupon he was called to Paris, restored to the confidence of his chief, and appointed aide-de-camp on the staff of the Emperor. Admiral de la Graviere was a warm friend of America, rejoiced in the triumph of the Union cause, understood and appreciated the sentiments of the people of the United States, among whom he had made many [389] friends, and was a very willing medium of communication to the Emperor of the exact attitude of the American people respecting the Monroe doctrine, which the Emperor of the French had been betrayed into violating through the influence of persons high in his confidence, but governed by sordid motives.

Admiral Reno, Assistant Minister of Marine, was another of the high French officials with whom free conversation was held.

The fidelity with which Prince Napoleon and others reported to the Emperor the character of the unofficial message which I had to deliver rendered it quite unnecessary that it be delivered in person, and quite impossible that the Emperor should be willing to receive it in that way. Hence, though I received several intimations that I would be invited to a private interview, no invitation came, and none was sought. My letters from Paris to Mr. Seward, to General Grant, and to Señor Romero, reported the progress made, and the nature of the situation as it then appeared to me.

On January 22 I was present at a dinner given by Prince Napoleon in the Palais Royal. Every shade of political opinion in Paris was represented among the guests. Political discussion seemed to be entirely unrestrained, with one exception, when a remark which savored of disloyalty to the empire was rebuked by the prince.

In the Emperor's address to the French legislature on January 22, his future policy in respect to Mexico had been hinted at in the words: ‘[Our expedition] touche á son terme.’ The declared purpose of speedily terminating the intervention in Mexico having been applauded by all, the prince inquired pointedly of me whether, in my opinion, the Emperor's declaration would be satisfactory to the United States, and received the unreserved reply that it would, as I believed, be accepted as satisfactory. [390]

In my report to Mr. Seward of January 24, I expressed the belief that even his enemies in France would not be disposed to embarrass the Emperor in respect to Mexico, ‘well satisfied to see him get out of that country by any means, and thus avoid war with the United States’; and I ventured the suggestion that ‘this course would also seem wise on our part.’ In my letter of the same date to General Grant I said:

You will get by this mail Napoleon's speech delivered at the opening of the French legislative session. I was present and heard the speech delivered. That part of it relating to Mexico and the United States was received with very general tokens of approbation, while most of the remainder met with a cold reception. I have since heard it discussed very freely by many prominent men of all shades of political opinion, among others the Prince Napoleon. All seem to recognize the falsity of the Emperor's assumptions where he says: ‘In Mexico the government founded by the will of the people is consolidating itself,’ etc. Yet his statements are, no doubt, believed by a large majority of the French people, and therefore afford him a very good reason for yielding to the demand, made in common by the people of France and the United States, that his intervention in Mexico shall be brought to an end. This is the logic of his position and his solution of his difficulty, viz.: to assert that he has accomplished the object of his expedition to Mexico, and hence to end it. While we laugh at the absurdity of his premises, we can hardly find fault with his conclusion, and hence it is not worth while to criticize any part of his argument. Rather I think it well to let him make the most of his audacity in the creation of convenient facts. The opinion seems to be universal here that the Emperor is sincere in his declarations of intention as to Mexico; indeed, that the has adopted the policy of making the strongest possible bid for the friendship of the United States. It is certainly easy to derive such an opinion from his speech, and I am strongly inclined to believe it correct. Yet we cannot forget the fact that in his speech of last year he used quite as strong language as to the speedy termination of his Mexican expedition. Hence I shall indulge in some doubt until I see the actual development of his present plans. I have no idea that Napoleon [391] believes that Maximilian can remain long in Mexico after the French troops are withdrawn; but it is very important for him, in order to give some appearance of truth to his assumed grounds of action, that Maximilian be allowed to stay there some time without French aid. And for this reason he wants some assurance of neutrality from the government of the United States. Prince Napoleon and others with whom I have conversed express the decided opinion that Maximilian will come away with Marshal Bazaine, in spite of all the Emperor may say to induce him to try to stand alone. This, I apprehend, will be the difficulty, and may cause much delay, unless the United States kindly lend a helping hand. Would it not be wise for us to abstain for a few months from all interference, direct or indirect, and thus give Napoleon and Maximilian time to carry out their farce? Mexico would thus be rid of the French flag in the least possible time. If the French troops come also, Juarez can easily dispose of Maximilian at any time. If they succeed in getting the French troops to remain as colonists, then the United States can easily find a good reason for disposing of the whole matter, and Napoleon will not dare to interfere. . . . An officer of the Emperor's household left here about ten days ago with despatches for Mexico which, it is understood, contained the Emperor's declaration to Maximilian of his intention to recall his troops. This will give you some idea of the time when the matter may be arranged if all works well.

My views relative to the purposes of the French government appear to have been in accord with those of Mr. Bigelow at the time, as shown in his official despatches afterward published, and adopted by Mr. Seward in his subsequent correspondence with the French minister at Washington. They were soon afterward confirmed by the official announcement which the French minister was authorized to make to the government of the United States. In fact, I was in almost constant conference with Mr. Bigelow during that time, and knew that my views, as communicated to Mr. Seward and General Grant, were in close accord with his, although I could not know anything of Mr. Bigelow's despatches to the State Department [392] until they were published. Mr. Bigelow's comprehension of the French view of the Mexican question proved to be perfectly exact. While awaiting further instructions in reply to my report of January 24, I occupied my time in visits to the south of France, Italy, Switzerland, and England.

Among the personal incidents connected with my stay in Paris which seem worthy of record were the following:

Soon after my arrival in Paris, in company with Mr. Bigelow I called upon Marshal Randon, Minister of War, who was the only minister of the French government then in Paris. We were received with cold and formal politeness. Some days later, the Emperor having returned to Paris, and having apparently become satisfied that I was not occupied with any designs hostile to France, I received a very courteous letter from the Minister of War, dated December 13, and addressed to Mr. Bigelow; and Captain Guzman, the officer therein named, reported to me immediately. Under the guidance of this accomplished officer I saw in the most agreeable manner all the military establishments about Paris. These courtesies were acknowledged in a letter dated February 25, 1866, addressed to Mr. Bigelow.

My presentation to the Emperor and Empress occurred at one of those brilliant occasions at the Tuileries for which the second empire was famous. In conversing with the Emperor, he desired to know something of the operations of the American armies, and especially their marvelous methods of supply at great distances from a base of operations.

It gives me great pleasure to record here, as I did in my correspondence at the time, the great courtesy, the kindness, and the charming hospitality shown me by Mr. Bigelow and his amiable family during my stay in Paris. Mr. Adams, United States minister at London, was also exceedingly kind, inviting a very distinguished [393] company to meet me at dinner, taking me to several charming entertainments, and presenting me to the Prince of Wales, who then received in place of the Queen. General King at Rome, and Mr. Marsh at Florence, also entertained me very courteously during my short stay at those places. The warmth of greeting by Americans everywhere, and the courteous reception by all foreigners whom I met, lent a peculiar charm to the first visit of a Union soldier among those who had watched from a distance the great American conflict.

I now have the satisfaction of knowing, in the light of subsequent events, that whatever my mission to France contributed toward the solution of the momentous question of that day was wisely directed in the interest of peace at home, continued friendship with our former allies, the people of France, and the relief of an American republic from foreign domination; these great blessings were combined in the final result.

Too much cannot be said in praise of the able and patriotic statesmanship displayed by Secretary Seward in his treatment of the French violation of the Monroe doctrine.

Early in May, 1866, I received from Mr. Seward his final reply to my report of January 24, in which he said: ‘The object for which you were detailed to visit Europe having been sufficiently accomplished, there is considered to be no further occasion for you to remain in that quarter in the service of this department.’ Whereupon I returned to the United States, and reported at the State Department on the 4th of June.

The condition of the Franco-Mexican question at the time of my return from Europe gave no further occasion for my offices in either of the ways which had been contemplated in behalf of Mexico. Subsequent events in Mexico included the sad fate of Maximilian and the sadder fate of Carlotta.

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