Authors: Kevin Peraino
As Maximilian and Charlotte were preparing to depart Miramar, the Union armies suffered a series of troubling setbacks. General Banks, after finally establishing a foothold near the Mexican border, launched an ill-advised campaign along Louisiana’s Red River (named for the color of its muddy water). Union commanders wanted to send Banks up the river to Shreveport, in the state’s northwest corner, a maneuver designed at least partly to place the French emperor on guard. From there, Banks and his men could join a Union attack on strategically critical Mobile, Alabama.
Banks’s men, however, never reached their destination. As the spring rain poured down on the Union troopers, they sank up to their ankles in red slime. On April 8, Confederate defenders launched a counterattack near Mansfield, Louisiana. The Federals, one witness recalled, degenerated into “a disorganized mob of screaming, sobbing, hysterical, pale, terror-stricken men.” Banks found himself desperately waving his sword in the air, trying unsuccessfully to convince his men to hold fast. The officer’s troops ultimately mocked their commander as “Napoleon P. Banks.”
The Red River debacle frustrated Lincoln. After the president got the news of the campaign’s failure, he read aloud from “The Fire-Worshippers,” a section of Thomas Moore’s romantic epic,
, including the lines “Oh! ever thus, from childhood’s hour, / I’ve seen my fondest hopes decay.…”
In Congress, Henry Winter Davis, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, had already been scolding Lincoln for his hapless Mexican policy. The congressman convinced the House of Representatives to pass a measure denouncing “the deplorable events now transpiring in the Republic of Mexico”—a provocative gesture that Lincoln and Seward would have preferred to have avoided. The secretary of state grumbled that “party politicians think that the Mexican question affords them a fulcrum, and they seem willing to work their lever reckless of dangers to the country.” Some members of the national media also chimed
New York Herald
complained of “the namby-pamby, wishy-washy foreign policy of the administration.”
Seward continued to assure his diplomats in Paris that the White House did not share the aggressive posture of Congress and the penny press, although the secretary of state acknowledged that the French occupation remained “a source of continued irritation.” Legislators, he wrote, were only reflecting widespread popular pressure to confront the French armies. Seward predicted that—as in the case of the
affair—the executive would ultimately be able to steer the ship of state safely through the crisis. In any case, he added, if the most determined expansionists would just display a little patience, they would ultimately get their way. “Five years, ten years, twenty years hence,” Seward wrote in a confidential dispatch to his consul in Paris, “Mexico will be opening herself as cheerfully to American immigration as Montana and Idaho are now. What European power can then maintain an army in Mexico capable of resisting material and moral influences of emigration?”
In the spring of 1864, however, it sometimes seemed as if the war would never end. Grant plunged his army south through Virginia, but the campaign was slow going. Northern and Southern troops battled fearsomely in the Wilderness—a bleak stretch of land near the Rapidan River consisting of little more than scrub trees and tangled vines. As Grant’s forces bogged down in their drive south toward Petersburg, casualties mounted dramatically. By June more than sixty-five thousand Union troops had been killed, wounded, or had simply vanished—more than half as many as had been lost in the preceding three years.
Lincoln took the setbacks hard. He found it difficult to get any sleep during the Wilderness campaign. One visitor to the White House that May, the artist Francis Carpenter, found Lincoln in the residence dressed only in a “long morning wrapper,” pacing in front of a window, “his hands behind him, great black rings under his eyes, his head bent forward upon his breast—altogether such a picture of the effects of sorrow, care, and anxiety as would have melted
the hearts of the worst of his adversaries.” During those tense days, Carpenter noted, the president would usually take his dinner upstairs, alone. “I
have some relief from this terrible anxiety,” Lincoln complained, “or it will kill me.” Lincoln observed that no matter how much rest he got, it “seemed never to reach the
The president had neither the energy nor the will to confront Napoleon over Mexico now. Seward, too, found it baffling that some people still wanted to divert troops needed to defeat the Confederate rebellion. The secretary of state, Gideon Welles reported in late May, “is becoming very anxious in view of our relations with France.” Seward continued to resist taking a harder line. “I think,” the secretary of state protested in late May to Bigelow in Paris, “with our land and naval forces in Louisiana retreating before the rebels instead of marching towards Mexico, this is not the most suitable time we could choose for offering idle menaces to the Emperor of France.… Why should we gasconade about Mexico when we are in a struggle for our own life?” Seward insisted that the American people would never forgive the administration if the country slipped into a new war over “a contingent and merely speculative issue like that of the future of Mexico.”
Lincoln and Seward could never completely drown out the calls for the French emperor’s head, but they did try to placate Napoleon in small ways. In May Lincoln relaxed the blockade somewhat, permitting the export of the type of horses “as have been bought for the personal use of the Emperor of the French.” Napoleon—whose squat legs and awkward gait made him prefer making his public appearances on horseback—undoubtedly appreciated the gesture.
Yet even as Lincoln was making efforts to normalize trade ties with Napoleon, activists were pressing the First Lady to boycott French goods. Washington was full of Continental fashions that spring. The wives of diplomats and legislators happily strolled Pennsylvania Avenue “in full Parisian attire,” one newspaper reported. As the season unfolded, a representative from a group calling itself
the Ladies’ National Covenant approached Mary and urged her to avoid buying European “web-velvets and plushes, satins, white and black thread laces, foreign embroideries, foreign artificial flowers and feathers, ermine, camel’s hair shawls, French hats, bonnets, caps, and head-dresses.” The women even tried to ban champagne from Washington parties. At first Mary was receptive. She “impulsively” agreed to sign the pledge, one activist later recalled. Lincoln, however, was outraged at the First Lady’s freelancing on critical trade issues. “You have no idea what a hornets’ nest you are stirring up,” he told his wife. Considering the delicate “state of our foreign relations,” the president explained, signing the boycott “will never do.”
The Day of Reckoning
On May 28, 1864, the
, carrying Maximilian and Charlotte, finally made landfall in Veracruz, Mexico, after the six-week transatlantic journey. At least at first, the European monarchs were discouraged by what they found. As they climbed ashore, Maximilian and Charlotte had to pass the carcass of a wrecked French ship and a cemetery full of French yellow-fever victims. Vultures picked at garbage alongside the dilapidated ruins of the customs houses. Someone had erected a few arches made of flowers by way of welcome. But on their first night in the country, a furious windstorm blew the arches down.
The trip to Mexico City was no more encouraging. The views were breathtaking; they drove past acres of mango, banana, and coconut groves. Yet the road was pocked with pits and rocks and the rainy weather was depressing. Few locals turned out along the route to welcome their new head of state. “Everything in this country calls for reconstruction,” Charlotte wrote to Eugénie after finally arriving in the capital two weeks later. “Nothing is to be found, either physical or moral, but what nature provides.” The whole venture, she told the French empress, “remains a gigantic experiment, for one has
to struggle against the desert, the distance, the roads, and the most utter chaos.”
Once in Mexico City, however, Maximilian and Charlotte warmed to their surroundings. As they entered the capital, residents peppered the imperial couple with flowers from the balconies, waved sombreros, and shot off firecrackers. To Charlotte, the capital actually seemed vaguely cosmopolitan. “In Mexico City,” she told Eugénie, “it is very much as in Europe.” Maximilian bragged to his brother about the beauty of Mexican women. The couple particularly enjoyed the palace at Chapultepec—the magnificent castle perched atop a basalt cliff just west of Mexico City. From the top, the views stretched out toward huge volcanoes and snowcapped peaks. Hummingbirds and butterflies fluttered between giant, thousand-year-old cypress trees. Elaborate gardens filled the air with the scent of rose blossoms and oranges.
In Washington, meanwhile, Lincoln was beginning to pick up the scent of a second term in office. “No man knows what
is till he has had it,” the president admitted of his rising desire. On June 7–8, Lincoln supporters gathered in Baltimore to re-nominate the president. The delegates took the opportunity to launch one more rhetorical volley at Napoleon. They passed a resolution declaring that the party would “view with extreme jealousy, as menacing to the peace and independence of their own country, the efforts of any such power to obtain new footholds for monarchical governments, sustained by foreign military force, in near proximity to the United States.” The statement, Hay and Nicolay later recalled, “was a wider and more energetic extension of the Monroe Doctrine than had ever before been put forward in so authoritative a form by any body representing the majority of the people of the United States.”
Lincoln found himself pushing back against his own party to avoid antagonizing the French emperor. The president “heartily approved” the resolutions passed by the convention but went to great lengths to assure the convention committee that he would stand by his cautious approach to the occupation. “While the resolution in
regard to the supplanting of republican government upon the Western continent is fully concurred in,” he wrote the delegates, “there might be misunderstanding were I not to say that the position of the government, in relation to the action of France in Mexico, as assumed through the State Department, and approved and indorsed by the convention, among the measures and acts of the Executive, will be faithfully maintained, so long as the state of facts shall leave that position pertinent and applicable.”
The convention also dumped Lincoln’s vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, and replaced him with Tennessee’s military governor, Andrew Johnson. Some observers believed that Lincoln had favored Johnson because he thought a Southerner on the ticket would bolster support for the Union overseas. (Lincoln’s secretaries denied that he had in any way influenced the choice.) In any case, Johnson almost immediately gave Lincoln heartburn when it came to Mexican diplomacy. Shortly after learning of his nomination, Johnson appeared at a huge rally in Nashville. “The day of reckoning is approaching,” the vice-presidential nominee told the cheering crowd. “The time is not far distant when the rebellion will be put down, and then we will attend to this Mexican affair and say to Louis Napoleon, ‘You can get up no monarchy on this continent.’ ” The crowd broke into wild applause. Johnson sneered that an American invasion of Mexico would be “a sort of recreation” for the battle-hardened troops. “The French concern,” Johnson declared, “would quickly be wiped out.”
By the middle of 1864, Lincoln was increasingly buoyed by the Union military. “The national resources are not at all exhausted,” the president told one crowd in Philadelphia. “This war has taken three years.… We are going through on this line if it takes three years more.” The audience whooped in delight. Having riled up the throng, the president then asked if he could count on them if he needed even more recruits for Grant’s armies. “Will you give them to me?” he asked. The crowd roared back: “Yes!”
Throughout the summer, however, Congress continued to press
Lincoln on Mexico. The attacks gradually grew more serious. Organized Radical Republicans—not just individual agitators—began using Lincoln’s foreign policy as an election-year cudgel. In late June the Senate sent the president a resolution demanding information about potential arms shipments to Mexican republicans. John Hay asked Seward what to do about the request. The secretary of state was miffed. “Our friends are very anxious to get into a war with France, using this Mexican business for that purpose,” Seward told Hay. “They don’t consider that England and France would surely be together in that event. France has the whip hand of England completely.” The Union was fortunate that England had abandoned its part in the Mexican project, the secretary of state told Hay. Since then, the European powers had been kept apart through “good management” on behalf of Northern diplomats. Why reunite England and France now? “Worse than that,” Seward added, “instead of doing something effective, if we must fight, they are for making mouths and shaking fists at France—warning and threatening and inducing her to prepare for our attack when it comes.”
There was little chance that any attack would come before the November elections, which were quickly approaching. By the late summer of 1864, Lincoln’s prospects for reelection seemed dim. If things did not improve on the battlefield, Napoleon and Mexico would be someone else’s problem in a matter of months. The president, noted one visitor to the White House in July, “shows marks of mental overwork.” Lincoln felt that his administration had “no friends” in Washington. On August 23, he gathered his cabinet in the Executive Mansion. The president passed around a folded sheet of paper, and, without revealing the contents, asked each cabinet officer to sign the back. “This morning,” Lincoln had written inside, “as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.” The president did
not reveal the contents until weeks later, when the campaign was finally over.