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Lincoln, Johnson, and the Defense of Mexico
It's easy to imagine that the Civil War and Reconstruction occupied the exclusive attention Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. And it is true that these two great events were the dominant concerns of the government during the 1860s, so much so that they eclipsed other issues. But there were other issues. One of these was Mexico, and the moves by France to indirectly take control of that country in violation of the Monroe Doctrine. President Lincoln, in particular, was vitally concerned over what was taking place across the southern border, one reason being that the Confederacy was also interested in establishing relations with what was known as the Second Mexican Empire. Executing the war proved an insurmountable obstacle to taking on this issue, but the story of Lincoln's and Johnson's actions here make an interesting study on the beginnings of the United States' emergence as a world power.
In 1853, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna made a brief return to power, but he soon fell out of favor, and was overthrown for the last time during the Ayutla Rebellion of 1854. A reform era began, and a new constitution written in 1857 which granted the people various freedoms, including religious, and created a secular, federal government. Opponents of the constitution formed a separate government, and the the two sides fought a War of Reform beginning in 1858. The constitutionalist faction led by President Benito Juarez won this war in 1861. Juarez, who took office in 1858, followed up the victory by suspending interest payments on its debts to foreign powers including Britain, France, and Spain. On Halloween of 1861, the three nations signed the Treaty of London, pledging a unified effort to secure continuation of payments; France, under Emperor Napoleon III, was the leader, but the invasion of Mexico began in December with a Spanish fleet that arrived from Cuba.
Fleets from each country arrived in a combined force in early January of 1862. The French proved to be the most aggressive, and forced the surrender of the town of Campeche on February 27; a French land force arrived a few days later. By this time, it was becoming clear to Britain and Spain that France was determined to conquer Mexico, using the cover of the war taking place north of the border to ensure the non-interference of the United States. This obviously not being their intention, the English and Spanish navies withdrew in April, and France was left to her own devices by the end of that month. The French instituted a short blockade of Mazatlan in May, an act of war that made Napoleon's intentions doubly clear.
The Mexicans were also left alone, against an increasingly superior French aggressor, but they held their own initially. They defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5 (a day celebrated ever since as Cinco de Mayo). French reinforcements rapidly arrived, though, and by 1863 they had captured Mexico City. With his country now essentially under foreign control, President Juarez fled the capital and became the leader of the resistence in Northern Mexico. An Austrian nobleman, Ferdinand Maximilian, was persuaded to take the position of puppet emperor of Mexico, and he arrived in 1864 to take office. The constitutionalists, however, led by Juarez, refused to recognize him and continued their resistance.
Where did the United States, and the Lincoln Administration in particular, fit into this drama? In fact, Lincoln was by no means ignorant of the situation in Mexico. As early as 1858, during the war with the royalists, Lincoln had sent Juarez a note expressing his good wishes for Mexican liberty. Unfortunately, when France invaded, Washington's hands were indeed tied up in suppressing the rebellion of the Southern states. There was concern, though, that the rebel government might take advantage of the situation by making diplomatic moves on Mexico--as they were in fact doing, approaching the constitutionalists with a delegation in 1863. Lincoln had acted first, though; he couldn't send men, but he did send around 30,000 muskets to the Mexican rebels, as well as directing Gen. Phil Sheridan, through Gen. Grant, to concentrate forces to prepare to help Mexico if needed. A grateful Juarez jailed the leader of the Southern delegation, John T. Pickett, for 30 days before expelling him from Mexico.
Lincoln might have done more, but his policy regarding Mexico had to be put on hold until after the Civil War ended. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to answer the question of whether he would have enacted a more forceful policy in defense of the Monroe Doctrine. John Wilkes Booth's bullet put Andrew Johnson in the White House, and he of course proved to be an inept heir to the legacy of his predecessor. Barely able to handle the divisive domestic pressures of Reconstruction, Johnson basically surrendered control of foreign policy to the Secretary of State, William Seward.
In the year 1865, while the government was primarily concerned with rebuilding the war-torn nation, the first steps were taken in dealing with the French presence in Mexico; here, much leadership was exerted by the General in Chief who executed the victory over the Southern rebellion, Ulysses S. Grant. Grant early on urged President Johnson to act vigorously against the French in Mexico, and in assigning Gen. Phil Sheridan to command troops in Louisiana and Texas, he directed that around 50,000 troops be concentrated in the Brownsville area close to the border to put pressure on the French. Grant also ordered Sheridan to demand the return of weapons the South had sent to Mexico, and recommended that a general be sent into Mexico to command constitutionalists troops; he actually appointed Gen. John Schofield for this task. Seward, however, assigned Schofield to head a special diplomatic mission to France to argue the American case for Mexico.
War clouds seemed to be gathering, and theoretically, the U.S. held the advantage, with a potential force of over one million trained soldiers in the South. In truth, this force was rapidly being mustered out, and by the end of 1866, only a small fraction of the once mighty Union Army remained in the South, and most of these were black troops. The U.S. retained a small advantage, however: This fact was not known in Europe, where events were transpiring that would change the picture entirely.
In 1866, during the Austro-Prussian War, the Austrian victory at the Battle of Koningratz caused Napoleon to worry about defending his own territory at home. (Napoleon would be overthrown four years later by the Austrians.) The Emperor quickly rethought the importance of extending his empire to the Western Hemisphere; in addition, he was unaware of the speed with which Washington was demobilizing from the South, and may have been partially influenced by Gen. Schofield's statement of American determination to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. As a result, he pulled back completely from Mexico in 1867. The puppet empire of Maximilian was suddenly without protection, and was quickly overthrown by the constitutionalists. Maximilian was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to death. Benito Juarez, who was restored as President (an office he held until his death in 1872), resisted pleas from some quarters to commute the sentence, and Maximilian and two generals were executed by firing squad on June 19, 1867.
Although some U.S. troops remained on the border for possible frontier protection, the end of the crisis in Mexico meant the end of serious U.S. involvement. This was the first great test of the Monroe Doctrine since its institution as policy in 1823. Technically, it was a successful test, although the resolution of the crisis can be mostly credited to third parties. Could the U.S., still divided after four years of civil war, have won a war with France over Mexico? This question may seem purely academic, but 50 years earlier the nation fought the strongest military power on earth to a draw, when it was scarcely more united than it was in 1867. Who can say that this conflict might not have been the catalyst to bind the nation's wounds, bringing it together in a common cause?