The Death of the Last Emperor of Mexico – Maximilian I


Ferdinand Max was a particularly clever boy who displayed considerable culture in his taste for the arts, and he demonstrated an early interest in science, especially botany. When he entered military service, he was trained in theAustrian Navy. He threw himself into this career with so much zeal that he quickly rose to high command.

Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

Emperor Maximilian of Mexico

At the age of twenty-two, Archduke Ferdinand Max took office as Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian Navy in 1854. LikeArchduke Friedrich (1821–1847) before him, Ferdinand Max had a keen private interest in the fleet, and with him the Austrian naval force gained an influential supporter from the ranks of the Imperial Family. This was crucial as sea power was never a priority of the Austrian foreign policy and the navy itself was relatively little known or supported by the public. It was only able to draw significant public attention and funds when it was actively supported by an imperial prince. As Commander-in-Chief, Ferdinand Max carried out many reforms to modernise the naval forces, and was instrumental in creating the naval port at Trieste and Pola, now Pula as well as the battle fleet with which admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoffwould later secure his victories. He also initiated a large-scale scientific expedition (1857–1859) during which the frigateSMS Novara became the first Austrian warship to circumnavigate the globe.

In 1859, Ferdinand Maximilian was first approached by Mexican monarchists — members of the Mexican aristocracy, led by local nobleman José Pablo Martínez del Río — with a proposal to become the Emperor of Mexico. He did not accept at first, but sought to satisfy his restless desire for adventure with a botanical expedition to the tropical forests of Brazil. However, after theFrench intervention in Mexico, under pressure from Napoleon III and after General Élie-Frédéric Forey‘s capture of Mexico City and the plebiscite which confirmed his proclamation of the empire, he consented to accept the crown in October 1863 (Ferdinand Maximilian was not told of the dubious nature of the plebiscite, which was held while French troops were occupying most of the territory). His decision involved the loss of all his nobility rights in Austria, though he was not informed of this until just before he left. Archduchess Charlotte was thereafter known as “Her Imperial Majesty Empress Carlota”.

In April 1864, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian conceded his duties as Commander-in-Chief of the Austrian Navy. He traveled from Trieste aboard the SMS Novara, escorted by the frigates SMS Bellona (Austrian) and Themis (French), and the Imperial yacht Phantasie led the warship procession from his palace at Miramare out to sea. They received a blessing from Blessed Pope Pius IX, and Queen Victoria ordered the Gibraltar garrison to fire a salute for Maximilian’s passing ship.

The new emperor of Mexico landed at Veracruz on 21 May 1864 to wild enthusiasm from the crowds. He had the backing of Mexican conservatives and Napoleon III, but from the very outset he found himself involved in serious difficulties since the Liberal forces led by President Benito Juárez refused to recognize his rule. There was continuous warfare between his French troops and the Republicans.

After the end of the American Civil War, the United States began supplying partisans of Juárez and his ally Porfirio Díaz by “losing” arms depots for them at El Paso del Norte at the Mexican border. The prospect of an US invasion to reinstate Juárez, and the inevitable bloodthirsty reprisals that Juárez was so famous for, caused a large number of Maximilian’s loyal adherents to abandon the cause and leave the capital. Meanwhile, Maximilian invited ex-Confederates to move to Mexico in a series of settlements called the “Carlota Colony” and the New Virginia Colony with a dozen others being considered, a plan conceived by the internationally renowned U.S. Navy oceanographer and inventor Matthew Fontaine Maury. Maximilian also invited settlers from “any country” including Austria and the other German states.

Nevertheless, by 1866, the imminence of Maximilian’s abdication seemed apparent to almost everyone outside Mexico. That year, Napoleon III withdrew his troops in the face of Mexican resistance and U.S. opposition under the Monroe Doctrine, as well as increasing his military contingent at home to face the ever growingPrussian military and Bismarck. Carlota travelled to Europe, seeking assistance for her husband’s regime in Paris and Vienna and, finally, in Rome from Pope Pius IX. Her efforts failed, and she suffered a deep emotional collapse and never went back to Mexico. After her husband was executed by Republicans the following year, she spent the rest of her life in seclusion, never admitting her husband’s death, first at Miramare Castle near Trieste, Italy, and then at Bouchout Castle inMeise, Belgium, where she died on 19 January 1927.

Though urged to abandon Mexico by Napoleon III himself, whose troop withdrawal from Mexico was a great blow to the Mexican Imperial cause, Maximilian refused to desert his followers. Maximilian allowed his followers to determine whether or not he abdicated. Faithful generals such as Miguel MiramonLeonardo Márquez, and Tomás Mejía vowed to raise an army that would challenge the invading Republicans. Maximilian fought on with his army of 8,000 Mexican loyalists. Withdrawing, in February 1867, to Santiago de Querétaro, he sustained a siege for several weeks, but on May 11 resolved to attempt an escape through the enemy lines. This plan was sabotaged by Colonel Miguel López who was bribed by the Republicans to open a gate and lead a raiding party though with the agreement that Maximilian would be allowed to escape.

The city fell on 15 May 1867 and Maximilian was captured the next morning after the failure of a courageous attempt to break through Republican lines by a loyal hussar cavalry brigade led by Felix Salm-Salm. Following a court-martial, he was sentenced to death. Many of the crowned heads of Europe and other prominent figures (including the eminent liberals Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi) sent telegrams and letters to Mexico pleading for the Emperor’s life to be spared. Although he liked Maximilian on a personal level, Juárez refused to commute the sentence in view of the Mexicans who had been killed fighting against Maximilian’s forces, and because he believed it was necessary to send a message that Mexico would not tolerate any government imposed by foreign powers. The sentence was carried out in the Cerro de las Campanas on the morning of 19 June 1867, when Maximilian, along with Generals Miramón and Mejía, were executed by a firing squad. He spoke only in Spanish and gave his executioners a portion of gold not to shoot him in the head so that his mother could see his face. His last words were, “I forgive everyone, and I ask everyone to forgive me. May my blood which is about to be shed, be for the good of the country. Viva Mexico, viva la independencia!” Despite having taken the money, the Juarista firing squad shot him in the face. The two Mexican generals shot after him both died shouting, “Long live the Emperor.”

The jail at Querétaro in Mexico where Emperor Maximilian was held prior to his execution on the Cerro de las Campanas.

The jail at Querétaro in Mexico where Emperor Maximilian was held prior to his execution on the Cerro de las Campanas.

The Juarez Regime Soldiers Who Shot Him

The Juarez Regime Soldiers Who Shot Him

The coat worn by Maximilian when he was shot to death

The coat worn by Maximilian when he was shot to death