Two defeats frame Maximillian’s Mexican empire. The first was the famous battle at Puebla on May 5, 1862, celebrated as “Cinco de Mayo.” The less known final battle was in Yucatán — the siege of Mérida, which finally ended on June 15, 1867.
Yucatán, with its geographical isolation and distinct culture, remained on the sidelines in the wars that swept central Mexico in the 1850s and -60s. Instead, political factions in Mérida and Campeche amused themselves by fighting unending battles with each other, while the Caste War with rebellious Maya ground on in the east. This was a most confusing period in the history of the Peninsula, with no political consensus and continuous violence.
In Mexico, the Reform War finally ended the dictatorship of Antonio López de Santa Anna. A new generation of Liberal Party leaders came to power — including Benito Juárez, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada, and Melchor Ocampo — pledged to end strongman politics, establish judicial equality, curb the power of the Church, and free individual economic potential.
In conservative Yucatán, however, the Reform only slightly affected entrenched power structures and factional conflict. Allegedly Liberal leaders who took over displayed various degrees of duplicity and incompetence. Laws seeking to limit the concentration of wealth were largely ineffective.
In 1857, Liberals in Campeche, disgusted with the government in Mérida, proclaimed their independence. The Juárez government, in an effort to make peace, recognized division of the Peninsula and created the new State of Campeche, but quarrels and actual warfare between the neighboring states continued.
In 1861, a conspiracy by French Imperialists and Mexican Conservatives brought an invading foreign army to Mexico. The French Emperor, Napoleon III, seized an opportunity to turn Mexico into a satellite state, claiming his mission was the “regeneration” of chaotic Mexico. (Laying hands on Mexico’s silver mines may have been more motivating than altruism.) The United States, deeply engaged in its Civil War and wary of doing anything that would encourage European support of the southern rebellion, was unable to aid the Juárez government. The French army recovered from its defeat at Puebla and advanced on Mexico City.
The Imperialists meanwhile looked for a suitable figurehead to serve as the nominal emperor of French-controlled Mexico. José María Gutiérrez de Estrada led the search. An archconservative born in Campeche but resident in Europe for more than two decades, Gutiérrez had devoted his life to overthrowing the Mexican Republic and installing a royal European ruler. He identified an underemployed member of the vast Hapsburg dynasty as an available candidate with suitable credentials. Napoleon III agreed, and Gutiérrez convinced his nominee to accept the job.
Archduke Maximillian Ferdinand of Austria was tall and fair, good-natured, adventurous, dignified, and charming. He had enjoyed a career in the Austrian Navy, pursued an interest in botany, and married his second cousin, Princess Marie Charlotte Amélie of Belgium. Maximillian was honest and well intentioned, but contemporaries regarded him as naïve, indecisive, and given to emotional extremes. But he was a descendant (even if only through a female lineage) of Spain’s King during the glorious age of the conquistadors — Charles V!
Maximillian’s wife, Charlotte, had powerful influence with her husband. Well liked although reserved, impressively regal rather than beautiful, the new Empress was practical and businesslike, more vigorous and probably more intelligent than Maximillian.
With the fall of Mexico City to the French invaders, the newly designated Emperor and Empress prepared to take up their duties. They diligently learned Spanish and became Maximiliano and Carlota. They sailed to Veracruz aboard the Austrian Navy frigate SMS Novara and entered Mexico City in triumph on June 12, 1864. Maximiliano was 31 years old, Carlota only 24.
Yucatán and Campeche had been mostly ignoring the French intervention. The continuing Maya war was bad enough. The French Navy did occupy Carmen in mid-1862, but forces from Campeche displaced them. In Mérida, Conservative Felipe Navarrete overthrew Liberal Governor Liborio Irigoyen, a Juárez supporter, in July 1863. Navarrete pronounced for the Empire and attacked Campeche, while a French flotilla blockaded the port. With Mérida’s army at the door and the French threatening to bombard the city, Campeche’s Governor, Pablo García y Montilla, had no choice and surrendered in January 1864. Campeche merged into the Department of Yucatán, Navarrete became interim Prefect, and the Peninsula nominally joined the Empire.
Soon Maximiliano dispatched an Imperial Commissioner to oversee the Department, which the Empire declared now included all of Belize and the Petén region of Guatemala. Commissioner José Salazar Ilarregui was honest and conscientious but — trained as a mining engineer — was inexperienced at governing. The Yucatán elite supported him and hoped the foreign dictatorship would bring peace and order. Salazar tamped down squabbles, and the future looked bright. The Conservatives hailed 1865 as the beginning of a golden age, but the appearance of peace and order was an illusion. The wealthy took advantage of their political ascendancy to benefit themselves and abuse the weak. And in the east, the Maya war continued.
Maximiliano proved to be more liberal than expected, which caused consternation and confusion among the local Conservatives. The Church was pro-French, but the Emperor, a secularist, gave them little help. Basically, the Empire left Yucatán alone.
What really brought Yucatán into the Empire was a visit by the Empress late in 1865.
Maximiliano had intended to go himself, but his position in the capital had become so problematic that he was reluctant to leave. Yucatán was key to the Empire’s plan to extend its influence into Central America. Carlota’s assignment was to build allegiance in the Peninsula, even to win its affection. In this she largely succeeded.
Carlota dazzled Yucatán. The young Empress landed at Sisal on November 22, 1865 and, after an overnight in Hunucmá, entered Mérida through a floral arch erected at Santiago plaza. A 101-gun salute, bells, and a rain of flowers welcomed her to the capital. She proceeded through streets lined with cheering crowds and decorated with flowers, pennants, and sixty-four triumphal arches to attend a solemn Te Deum at the packed-full cathedral. A whirlwind of lavish balls, luncheons, banquets, speeches, concerts, dances, and an opera performance followed. Huge fiestas and fireworks lighted up the main plaza in the evenings. The Empress made endless tours — schools, markets, the hospital, the prison, the fortress, a special exhibition of Yucatecan products — while handing out medals, titles, gold watches, and money.
Carlota departed Mérida for Campeche on December 5, visiting the ruins at Uxmal along the way, one of the earliest tourists to do so. On December 11 she arrived at Campeche, where the citizens made every effort to outdo Mérida. After a stop in Carmen, she returned to Veracruz on December 21, then back to capital, doubtless exhausted.
Despite a temporary surge in the Empire’s popularity, Yucatán’s problems would not go away. The Maya war continued, and the government was having great difficulty raising and keeping troops. Military expenses, expansion of public works and bureaucracy, and stubborn tax resistance emptied the treasury. Failure to pay teachers and other state employees brought mass resignations. Poor crops added to the general sense of failure.
With the end of its Civil War, the United States intervened to support the constitutional Juárez government and exert strong diplomatic pressure for withdrawal of the French troops that were propping up Maximiliano. The Empire began coming apart.
In Yucatán, disorganized gangs of dissidents and draft refusers were forming in the countryside. Armed insurrection against the Empire began in June 1866, led by Buenaventura Martínez in the region northeast of Mérida. The Imperial Army reached a turning point when it suffered a catastrophic defeat by Maya rebels at Tihosuco in September, losing strength and credibility. The Martínez rebellion advanced, entire army units went over to his side, and other fighting sprang up. In October a Republican army led by Pablo García and supported by the Governor of Tabasco was advancing up the coast towards Campeche. At year’s end García began a siege of the walled city.
In January 1867 the scattered Republican forces began recognizing Manuel Cepeda Peraza as commander. A respected veteran of the Maya, Reform, and French wars and a loyal associate of Benito Juárez, Cepeda Peraza returned from exile in Havana and joined the rebel forces at Calkiní. In April, he forced the remaining army of Imperial Commissioner José Salazar Ilarregui to retreat into Mérida. Salazar hoped for assistance from allies in Valladolid, Peto, and Tekax, but Cepeda Peraza turned east and defeated them in a battle at Izamal.
The Republican forces invested Mérida for fifty-six days. Ordinary citizens suffered terribly from food shortages and the rain of cannon balls and bullets. Economic activity ceased. Cepeda Peraza occupied the San Cristóbal and Mejorada barrios, then took Santiago and the Ermita de Santa Isabel. He won a pitched battle in the plaza of Santa Ana and advanced to Santa Lucía. The defenders took up paving stones to make defensive works, and both sides suffered heavy losses in house-to-house fighting. Salazar held out in the fortress of San Benito.
In central Mexico, the Imperial forces, deprived of French support, suffered a rapid series of defeats. Urged to abdicate, Maximiliano vacillated but decided to stand with his followers. Carlota departed to seek allies in Europe. The Emperor took direct control of his army and retreated to Querétaro. That city fell on May 15 and Maximiliano was taken captive the next day. His entire Empire then consisted of a few city blocks in the centers of Campeche and Mérida.
The 155-day siege of Campeche ended on June 10. In Mérida, Cepeda Peraza cannily sent Salazar a package of newspapers from around the country, which convinced him that no help would be coming. The surrender came on June 15. Four days later, the morning of June 19, 1867, on the Cerro de las Campanas in Querétaro, wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat to protect his fair complexion from the Mexican sun, Maximiliano faced a firing squad. His Empire had collapsed after only three years.
The regal young Empress Carlota suffered a tragic mental breakdown and spent the rest of her life in seclusion. She died in 1927 at the age of 86.
The implacable Pablo García sent the Campeche Imperialists to the firing squad. Cepeda Peraza was, for the era, a humane victor. Over García’s objections, he allowed Salazar and his military leaders to go into exile.
In the restored Republican government, Manuel Cepeda Peraza became governor and proved to be the best Yucatán had seen. Among institutions he established that still exist are the Central Library, an Archeology and History Museum, an Academy of Music, and a Literary Institute that was the antecedent to the Autonomous University of Yucatán. Tragically, he died from tuberculosis in March 1869.
The Empire was the last serious attempt by Conservatives to restore the old order. But Cepeda Peraza’s early death, as well as that of Benito Juárez in 1872, left a political vacuum, and terrible problems continued in Yucatán. Visions of democracy clashed with chronic fighting between political factions, lack of resources, and authoritarianism of the wealthy, and the next decade was one of frustration and chaos.
By Robert D. Temple
Manuel Cepeda Peraza is the hero of this period in Yucatecan history. A monument to the general, erected by the government of Yucatán in 1886, stands in Mérida’s Parque Hidalgo. A statue on the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City displays a bronze plaque celebrating him as “Brave and distinguished soldier. Fought for the Liberal cause. Governed his state with talent and patriotism.”
The State Library in central Mérida, at Calle 55 x 62, is named for Cepeda Peraza, who founded it in 1867 as a part of the Literary Institute of the State.
Campeche has a statue of Pablo García. It is located on the highway from Mérida, at the beginning of the city’s recently completed periférico, which bears the name of the state’s first governor.
The home of Buenaventura Martínez, recognized as a liberator of Yucatán from the French, is the Hacienda K’uxub, now on ejido land near Baca, northeast of Mérida.
Benito Juárez, widely considered the greatest Mexican president, is lavishly honored throughout Mexico and the world. In Mérida, a fine statue of the Benemérito de las Américas is in the Parque de San Juan.
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