With the ousting of Santa Anna, the Liberals of Mexico secured control of higher government in Mexico City. For years, federal authority in Mexico had been pulled in a multidirectional tug-of-war that at last ended in 1855 with Santa Anna’s defeat by Benito Juarez and his Liberal coalition. Now in office, the Liberals began breaking down outdated laws, especially those that upheld the Catholicism as the state religion. This outraged Conservative elements, and a new wave of civil war broke out in 1855.
By 1861, the Liberals had again regained authority. It had been a costly war both in lives and foreign loans. The initial upper-hand held by the Conservatives in the military was brought down as Liberals trained themselves and fought using materiel and aid from other nations. When Juarez had established firm rule again, he turned to sort out the government’s financial issues. With the country practically bankrupt, Juarez determined that repayments of the foreign loans would have to be postponed two years to regain solvency.
The declaration proved very unpopular with Europeans, many of whom had Conservative contacts still seething from Juarez’s reforms. With the United States of America consumed in its own civil war, this seemed the perfect time to act and return political power back to the Conservatives. By October, Spain, France, and Britain formed a Tripartite Alliance with the goal of capturing Veracruz (the center of Liberal political power) and forcing Mexico to make payments. Armadas arrived in December of 1861 and for several months seized cities along the shore to install tariffs.
Napoleon III of France proved to have bolder plans than the Spanish and British. After the Wars of Italian Unification soured Franco-Austrian relations, Napoleon wanted to gain a new kinship by establishing a new empire in the Americas under the rule of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian. Meanwhile, valuable mining resources would become available to French investors, as well as establishing powerful relations for the possibility of building a canal. In 1862, French troops began marching deeper in to Mexican territory. Spain and Britain, appalled by France’s ostentation, abandoned the alliance.
When talks between diplomats about a withdrawal evaporated, French General Charles de Lorencez determined to capture Orizaba. His troops met in skirmishes with the young Mexican general Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin, and it was obvious he needed to take nearby Puebla with its two hilltop forts to the north. Locals assured Lorencez that the Mexican people welcomed the French and would overthrow their own troops upon his march of a heroic frontal assault.
Meanwhile, Zaragoza had joined the forts by a trench that eliminated advantage from France’s numeric superiority. Wishing not to underestimate a clever opponent, Lorencez determined to maneuver and take the town from the south. Puebla fell, and Zaragoza was again forced to make a fighting retreat with his supply lines cut off. The retreats continued back to Mexico City, where Zaragoza made a two-month stand against a French siege after Juarez and the government fled northward. When French reinforcements finally overran the city, Zaragoza turned to guerrilla fighting while Juarez attempted to win support of the people. Archduke Maximilian was invited to be crowned emperor by the Conservative junta, and French forces continued to pursue the Liberals in the north. Seeing victory in sight before the American Civil War ended, France poured resources into the campaign.
At last in early 1863, Juarez and his forces were driven north into the United States. This put the neutral Lincoln administration into a tight spot, unable to endorse foreign soldiers on its own soil yet refusing to recognize the Second Mexican Empire on grounds of the Monroe Doctrine. Finally diplomats agreed that, in exchange for French aid against American rebels, the United States would not harbor Mexican rebels. Juarez escaped to Central America, where he would become a leader among the movements that opposed a new wave of colonialism there.
Austria-Hungary, which had largely bypassed overseas colonialism, was excited by its link to the New World. Prussia, too, was interested in moving into the region. France suddenly found an array of allies, including Russia, the first non-affiliated country to recognize the Mexican Empire. Continent-funded expeditions routinely sailed for Guatemala, Costa Rica, and further states spun off by Emperor Maximillian in exchange for financial support to keep up a strong policing presence in the guerrilla-torn north, where Napoleon III’s mines operated as industrial fortresses. Britain already had a colony in British Honduras and had given up the Mosquito Coast to Nicaragua, so it joined the United States in indignant neutrality.
While overall neutral, the United States was filled with contrary factions. Radicals like Secretary of State Seward called for a stand against imperialism in the Western Hemisphere, but his war-weary countrymen sought isolationism. Others, including former Confederates who fled toward the hotbed of colonialism, thought that the US could form its own colony in the region. By the time the voice of the imperialists won out, though, Central America was already carved up.
Although there was a great deal of industrial investment in the region, the markets dried up as empires in Europe collapsed, leaving empty mines, rusting factories, and half-finished canals. The colonies of Central America won their liberation, and Mexico at last overthrew its emperor Maximilian III in 1917. Yet revolution soon returned to Mexico and the southern regions as a center of fascism in the New World.
In reality, Lorencez believed bad intelligence about the favorability of the Mexican people toward the French. Despite superior numbers and firepower, three French assaults on Zaragoza’s fortifications were rebuffed. Although French reinforcements later arrived, defeat at Puebla stalled the invasion for a year. Juarez pronounced Cinco de Mayo to be an annual celebration of human defiance against long odds.