Before lunch on 13 February 1867, Ferdinand Maximilian, a Habsburg archduke, and – to his supporters at least – emperor of Mexico, had been drinking champagne. Before dinner, he found himself staring at the mutilated body of one of his soldiers.


The corpse was hanging upside down from a tree in a churchyard, another victim in a war that Maximilian was losing. The dead man served as a warning to the military convoy that the emperor was leading from Mexico City to the provincial town of Querétaro. Here, at the head of what remained of his army, Maximilian hoped to begin a fight back that would restore confidence in his empire.

Maximilian I of Mexico
Maximilian I of Mexico. (Image by Getty Images)

When Maximilian accepted the Mexican crown on 10 April 1864, the idea that he would one day lead an army would have been laughable. After all, the Mexican exiles who offered him the throne had promised him that monarchy was popular in their country.

In fact, these exiles had no throne to offer. They were a mere faction defeated in a civil war, but they had the support of the one of the most powerful men in the world: French emperor Napoleon III.

In a brazen act of regime change, by the end of 1862, the French emperor Napoleon III had some 30,000 French troops in Mexico. His plan was to use French military power to drive the constitutional president Benito Juárez out of the capital and create the Second Mexican Empire with Maximilian as its ruler. A French-backed monarchy, Napoleon III reasoned, would provide all the benefits of colonialism to France at a fraction of the cost, roll back the republicanism in the Americas and check the rise of US power.

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Napoleon III told Maximilian that all this was the will of the Mexican people. But when the emperor of Mexico arrived, he found a country where many still saw Juárez as the legitimate president. He and his liberal supporters – known as Juaristas – had merely retreated into the vastness of Mexico to wage war against a Habsburg usurper championed by Mexican conservatives and propped up by foreign bayonets.

At first, imperialistas – as supporters of the empire were known – were in the ascendancy. But the situation changed in January 1866 when Napoleon III announced that French troops were withdrawing, the intervention proving too costly to sustain in the face of Juárez’s defiance.

Fight or flight?

Without French support, Maximilian resolved to abdicate. His wife, princess Charlotte of Belgium, had other ideas. She accused her husband of cowardice and travelled to Europe to persuade Napoleon III to change his mind. She failed, and never returned to Mexico, suffering a mental breakdown before the Pope while pleading for his support.

Back in Mexico, imperialistas were everywhere in retreat, but Maximilian’s Mexican allies convinced him to stay and fight for his empire. So it was that he took command of the army on 13 February 1867 and marched to Querétaro to relieve his beleaguered forces there. The plan was a desperate one. Three separate Juarista armies were converging on the city; and the emperor faced being outnumbered three to one.

Maximilian I and Princess Charlotte
Princess Charlotte of Belgium accused her husband Maximilian of cowardice. (Image by Getty Images

Maximilian had never served in an army, let alone commanded one, but at least he looked the part. Wearing a general’s uniform of black trousers with silver buttons down the sides, and boots that came up to his knees, Maximilian appeared every inch the soldier – and a Mexican one at that, his wide sombrero completing his battle dress.

As the column wended its way through the 130 miles of rugged, hilly terrain that separated the capital from Querétaro, it came under fire from Juarista guerrillas. Despite his inexperience, Maximilian remained calm. Writing to a friend after one engagement, he recalled how, as bullets whistled past, he “saw the most beautiful butterflies fluttering about”. After more skirmishes, the soldiers arrived in Querétaro.

Wearing a general’s uniform of black trousers with silver buttons down the sides, and boots that came up to his knees, Maximilian appeared every inch the soldier

At this imperialista stronghold, Maximilian and his small army were greeted with cheers. The houses were decorated with flags and banners hung from balconies packed with euphoric onlookers. The empire’s best and most famous generals – Tomás Mejía, Miguel Miramón and Leonardo Márquez – were with Maximilian and began planning the campaign.

The problem was that they detested one another, and rarely agreed on strategy. Miramón urged an immediate attack to prevent the approaching armies from combining; but it was Márquez who won the day, arguing that they should wait for reinforcements from Mexico City.

While he waited, Maximilian mingled amongst the people of Querétaro. When not in military uniform, he dressed in a blue tunic and carried a walking stick. Fond of cigars, he would ask unsuspecting people in the street for a light and talk with them while smoking. At first, life in the town continued much as before: the theatre remained open, a French coffeehouse proved popular with officers, and there was even a bullfight.

This normality came to an end on 6 March 1867, when the enemy appeared to the west of the town. Any hope of defeating the Juarista armies separately was over; a siege had begun. With little money or provisions, the outlook was bleak. Maximilian did not even have enough men to take hills on three sides of the town. Soon enemy artillery was on the high ground, every building below within range.

Maximilian made his headquarters in a thick-walled convent. On the morning of 14 March, Maximilian reviewed his troops in its courtyard. While he was delivering a speech, shells crashed into the walls. The Juarista attack had begun.

Desperate fighting ensued, Juaristas made it into the gardens of the convent, but the imperialistas pushed them back and defended their lines elsewhere. In the early evening, the emperor went to inspect his victorious troops. As he rode past his soldiers, they saluted him with wild cheers, potshots from enemy sharpshooters kicking up the dirt near his horse. The bells of Querétaro were ringing, trumpets sounded, and his troops sang the national anthem. Maximilian was a hero. As one imperialista officer recorded: “The empire had been saved.”

An imperial success?

Temporarily, perhaps, but Maximilian needed reinforcements to break the siege. It was decided that Márquez would slip through enemy lines, ride to Mexico City and bring back troops garrisoning the capital.

The general promised to return within two weeks, but nearly three weeks later, April 10 – the third anniversary of Maximilian’s acceptance of the throne – there was no sign of Márquez. Undeterred, the highest authorities that could be scraped together in Querétaro presented themselves before the emperor to congratulate him on his reign. The minister of justice read a speech, which began, without apparent irony, “On this day Your Majesty deigned to accept the crown of Mexico, by this memorable deed forever opening the gates of hope for this unhappy land.” Despite the fact that Maximilian controlled Querétaro, Mexico City, and only a handful of other towns, the minister insisted that the empire was the “will of the nation”; the republic but the “will of the few”.

These farcical ceremonies – pastiches of imperial grandeur – were made all the more absurd by Maximilian’s increasingly tenuous grip on reality. On afternoon walks, while explosions rained around him, he took the time to dictate to his private secretary the details of court etiquette.

Maximilian’s army was so short of supplies that lead roofs were turned into musket balls. Food became scarce, horses were slaughtered for meat. Hungry and short on money and munitions, Maximilian’s men began to desert. The situation worsened when news reached the imperialistas that Márquez had been defeated and was now himself under siege in Mexico City. No help was coming.

Maximilian and his generals resolved to break the siege before the army melted away. On 27 April they nearly succeeded, punching a hole in Juaristas lines; however, the imperialistas moved too slowly and reinforcements closed the gap. Another escape was planned for 13 May, but delayed until 15 May. The night before, fearing capture, Maximilian divided his possessions amongst his closest entourage, including one of his most trusted officers, Miguel López.

A depiction of the aftermath of the Siege of Querétaro, bodies lie in the hills
A depiction of the aftermath of the Siege of Querétaro. (Image by Alamy)

In the early hours of the morning, however, López crossed over into the Juarista lines, betraying Maximilian. In return for his life, and, it was alleged, money, López ordered imperialista guards to stand down and led the republican soldiers into the convent where Maximilian and his officers were sleeping.

Even then, Maximilian somehow managed to avoid capture. With a band of loyal officers, he made his way to the Cerro de las Campanas, a small hill overlooking the town, where he tried to rally his troops. The situation was hopeless. As artillery shells rained down, the emperor saw that Querétaro was lost, and he surrendered. Maximilian was escorted to the commanding officer of Juarista forces, Mariano Escobedo.

“I am your prisoner,” said Maximilian. It was then that he, an archduke born at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, offered his sword to Escobedo, a former farm labourer from the harsh sierras of Nuevo León.

A chapel in the Cerro de las Campanas
The chapel in the Cerro de las Campanas (Hill of the Bells), marks the site where Maximilian I of Mexico was executed in 1867. (Image by Getty Images)

The death of Maximilian I of Mexico

This moment was heavy with symbolism: the triumph of republicanism over monarchy in the Americas. But Juárez was determined that the victory be final. Maximilian was, therefore, imprisoned, court martialled and sentenced to death alongside two of his most important generals, Miramón and Mejía. Their deaths, Juárez believed, would mark the final triumph of secular, liberal republicanism over European imperialism, Mexican conservatism, and the power of the Catholic Church after nearly ten years of fighting.

Maximilian had stumbled into this conflict which he little understood but did much to prolong, not least through rallying his forces to make one last stand in Querétaro. And it was here that he paid the price, facing a firing squad on the same hilltop overlooking the town where earlier he had surrendered.

Turning to face straight towards his executioners, Maximilian spoke in clear, loud Spanish: “I forgive everybody, I pray that everyone may also forgive me, and I wish that my blood, which is now to be shed, may be for the good of the country. Long live Mexico, long live independence.” The shots rang out. Maximilian fell to the ground, smoke gently wisped skywards from the bullet holes in his clothes as he lay dying in the Mexican dust.


Edward Shawcross is a historian whose research specialises in French imperialism in Latin America and the Mexican intellectual thought that underpinned the Second Mexican Empire. He is the author of The Last Emperor of Mexico (Faber, 2022)