Born in Ohio and raised in Wisconsin, Steven Wilson has been fascinated by
history since he was a child. One of his first books, a birthday present
from his aunt, was THE CIVIL WAR by Bruce Catton. He was equally enthralled
by motion pictures, working in his great-uncle's theater at the age of
seven, hauling tins of un-popped popcorn to the concession counter.
He's held a variety of jobs including tower clock repairman, factory worker,
shoe salesman, stock boy, roofer, construction worker and now, museum
curator. Wilson began writing novels in 1993, after a sketchy attempt to
write short stories.
His eclectic interests include motion picture history, movie soundtracks,
19th Century military history, and World War II. He works fulltime as a
curator and museum consultant and writes part-time. He considers research as
least as important as the writing, and plans to write some non-fiction works
in the future.
It was the Foreign Legion's Alamo, and it may just have been
its finest hour. History author Steven Wilson looks back on this
bloody battle in 19th-century Mexico.
Disasters have a way of spinning noble myths, as if it benefits
the survivors to find something worthwhile in the midst of a catastrophe.
Sometimes these magnificent moments, if ever they existed at all,
have to be dug out of the rubble, and dusted off. At that point
they can be held high for everyone to see and proclaim as significant.
One of France's disasters (something that might have been called
France's Viet Nam except that France really did have her Viet Nam)
was the invasion and occupation of a portion of Mexico. At the time
the United States was midway through fighting her Civil
War, so she can be excused for allowing this lapse of attention
to the Monroe Doctrine. The invasion by France came after the government
of Mexico under Benito Juarez suspended payments of all foreign
loans. This gave Napoleon III (apparently assuming that his name
guaranteed military ability) an excuse to expand his empire by gobbling
up a nation that in its short history had seen nothing but turmoil.
France was accompanied by the Spanish and British, who were both
hoping, by armed intervention if necessary, to convince Mexico to
reconsider her position on payments. They soon realized that rattling
sabers would not force Mexico to reconsider, and they withdrew;
leaving a French emperor who coveted the exotic lands of Mexico
as surely as a former, more talented French emperor coveted other,
distant lands. Of course, Napoleon III could not go to Mexico of
and reign over his newfound children - but he could send a surrogate.
He thus dispatched Archduke Maximilian and his wife Charlotte, daughter
of King Leopold I of Belgium. And of course he sent the French army,
because the Mexicans, these Juarists, named after the insolent president
of Mexico, would certainly never accept their new father unless
they were properly chastised.
And so too went the Foreign Legion, two battalions landing in Vera
Cruz (it appeared that all conquering armies must, under celestial
edict, land on that particular spot before setting off into the
interior of Mexico), on March 31, 1863 under the command of Colonel
Pierre Jean Joseph Jeanningros, with the bulk of the entire legion
to follow. Four thousand men, most of them veterans; all of them
supposedly foreign (French citizens were prevented by law from joining,
except as officers), and many of them hiding some secrets in their
past. Less than half of them would return home. The officer corps
of the regular French army looked down their noses at this band
of ruffians, who were closer to convicts than to regular soldiers,
and assigned them the most odorous duties in Mexico; specifically,
guarding the roads or holding down posts in fever-prone regions.
Sickness was a much more formidable enemy than the Mexican army.
A battalion of the Chasseurs d’Afrique, transferred to San Luis
Potosi, could only muster 76 out of a thousand men due to illness.
Just months before the Legion landed in Vera Cruz nearly 2,000 people
died of an epidemic, and the route from Vera Cruz to Mexico City
was referred to as "the fever road." It was even suggested that
any Legionnaires lost to illness or battle, could be replaced by
Indians. Utilizing the same policy developed in Africa, two companies
of Indians, approximately 175 men, were formed, with these new Legionnaires
making their way up the ranks.
For their part, the Legionnaires contributed to their reputation as being a band of difficult thugs and thieves. They were recognized as the greatest sources of desertion among the French forces stationed in Mexico. "I shall have some of them shot," Major General Francois-Achille Bazaine, a veteran of North African wars, the Spanish Civil War, the Crimean Campaign, and the Italian Campaign of 1859, wrote in disgust. "It is quite clear that a good many of them enrolled in the corps to get a free trip, but it cost them dearly if they are caught." It would cost many of them dearly, but not in the manner that Bazaine envisioned.