Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sketches of the Last Year of the Mexican Empire by Henry R. Magruder












UPDATE: Mystery solved. See my review (February 15, 2011) of Thomas M. Settles' new biography of General John Bankhead Magruder.

Who was Henry R. Magruder? His Sketches of the Last Year of the Mexican Empire (London: 1868-- and I understand there is a different edition printed by Charles Ritter, Wiesbaden), a generously vivid memoir of a visit to Mexico in 1866, does not say. A reasonable guess, from the quality of the prose and the meetings and scenes the author describes, might be that he was a well-connected American in Mexico City on Church business, for the book is dedicated "with sentiments of profound respect" to His Holiness Pope Pius IX (Pio Nono, none other). In the final pages, however, he mentions his "own appointment ceasing with the departure of the French Troops," and that he left shortly before they did, which would have been at the end of 1866 or early 1867.

A few years ago, when I first came across this rare--- and indeed rarely included in bibliographies of the Second Empire--- 135-page memoir with its several woodcuts apparently by the author himself, I did a google search on the author's name and came up with nothing, except John B. Magruder, who was the ex-commander-in-chief of Confederate forces in Texas and came to Mexico as one of Maximilian's colonists. I wasn't sure what the relationship, if any, might have been between John and Henry Magruder. No doubt rolling up one's sleeves and delving into the works on the Confederates and perhaps an archive or three could solve the mystery... but for my purposes, now, happily, there are a few notes on genealogy forums. From one entry dated May 26, 2008:

The Washington (DC) Herald, 3 FEB 1907, p. 11, report had the headline: "Feared Burial Alive. Henry MAGRUDER Asked That Limbs Be Cut by Surgeon. Made Request In His Will. Former Baltimore Man Who Dies in Rome Leaves Gold Sword and Silver Pitcher to Smithsonian Institute. He Had Lived in Italy for More Than Forty Years."

"Special to the Washington Herald. Baltimore, Md., Feb. 2--The will of Henry R. MAGRUDER, a native of this city, who died in Rome, Italy, on January 31, was admitted to probate in the Orphans' Court to-day. He provided that $700 be given to the owners of the Allari Protestant Cemetery in Florence, Italy, for the preservation of the graves of his mother, sister, and himself, directing that the graves be decorated on All Saints' Day and April 25, each year, the latter date being the anniversary of the death of his sister.

"The testator showed in the document a great fear of being buried alive. He directed that the body be taken in charge by the American consul at Florence, who, after leaving the body in the church for forty-eight hours, must cut deep into his leg and arm, insuring that he is dead. A post-morten must then be ordered, after which the body is to be placed in the Allari Cemetery. For his trouble the American counsel is to receive $200.

"To the United States government, for the Smithsonian Institution, Mr. MAGRUDER left the gold sword and silver pitcher given his father by the State of Virginia and the State of Maryland; the portrait of his sister in pastel; a porcelain plate containing the picture of 'Jo,' with interpretation by his sister, and his decotration of Mexico and diploma belonging thereto. Should the government refuse the bequest it is provided that his nephew, Dr. Thomas BUCKLER, and one of the nieces of the testator designate some museum to receive the gifts... He left his household effects to Dr. BUCKLER and the four nieces of the testator.

"Mr. MAGRUDER had lived in Italy for the past forty years, though he was born in this city. His father was the late Gen. John Bankhead MAGRUDER, of the Confederate army. At the beginning of the civil war Mr. MAGRUDER and his family moved to Italy, living in Rome during the winter and at Florence in the summer. The MAGRUDER houses, both in Florence and Rome, were visited by many prominent Americans during their sojurn in Italy."


And now-- with a another google search-- I find there is a new biography of John B. Magruder by Thomas Settles, recently published by LSU Press. (As soon as amazon.com ships that one to my door, I'll check the index for Henry R.)

Back to Sketches of the Last Year of the Mexican Empire. Henry R. Magruder arrived in Mexico in the winter of 1866, just days before the murder of the Belgian envoy Baron Frederic Victor d'Huart-- a personal friend of the Empress Carlota's brother, the Duke of Flanders-- at Rio Frio, shot in the head by bandits. Politically, for Maximilian's government, this, though not the first, was the definitive slip down the fatal slope. As Sara Yorke Stevenson writes in her memoir, Maximilian in Mexico, "The news of this tragedy, when it reached Europe, must have cast a lurid light upon the true condition of the Mexican Empire."

Slowly and with several dangerous mishaps, Magruder made his way inland from Veracruz. For anyone looking for a description of the brutal and spectacular journey by stagecoach (diligencia), his memoir is one of the most detailed I've yet come across. Here he comes over the mountains nearing Puebla:

Certain portions of the road appeared almost perpendicular, having at the same time no parapet to prevent accidents, consequently if the mules had made a single false step the diligence would have been dashed down precipices the frightful height of which, caused one to shudder. Occasionally we stopped to rest the mules, and the driver would then rush to the rear of the stage to place a stone under the wheel, and thus relieve the poor over-driven mules from the great weight...

... Beneath us could be seen as far as the eye could reach, the "Tierra Caliente" with its peculiar red and grey soil, covered here and there by fields of Maguey plant, in form and colour like an enormous cactus, on all sides the valley, or rather plain, is bounded by tremendous mountains of varied shape, their appearance plainly showing their volcanic origin...

And sometime later:

... The road we had had been traveling over now lay hundreds of feet below and could be easily distinguished by the long train of dust, raised by the passing diligences. We met numerous waggons laden with merchandise on their way to the city of Mexico, some having as many as forty or fifty mules and horses harnessed to them; it appeared quite wonderful how the drivers managed them.

The descriptions of the food, lodging and rural poverty, make less than appetizing reading. But once in Mexico City, the scene could not be more different.

A brief digression. As I've noted in the epilogue of my book, The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, which is based on the true story of Agustin de Iturbide y Green, the grandson of the Emperor Iturbide who was made an Imperial Highness and incoporated into Maximilian's court, in almost all the works on the Second Empire, the Iturbide affair is told only vaguely, or with serious errors and sometimes bizarre distortions. There are many reasons for this, but to focus on the book at hand: Magruder's is one of the very few to give the Iturbides a mention, and if not much detail, at least more than usual, and it appears that he met with Princess Iturbide (Josefa de Iturbide, daughter of the Emperor and aunt to the little prince). It is possible he or some of his family may have known the Iturbides in Washington DC. Certainly, Princess Iturbide would have shared Magruder's ardent feelings about the Pope.

Here is Magruder's description of what must have been one of the last of the court balls-- and his sympathies are blazingly clear:

...The toilettes of the Mexican ladies are strikingly splendid one suprassing the other; the jewels worn by them magnificent. At about half past eight o'clock the ladies took their positions along one side of the ball-room, whilst the gentlemen remained standing on the opposite side. Their Imperial Majesties entered at the upper end, followed by the gentlemen of the court and the dames d'honneur, prominent amongst whom was the Señorita Varela a pure Indian, said to be the sole living descendant of the Montezumas. The Court passed through the allée formed by the crowd. The Emperor and Empress were gracious and condescending to all, stopping now and then to speak in their own language to those who had been presented to them. The Emperor's appearance was all that could be desired in a man, tall, with a commanding and at the same time graceful figure, and far taller than all the splendid cavaliers who surrounded him, his face is amiable, and an ethusuiast might be forgiven for saying, angelic. But for his figure one could have mistaken him for a beautiful woman, so full of genial kindness and perfect refinement was the face; he was a man once seen never forgotten.


(For more about Maximilian, visit the Maximilian von Mexiko page; for more about the court balls, see the article by William Wells for the Overland Monthly.)

How quickly things changed for Maximilian. Out of money, out of political support, both in Mexico and abroad, Maximilian was defenseless against Louis Napoleon's decision to withdraw his troops. Writes Magruder:

Nearly every day large bodies of troops entered the Capital, it was interesting to see them pass and one could but pity them all covered with dust burnt almost black and apparently wearied out by the long and fatiguing marches; baggage waggons drawn by long teams of mules, and ambulance waggons conveying the sick, these ambulances are simple two-wheeled carts with a light canvas awning and without springs. Some of them conveyed whole families flying before the vengeance of the Liberals to seek safety in the Capital. Many of the horses and mules had pannier-saddles, which were occupied by the sick, who looked sadly forlorn and sallow.


If you know more about Henry R. Magruder, please be sure to leave a comment.

More next Tuesday.

UPDATE: I've posted all ten of Magruder's woodcuts here.

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