Queen Isabella II
The American civil war presented a welcome breathing space for Spain, and an opportunity to either to intervene directly or to expand their presence in the Americas. They shied away from recognising the Confederacy, not least because Southern politicians had been those most vocal in calling for annexation of Cuba, but a 2nd Reconquista, that was possible.
All this was going to take strength, and allies. The Spanish fleet was built up and modernised until it was judged the 4th most powerful in the world, with modern ships, including the Numancia, an ironclad frigate and not only one of the most powerful ships afloat but also blessed with a huge range. She would go on to be the first ironclad to circumnavigate the globe. There were also several modern steam powered frigates, making a relatively small but potent fleet. Significantly, these were long range, blue water, forces, not designed just for coastal defence. Spain at this time also still held Cuba, the Philippines and Puetro Rico, despite numerous revolts, providing island bases.
The first opportunity to assert herself was Mexico. Following victory in a civil war, largely with United States aid, the new government of Benito Juarez suspended debt interest payments to Britain, France and Spain, the major creditors. Intense negations took place between the French, Spanish, British and the United States, who were also invited to take part. The US declined, but nonetheless, the other three powers, for their own very different reasons, signed the Treaty of London agreeing to impose a solution by blockading the Mexican coast and occupying the main port of Vera Cruz.
The Spanish government had been angry at Mexico for some time, not just for debt default, but also for attacks on Spanish citizens in Mexico, and for ideological reasons, the Spanish Court identifying much more with the opponents of Juarez. There had even been suggestions of a declaration of war but these were defused, in part by General Prim, one of the victors in Morocco who was actually married to a niece of Juarez's treasurer!
The British basically wanted their money back and had some sympathy for the Juarez cause, whilst the Americans were firmly in the Mexican camp, partly as an application of the Monroe doctrine, and the American Secretary of State, Seward, even offered to pay interest on the debt. The French, as was to become clear, had other motives.
The Spanish were first on the scene. Early in November, the Mexican authorities received word of preparations in Havana to send 6,000 troops and 15-16 ships to Vera Cruz, including 6 frigates and 6 "war steamers". Unfortunately for the Mexicans the fortress at San Juan de Ulua was clearly not up to the task of repelling them, so the Mexicans decided to withdrew it's artillery to use elsewhere, though only 50 guns out of about 200 were actually removed.
On the 14th December 1861 the Spanish fleet arrived at Vera Cruz and took possession without resistance, the commander General Gasset, declaring martial law and that he would hold the city in the name of Queen Isabella until the commissioners of the other powers arrived. Spanish flags were hoisted on public buildings, and the fortress. Gasset did stress however that there were no territorial intentions. Nonetheless, the New York Times of 28th December 1861 was already reporting guellia activity in the countryside and the dispatch of Spanish cavalry to deal with it.
The expeditionary force, again as reported by the New York Times, was
Two battalions of Chasseurs.
First battalion of the Infantry Regiment "Napoles."
First Battalion of the Infantry Regiment of Cuba.
Four companies of the Second battalion "del Rey."
6,000 men with another 5,000 sailors and marines and 300 horses.
The Mexican government responded by dispatching 3,000 men under General Zaragoza, and a further 52,000 were called in from the provinces. They fortified mountain passes leaving Vera Cruz, but made no move to invade the town, whilst Gasset steered clear of regular Mexican troops. Atrocities against Spanish, French and British nationals, one of the complaints of the allies,increased and many were driven from the country. In Vera Cruz, an American correspondent described the Spanish troops as " .... a very fine body of men, and are kept under strict discipline, so that no complaints have been made against them by the inhabitants of the town."
Although there was no clash of regular forces, the guerrilla situation was different. Spanish troops made incursions towards La Antigua, Anton Lizardo and on the Mediillin road in search of supplies and guerrillas. Men lost dead and as prisoners to the jarochos, which amounted to the same thing. By next May only 4,000 of the 6,000 troops were available for active service.
Gasset was soon replaced by Prim, the same who ws married into the Mexican government. He had his work cut out dealing with the locals, and his allies. On 27th December the French force arrived, consisting of 1,300 marines, 500 Zouaves, 500 marine fusiliers, 200 marine artillery, 60 marine gunners, 50 engineers to a total of 2,610.
By the next May French intentions were becoming evident, to the dismay of their erstwhile allies. The British marine contingent withdrew, and then the Spanish, now under general prim. Apparently Prim accosted the French general De Lorencez what were his intentions and was astounded to get the answer that the French were going to march on Mexico city. This was not all what they had signed up for and Prim hastily assembled his surprised staff and started to organise a withdraw. The Spanish army was conveyed to Havana on Royal Navy ships, having refused an offer from the french navy, and Prim continued to Madrid. Although not keen on his sympathies for the Juaristas, the Spanish government supported his actions, only too glad not to be dragged into the France's Mexican adventure.