Patrice de Mac Mahon was born in Sully, in the Saône-et-Loire département on 13 June, 1808. The Mac Mahon family originally came from Ireland before arriving in France after the fall of the House of Stuart. Having lost his fortune, Mac Mahon’s grandfather, Jean-Baptiste de Mac Mahon (born in Limerick on 23 May, 1715 and died in Spa on 15 October, 1775) studied medicine, began practising and quickly rose through the social ranks. In 1749 he was naturalised and his nobility was recognised in France, based on his family’s noble Irish origins. He was made Marquis d’Eguilly in August 1763.
Patrice de Mac Mahon originally considered entering the clergy and completed some of his studies at a seminary in Autun before starting at the Ecole spéciale militaire in 1825. In 1830, he was attached to the 4th hussars regiment, followed by the 20th regiment of the infanterie de ligne. On 12 May, 1830, he left for Algeria where he participated in the capture of Alger and served as ordinance officer to General Michel-Jacques, Baron Achard. He returned to France in 1831 and was made lieutenant on 20 April and again attached to the 20th regiment of the infanterie de ligne, before transferring to the 8th regiment of cuirassiers as lieutenant aide-major. In 1832, he was part of the corps that intervened in Belgium and was named aide-de-camp to General Achard on 16 January. Upon his return to France, he was made lieutenant aide-major in the 1er regiment of cuirassiers in 1833 then captain in the same regiment on 20 December of that year. He remained with the regiment until 1835, when he was named as aide-de-camp to General Antoine-Alexandre Julienne de Belair. Following a brief stint as part of the military staff in the camp at Compiègne in 1836, he became aide-de-camp to General Louis Bro on 18 October, 1836. He was dispatched to Algeria where in November he took part in the intervention in Constantine and, the following year, in the siege of the aforementioned city, this time as aide-de-camp to General Charles-Marie Comte Denys de Damrémont, the Governor General. By 1838, he was on the military staff in the 21st military division in Perpignan and, in 1839, the military staff of the camp in Fontainebleau. He finished the year as aide-de-camp to General Charles d’Houdetot. In early 1840, he returned to Algeria as aide-de-camp to General Théodule Changarnier. After returning to France, he was promoted to squadron chief in the royal corps and, until 1842, commanded the 10th battalion of chasseurs à pied. In 1841, he was once again sent to Algeria; this time he would remain there for fourteen years. He was made lieutenant-colonel on 31 December, 1842, and was posted to the 2nd regiment in the Légion étrangère, where he served until 1845. He was made colonel on 24 April, 1845 and served as head of the 41st regiment of infanterie de ligne until 1847. During that year, he commanded the 9th regiment of the line. Between 1848 and 1852, he commanded the subdivision at Themcen, and was promoted General de brigade on 12 June, 1848. In 1850, he was given the interim command of the division at Oran, a command which became provisional in 1851. On 17 March, 1852, he was named commander of the division in Constantine, a post which he occupied until 1855. Made General de division on 16 July, 1852, a command which ran alongside his command of the Constantine division, he was also between 1852 and 1853 the inspecteur général of the various infantry subdivisions. In June 1853, he commanded one of the two divisions involved in the expedition into Lower Kabylia. In 1854, he resumed his role as inspecteur général.
1855 was to be the turning point for Mac Mahon. Upon his return to France, he was made commander of the 1st infantry division of the 1st corps in the Armée du Nord. However, from 4 August, he was put at the head of the 1st infantry division in the Armée d’Orient and left for the Crimea, where France was at war with Russia. It was here that he made his name. On 8 September, in a display of determination and ignoring the serious dangers present, he captured the Malakoff tower, leading to the fall of Sebastopol. He remained in the Crimea at the head of the reserve corps in the Armée d’Orient until 1856. On 24 July, he entered the Senate. The following year, he was back in Algeria where he commanded an active infantry division. He participated in the pacification of Upper Kabylia. He returned to Paris for the presentation in the Senate of the law of 23 February, 1858, known as the loi de sûreté générale. The law was voted through by the Corps législatif a month after the Orsini assassination attempt and gave the French authorities the power to expel or deport from French territory, without trial, anyone considered an enemy. He was the only senator to vote against the law. On 31 August, the post of Governor General having been abolished following the creation of the Ministère de l’Algérie et des colonies, Mac Mahon was named senior commander of the army and naval forces stationed in Algeria. In the spring of 1859, France, lending its support to the Italian independence movement, declared war on Austria. Given command of the 2nd corps of the Armée d’Italie, Mac Mahon was victorious at Magenta on 4 June, 1859, clearing the way to Milan. On the same day, he was named Maréchal of France and Duc de Magenta. On 24 June, he played an important role in the French victory at Solferino. During August, he was named senior commander of the 2nd army corps in Lille, where he remained until 1862. He was also the commander in chief of the camp at Châlons between 1860 and 1861. In October 1862, he was dispatched to Nancy as senior commander of the 3rd corps of the army, and returned to his role as commander in chief of the camp at Châlons in 1864. That same year, the Emperor appointed him to the general government in Algeria. He remained there until 1870. Mac Mahon arrived in the general government at a crucial time: having occupied Algeria militarily, France was forced to adopt a new policy that would allow them to organise the region following the conquest. This was to be Mac Mahon’s principal concern. In May 1865, he received a visit from the French Emperor, who spent just over a month in Algeria. Napoleon III travelled extensively in the country, made numerous contacts and had many long conversations with the Maréchal. Mac Mahon’s government was marked by a conflict involving the new bishop of Alger, Mgr Lavigerie. The bishop, new to his role and unaware of the situation in the colony, made a number of decisions and gave a number of speeches regarding Islam. This was in direct contradiction to France’s previous approach which was to respect the religion and customs of the country. Although a devout Catholic, Mac Mahon could not support any behaviour that threatened to anger Algerians and destabilise the country after such a difficult pacification process.
In 1870, the war with Prussia brought Mac Mahon back to France. On 17 July, he was made commander of the 1st corps of the Armée du Rhin. On 4 August, his advance-guard was defeated at Wissemburg and two days later he participated in the bloody defeat at Froeschwiller. Forced to retreat back on Châlons, on 18 August, he took command of the new army that had been formed. Favouring a withdrawal to Paris in order to give the forces scattered about in the provinces the time to reorganise, but under pressure from Empress-regent and the Minister for War, Cousin-Montauban, Comte de Palikao, he moved north-west in order to lend his assistance to Bazaine. On 31 August, he found himself surrounded in the Sedan region. The next morning, he was wounded in the thigh. This injury spared him the awful obligation of lending his signature to the surrender at Sedan. Taken first of all to Pouru-aux-bois, near to the Belgian border, he was transported to Germany once his wound had healed and held in Wiesbaden until the peace preliminaries had been signed in March 1871. From May, Adolphe Thiers, holding executive power, placed him at the head of the Armée de Versailles and a few weeks later, he retook Paris from the Commune. Due to the Comte de Chambord’s intransigence regarding the restoration of the monarchy, a move supported by the majority in the Assemblée nationale, the question of government remained unresolved. The Assemblée had lost confidence in Thiers, who was too openly in favour of a Republic, and the latter risked facing a hostile vote at any moment. The right-wing députés sought out a man for the transition, someone who was capable of winning the support of the majority. They turned to Mac Mahon. On 24 May, 1873, Thiers found himself in the minority and was forced to resign. Immediately, the Assemblée nominated the Duc de Magenta as his replacement. Uninterested by politics and unaware of the plot to install him in power, Mac Mahon initially refused the nomination. He was persuaded to accept it after the characters involved made it a matter of duty. In November, the Comte de Chambord arrived secretly in Versailles. Mac Mahon received an invitation from the Prince, who sought a visit from the Duke. The goal of this visit was that the head of state proclaim the Prince King of France, something that the Assemblée had refused to do. Despite his family’s traditional legitimist leanings, Mac Mahon refused the invitation, considering any secret meeting to be dishonourable on his part after the show of confidence made to him by the Assemblée and the assurances that he had given in return. A few days later, on 19 November, the députés voted him a mandate of seven years. From this point, he bore the title of President of the Republic. Despite right-wing divisions, Mac Mahon, through the strength of his personality, governed without too many difficulties. With his mandate coming to an end, elections were held on 20 February, 1876: a left-wing majority was the result. Fulfilling his parliamentary obligations, the Maréchal conferred the government to Armand Dufaure and then to Jules Simon. Having dismissed the latter, with whom he did not get on, on 16 May, 1877, Mac Mahon charged the Duc de Broglie with the task of forming a conservative cabinet. On 25 June, he dissolved the chambre de députés. Elections held on 14 October, 1877, once again returned a left-wing majority. After a short-lived ministry under Rochebouët, made up of men selected outside of parliament, Mac Mahon accepted the new political landscape and, on 13 December, recalled Dafaure. However, unable to work under the conditions of cohabitation that had been imposed on him, he handed in his resignation on 30 January, 1879. From this point onwards, he appeared in public only for rare military parades. He divided his time between his Paris property and the Château de La Forest, in Montcresson, in the Loiret département, during which time he wrote his memoirs (comprised of five volumes, only one of which was ever published: Mémoires. Souvenirs d’Algérie). He died in Montcresson on 17 October, 1893, at the age of 85, following a short illness. His body lies in Les Invalides.
Joseph VALYNSEELE (tr. & ed. H.D.W.)
This article is reproduced with kind permission from the Dictionnaire du Second Empire, published by Fayard.