Patrice de MacMahon, Duke of Magenta

Patrice de MacMahon
MF, 5 LH, MM

Patrice de MacMahon during the Battle of Magenta by Unknown (1870s)
President of France
Co-Prince of Andorra
In office
24 May 1873  30 January 1879
Prime Minister Albert de Broglie
Ernest Courtot de Cissey
Louis Buffet
Jules Armand Dufaure
Jules Simon
Albert de Broglie
Gaëtan de Rochebouët
Jules Armand Dufaure
Preceded by Adolphe Thiers
Succeeded by Jules Grévy
General Governor of Algeria
In office
1 September 1864  27 July 1870
Monarch Napoleon III
Preceded by Édouard de Martimprey
Succeeded by Louis Durrieu
Member of the French Senate
In office
24 June 1864  4 September 1870
Monarch Napoleon III
Personal details
Born (1808-06-13)13 June 1808
Sully, France
Died 17 October 1893(1893-10-17) (aged 85)
Montcresson, France
Nationality French
Political party Miscellaneous Right (Legitimist)
Spouse(s) Élisabeth de La Croix de Castries (m. 1854–93); his death
Children Armand Patrice
Education Special Military School of Saint-Cyr
Profession Military officer
Religion Roman Catholicism
Military service
Allegiance Bourbon Restoration/July Monarchy Kingdom of France
France Second French Republic
 Second French Empire
Service/branch French Army
Years of service 1827–1873
Rank Captain
Lieutenant Colonel
Marshal of France
Unit French Foreign Legion
Regimental Lt.Colonel
2nd Foreign Regiment 2èmeRE
Commander 1st Army Corps
Army of the Rhin (1870)
Army of Châlons (1870)

Conquest of Algeria (1827–1857)

Crimean War (1853–1856)

Franco-Austrian War (1859)

Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871)

Marshal Marie Esme Patrice Maurice, Count de MacMahon,[1] Duke of Magenta (French pronunciation: [patʁis də makma.ɔ̃]; 13 June 1808 – 17 October 1893), was a French general and politician, with the distinction of Marshal of France. He served as Chief of State of France from 1873 to 1875 and as the second president of the Third Republic, from 1875 to 1879.

MacMahon won national renown and the presidency on the basis of his military actions in the war against the Germans. MacMahon was a devout conservative Catholic, a traditionalist who despised socialism and strongly distrusted the secular Republicans. He took very seriously his duty as the neutral guardian of the Constitution and rejected suggestions of a monarchist coup d'état. He also refused to meet with Gambetta, the leader of the Republicans. He moved for a parliamentary system in which the assembly selected the ruling government of the Third Republic, but he also insisted on an upper chamber. He later dissolved the Chamber of Deputies, resulting in public outrage and Republican electoral victory. MacMahon soon resigned and retired to private life.


Early life

Patrice de MacMahon (as he was usually known before being elevated to a ducal title in his own right) was born in Sully (near Autun), in the département of Saône-et-Loire. He was the 16th of 17 children of a family already in the French nobility (his grandfather Jean-Baptiste de MacMahon was named Marquis de MacMahon and Marquis d'Eguilly (from his wife Charlotte Le Belin, Dame d' Eguilly) by King Louis XV, and the family in France had decidedly royalist politics).

His ancestors were part of the Dál gCais[2] and were Lords of Corcu Baiscind[3] in Ireland. After losing much of their land in the Cromwellian confiscations, a branch moved to Limerick for a time before settling in France during the reign of King William III because of their support of the deposed King James II.[4] They applied for French citizenship in 1749.

Patrice de MacMahon was educated at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and at the Academy of St-Cyr, graduating in 1827.

Patrice de MacMahon, Duke of Magenta

Military career

Coat of arms of the House of MacMahon

Before commencing regimental duty MacMahon undertook two years of specialized training for the general staff from 1825 to 1827. He was then appointed as a sous-lieutenant to the 4th Hussars. He subsequently served In Algeria as a junior officer with the 20th Regiment of Line Infantry.

MacMahon served as aide-de-camp to General Achard, and participated in the occupation of Algiers in 1830. He stayed in Algeria from 1834–1854, and was wounded during an assault on Constantine in 1837. In December 1841 he was placed in command of a battalion of chasseurs à pied (light infantry). Designated regimental commander of the 2nd Foreign Regiment of the Foreign Legion in 1843, he was promoted to Divisional General in 1852.

In the Crimean War, MacMahon distinguished himself in the Battle of Malakoff at Sevastopol (8 September 1855), during which he reputedly uttered the famous quotation now attributed to him: ''J'y suis, j'y reste'' ("Here I am; here will I stay"). He was offered the top French Army post after the war but declined, preferring to return to Algeria.

MacMahon was appointed to the French Senate in 1856.

MacMahon fought in the Second Italian War of Independence as commander of the Second Corps ("Army of Italy"). He secured the French victory at Magenta (4 June 1859) and rose to the rank of Maréchal de France while in the field. He was later created Duke of Magenta by Napoléon III as a result.

In the Franco-Prussian War MacMahon commanded the I and V French Corps on the Army of the Rhine's Southern line. On 4 August 1870 the Prussian 3rd Army attacked the Southern line, and immediately took the border city of Wissembourg. They quickly moved on to capture the city of Wörth two days later.

After less than a week of fighting, the entire Army of the Rhine Southern line could not withstand the Prussian attacks and retreated west, further into French territory. The Prussians were relentless. The Prussian 3rd Army captured town after town, while the French I and V Corps hastily retreated southwest to Châlons-sur-Marne, out of the way of the advancing Prussians, while the Prussians drove west.

MacMahon led the 120,000 strong remnants of the Army of the Rhine (I, VII, XII Corps), reformed as the Army of Châlons, with Napoléon III. They marched north-northeast from Châlons-sur-Marne, in an attempt to relieve the besieged army at Metz over 130 km to the east. But the Prussian 3rd Army marched 325 km and intercepted the French army along the Meuse River. After three days of fighting (29 to 31 August), MacMahon's troops fell back to Sedan, where they were encircled, in part due to MacMahon's indecision. MacMahon was wounded on 31 August, and gave up his command.

After the Battle of Sedan, Napoléon III surrendered the main French army on 2 September, and MacMahon was taken prisoner.

Leader in the Third Republic

Marshal MacMahon in military clothes.

France surrendered to the Prussians in January 1871, and formed a new interim government based in Versailles. Radicals in Paris rejected this government and formed the Paris Commune. In May 1871, MacMahon led the troops of the Versailles government against the Commune. In the bitter fighting of what was latter called La Semaine Sanglante ("The Bloody Week"), the government forces under MacMahon crushed the Commune with many communards being executed. He was not blamed for the repression, but instead became the hero of the hour for the right.[5]

In May 1873, MacMahon was elected President of the French Republic, with the support of monarchists and conservatives in the National Assembly. Only one vote was cast against him.[6]

The Assembly fixed MacMahon's term of office at seven years. He declared in a speech delivered on 4 February 1874 that he would know how to make the legally-established order of things respected for seven years. Preferring to remain above party politics, he assisted at, rather than taking part in, the proceedings which, in January and February 1875, led to the passage of the fundamental laws finally establishing the French Third Republic as the legal government of France. And yet MacMahon (also known as Magenta) wrote in his still unpublished memoirs: "By family tradition, and by the sentiments towards the royal house which were instilled in me by my early education, I could not be anything but a Legitimist." He felt some repugnance, too, in forming, in 1876, the Dufaure and the Jules Simon Cabinets, in which the republican element was represented.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck sought to contain and destabilize France, and to weaken the rightwing elements that wanted revenge against Germany. Bismarck attempted to promote republicanism in France by strategically and ideologically isolating MacMahon's clerical-monarchist supporters.[7] Bismarck's containment policy almost got out of hand in 1875 during the "War in Sight" crisis. There was a war scare in Germany and France when the German press reported that influential Germans, alarmed by France's rapid recovery from defeat in 1871 and its rearmaments program, were talking of launching a preventive attack on France. Britain and Russia made it clear that they would not tolerate such aggression. Bismarck did not seek war either, but the unexpected crisis forced him to take into consideration the alarm that his aggressive policies, plus Germany's fast-growing power, were causing among its neighbors.[8][9][10]

In May 1877, the bishops of Poitiers, Nîmes, and Nevers issued episcopal charges recommending the case of the captive Pope Pius IX sympathetic consideration by the French government. On 4 May, the Left responded with a resolution in the Chambre des Députés calling on the Government "to repress Ultramontane manifestations".

16 May 1877 crisis

Twelve days later, MacMahon controversially provoked the 16 May 1877 crisis, by demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Simon, a republican. Simon resigned, later claiming to have averted a coup d'état by MacMahon, who replaced him with the Orléanist Duc de Broglie. He then persuaded the Senate to dissolve the Chamber on 16 May 1877.[11]

During the next five months, MacMahon travelled through the country campaigning for the Conservatives, protesting at the same time that he did not wish to overturn the Republic. However, the elections of 14 October resulted in a majority of 120 for the Left; the de Broglie ministry resigned on 19 November, and MacMahon formed a left-wing cabinet under Dufaure. He retained his office until 1878, so as to allow the Exposition Universelle to take place in a period of political peace. After the senatorial elections of 5 January 1879, having brought another victory to the Left, MacMahon resigned on 30 January. He was succeeded by Jules Grévy.

His presidency may be summarised thus: on the one hand, he allowed the Republic to establish itself; on the other hand, so far as his lawful prerogatives permitted, he restrained the political advance of secular parties hostile to the Catholic Church, convinced that the triumph of Radicalism would be to the detriment of the nation. MacMahon headed a regime that was mildly repressive toward the left. Newspapers were prosecuted, senior officials were removed if they were suspected of support for republicanism. Critical pamphlets were suppressed while the government circulated its own propaganda. The proprietors of meeting places were advised not to allow meetings of critics of the regime. On the other hand, he gave no support to a coup d'état by monarchists. MacMahon truly believed that the National Assembly should rule France and not the president.[12]


The last fourteen years of his life were spent in retirement, removed from political concerns.

"I have remained a soldier", he says in his memoirs, "and I can conscientiously say that I have not only served one Government after another loyally, but, when they fell, have regretted all of them with the single exception of my own".

In his voluntary retirement he carried with him the esteem of all parties: Jules Simon, who did not love him, and whom he did not love, afterwards called him:

un grand capitaine, un grand citoyen et un homme de bien ( a great captain, a great citizen, and a man of goodwill )

The Duke died at the Château de La Forest at Montcresson, Loiret, in 1893. He was buried, with national honours, in the crypt of Les Invalides.

Coat of arms of the Duc de Magenta.

Honours and Awards


MacMahon's line became widely quoted as an expression of defiance. P. G. Wodehouse's character Bertie Wooster used it in response to pressure from his valet Jeeves to shave off his new moustache.

See also


  1. Gabriel de Broglie (2000). Mac Mahon. Perrin. p. 17.
  2. genealogy of MacMahon family
  3. Family History Ireland (22 February 2016). "Marshal MacMahon and the Ottomans".
  4. Firinne, D.H. and Eugene O'Curry, Life of Marshal MacMahon, Duke of Magenta. (The "Irishman" Office, Dublin, 1859) pp. 5–6.
  5. Hutton, Patrick H., Historical Dictionary of the French Third Republic. (Greenwood Press, New York, 1986) pp. 587-88
  6. D.W. Brogan, France under the Republic: The Development of Modern France (1870-1939) (1940) p 97
  7. James Stone, "Bismarck and the Containment of France, 1873-1877," Canadian Journal of History (1994) 29#2 pp 281-304 online
  8. A.J.P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe (1955) pp 225–27
  9. William L. Langer, European Alliances and Alignments, 1871–1890 (2nd ed. 1950) pp 44–55
  10. T. G. Otte, "From 'War-in-Sight' to Nearly War: Anglo–French Relations in the Age of High Imperialism, 1875–1898," Diplomacy and Statecraft (2006)17#4 pp 693–714.
  11. D.W. Brogan, France Under the Republic: The Development of Modern France (1870-1939) (1940) pp 127-43.
  12. Robert Tombs, France: 1814-1914 (1996), pp 440-42
  13. The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force (book), Porch, Douglas
  14. Bellamy, Christopher (2001). Richard Holmes, ed. The Oxford Companion to Military History: Crimean War. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866209-2.

Further reading

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Patrice de Mac-Mahon.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Marie-Edmé-Patrice-Maurice de MacMahon". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. 

Political offices
Preceded by
Adolphe Thiers
President of France
Succeeded by
Jules Grévy
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Adolphe Thiers and Josep Caixal i Estradé
Co-Prince of Andorra
with Josep Caixal i Estradé
Succeeded by
Jules Grévy and Salvador Casañas i Pagés
Government offices
Preceded by
Édouard de Martimprey
Governor-General of Algeria
Succeeded by
Louis, Baron Durieu
French nobility
New title Duc de Magenta
Succeeded by
Marie Armand Patrice MacMahon
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