Tag Archives: puebla

Cinco de Mayo

4 May

In 1862, France is considered the greatest military power in the world. It has not lost a battle in fifty years. On May 5th, a force of 6,000 French soldiers confronts a troop of 2,000 poorly armed Mexican militia in the town of Puebla in Mexico. If the Mexican side loses, Mexico becomes part of the French empire and the confederacy will win the U.S. Civil War.

Some background:

At this point in history, Mexico has already been Independent since 1821, it has survived the U.S. – Mexico War (1846-48), which has massively decreased its territories, and is tentatively piecing itself together after a bloody civil war (1858-61) – otherwise known as the “War of Reform”. The country’s economy is in such bad condition that the newly elected President, Benito Juárez, declares a moratorium on all foreign debt.

In response, France, Britain and Spain land in Veracruz in October 1861 and begin an occupation of the Mexican Gulf Coast. The diplomatic representatives from Spain and Britain come to an agreement with Juárez and leave. France, however, remains and, aided by conservatives (who had been on the losing side of the War of Reform), sets out to occupy Mexico. The Emperor of France, Napolean III, is aware of the growing power of the U.S. in the Western world and wants to use the payment default as a reason to occupy Mexico and install his relative, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph von Habsburg of Austria, as Emperor. Once that plan was in place, France could then turn north, aid the confederacy and divide the U.S. into two smaller, less threatening countries.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is aware of this threat and sympathetic to the Mexican cause, but has to depend on Mexico to keep France at bay until the confederacy is defeated and he can provide direct intervention.

On May 5th 1862, the French army reaches Puebla, a town only 100 miles from the capital. Expecting the attack is Texas-born Mexican, General Ignacio Zaragoza who has fortified the city and waits with a militia of men – mainly poor, of indigenous or mixed heritage, from an agricultural background, and armed with antiquated rifles and machetes. They defend Puebla against a highly trained, well provisioned French cavalry with heavy artillery, under General Laurencez.

La Batalla de Puebla (The Battle of Puebla) lasts from dawn to evening, by which time France retreats with close to 500 casualties. Mexico loses fewer than 100 men in the encounter.

Although the win is shortlived – Napolean III uses the defeat to send more troops to Mexico, and succeeds, briefly, in making Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian ruler of Mexico –  the battle bolsters Mexican resistance. In 1866 France begins to recall its troops to Europe, the U.S. is able to lend more political and military aid, and in 1867 Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian is tried and executed by order of Benito Juárez.

Cinco de Mayo today:

Cinco de Mayo is celebrated annually in Puebla, where re-enactments, parades and other activities are organised. In the 1960s, many Chicano scholars and activists realised the potent symbolism of the battle – Mexico versus an invading European force – and promoted Cinco de Mayo celebrations as a source of ethnic and cultural pride. Today, it has gained widespread popularity in the U.S., though there is, at times, some confusion between Cinco de Mayo and Mexico’s Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16th.