“And yet, ever more terrible, the battle waged on. As our columns approached the fort, the defence intensified and [the defenders] redoubled their fire. The air is filled with nothing but the uninterrupted hissing of cannonballs and bullets.” – Prince Georges Bibesco
“The national arms have been covered with glory” – General Ignacio Zaragoza
The Battle of Puebla took place on today’s date in 1862 (above). The battle was won by a rag-tag group of Mexican soldiers over the much better equipped and more numerous forces of the French Army. While militarily the battle amounted to but a temporary victory in Mexico’s struggle to throw off foreign domination, it was a huge morale boost to the Mexican people and gave them confidence that their patriotism would win out in the end. The two quotes above are both reactions to the battle. First from the French side describing the battle and the second is the famous reaction of the Mexican commander to his nation’s victory. The day is known as Cinco de Mayo, and while it is not Mexico’s Independence Day, and it is celebrated more among Mexican Americans that it is in Mexico herself, it is an important moment in history, and should be remembered as a true mark of Mexican Independence.
What Was Napoleon III Doing in Mexico?
Napoleon III, also known as Louis Napoleon (above) was but a pale, stuffed shirt imitation of Napoleon I, who was his Uncle. Napoleon I was something of a stuffed shirt himself in my opinion, but he was a genius on the battle field; he knew how to build and run an army. By 1852 his nephew had had taken dictatorial power in France and declared himself Emperor. But Louis Napoleon lacked his uncle’s military, as would soon become apparent. Meanwhile, in Mexico a bitter civil war had left that country nearly bankrupt. The President of Mexico, Benito Juarez announced in 1861 that Mexico would suspend payments on her foreign debt for two years. This led Great Britain, Spain and France to send military forces to the region to take the port of Vera Cruz in December of 1861. The Brits and the Spanish were able to negotiate a solution and in April, 1862, they pulled out. But Louis Napoleon smelled an opportunity to make Mexico a vassal state to France, as America was then caught up in her own civil war, and was thus unable to enforce the tenets of the Monroe Doctrine. This was a policy developed under U. S. President James Monroe in 1823, which precluded any foreign powers from setting up colonies in North or South America.
The Battle of Puebla
On March 5, 1862, a French forces, commanded by Major General Charles de Lorencez began marching inland against the Mexican forces which were commanded by General Ignacio Zaragoza, which retreated to the fortified city of Puebla (below). Lorencez had about 6500 men to
command, and these were considered some of the best soldiers in the world who were well equipped. But they were not the troops of Napoleon I. Arrayed against this were about 3500 to 4500 Mexican troops, many of them irregular forces. These were well dug in into trenches and covered positions linking the two forts defending the city, forts L’oreto and Guadelupe’. So the French with little regard for the fighting ability of the Mexicans launched a full frontal assault of the Mexican positions. This attack was met by heavy fire from the Mexican line, and from the two forts and was beaten back. A second such assault got further but as still beaten back. Lorencez’s artillery was nearly out of ammunition so a third assault was tried unsupported, The French forces surged forward but were unable to break the line of the tenacious Mexican defenders, French Captain P. Ginard described some of this fighting:
“And now the Zouaves have begun to approach the fort; the cannonade firing at us has not stopped, but other cannons firing grapeshot have now been met by our column. Our troops continue to advance, taking cover where they can in the dips in terrain (pictured above).
The French began to fall back from this third assault, so General Zaragosa sent his cavalry to attack them, supported by troops firing from flanking positions on the roads. But by 3:00 p.m. the rains began falling, making a muddy mess of the battlefield. Lorencez withdrew to defensive positions, waiting for a counter-attack. This did not come, but after a couple of days he withdrew from the filed entirely. The failed assaults by Lorencez had cost him 462 men killed and over 300 wounded. The Mexicans, firing mostly from their covered positions in the trenches and behind walls had only 83 killed and 131 wounded.
The Aftermath of Puebla
In a famous one-line report of his victory to Mexican President Benito Juarez, the young (33 year old) General Zaragoza exclaimed “The national arms have been covered with glory.” Juarez ordered that the day of May 5 be celebrated ever after. The world, which had expected a quick French victory by the forces of the mighty Napoleon III was astonished that the French could afterall be beaten by these Mexicans! The French Emperor would withdraw, sack Lorencez and replace him and pump in 30,000 more troops. With these men he was able to retake Puebla, and the rest of Mexico, installing a relative, Maximilian von Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico (below), just as his Uncle
attempted to do in Spain in 1808 with Dos de Mayo. But this ham-handed attempt to set up a puppet ruler was no more successful this time than it had been before. By 1867, with the American Civil War having ended, U.S. support for the forces of Juarez became more pronounced, and the French were obliged to withdraw. Maximilian was deposed and executed.
But Mexican-Americans were so impressed with the victory at Puebla that they continued to sing and celebrate on Cinco de Mayo. Meanwhile, Juarez became the President of an independent Mexico. Napoleon III whose army was clearly not his Uncle’s was beaten by the Prussians and captured after the Battle Sedan on September 1 of 1870. He was thereafter deposed as the French Emperor, and France never again returned to monarchy. And Cinco de Mayo continues as a celebration of Mexican patriotism, primarily in the U.S., but also in the Mexican state of Puebla.