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Column 043007 Wall

Monday, April 30, 2007

Cinco de Mayo and the Battle of Puebla, Mexico

By Allan Wall

Cinco de Mayo, literally “May the 5th,” is the holiday celebrating the Mexican victory over the French army on May the 5th, 1862, at Puebla, east of Mexico City.

The city of Puebla holds a big annual celebration on the anniversary of the battle.  But in most of Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not really an important holiday. It’s mostly a bank holiday and a day off from school. But this year it’s on a Saturday so my students don’t even get a break for it!

In the United States however, Cinco de Mayo has become, in recent years, the major Mexican-American celebration. Throughout the Southwest, and in other parts of the U.S., there are various Cinco de Mayo celebrations — parades, mariachi music performances, and exhibitions of Mexican dancing, etc.

Washington D.C. has an annual Cinco de Mayo Festival, and President Bush is known for Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the White House.

Cinco de Mayo is also a big beer-drinking day, with Mexican beer brands doing 5-10 percent of their U.S. sales for the occasion.

The actual Cinco de Mayo battle was a part of a longer conflict called the French Intervention, which lasted from 1862 to 1867. The French military occupied Mexico and fought the republican government of President Benito Juarez.

French Emperor Napoleon III saw France as the protector of the Latin peoples, and had an ambitious plan to establish Mexico as a bulwark against the United States.

France invaded Mexico during the U.S. Civil War, which rendered the U.S. military unable to intervene.  Part of the French emperor’s plan was a linkup with the Confederacy, thus neutralizing U.S. ability to thwart the French strategy.

On May 5th, 1862, north of the city of Puebla, the French Army under General Charles de Lorencez fought the Mexican army, under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza.

A number of legends have grown up around this famous battle.

The popular view is that the Mexican army was composed of sturdy peasants armed with machetes, who defeated a vastly superior invasion force.  Another story says the French were trampled by a cattle stampede.

But even if there were machete-wielding peasants or a cattle stampede, they were not decisive to the battle's outcome.  The truth is General Zaragoza won the battle using sound military strategy and tactics.

The Mexican army of 1862 was a fully equipped 19th century style military.  At Puebla, Zaragoza had under his command regular infantry, artillery and cavalry. And, the Mexican troops were seasoned veterans of the recent War of the Reform (1857-1861).

It’s true that the French army outnumbered the Mexican army, but not by much.  The French had 6,040 troops, and the Mexican army had 4,500 regular troops, and possibly additional volunteers (maybe those guys with machetes).

The Mexican army was on the hills, and the French had to fight uphill, never an enviable position to be in. Each army had the same quantity of cannon.

The French army tried and failed to assault the Mexican positions thrice, and by the third assault their cannon had run out of ammunition.  So French troops had to attack without artillery support.  After the third failure they retreated, harassed by Mexican cavalry, and then it started to rain.

So Mexico won the battle, and Zaragoza sent a one-line report to President Juarez: “The national arms have been covered with glory.”  The young general died only 4 months later, succumbing in September of 1862 to typhoid fever.

The 1862 Battle of Puebla was not the end of the French Intervention, which continued until 1867.  As well, besides the determined opposition of the republican army of Benito Juarez, the French also faced U.S. pressure (the Civil War had ended), and the Prussian threat back in Europe.  So Napoleon III called it quits in Mexico and withdrew.

The 1862 Battle of Puebla had been a great morale booster for Mexico, and is still the most famous battle of the war, by far.

Nowadays, a tourist can visit the site of the 1862 Battle of Puebla, as my wife and I did several years ago.  The principal Mexican defensive positions, the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe, are now part of a park in the city of Puebla.  As we walked in what is now a pine-covered park, it was quiet and peaceful, a far cry from the clamor of battle a century and a half ago.


Allan Wall, a MexiData.info columnist, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq.  He currently resides in Mexico, where he has lived since 1991. He can be reached via e-mail at allan39@prodigy.net.mx.

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