Cinco de Mayo, the Real Story
By: John Shepler
Many Americans think that the festivities of Cinco de Mayo, held each May 5th, are in celebration of the independence of Mexico. Few know the real connection between the battle of that day and the preservation of American, not Mexican, independence.
In May of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had much to worry about. The United States was on the verge of self-destruction by its own hand. Lincoln had the vast industrial resources of the Northern states at his disposal, but the Confederate forces of the South were fierce fighters in their quest for secession. The opposing armies were slaughtering each other by the tens of thousands with no clear victor at the moment. If someone from the outside would have allied with the South, that might have been just enough to tip the balance and divide the country forever. Worse, such an ally was making its way through Mexico. It was the army of Napoleon.
The French Army of Emperor Napoleon III, nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was thought to be the premier army in the world. It had not suffered defeat in 50 years and had enjoyed recent victories throughout Europe and Asia. But what were they doing in this hemisphere? The French had landed at the port of Veracruz along with troops from Queen Isabella II of Spain and Queen Victoria of Great Britain. They were there to collect payments on the foreign debt of Mexico, payments suspended by Mexican President Benito Juarez because the Mexican treasury was all but bankrupt. Juarez promised to restart payments in two years, but France, Spain and Great Britain wanted their money now and took over the customhouse at Veracruz to get the customs payments applied to their debts. Eventually, the representatives of Spain and Great Britain came to an agreement with Juarez and went home. But Napoleon stayed. In fact, he landed 4500 troops and set off for Mexico City.
Lincoln had good reason to be worried. Before the Civil War, America was a rising power in the world. Other nations, including France, considered this young country a potential world threat if it continued to grow at the rate it had been since winning its own independence. What would happen if Napoleon's army conquered Mexico, installed their own emperor, Maximilian of Hapsburg, and then proceeded to come north and help the Confederates divide the United States into two weaker and less threatening nations?
In a sense, the U.S. had helped to create this situation, by acquiring half of Mexico's territory in the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. Mexico had been struggling financially from the time it won its own independence in 1821 from Spain. The Mexican-American War pretty much sank the Mexican treasury and led to financial crisis, culminating in the suspension of foreign debt payments that opened the door for French occupation. Now Lincoln was depending on his country's former adversary to keep Napoleon's troops at bay and buy him time to defeat the South so he could re-deploy troops and, in turn, support Juarez.
On the morning of May 5, 1862, General Lorenz led a combined force of French and sympathetic Mexican troops toward Puebla, Mexico, 100 miles east of their destination of Mexico City. He had believed that he would be welcomed with open arms and that the local clergy would shower them with magnolia blooms. Waiting for him was Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza under orders from President Juarez to defend the city with a much smaller force of 2,000 troops, along with Puebla citizens who brought their own farm tools as weapons. Brigadier General Porfiro Diaz, destined to later become president of Mexico, took his cavalry out to engage the French horsemen and eliminate them. The bulk of the invading force attacked across a battlefield made muddy by a recent thunderstorm and were met by hundreds of stampeding cattle stirred up by Indians armed with only their machetes. When it was over two hours later, the French withdrew and La Batalla de Puebla, the battle of Puebla, became a spark that ignited Mexican pride from that day, Cinco de Mayo, to the present.
One year later, the French brought in reinforcements and this time made their way to take the capital of Mexico City and install Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg as the reining monarch of Mexico. President Juarez fled north to establish a provisional government in various parts of Mexico. His loyalist troops did manage to keep the French at bay long enough to prevent them from supporting the Confederate States in the U.S. Civil War. With the North and South reunited, Lincoln ordered the French out of Mexico and sent a military force to the Texas/Mexican border under General Phil Sheridan. Napoleon potentially faced 2 million battle hardened U.S. veterans if he persisted in the occupation of Mexico. In early 1867, Napoleon made the decision to withdraw his troops. Maximilian surrendered his Mexican Imperial Army on May 15. The sovereignty of Mexico was returned to the Mexicans.
So, if Cinco de Mayo really celebrates the victory of Mexico in the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, then what is Mexico's Independence Day? It is September 16, 1810. On that day, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued a proclamation that united many different local rebellions into one cohesive struggle, which eventually led to Mexico's actual independence from Spain in 1821.
Books of Interest:
Cinco de Mayo by Sarah Vasquez; Sarah Vazquez. Introduces the customs and practices of this Mexican holiday. Good book to introduce children to Cinco de Mayo.
Viva Mexico! The Story of Benito Juarez and Cinco de Mayo by Argentina Palacios, Howard Berelson, and Alex Haley. A biography of the Zapotec Indian who grew up to become the President of Mexico and lead his country in a war for independence.
The Latino Holiday Book From Cinco de Mayo to Dia de Los Muertos: The Celebrations and Traditions of Hispanic-Americans by Valerie Menard. Authoritative and beautifully designed, "The Latino Holiday Book" discusses each holiday's religious or social history, typical customs, and special foods or activities, and gives recipes or instructions for making authentic foods and crafts that represent that day's traditions.
Mexican Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo by Diane MacMillian. Provides background on the people and events that are commemorated on two important Mexican holidays, Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo, and describes how these holidays are celebrated.
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Also visit these related sites:
Mexican Holidays: Cinco de Mayo - From Mexico online, the story of Cinco de Mayo with images of some important people.
(c) 1999 - 2015 by John E. Shepler. Linking to this article is welcome, but no online republication is permitted. Print media republication rights are available at reasonable rates. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: May 2, 1999 as part of A Positive Light
Last Updated: March 7, 2015
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