Cinco de Mayo, the Real Story The Battle of Puebla and its link to
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
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.