May 06 2008
Cinco de Mayo
Posted in General
Cinco de Mayo (“5th of May”) is a celebration of the victory of Mexican forces led by General Ignacio Zaragoza over the French occupational forces in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
It is a common misconception that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, which is celebrated on September 16th (“Dieciseis de septiembre”), but actually it is a celebration of the battle. It is celebrated throughout the United States.
In late 1861 Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, sent troops to Mexico, alongside British and Spanish forces, to collect debts owed by a previous Mexican government. President Benito Juárez had announced the annulment of these debts, and vowed to pay nothing to European powers. Napoleon’s troops occupied the port city of Veracruz on December 8, 1861. Soon thereafter, the British and Spanish forces returned home, having established a truce with Mexico.
The Battle of Puebla was one of the few victories of the Mexican people over the occupying French Army. The battle was a single high-point moral victory.
The French Army at the time was led by General Charles de Lorencez. The battle came about through a misunderstanding of the French forces’ agreement to withdraw to the coast before resuming hostilities. When the Mexican people saw these French soldiers wandering about with rifles, they took it that hostilities had recommenced. They were of the understanding that there were not to be any able-bodied men left behind. The whole matter came to a boil when it was discovered that political negotiations for the withdrawal had broken down.
A vehement complaint was lodged by the Mexicans to General Lorencez who took the effrontery as a plan to assail his forces. Lorencez decided to hold up his withdrawal to the coast by occupying Orizaba instead, which prevented the Mexicans from being able to defend the passes between Orizaba and the landing port of Veracruz. The 33 year old Mexican Commander General, Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, fell back to Alcuzingo Pass, where he and his army were badly beaten in a skirmish with Lorencez’s forces on April 28. Zaragoza retreated to Puebla, which was heavily fortified. Puebla had been held by the Mexican government since the Wars of Reform in 1860. To its north lie the forts Loreto and Guadalupe on opposite hilltops. Zaragoza had a trench dug to join the forts via the saddle.
Lorencez was led to believe that the people of Puebla were friendly to the French, and that the Mexican Republican garrison which kept the people in line would be overrun by the population once he made a show of force. This would prove to be a serious miscalculation on Lorencez’s part. On May 5, against all advice, Lorencez decided to attack Puebla from the north. Unfortunately, he started his attack a little too late in the day, using his artillery just before noon and by noon advancing his infantry. By the third attack the French required the full engagement of all its reserves. Unfortunately the French artillery had run out of ammunition, so the third infantry attack went unsupported. The Mexican forces and the Republican Garrison both put up a stout defense and even took to the field to defend the positions between the hilltop forts.
As the French retreated from their final assault, Zaragoza had his cavalry attack them from the right and left while troops concealed along the road pivoted out to flank them badly. By 3 p.m. the daily rains had started, making a slippery quagmire of the battlefield. Lorencez withdrew to distant positions, counting 462 of his men killed against only 83 of the Mexicans. He waited a couple of days for Zaragoza to attack again, but Zaragoza held his ground. Lorencez then completely withdrew to Orizaba. The political repercussions were overwhelming, as the outnumbered Mexicans used what courage and determination they could to repel the French forces. The legendary battle had created a Mexican moral victory which is celebrated today as Cinco de Mayo.