On May 5th, Mexico celebrates one of its major patriotic holidays, known simply as the Cinco de Mayo. It marked Mexico’s victory over France at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It was an unlikely victory against overwhelming odds.
Above all, it is a day to be remembered out of courage. This special day for Mexico is one made possible by the courage and valor of a native Texan, General Ignacio Zaragoza.
Zaragoza was born in March 1829 in Presidio la Bahia, today’s city of Goliad, about 90 miles southeast of San Antonio. He was born into a wealthy and respected family of landowners and politicians.
His uncle Erasmo Seguin was mayor of San Antonio and helped draft the Mexican constitution of 1824, which established it as a republic. Seguin had also helped Stephen F. Austin with his early colonization efforts. Seguin’s son, Juan Seguin, also served as the mayor of San Antonio and was the captain of the Texas Army during the Texas Revolution.
When Zaragoza was five years old, his family moved from Texas to Matamoros on the south bank of the Rio Grande. In 1844 his parents enrolled him in a seminary in nearby Monterrey.
However, two years later he left the seminary feeling that he had a different calling. When the Mexican War began later in 1846, Zaragoza attempted to join the army but was not allowed to join.
In 1853 he joined the local militia in Nuevo Leon. Impressed by his skills and daring, he was employed as an officer when the force was accepted into the regular army.
Civil war broke out again in Mexico in 1857, a conflict known as the Reform War. General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was controversial even in Mexico, provoking feelings of love, fear and hate.
Zaragoza sided with the reformers against Santa Anna during the war, fought in several important battles and rose through the ranks. After the end of the war in 1860 with the defeat of Santa Anna, a new constitution was passed and Zaragoza was appointed Minister of War.
However, Mexico was still in the midst of chaos. It has been involved in civil wars almost since its independence in 1821. One government after another was overthrown. The threat of coups, assassinations and riots has been constant. This chaos had skyrocketed its international debt. And the countries that owed the most money – France, Britain, and Spain – were determined to rally.
France at the time had one of the most powerful armies in the world and was dominated by the ambitious Emperor Napoleon III. Led by the nephew of his famous namesake.
Napoleon III Sent his armies to Mexico in early 1862 to subdue the country. Zaragoza resigned his ministerial office to take command of the Army of the East and set about strengthening the army positions in Puebla, east of Mexico City.
The French forces attacked Zaragoza forces on May 5, 1862. Zaragoza was outnumbered by better trained and better supplied troops, but had carefully planned and taken advantage of the uphill and fortified positions of its troops. The French attack failed in Puebla with the loss of nearly a thousand French troops and a loss of only 86 to Mexico.
The victory drove the French forces on their heels and left their battle plans in ruins. Within a few days, President Benito Juarez declared that May 5 would be celebrated in honor of Victory each year thereafter.
Zaragoza returned to Mexico City shortly to coordinate with Juarez and was hailed as a great hero. When he returned, a typhoid epidemic was spreading among his troops. Zaragoza fell ill and died on September 8th at the age of 33. The loss devastated the country.
Even though Zaragoza won the day on May 5th, Mexico would still lose the war. France regrouped and within a few months took control of Mexico City and set up a puppet government.
But Mexico continued to fight, with Juarez moving the capital across the country, citing the victory in Puebla and the memory of Zaragoza and the Battle of Puebla to urge Mexico to continue resisting.
The United States would normally have objected to the French occupation of Mexico, but was distracted by the chaos of the civil war. France considered engaging in the civil war on behalf of the Confederation to defend the occupation of Mexico – which was already costly because of Puebla – but decided against it after Britain refused to intervene.
The fight against France lasted a few years before Mexico finally fought off the French in 1867. Zaragoza is still considered a great hero throughout Mexico today, honored with statues and streets named after him. His picture was even on the 500 peso note for a while.
Several small communities are named after him. Cinco de Mayo remains one of the most popular celebrations in Mexico to this day, with celebrations even in Texas and the United States.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a historian, writer, and native Texan. He is the author of several books and his columns appear in dozens of newspapers. Bridges can be contacted at [email protected]