Nobody would have thought that a ragged army of Mexicans could defeat a larger, more experienced army of French regulars with modern firearms and cannons – but they did!
Mexico began as a constitutional monarchy after a 10-year struggle for independence and finally, in 1821, drove out the Spaniards who had ruled since the days of the conquistadors.
Emperor Augustine Iturbide was the first leader of the new nation.
It only lasted about two years before abdicating, and Mexico has been a constitutional republic for most of the time since.
Less than 40 years later, Mexico was celebrating its return to monarchy and proponents turned to a number of European monarchies in search of a suitable new emperor for Mexico.
That was not good for Benito Juarez, president of Mexico under a constitutional republican government after Iturbide.
The French Emperor Napoleon III. – Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew – saw the opportunity to expand his empire to Mexico.
The final choice fell on Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Habsburg of Austria and his wife Charlotte (called Carlota in Mexico), daughter of the Belgian King Leopold I.
They would rule Mexico but report to the French Emperor.
Maximilian and Carlota were welcomed with much pomp and ceremony in Mexico and their new splendid home in Chapultepec Castle on a hill overlooking Mexico City.
But dark times lay ahead when President Juarez suspended debt payments to Britain, Spain and France in 1861. The three nations banded together to enforce the payments.
Britain and Spain made symbolic collection efforts, but the French, anxious to expand their empire, sent troops.
After disembarking ships at Vera Cruz, a seaport on the Atlantic side, about 6,500 French soldiers began marching west towards Mexico City to enforce payment.
Mexico was in political turmoil at the time, with conflicts between the Republicans, supported by President Juarez, and the monarchist faction.
In Puebla, 100 kilometers southeast of Mexico City, a poorly trained 4,500-strong Republican army, armed only with old guns used in the Alamo in 1836, stopped the French.
On May 5th, 1862 – Cinco de Mayo – the Battle of Puebla began.
There the Mexicans, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza SeguÃn, knew in advance that the French were coming, and were firmly entrenched in five heavily fortified forts around Puebla.
Zaragoza built defenses near Puebla, surrounded by five heavily fortified forts. The most important were Loreto and Guadalupe – stone forts that held strategic positions on two hills, with an open saddle in between, where much of the fighting took place.
Zaragoza’s men dug a trench between the two forts.
The French armed forces were Zouaves, highly skilled light infantry tribesmen from mainland Algeria, commanded by Major General Charles de Lorencez, a skilled commander who fought against the Russians in the Crimean War.
The battle of Puebla began around noon on Cinco de Mayo, which historians consider too late to begin. Against all advice, Lorencez decided to attack from the north and fired his artillery before noon, followed by an attack by an infantry attack.
The Mexicans held their own and then went out into the open.
Soon the French ran out of reserve troops and ammunition.
Then the French withdrew as Zaragoza’s cavalry attacked from left and right as troops hidden along the road turned and outflanked them.
At 3 p.m. it was pouring rain and made everything slippery.
Then, after retreating, the French counted the casualties: 462 men killed by the Mexicans against only 83 casualties.
Lorencez waited in vain for a few days for Zaragoza to attack again, but he didn’t.
Eventually he withdrew his troops completely, leaving the Mexicans happy victors who gave the French their first battle defeat in 50 years.
It was a breathtaking victory.
The Mexicans didn’t do it with trained soldiers. The call to arms was largely answered by mestizos of mixed Indian and European ancestry – and Zapotecs, descendants of pre-Columbian indigenous civilizations in Mexico – patriots loyal to President Benito JuÃ¡rez.
Because it was engaged in the Civil War, the United States was not involved in any of this – despite the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which warned the European powers to stay away from America.
That was not the end of the Puebla saga, however. A year later, the French were back in the second Battle of Puebla – they won the fight and remained as overlords for the next five years.
In 1867 the Civil War was over and the United States focused again on Mexico – on its side against the French. Napoleon III, too. lost interest in Mexico just as Mexicans were disappointed with the monarchy.
Although the fighting continued and the French were not driven out for five years, the victory at Puebla became a symbol of the Mexican resistance to foreign rule.
The rising star in Mexico was an army general named Porfirio Diaz, who became President of Mexico until 1911 when he faced Mexican revolutionaries led by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.
The city of Puebla was later renamed Puebla de Zaragoza, with a museum dedicated to the historical battle and a battlefield maintained as a park.
There is also a happy side to the history of Puebla:
The 3,250,000 people who live there love to celebrate the Battle of Puebla every May 5th – even if the rest of Mexico doesn’t pay much attention to it.
Cinco de Mayo is big fiesta time – with parades, colorful costumes, dancing, music, mariachi bands, a gastronomic cornucopia of food and drinks.
And there is Puebla’s specialty: Mole Poblano.
Who would have thought that chilli and chocolate would taste good together?
Although there are many varieties, here is the Puebla recipe:
Mulato, pasilla and ancho chillies, tomatoes, bread, tortilla, onion, garlic, chocolate, chicken broth, banana, lard, almonds, sesame seeds, salt and pepper, clove and anise.
It takes time and effort to make a mole – but it’s worth it!
Four years after the Battle of Cinco de Mayo, it was all over for Maximilian and the French. Republicans stripped the monarchists of power in ongoing battles that Maximilian unsuccessfully tried to stop with French troops.
You weren’t enough. Napoleon no longer wanted to help and ordered the French troops to withdraw.
France’s Mexico adventure was a failure.
Maximilian tried to flee, but was caught and brought before a court martial. President Juarez ordered his execution even though crowned heads in Europe and prominent figures such as the French writer Victor Hugo and the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi were urged to spare his life.
On June 19, 1867, Maximilian and the two generals Miguel MiramÃ³n and TomÃ¡s MejÃa were executed in QuerÃ©taro by firing squad.
Maximilian could have saved himself.
Juarez liked Maximilian personally, but did not want to commute the sentence for all the Mexicans killed by the emperor’s troops and send a message that a government imposed by a foreign power would not be tolerated.
Maximilian’s adjutant was Felix Salm-Salm, a former Prussian Army officer who became Union Brigadier General during the US Civil War. He and his wife Agnes planned a daring escape for Maximilian.
However, it never happened because Maximilian refused to shave his beard in order to escape identity. He felt that if he were caught again, this would destroy his dignity.
Carlota and Maximilian had no children, but in 1865 they adopted AgustÃn de Iturbide y Green and Salvador de Iturbide y de MarzÃ¡n – grandsons of AgustÃn de Iturbide y ArÃ¡mburu, a former emperor of Mexico.
In July 1866, Carlota returned to Europe in hopes of convincing Napoleon not to withdraw French troops from Mexico. He refused. So did the Pope, with whom she met in the Vatican.
Carlota never returned to Mexico and lived for a time in the Miramare Castle in Trieste, where she suffered from wild delusions for the rest of her life.
She was paranoid that assassins were after her.
Eventually she returned permanently to Belgium, where she was born, and died of the flu in 1927 at the age of 86.
The reign of Napoleon III. as Kaiser ended with the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and he died three years later.
A thriving commercial center, the city of Puebla de Zaragoza remains a symbol of Mexico’s resistance to foreign rule and prides itself on its role in Mexican history – as well as proud that they invented the delicious chocolatey Mole Poblano.
Try it once.
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Contact Syd Albright at [email protected]
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Cinco de Mayo in Canada …
The famous Mexican celebration is also a big deal in Canada, Australia, Malta, the Cayman Islands, and of course the United States. In Vancouver, Canada, the day is celebrated with a âskydiving boogieâ that includes aerial acrobatics and an air show at the Abbotsford Skydive Center. The Hard Rock Cafe in the Cayman Islands hosts an air guitar competition annually. Denver, Colorado and Chandler, Arizona host an annual Chihuahua race.
Cinco de Mayo do’s and don’ts …
DO NOT wear a fake mustache, sombrero, serape, or call it “Cinco de Drinko”.
Enjoy great authentic Mexican cuisine, culture and history.
– Good household
Cinco de Mayo fun …
In 2017, the Corona beer company lit up the famous Times Square Ball in New York City like a slice of lime and held a “Lime Drop” to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
Cinco de Mayo is ‘cheers’ time …
Cinco de Mayo became an unofficial “drinking holiday” in the US in the 1980s when beer companies targeted the Spanish-speaking population in marketing campaigns, according to Time Magazine – but Americans still drink more tequila on May 5th than any other country. It’s also time for chow chow in the US, as more than 80 million pounds of avocados are eaten on Cinco de Mayo.
Spain also celebrates the defeat of the French …
On May 2, Spain celebrates a similar uprising against French troops at the Battle of Madrid in 1808. French commanders in Spain were very skilled and successful soldiers, but they completely misjudged the seditious nature of Spanish political, religious and social life . What they saw as a simple punishment for dissent and opposition to French control in Madrid became a riot throughout Spain. By 1813, Napoleon was defeated in Spain and Portugal, mainly with the help of the British.