On Wednesday May 5th, Mexico celebrates one of its main patriotic holidays, known simply as the Cinco de Mayo. It marks Mexico’s victory over France in the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
It was an unlikely win 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 the 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 5 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 participate.
In 1853 he joined the local militia in Nuevo Leon. Impressed by his skill and daring, he was used as an officer when the troops were integrated 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 in the ranks. After the war ended with the defeat of Santa Anna in 1860, a new constitution was enacted 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 threats of coups, assassinations and riots have 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 that 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.
French troops 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 increasing and fortified positions of its troops. The French attack failed in Puebla with the loss of nearly 1,000 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 the fifth of May 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 May 5, Mexico would still lose the war. France regrouped and within a few months took control of Mexico City and installed a puppet government. But Mexico continued to fight, with Juarez moving the capital across the country, citing the victory of 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 turmoil of the civil war. France considered intervening in the civil war on behalf of the Confederation to defend its occupation of Mexico – which was already costly because of Puebla – but decided against it after Britain refused to intervene.
The battle 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 is still one of the most popular festivals in Mexico to this day, with celebrations even in Texas and the United States.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a writer, historian, and native Texan. He holds a PhD from the University of North Texas. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected]